Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones*****

Say this name to schoolteachers and children’s librarians and watch our faces light up, our backs grow a trifle straighter, our steps quicken. Dr. Seuss is the closest thing we have to a patron saint, and when I saw this biography, I wanted it as badly as I’ve wanted any galley. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Dutton, and many apologies for my tardiness. It’s a strange thing but true: when I must write an unfavorable book review, I know just what to say and can do it the same day I finish reading, but for a momentous work such as this one, I need some time for my thoughts to gel. Brian Jay Jones writes biographies of quirky visionaries such as Washington Irving, George Lucas, and Jim Henson, and he doesn’t cut corners. This biography is highly recommended to adult readers, but don’t go handing it off to your precocious fifth grader until you’ve read it yourself. Geisel’s life held some very deep shadows.

Geisel grew up with comfort and privilege as the heir to a family beer making business; the slings and arrows that came his family’s way during Prohibition taught him that small minds can do ugly things. Still, his youth was mostly untroubled; he attended Dartmouth , where he was voted Least Likely to Succeed, and then Oxford, where his studies in Medieval German floundered, his attention drifting to the margins of his notebook, where he drew fanciful creatures and turreted buildings that would later become iconic. It was Helen, his sweetheart, who suggested he follow his heart and pursue art for a living. His early success came in advertising for Flit bug spray.  Once he and his bride became financially stable enough to move out of their low rent neighborhood and into a tonier area, he discovered he had no use at all for pretension, and he wrote:

“Mrs. Van Bleck

Of the Newport Van Blecks

Is so goddamn rich

She has gold-plated sex

Whereas Miggles and Mitzi

And Bitzi and Sue

Have the commonplace thing

And it just has to do.”

He served in the military during World War II with Francis Ford Coppola making propaganda and training films. His pro-intervention cartoons are surprisingly hawkish—I have the collection titled Dr. Seuss Goes to War on my shelves—but he later realized that it was wrongheaded to demand the internment of Japanese Americans, and in some bizarre way, he intended Horton Hears a Who to be his apology for it.

His family was not Jewish, but his surname confused some people, and he received some anti-Semitic shade that inspired him to stand up for the rights of Jewish Americans.  

Jones deserves credit for confronting the anti-Japanese racism and xenophobia in this author’s early years; he doesn’t gloss over it, and he doesn’t turn it into something prurient either. He lays it straight out, along with Ted’s more enlightened thinking in his later years, and it strikes exactly the right tone. This isn’t comfortable material, but then it shouldn’t be.

The most amazing thing is to learn that Seuss—known to family and friends as Ted—wasn’t a successful author until well into middle age. He vacillated between advertising and “brat books” but hit it big when he submitted How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Bennett Cerf at Random House, which would be his second home for many years. Though he and his wife moved to Southern California and much of his work was mailed in, he became known for coming to read his book to the Random House staff in person when it was publication time.  (He was also known for being difficult at times, micromanaging the publication of his work, and this may be part of the reason he wasn’t urged to attend business in person on a more regular basis.)

Ted and Helen were unable to have children, a painful fact that they chose not to share with the public. When asked during publicity tours why a man with such a great heart for children had none himself, Ted deflected it by saying others should have the children and he would write for them.

Helen’s illnesses and Ted’s infidelity were aspects of this author’s life I knew nothing about.  It’s hard to read about, but again, Jones includes these things in the narrative not to shock us, but because they have to be there.

He was widely known and revered for his insistence that books should be fun for children to read and should not preach or moralize, but instead, should respect the readers.  He was a pioneer in this regard, and I owe him a great debt for teaching me to love literature as a preschooler, and for providing such wonderful books for my own children and students later in my life. It is this legacy that remains when the rest falls away, that reading should open new worlds for its young readers; it should not trick or manipulate its audience, but instead should speak to children with respect using language they can understand.

Highly recommended to an adult readership.

Inland, by Tea Obreht*****

This memorable novel is my introduction to Tea Obreht, and I read it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House. The combination of word smithery and whimsy creates the purest literary magic, and I recommend it to anyone that has a high vocabulary level and stamina. It is for sale now.

