The Frangipani Hotel

You might love it. You might not. In trying to tame this book review of The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith, I have finally come to the conclusion that all I can say is that not every book is for every person, even if it is well written. It makes me think of a piece of advice given by editors to writers. They say when they ask a writer who their proposed book is written for, the answer is never, “For everybody.”

For some reason, I had not read short story collections for a while. When I saw this one available in the offered advanced reading selections, I thought I would enjoy a return to that early love. Additionally, it was appealing because the stories were based in Vietnam where my husband had a year’s tour of duty with the Army.

The difficult-to-describe stories are rooted in the culture and folklore of Vietnam either there or among people of Vietnamese descent in the United States. Emotions range from playful to disturbing, from light-hearted to somber, from insignificant to imperative. The characters inhabit this world and other worlds and shift from reality to the uncanny. The spirits seem as real as the people.

I found myself caught up in each story in turn, trying to anticipate its ending. I never did. When I finished, I could picture people who would enjoy the book and just as easily picture those who might not – even though the book is well written. This is what I have figured out. The book is for those who love a good short story that is a mix of O Henry’s final twisted endings with a heavy touch of The Twilight Zone, all set in Vietnam.

I feel sure we will hear from this debut author again.


2014 Ezra Jack Keats Awards

Writer Award WinnersHoping you have some very small people in your life who want stories read over and over, I offer suggestions from the recent Ezra Jack Keats Awards for New Writers and Illustrators that will delight the child and will not drive the adult nuts in the 457th reading. To win the award, writers and illustrators must not have not more than three previous published books. If past experience is any sign, this will get you in on the beginning of a promising career for these new writers and illustrators. To help your selection, I’m giving my own brief take on the winners and honor books.

New Writer Awards

•    Tea Party Rules is the New Writer Award winner for Amy Dyckman and New Illustrator Honor Award for K. G. Campbell. A bear cub crashes a tea party and poses as a teddy bear because he wants cookies. He even endures the girl’s endless list of rules – for a while. Opportunities for shared giggles abound.
•    Sophie’s Squash, Writer Honor Book by Pat Zietlow Miller, follows the imaginative Sophie who turns the squash she chooses at the farmer’s market into a delightful companion. Those who have made room at the table for a figment of a child’s imagination will understand and relate. An extra in the book is the ending opportunity for a bit of an enjoyable science lesson.
•    I Love You, Nose, Writer Honor Book written and illustrated by Linda Davick, is perfect for the very youngest who are learning the names of their body parts. Laced with humor and featuring children of all races, the book joyfully celebrates the wonder of being and begs for participation by the small listener.

New Illustrator Awards

•    Rain!, written by Linda Ashman, is the New Illustrator Award winner for Christian Robinson. In a nod to perspective, the book contrasts the difference in the reaction to the rain of a small boy and an old man. Christian’s bright colors and comical facial expressions will entertain both the child and the adult reader.
•    Take Me Out to the Yakyu, Illustrator Honor Book both written and illustrated by Aaroon Meshon, takes a young boy in side by side progression out to the ball game with his American and Japanese grandfathers. Baseball and other fun words in both English and Japanese and baseball information for both countries add a bonus in the back matter.
•    My Grandpa, Illustrator Honor Book written and illustrated by Marta Altes, uses Grandpa Bear and Little Bear to explore the relationship between old and young, including the small bear's adjustment to his grandpa’s losses in the aging process.

In the best of all worlds, you have some little people in your life who would love it if you bought a few of these books to read to them. In the second best option, maybe there’s a day care, preschool, or church library that would welcome your gift of a few books for their children.


Across a War-Tossed Sea

Wrap a cherry in dark chocolate and you’ve improved both the cherry and the dark chocolate. Weave accurate history into a good story and you’ve improved both the history and the story.

L. M. Elliott in Across a War-Tossed Sea does just that in her middle grade novel that begins on Labor Day 1943 just east of Richmond, Virginia. Charles and Wesley Bishop, two of the lucky group of children able to flee the German bombings in London, come to America to live with the Ratcliff family. Charles, as the oldest, bears the burden of being father, mother, and big brother to Wesley as well as rising to the challenge given by British officials as they leave to "be good little ambassadors for England.”

Wesley struggles with hallucinations and nightmares recalling the Nazi submarine bombings of the ships in their convoy at night. In daylight, he waffles between wanting Charles’s protection and his independence as he strategizes how to deal with bullies.

The boys are drawn into community activities – salvaging items to use in the war effort, playing football games, collecting milkweed pods to stuff life preservers, and creating the Halloween haunted house.

Their English background causes problems as Wesley learns capitals of states that have little meaning to him, loses out on the spelling bee when he uses the English spelling of n-e-i-g-h-b-o-u-r instead of the American n-e-i-g-h-b-o-r, and sometimes has his intent brought into question because of the difference in British and American meanings for words.

