Note: more blasts from the past. Books I enjoyed in 2014.
This installment: an Indian family in the US (f); Californian dystopia (f); ecological destruction in Australia (f); a tough neighborhood in Chicago (f); and one tough music teacher (nf).
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacobs
This book starts in India and the intense, slightly confusing atmosphere almost turned me off. But so glad I persevered because as soon as Eapen family returns to the US after a nightmare family visit, it grabbed me fully. The dad’s starting to “act funny” and daughter Amina comes to help her mother in New Mexico. Ghosts abound: the son Akhil who died after spells of mental illness; the whole family who perished in a fire in India, including the poisonous matriarch and her gentle husband who did indeed dance in his sleep. Touches of magical realism but so seamlessly interwoven that they were essential to the brilliant forward propulsion of the story. Amina, a photographer, captures on film what the rational eye can’t see. A very rewarding book!
California by Edan Lepucki
The trouble with dystopian fiction is that it tends to sound the same, no matter how much I love the genre. In the forest Cal and Frida live in paranoid squalor but they’re still young and hopeful. Their only neighbors, a family of four, are poisoned and then what? In desperation, they go in search of a heavily guarded encampment and discover they have a surprising in. The place, surrounded by Watts tower-like Spikes, offers food, shelter, and community but there are no children present. (Tricky, because Frida is pregnant.) Conspiracies abound. The ending was a little too neat, even though down the line we see more ambiguity and trouble. So even though I didn’t thoroughly embrace this book, it certainly held my attention and got me thinking. (In some ways, what more can you ask for?)
Eyrie by Tim Winton
In a tall, faceless, rundown building, Tom faces the ruin of his previously successful life. His attention is caught by a neighbor’s boy who seems almost ghostlike and lives dangerously, perching on balcony railings. Turns out the boy’s mother was Tom’s childhood friend, also plunged into hard times and facing considerable peril. Initially she’s distrustful and resistant but out of necessity they bond. And Tom’s aimless despair shifts into focused action and connection. The underlying theme is ecological destruction and corruption, but so beautifully played out in the story there’s no sense of preaching. Winton, from Australia, consistently pleases me and here he does it again.
Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski
Here’s one I might have given up on if it hadn’t been the last of my vacation stack. And oh, was I rewarded by reading on. South side of Chicago, a neighborhood bounded by only a few blocks, mostly Mexican, very tough. Full of adventures for the kids, as the 14-year-old narrator takes us from “gold panning” (broken glass and bottle tops that glitter in gutter runoff) to creating a clubhouse on the roof of an abandoned factory to a boy who could raise the dead. Gritty and lyrical, sometimes absurd, definitely what I refer to as flowers on the dung heap. A very fresh voice.
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Subtitled One tough teacher and the gift of great expectations. Tough indeed, and what a mixed bag was Mr. K, music teacher extraordinaire from New Jersey who drove his students, his daughters, and himself mercilessly. Melanie’s his kid, Joanne was his student, now a noted journalist, He was loud, frightening, but determined to bring anyone who’d stick it out to musicality no matter what their level of talent. Lots of tragedy: his wife with MS, his other daughter missing for 7 years, and his Holocaust history which we don’t learn about until deep into the book where it explains so much of his difficult character. Very well drawn, with lashings of horror-fascination and nostalgia of sorts for me (the ‘60s especially).
Back in three days.