Sherman Alexie: Flight

I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last year, my first book by this author. I was very curious to read it since it had received so much attention and made the NY Times bestseller list. It turned out to be one of those books that you feel ashamed for not liking since everyone else in the world apparently loves it, and you wonder what’s wrong with you that you don’t “get” it, ya know? I appreciated what Alexie is trying to do — describe, angrily, what it’s like to be an Indian in the USA today — but his choppy, clunky writing style just didn’t do it for me. As I have mentioned before, though, I don’t generally read YA novels, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s writing for kidz today with their short attention spans yadda yadda . . .

Soooo, when I went to the library to choose this week’s book, I found myself browsing in the A’s and I decided to give him another try. Flight looked interesting — it was in the adult section after all — and if Joyce Carol Oates found it “funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental” well who am I to argue?

Flight is about a teenage boy, half Indian and half Irish, who has grown up in foster homes since the age of six. He is a juvenile delinquent who’s been in trouble with the law many times. With each successive foster placement he gets angrier and more violent. At the beginning of the novel he has decided to commit mass murder. However, at the very moment when he is about to open fire, he suddenly has a series of out-of-body experiences where he is sent back through time to inhabit various people’s bodies at different key points in American Indian history. From this he learns valuable life lessons about how Violence Is Not The Answer and the book ends with happiness, peace, and redemption for all.

You can see where I’m going with that snarky synopsis, right? I didn’t like this book any better than True Diary unfortunately. It felt much the same. There is way too much telling and not nearly enough showing in this book. And I’m not talking about plot. I’m talking about the emotional state of the narrator, which is extremely fragile. Listen:

I wish I could learn how to hate those rich Indians. I wish I could ignore them. But I want them to pay attention to me.

So I shoplift candy and food and magazines and cigarettes and books and CDs and anything that can fit in my pockets. The police always catch me and put me in juvenile jail.

I get into arguments and fistfights with everybody.

I get so angry that I go blind and deaf and mute.

I like to start fires. And I’m ashamed that I’m a fire starter.

I’m ashamed of everything, and I’m ashamed of being ashamed.

The whole book is like that. Again, I appreciate what Alexie is trying to do. The plight of Indians (he never calls them Native Americans) is shocking in the extreme, and no one cares. This is a story that absolutely needs to be told. I just wish he would tell it with a bit more subtlety.

Raymond Chandler: The High Window

Hard-boiled detective novels practically BEG to be parodied, don’t they? More than any other genre, perhaps. And once you’ve seen a parody it’s almost impossible to take the real thing seriously any more.

Raymond Chandler, however, is worth the effort of taking seriously. You have to try to read with fresh eyes though. Don’t think about Tracer Bullet or any of the other parodies you’ve seen. Imagine you’ve never read, or even heard of, anything like it before. If you can get yourself into that mindset Chandler will blow you away. The Big Sleep, which I read earlier this year, was amazing. And The High Window, which I read earlier this week, was even more so.

It’s not the plot. I’m not really a plot person. Inconsistencies and holes have to be GIGANTIC for me to notice them, or care. Yes, the stories were a bit confusing, especially The Big Sleep. Supposedly even Raymond Chandler himself didn’t know who killed one of the characters. However, it doesn’t really matter. Because the writing is fabulous. Example:

The expression of [her] face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus.

Most all of the female characters I have encountered thus far are objectified in some way, and it would definitely feel sexist, except that the male characters are treated the same. Raymond Chandler seems like a man who was disgusted with the human race, not women in particular. However, not irredeemably disgusted. There are a few “good” characters sprinkled in among the baddies. Marlowe himself is fundamentally decent and has a well-developed sense of honor. Perhaps that’s why sentences like “Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby” feel poignant rather than goofy.

Raymond Chandler’s universe is not a place I would want to live. But it is wonderful to visit, and I definitely plan to come again.

I read banned books!

The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has released its annual list of the top ten most challenged books of the year. For 2011 the books were:

  1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle. Offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group.
  2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa. Nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group.
  3. *The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. Anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.
  4. My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler. Nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group.
  5. *The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group.
  6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint.
  7. *Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit.
  8. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones. Nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit.
  9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar. Drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit.
  10. *To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Offensive language; racism.

I’ve only read four of these, the ones with asterisks. I’m torn because although I love reading banned books on principle — and I require my kids to read them — I have to say most of these books don’t sound very appealing. No, not because of their offensive language or “religious viewpoint” but rather because… well… I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that books with titles like “ttyl” and “Gossip Girl” are a lot more suitable for their intended age group than my age group. Last year I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in honor of BBW and I didn’t like it very much. Not for the reasons it was challenged, but because I just don’t think it had that much literary merit. Now that’s a type of challenge I could support: I’m sorry, this book doesn’t belong in our school library because it’s way too cheesy & contrived and the prose is terrible, ha ha ha.

Sooooo, I think that this year perhaps I’ll revisit Brave New World. I read it in high school, I know I did, but I don’t remember much about it. And check it out, one of the grounds for challenge was “insensitivity.” Hmmmm.

Esther Hautzig: The Endless Steppe

This is one of those books that I’ve always been aware of without really knowing what it was about. I remember seeing it on library shelves when I was a kid, and never bothering to give it a closer look because, well, let’s face it, “The Endless Steppe” doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? In fact, the only reason I’m reviewing it now is because my daughter recently read it in her seventh grade English class and she was quite insistent that I should read it too.

I’m glad I did. Despite the *yawn* title, this book was extremely engaging and very moving too. It’s nonfiction — a memoir of the author’s childhood spent exiled in Siberia during WWII. Polish Jews, and “enemies of the state,” Esther and her parents endured five years of extreme hardship and deprivation in a hard labor camp. At the same time, Esther also endured the universal adolescent hardships of trying to fit in and make friends with strange kids, having her first crush, testing her independence, yearning for fancy clothes, etc.

The Endless Steppe is probably just right for a seventh grade English class. The family’s suffering is the main theme of the book, but it is not nightmarish. I don’t think my daughter is quite ready for Anne Frank, but she will be in a year or two, and this book will pave the way. It offers much to discuss, including characters such as a gentle guard; a pathetic thief; a mean teacher; and a vagabond with a heart of gold. No punches are pulled in these emotionally complex situations.

It’s a little harder to evaluate this book from an adult perspective. I don’t read much YA — only when my daughter makes me — because frankly I am no longer interested in teen angst. I have my own teenagers to deal with and that’s enough, thanks. But for the most part I found this book satisfying, particularly because of the author’s brutal honesty. She may have written it years after the fact, but the voice is an authentic girl’s. Here is another bit of emotional complexity — my favorite passage:

Mrs. Kaftal wondered why we could not have been told to prepare ourselves for Siberia, everyone would have been so much more comfortable, wouldn’t they? with their nice fur coats? and their good boots? what harm would it have done anyone? Karl, who rarely spoke, told his mother to shut up so sharply that we all felt the sting.

My shoes seemed exceptionally tight and flimsy that morning. But as soon as Mother and Father had gone, I went outside. The snow might be light, but it had completely covered the steppe. Now, at last, this was Siberia.

It was at this moment that I fell in love with space, endless space. And since Siberia was space, I had to include it — just a little and with great guilt — in this love.