Interwoven with their personal stories are difficulties around them. There are war related challenges to daily life. Prejudices between those who share a language but not a nationality, toward native Americans who were here first, and especially against the Negros living in the segregated community accurately influence the characters in the story.

A good story with history that rings true makes this quite right for a historical fiction fan like me. I think I'll celebrate with a chocolate covered cherry.


Noah and Junior High

“Everybody get out a pencil and piece of paper and write a poem about peace.” Mrs. Fried gave the command to a junior high class back in the eighties. Darron Aronofsky, director of the movie Noah, described her as a “magical teacher” on CBS This Morning on March 29, 2014. I rewound the interview several times to be sure I heard and recorded it right.

Darron dutifully wrote his poem about Noah, though I have no idea how he connected it with peace. He entered and won a contest with the poem and from that point saw himself as a writer. Thirty-two years later, he became the director of the movie.  Thinking that he needed to honor the teacher who put him on this track, he looked her up and cast her in a scene with Russell Crowe. This was a story to warm a retired junior high teacher’s heart until her picture came up. He cast her as a one-eyed crone! She gets maybe thirty seconds of time in the movie.

I think I did better with the junior high student who wrote me a recommendation to send to the selection committee when I was nominated for Teacher of the Year. He did characterize me as a “sorceress” and said I taught him to “soak my writings as well as my decisions in a deep cauldron of thought to rid them of mistakes.” His accompanying portrait was a good likeness, embellished with a sorceress ruff and a wand.

With this connection, I had to see the movie. It was a creative telling of the story with a passing nod at the Noah of the Bible and none at all to the Sunday school version where the animals line up gently two by two to march into the ark. Truth to tell, you’ll get closer to that in Shel Silverstein’s poem “The Unicorn.” The Lord in his quest for two of everything said, “Noah, don’t you forget my Unicorn,” but the unicorns kept playing silly games out in the driving rain until Noah had to close the door because “We just can’t wait for them Unicorn.” The poet’s conclusion was, “You’ll see catsandratsandelephants, but sure as you’re born, you’re never gonna see no Unicorn.”

Mrs. Fried lived up to the standard for junior high teachers everywhere and portrayed the stereotype of an old crone, as they are often seen by students – at least until they’re mature enough to appreciate what they’re learning. I’m sure Mrs. Fried is proud of the success of her student as I am. You may wonder what happened to him. He’s making a name for himself in the field of graphic arts. My story – and I’m sticking to it – is that he got his start when he drew pictures in his corner desk during class discussions and impartations of great wisdom from his teacher.


New Life, No Instructions

Trust me, this book is not what you think from looking at the title. When I saw New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir in the list of possible choices of advance reading memoirs, I assumed it would be a new mother saga. While I have had that experience and thought I could relate, there are many ways of finding new life. This one has nothing to do with children, but it addresses the often overlooked truth that improvement in one’s life carries adjustments that may not be easy.

Gail Caldwell hardly had been introduced to life when polio struck her at six months old and left its mark even as she recovered from the disease. Her mother’s determination egged her on to do “just a few more” exercises until she learned to walk after her second birthday. That determination could not make her an athlete. Gail accommodated and made a life with the residual limp an accepted part of her existence. She substituted things she could do – hunting and fishing with her father, swimming, reading.

Gail’s life contained many of the things common to other people – loss by death of a close friend, her parents, and a beloved dog; struggles with alcohol; relationships that soured. Her lifetime of living with the aftereffects of polio that left one leg shorter than the other seemed almost normal to her. She was so young when she had polio that she did not remember a difference. When she developed intense pain well into adulthood, both she and the doctors mistakenly assumed it to be adult outcome of the same disease. There would be several doctors and much time before a more accurate diagnosis came.

Finding the doctor who finally diagnosed correctly that she needed hip replacement coincided with her acquisition of a new Samoyed puppy. The dog and surgery, which also lengthens her leg, bring new adjustments even though both are positive changes in her life. The added 5/8 inch in her right leg didn’t sound like much difference to me. She said the number didn’t sound that different to her either. However, her perceptions of height in her friends and even her animals changed, and it took a while for her to walk comfortably with what would seem like a “normal” leg to the reader.

With a couple of friends who deal with adult leftovers from polio as a child, I related to her well-told story. She weaves together the story of the dog who brings emotional therapy with the physical healing as her hip is replaced and her leg lengthened. I recommend the book to those who are close to someone whose life was touched long ago or who struggles today with the enduring or recurring effects of polio or to those who love a story of someone who can cut the good parts out of a life filled with wormy apples to make applesauce.