The tale takes place just after the American Civil War, and the narrative is divided between two characters, Lurie and Nora. Lurie begins his life in Arkansas; he is orphaned early and the man that takes him in is a grave robber that uses Lurie and other boys to assist him in his nightly plundering. Lurie grows up hard, fast, and mean; he wishes that he did not see and feel the dead, but he does, and most of all he senses their cravings.  I am immediately drawn by his second person narrative as he relates his memories to someone named Burke. You don’t see many writers use the second person, and I am curious as to who Burke is. When I find out, I am even more fascinated.

Nora is one of the early (Caucasian) Western settlers, and here Obreht uses the third person omniscient. Nora is unlike any Western protagonist I have ever read, and it is delightful to see the way this author turns stereotypes and caricatures squarely upside down. Nora has her hands full, trying to care for the aged, wheelchair bound Gramma; fighting a political battle in the press that is run by her husband and sons, none of whom she has seen lately; and carrying on a running dialogue with the ghost of her daughter Evelyn, who died in infancy. To add insult to injury she is saddled with Josie, a relative Emmett insisted they must take in. Nora is carrying a heavy emotional load, but the slow revelation of the secrets that weigh her down and the way that these impact the decisions she makes and the way she solves problems is completely convincing.  Whereas Lurie’s narrative is mostly about setting, Nora’s is about character. Both are rendered brilliantly.

I initially rated this novel 4.5 stars because of a few small areas where historical revisionism has crept in, but ultimately it is too fine a work to deny all five stars. I am reluctant to say more because the surprises start early, so to relate details that occur even twenty percent of the way in feels like a disservice both to the reader and the writer. 

One feature that is present throughout both of the narratives is thirst, and it’s related so well that I found myself downing extra water in sympathy and thanking my lucky stars that I live in Seattle rather than somewhere dusty and drought-stricken. In fact, there are places in Nora’s narrative where she is busy with other tasks or discussions of an urgent nature and I find myself telling Nora to just go ahead and ask the person she’s talking to for a sip of water. Nora won’t do it because she is proud and self-reliant, and the fact that I am already talking to the character instead of the author tells you how convincing the story is.

The reader is also advised that it’s a violent, gritty tale, particularly in the beginning but in other places also, and it’s loaded with triggers. To tell it otherwise would be to deny history, but if you are a mealtime reader or avoiding harsh prose for other reasons, it’s worth knowing. But I also think that the whimsy is all the sweeter for it.

Perhaps one of every ten novels I read becomes that book, the one that I can’t stop talking about. My spouse understands that to pass through a room when I am reading it is to guarantee he will be hijacked, at least momentarily, because I am either  going to paraphrase an interesting tidbit or read a particularly arresting passage out loud. This works well for me, though, because I find myself with more uninterrupted reading time. Inland is that sort of book.  Highly recommended.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos***

I was invited to read this work of science fiction by Net Galley and Random House; it’s for sale now.

At the outset, I was thrilled with this story’s audacity. The Farm is a luxury retreat that exists for the purpose of pampering young surrogate women that are carrying babies for the most privileged families. In some cases the mothers that will claim these babes after birth are sterile; some waited until they were too old to bear a child naturally; and some just don’t care to deal with the discomfort, the pain, or horror of horrors, the stretch marks.

Mae runs the show. Her talent scouts look hither and yon for suitable young women, and though few white women are available, those that are paler are considered most desirable. Most of all, they need to have incentive, which pretty much translates as desperation. The fees for carrying healthy children to term and through delivery are hefty; money is the carrot as well as the stick, and impoverished young women with helpless dependents will do a great deal to avoid penalties, to earn a bonus.

The set up makes my feminist heart sing.

Our primary protagonist is Jane, a Filipino with a tiny daughter of her own. Who doesn’t want the best for her child? The surrogacy fee will permit her to move her baby, her aging cousin, and herself out of the tiny, nasty dive that is their current residence, and in return for being sequestered away from her family for nine months, she will be able to give her daughter a much better head start in life. Her cousin Ate will watch the child while Jane is away; she is so young that she won’t even remember having been separated.

But piece by piece, we see what appears to be a reasonable business deal descend into a dystopian nightmare. Such things as constant surveillance, personal communication that is monitored without regard to the women’s privacy, and other Big Brotherish components make it clear that the surrogates are little more than meat. Their health is important only as long as they are pregnant; they are kept from their loved ones and deceived in nefarious ways, all with the end result—a healthy baby for each client—as the sole consideration.

