Boxers and Saints

A graphic novel is not a comic book. If you are not sure about this statement, you can start with the works of Gene Luen Yang. I can tell now the story of two of the books purchased last spring when Gene appeared at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival. The grandson for whom I purchased them has received them for his birthday so the secret can be told. I’m hoping he will enjoy them but they have much more to offer than just pleasure.

Boxers and Saints are two volumes set in China in 1898. A bit of online research on the basics of the Boxer Rebellion before reading would be helpful. Boxers, the first, tells the story of young Bao who joins a group of Chinese kung fu practitioners to free China from the “foreign devils” – Christian missionaries – and the “secondary devils” – Chinese who have converted to Christianity.

Saints, the second volume, follows Four-Girl, of such little significance in her own family that she has no real name. She finds identity and purpose in the most unlikely place as she joins the Christian community and receives the name Vibiana at her baptism. Her vision of Joan of Arc inspires her to become a maiden warrior. She makes difficult choices as she must choose between her newfound friends and faith and her loyalties to family and country.

Good guys and bad guys are not clear cut in the books with Boxers not always bullies and the Saints not always saintly. Since they are graphic novels, they don’t lend themselves to reading aloud to young people. Instead, they would make for great discussions in book clubs, between parents and children, or in classes with teacher and students as all participants read the book.

While I have no more against comic books than I do against taking a bit of time out from real work to play a game of solitaire, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels go beyond that genre, carrying a lot of history and triggering reasoning about true justice. Fun, history, and reasoning – served up in one neat package – happy birthday, Jack.


Fourth Anniversary

Choices for fourth anniversary gifts include (traditional) fruit and flowers, (modern) linen, silk, or nylon, or (alternate) appliances. On this occasion of the fourth anniversary of “Readin’, Ritin’, But Not Much ‘Rithmetic,” you can probably guess my choice if you have been reading long. Working backwards, appliances are necessary and help my life run more smoothly – at least when they are running smoothly – but they lack oomph for a blog topic. Fabrics interest me a little more since I love to sew, but in my currently chosen lifestyle, most of my life is spent in summer t-shirts or winter sweats.

So I’ll go with tradition and eat a little fruit while I concentrate on flowers. You’ve seen them fairly often if you are a regular reader. I claim Eudora Welty as my role model for alternating gardening and writing. If it was good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. A few flowers will illustrate the celebration.

The passion flower symbolizes, oddly enough, passion. My passion for writing brought me to begin blogging four years ago and continues to keep me going. Unlike much of my writing, there’s no rejection letter possibility. It’s my blog, and I can write whatever I want. If my readers roll their eyes, I’m not there to see. Some days it’s a book review I want to share, some days an issue I care about, and some days just a story that has come to mind.

Several flowers have turned up in the blog from time to time. Queen Anne’s lace stands for delicate femininity, definitely not a match for me since I’ve never known anyone to describe me as delicate. We’ll skip that one. Day lilies are for enthusiasm which fits and magnolias for dignity – not so much. The best fits are the yellow chrysanthemums for friendship and the asters for contentment. The friendly responses and the new friends who’ve added their names to my readers have brought me a great deal of contentment.

Thanks for reading whether you are a regular or a now-and-again. Year five, here I come!


Too Much Pepper?

More often not, my father and my youngest sister reached for the black pepper shaker at the family table right after grace was said. Breakfast found the rest of us a bit astounded, looking at their yellow mass of eggs covered with tiny black dots. My mother, concerned about what the quantity of pepper was doing to Daddy’s health, mentioned it to their doctor. He said, “Virginia, the salt you add to your food is doing infinitely more harm than Berton’s pepper.” So Mama got out of his business and let him and Ruth pepper their food to their hearts’ content.

You may have noticed that I sometimes make weird connections. Banned Book Week often makes me think of their black pepper. Stay with me, and I think you will see it.

My favorite read aloud book with eighth graders was Lois Lowry’s often banned The Giver. Its principal crime, as far as I can tell, is enticing readers to think. Great discussions ensued as we read the book. I read it to every eighth grade class with no adverse feedback from parents. They either trusted me, were unaware of the “danger” in the book, or wanted their students to learn to reason. I’m fairly sure it was the last. I was gratified this year to learn that one of those students, now a teacher, was planning to use The Giver with her students.

I have trouble with forbidding books. My very conservative mother, as far as I can remember, never told me not to read any book. She did suggest, as Eudora Welty’s mother did, that Elsie Dinsmore was not a very good choice. She thought Elsie was far too sanctimonious to be real. Eudora’s mother thought she was too impressionable to read it and might follow Elsie’s example by falling off the piano stool.

