Title: Book Uncle and Me
Author: Uma Krishnaswami
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library on the street corner. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.
A book whose protagonist is a little girl who reads all the time? Found on the shelves in a gift shop at the Asian Art Museum, how could I pass this up?
Book Uncle and Me is a delightful kids’ book about Yasmin who borrows a book from Book Uncle every day on her way to school. But then, the mayor wants to close the free library because Book Uncle doesn’t have a permit.
Through Yasmin we meet her community. Parents, friends, neighbors, classmates and teachers. All of them are concerned about Book Uncle’s street library getting closed down. As Yasmin talks to them, she hatches a plan to keep the library open.
It’s election time in the city and, as it turns out, the owner of the hotel on the corner where Book Uncle hands out books is hosting a wedding and wants to clean up the corner before the new in-laws arrive from out of town. Who owns the hotel? Hah! That would be telling, and spoiling.
Yasmin starts a letter writing campaign which gets the attention of the media and the mayoral candidates. The entire city is in a tizzy over Book Uncle and his books. Why would anyone want to take books from children?
Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Julianna Swaney, give readers a great lesson in civics and activism, as Yasmin and her friends learn how to make change in their community.
Krishnaswami has a delightful way with words, and Swaney’s illustrations make Yasmin and her friends, especially Book Uncle, come to life. Even better than that, they share their love of books, encouraging kids to read and get involved with things they’re passionate about.
Book Uncle gets to keep his free library on the corner, and the owner of the hotel gets a lesson in transparency.
Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad Author: Jennifer Egan
Twitter: @Egangoonsquad Published: 2011 ISBN 13: 9780307477477 Publisher: Anchor Publisher’s Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read. A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe. Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar. Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.” But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.
The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting. The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes. Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich. No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone. Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The big theme is Time. It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book. “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage. Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well. It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.
Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience. There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident. I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.
Music, and the music business is another major theme. Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”
Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos. A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now. A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.
Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes. Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama. But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.
The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City
Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days. Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.
Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie. In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women. These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it. Nor should it ever be thought normal.
Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.” His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault. Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”
The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating. Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work. (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)
Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work. Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.
Publisher’s Blurb:The story starts from modern-day Brooklyn. sixteen-year- old John Palmieri is living an average life until one day he is hit by a bus and wakes up as Raj Scindia, a prince in India, in 1958.
Suddenly, he finds himself with riches and power beyond his wildest fantasies. Brooklyn is readily forgotten. He makes out with his hot teacher; he tells about the future; his new life becomes a constant stream of debauchery till he meets “the one”.
I received a copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review. Thank you Ricardo!
Listening to his iPod, riding fast because he’s late, John gets distracted by the girl he likes and gets in an accident with the school bus. When he comes to, he’s no longer in contemporary Brooklyn, he’s in 1958 India and is the Maharaja Kumar (son of) the Maharaja (governor).
This is the beginning of Alexanders imaginative tale of a world in which the Beatles don’t exist and John creates the Indian version to gain fame, and the attention of the girl he loves.
It’s not a deep story. Teenage boy discovers he is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and takes advantage, becoming a bit of an arrogant pig at first. This is not unexpected, after all, if you woke up in a strange time and place to discover that you could have whatever you wanted due to the social class you were born into, wouldn’t you act the same way?
John discovers that not only is he wealthy and comes from a powerful family, he’s not really expected to study in school. In fact, his doppelganger has quite the reputation, including an affair with one of his teachers.
Then he meets Ankita, and everything changes. He forms the Beetos with his friends to gain her attention and then prove himself worthy of her to her father. Using his memories of the songs he listened to on his iPod, they write songs and gain a following. They become very famous, and wealthy, but it doesn’t bring John the peaceful life with Ankita he expected.
To Beatles fans, there are many familiar moments in Bollywood Invasion. The most chilling is Alexanders’ retelling of John Lennon’s assassination. Mark Chapman isn’t the only one looking to ease his pain.
As John comes back to his own time and place, he thinks he’s just had a bad dream and hurries off to school where a new girl joins their class, and her name is distinctly familiar.
Ricardo Alexanders’ writing style is earnest. This story means a lot to him, as do the Beatles. It’s an interesting idea of setting them and their origin story in India. There are many, many details about the trajectory of the Bee-tos which come straight from Beatle history. Some of them can be quite unsavory, but none of us should flinch from them. Especially because, at its heart, Bollywood Invasion is a love story, in which Ricardo Alexanders explores what it means to want to become a better person for the one you love. It’s a detail worth exploring.
Title: The Hakawati
Author: Rabih Alameddine
Publisher: Anchor Canada
This is a book of stories, about family, Identity, love of family filled with stories from generations of storytellers. In fact, Hakawati means storyteller.
Where do I begin with this? The story of generations of storytellers in one family. The strands of the stories weaving together the themes of identity (Lebanese or American? musician, storyteller or engineer?), physical place, and place within the family structure are told.
Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut from Los Angeles to bear witness to his father’s death. The entire family gathers around the hospital bed to reminisce and tell stories reaching generations back. As with most family reunions, new stories are created as the now adult children discuss events from their childhood and discover the meaning of said events.
I love the way Alameddine weaves the many generations of stories together to tell the story of a this Lebanese family. Anyone who enjoys good stories will love The Hakawati.
Title: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Author: Translated by N. K. Sandars
Publisher: Penguin Classics
I found SparkNotes helpful.
This is the grandmama of all written epic stories, the progenitor of familiar quest stories and tropes through the ages. It’s also based on the historical Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh is 2/3 god, 1/3 human and has no equal. As such, his arrogance and hubris get the better of him while he literally rapes and pillages his way through his own land, Uruk.
The gods create Enkidu from clay (completely mortal) as a balance to Gilgamesh’s excesses. When they meet, they fight each other but once they discover they are equals, they become great friends.
Because Gilgamesh is restless, he and Enkidu go on a quest which includes stealing cedars from a forest forbidden to mortals. After they kill the demon Humbaba, Ishtar tries to entice Gilgamesh into a love affair with her. He flatly turns her down, which enrages her and she calls down the Bull of Heaven to kill him.
Enkidu dies from a protracted illness because the gods must punish one of them for killing the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh is bereft and leaves Uruk in search of Utnapishtim, the man who survived the Great Deluge and was given eternal life.
In his travels to the end of the world and back, he finally accepts that life is not eternal, but the impact on those he comes in contact can be.
I first read Gilgamesh for a class about ethics towards animals (Enkidu was raised among the animals).Reading it is the start of many familiar stories, like the Great Deluge, considered to be the genesis of the Flood story and Noah in the Bible.
For more about the genesis of myths which have become common knowledge around the world, read my review of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.