Up to the climax I am riveted. For three-quarters of this story, I am making notes and occasionally exclaiming over it out loud. But unfortunately, the message that I believe Ramos intends to drive home is more or less tossed out the window in the end.  I don’t want to spoil it and so I won’t be specific, but it is a massively wasted opportunity. In the end, I am left with my mouth hanging open, not in surprise but in disappointment. I read back a few pages to see if I missed something, because surely a writer competent enough to write the beginning and middle so cleverly wouldn’t write an ending as stupid as it seems to be. But actually? I’m afraid that’s what’s happened.

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.

Alumni Association, by Michael Rudolph**

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Alibi. It’s a short book, but the time I took to read it felt like forever. The teaser says it is for fans of John Grisham, but this story is nowhere even close to the caliber of Grisham’s legal thrillers. It isn’t much of a thriller at all. 

Our protagonist is Beth Swahn. An old school has come up for sale, and there is all sorts of subterfuge involving nepotism, drug smugglers, and international intrigue surrounding the deal to purchase it; Beth’s stepfather is part of it. The premise is a decent one, but by the time the author is done with it, it’s dead on arrival. The book will be available to the public February 5, 2019. 

There are overlong passages of deadly dull dialogue, and then there are overlong passages of tedious narrative. The transitions are ragged, and all told it is surprising to me that Random House would go anywhere near this thing. It’s possible that the hand of a high profile editor might be helpful, but were anyone to weed out the extraneous crud, what would be left would be either a lengthy short story or a short novella. I would love to point to some positives, but beyond the premise, I simply cannot find any. 

Not recommended. 

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker*****

Our story is set in the imaginary town of Santa Lora, California, a college town in the hills of Southern California. It’s sunny, green, and beautiful; parents feel safe bringing their children here…until one by one, they fall sick. No one can identify the illness; it’s “a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.” 

I read this book free and early in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Random House; this title will be available to the public tomorrow, January 15, 2019. 

Kara is the first, and roommate Mei, who is shy and hasn’t made friends yet with Kara or anyone else, is shuffled from her original dorm room to another. Then other students fall sick, and those in charge can’t decide what to do, so they do what administrators do best: they craft rules that change often and invent multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape. There’s a quarantine imposed. Parents aren’t allowed in; students aren’t allowed to leave. But they do it anyway. These are college kids. You can’t really tell them what to do, and even under guard, some are ingenious enough to escape.

Under guard! Now the parents are going nuts. Lawyers are called; who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile the illness spreads into the town anyway, because the college employs instructors, cleaning staff, and other adults that don’t live in dormitories. At first it’s kept quiet, since the trustees don’t want negative press getting out about their fine institution of learning, but of course eventually word gets out anyway. The kids have phones, after all. 

It doesn’t take much time for all hell to break loose. 

Walker is a gifted writer, and the story sucked me in and didn’t let me go till it was over. Conceptually it isn’t all that remarkable, but there are two standout features here that elevate it and make it a standout. The first is the prose style, lyrical and accessible, that makes it read like a truly creepy bedtime story for grownups. Some of it is created by short sentences that use repetition expertly, and the rest is probably just plain magic. 

But the main thing that makes me love this book is the dead accurate character development. Those that read my reviews know that nothing makes me crankier than a novelist that uses child characters that don’t act like children, or that don’t act the age they’re assigned. Here, the reverse is true. Every single character, from pre-teenage Sara and younger, mid-elementary age Libby; to the late teen and young adult college students; to the young professors with the newborn; to the older resident with a partner in assisted living are written in age appropriate thought and deed. I confess I was surprised to see how young this author is, because I could swear she had personally experienced each of these age groups. 

All eight characters that we follow are so well developed that I feel I’d know them on the street, and I care about what becomes of them. The impulsive, judgmental, occasionally reckless yet heroic Matthew, who steals Mei’s heart and then crushes it is the sort of kid I have taught in years gone by, and for that matter, so is Mei. And oh how my heart aches for Sara and Libby, whose father’s conspiracy-oriented paranoia is difficult to separate from his genius. I’ve known this guy too; when he speaks, you never know how to tease apart the brilliant parts from the crazy. With their mother dead, Sara and Libby have been sworn to silence about any number of things and told never to trust outsiders. Their home is in disrepair, and he tells them that if others can see inside, social workers will cart them away and they will never see him or each other again. And so when he falls asleep and they cannot wake him, they have a real dilemma. I want to dive into the book and carry those girls away—together—myself. 