I have no problem with making recommendations to the children or students in your charge, depending on their maturity and ability to handle violence, strong language, or explicit scenes. An eighth grade student introduced me to Angela’s Ashes after she read it on her mother’s recommendation.  In a conversation that included my grown librarian daughter, I once said I couldn’t have imagined recommending that book to her in eighth grade because I didn’t think she would have been ready for it. Tongue in cheek, she responded, “Mom, I read it as an adult, and I wasn’t ready for it.” (I did think the student was ready and appreciated her mother for seeing it.)

Which brings me back to the pepper. When I serve a meal to guests, I may alert them if the food is a bit spicy so they can make a reasoned choice. I think it is equally considerate for reviewers to warn readers if a book may be disturbing to them. After that, I’m for following Mama’s example and backing off as they choose whether or not they want to drown their eggs in black pepper.  


In the Time of Butterflies

Strangeness pops up in this blog, first because it is in honor of National Hispanic Month which runs oddly from September 15 to October 15. To be honest, the book was read and the review written a couple of weeks before I knew the month was coming and was in my stash for when I needed a blog but time was short. My other confession is that I don’t need a special month since I have a number of writers from that heritage that I read regularly – Meg Medina, Margarita Engle, Pam Munoz Ryan, and Pat Mora – just to name a few.

It’s also a bit strange to start a book review at the end, but a note in the postscript to Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of Butterflies captures the story. “A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” In yet another strangeness, I recommend starting with the postscript and the author’s note in the back matter before you begin reading the book. Its story starts at the end, much like To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s arm in a sling.

The absorbing story traces the lives of Las Mariposas – the butterflies – as they make their way through love, hairbrushes, gun running, and rebellion against the dictator Trujillo. Perhaps I became more engrossed because the four sisters who take turns telling the story were spaced much like my own with the three older ones close together in age and a skip before the “little sister.” Perhaps that was also part of the appeal of telling their story to the author who also came from a family of four sisters.

Julia Alvarez takes the real Mirabel sisters and their murder on a lonely mountain road and spins a novel taking turns in each of their voices. The suspense holds the reader who continues to brace against the inevitable ending.

Early on, I retraced my reading to be sure I was not reading about Cuba. The history is similar. At the end, I pondered how life (sickness, laughter, love) goes on in the middle of a revolution. I also felt a need to go back and learn more about the Dominican Republic.

The story’s travel through the human heart begins with a quote from Patria when she sees a young boy shot, “Then I tried looking up at our Father, but I couldn’t see His Face for the dark smoke hiding the tops of the mountains.” It lasts after three of the sisters are gone and only Dede is left to complete their story, “We had lost hope, and we needed a story to understand what had happened to us.”

Don’t we all?


One Morning in Maine

If this title reminds you of a children’s book by Robert McCloskey, give yourself a pat on the back for your perception. Summer vacation with a couple of preschoolers sent me scurrying for books to add to their memory of the trip. Having been around the track a few times, I knew a local independent book store would be the place to shop.

For their memory of this trip I needed three books for sure. Naturally, I could not skip One Morning in Maine since sunrise, my favorite time of day, was spectacular from the house we’d rented where the Penobscot River heads toward the ocean. The boys would have to have Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney since we saw the lupines of the story every time we took a walk.  And they couldn’t miss their father’s childhood favorite, Blueberries for Sal, also by Robert McCloskey.

So I got out my computer and Googled the location of the nearest small town independent book store.  As often happens with independents, I got more than I bargained for since there was a review of Kent Haruf’s last book written shortly before his death on the site. I had enjoyed his Plainsong and Eventide and knew I wanted to read Our Souls at Night.

The bookstore, right on Bucksport’s main street, was appropriately named “Bookstacks.” (Names of independent bookstores are intriguing in themselves, but that would be a digression.) After enjoying a browsing session in both the adult and children’s sections, I stood off temptation and kept to my plan of buying the three books for two grandsons and one for the grandma. As I checked out at the counter, the owner looked up from his nearby computer to give me a warning, “Have a box of Kleenex ready.”

I thought, “Only in an independent bookstore!” A report on yesterday’s Today Show said sales in independent book stores were up by 20%. There are reasons for that, like the owner who had actually read the book he was selling. Recent coverage on Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi suggests that you get a staff recommendation for your next read because they know books. Each job applicant for their bookstore has to take a literature test! If you have a local independent book store, become friends with the staff, and they are likely to watch for books that fit your tastes. Hand-selling is a big part of their trade.

And before you go on vacation, Google and find one of those bookstores. You will enjoy the browsing, find some books with local color to take home to remember your trip, and perhaps get a warning from the staff if the book you select is going to make you cry.