And then I remember—oh yeah, they’re fictional. 

Other compelling characters are Catherine, the psychologist called in as a consultant and then not permitted to go home to her toddler when the quarantine is imposed; Ben and Annie, who try to protect their newborn; and Nathaniel, whose partner, Henry, is in assisted living. And though I ache for all of these characters, there are moments when humor is salted in, and so it remains a fun read. I thought the ending was perfect. 

There’s a lot more I can say, but I can’t say it like Walker does. This is a fast read and the ultimate in escapist fiction. I highly recommend it. 

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden****

The stirring, much-anticipated conclusion to Arden’s Winternight Trilogy is here. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now. 

The scene opens on a charred palace. The Tatars have attacked the Russians and been driven off; an attempt to dethrone Grand Prince Dmitrii has been averted, but all that is left to defend stands in ruin in the late winter snow. Arden is one of the deftest word smiths to emerge this century, and the tableau laid before us is stark and resonant; at the same time, the suspense is palpable, because readers aren’t that deeply concerned about the Grand Prince. We want to know where Varya is. 

Varya—Vasilisa Petrovna– is a badass warrior that communes with the chyerti, which are Russian folk spirits; these specialize in particular realms, with some guarding the home, others the forest, the river, and so forth. All of these are presented with historical accuracy, according to the author’s note (as well as my occasional perfunctory Google search.) 

Speaking of which: those that have read the first two volumes, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, know that there are a tremendous number of specialized terms in Arden’s writing. There are words for types of clothing, domiciles, spirits, and all sorts of things. Although there is a serviceable glossary at the back of the book, I found it very useful to read digitally, because definitions, images and so forth could be called up literally at the touch of my fingertips. If you read the first two volumes in paper and found yourself either skipping a lot of words—which you can do, but your mental movie won’t be as rich—or flipping around in the book looking for things, consider shifting to the digital version for the last volume. 

This begs the question: can we read this book as a stand-alone novel? 

No. No you cannot. 

Moving on, characters we know are gradually reintroduced like a slow drum roll, and then finally, here she is! I love this character. Vasya is unforgettable, and she defies every stinking stereotype. So many authors feel the need to compensate for creating a strong female character by making her tiny, or physically beautiful, or both. Vasya is neither. Her nose is long, her mouth is wide, and as if these features weren’t sufficient, she gets burned, beaten and starved in the course of her adventures. When she chooses to masquerade as a male, she can pass. 

I grew so attached to this character during the first two volumes that I held my breath—would it be possible to see her all the way through all three volumes without having her fall in love or have a roll in the hay? And so here, I am a wee bit disappointed, because the answer is no, but almost. Nevertheless, her romantic life is never allowed to define her or alter the course of her plans, which is a considerable consolation. 

Tragically, Vasya’s magnificent horse, Solovey, is killed early in the story, and I had to wonder about this; I decided that it had to happen to show us that Vasya is able to do great things without her horse to swoop in and save her, but that theory is shot to hell in the second half of the book. 

On the other hand, new characters are introduced, and although I love Ded Grib, the mushroom spirit, and I find the Bear vastly amusing, my favorite is Vasya’s great-grandmother. 

Vasya’s mission is to save Rus’ from the Tatars, and to persuade its leaders that Christianity and chyerti can coexist. The book (and the trilogy) ends with the Battle of Kulikovo, which happened in real life. The ending is beautifully rendered, moving, and deeply satisfying. 

A surprising amount of this engaging story has historical basis, and Arden gives a concise but specific explanation at the end. 

Those that have waited for the conclusion to this excellent series need wait no longer; those that haven’t read it yet should get the entire trilogy. It’s a wonderful place to get lost, providing the ultimate in escapist fiction. 

Recommended to feminists, and to all that love excellent historical fiction.

The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader. 

Best Historical Fiction 2018

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Best Humor 2018

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