When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
I greatly enjoy Jason Reynolds’ voice in young adult literature. I think his works are necessary to adding diverse literature for young adult readers, and I have liked his novels to this point. Since I read and LOVED All American Boys and Long Way Down, I think I may have a hard time going back to his first books (case in point: The Boy in the Black Suit was just okay). So I had that in mind when I read When I Was the Greatest, which is apparently trending at my library.
Ali is fifteen and lives in a brownstone in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood (the infamous setting of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Ali’s younger sister Jazz is an outgoing and charismatic young woman. His neighbors are too brothers, nicknamed Needles and Noodles. Ali’s mom is a caring but overworked woman, and his dad floats in and out of the picture after time in prison. Needles has a syndrome (we find out what, in the novel). Noodles therefore tries to care for him in the best way possible. But sometimes, fear and bravery live side-by-side, as all three young men are about to find out.
This book was a mixed bag for me. The plotting is a bit slow and predictable. The conflict takes quite a while to unfold, and when it does, the resolution feels both convenient and understated. That said, this is a novel appropriate for younger teens, and Reynolds knows it well. The characterization of the teens is fantastic, and that’s where the novel shines. Ali is an interesting protagonist, and he paints a picture of the neighborhood for his audience with a vivid brush. This is not Reynolds’ best novel, but some of his real strengths as a writer emerge in this novel.
Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith
This might be one of my favorite titles in the series—the idea of Blue Shoes brings up a vivid mental image, and the cover of the book is gorgeous, with a blue trim to match. I myself am a shoe person, and so I was curious to see what blue shoes would be doing in the book.
The events from In the Company of Cheerful Ladies have continued on: Mma Ramotswe has solved a deep personal problem and is now looking forward to helping Mma Makutsi in her own personal matters. Mma Makutsi is engaged to Phuti Radiphuti but worries that he may be having second thoughts when he misses one of their usual dinner dates. A cobra finds its way into Mma Ramotswe’s office, and they have to extract it. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni finds that his chair is a bit old and shabby for the rest of Mma Ramotswe’s fine furniture in the house on Zebra Drive. Finally, Mma Ramotswe has to figure out a woman’s firing from her cook job, all while dealing with the new caustic advice columnist, known as Aunty Emang.
I have to say, I share Mma Makutsi’s appreciation for fine apparel. I daresay I would not have been able to resist the fine shoes, either. The idea of comfortable, fashionable shoes contributing to one’s happiness resounds with me, and I am delighted to see them make an appearance in the book. I enjoyed the subplot of the fine shoes quite a bit.
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith
And now I’ve gotten to new territory in the Mma Ramotswe books! Huzzah! I’ve never read anything beyond The Full Cupboard of Life, so I have lots of new Mma books to polish off. I honestly don’t remember how many years ago my aunt bought me this copy, but I knew it’s been over ten. I am excited to read the unread books on my shelf, and that number is now under 20.
Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni have finally married, thanks to the sly machinations of Mma Potokwani. Now, they are living comfortably in Mma Ramotswe’s house off Zebra Drive and adjusting to the new routine, although a strange encounter with an intruder leaves them shaken. Mma Ramotswe takes pity on a man she hits with her van and finds out his tragic story, as well as a way to help him. Mma Makutsi decides to take a dance class and meets a man who stammers badly but is very kind. And none of this compares to a stranger from Mma Ramotswe’s past who threatens to disturb her peace forever, along with her beloved white van.
This was a poignant entry in the series. I won’t say why exactly, because I think you need to read it for yourself, but Mma Ramotswe learns to confront an old fear and hurt and stand up for herself as a woman. Compassion and empathy are powerful emotions, and Smith shows us the internal processes of learning to find and express both.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
I was able to squeeze one last review in before the year is up. Even better, it’s a book that’s been languishing on my TBR list. Hooray! I have some goals for 2018, and it’s nice to really trim the to-read pile significantly. This is an author well familiar to me, though I’ve never finished this book until now.
C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for his Narnia fantasy books, but he’s also an academic and Christian apologist. Mere Christianity is a defense of Christianity in post-war, postmodern society where the question, Does any of this matter? prevails. The book is divided into several parts, which include both the theology and the lifestyle of Christianity. The latter part has to be read in context of time period and author biography, because there are some…startling, shall we say…ideas about marriage (having read the Space Trilogy, I was not surprised, but it’s a little surreal to read in 2017). I mean, that’s kind of the deal with Lewis, though. He is well-intentioned, buuuuuuut a little sexist in his thinking.
If you are a fan of Lewis the fantasy writer, this takes a very different tone than what you might expect. If, however, you like Lewis’s more academic work, this fits neatly into that genre. You might philosophically disagree with his conclusions, but he engages the defense for Christianity well. Since I was not necessarily looking to defend my own faith or reading it in a moment of questioning, I didn’t glom onto that part. But it may prove useful at another point in life. Lewis’s work is interesting and engaging, and his use of logic works well in discussing the “God” part of us all that engages with some form of spirituality.
And that’s a wrap on 2017. See you all for CBR10. I’ve got two book club picks to read first and then a read-through of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series on deck first.
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
I’ve not read all the Hogarth Shakespeare project books yet, but I do like literary adaptations of classic works. The Austen Project books have not all been amazing, but most of the interpretations have been original and engaging, and they’ve shown me how a classic work rooted in its time finds its legs in a different century. Tracy Chevalier, whose historical fiction is among the few that I will read as a matter of necessity (with the exception of At the Edge of the Orchard), takes a turn with Shakespeare. And her play is Othello.
If you’ve read the play Othello, you’ll know about the gender and racial tensions that play into the conflict of the story. Chevalier transposes them to 1970s Washington, D.C., where an ambassador’s son, Osei, finds himself at a new school at the end of 5th grade. Used to being an outcast, he determines to tough it out until he is introduced to Dee, the pretty and popular golden girl of the grade. She befriends him eagerly and innocently, and this sets the stage for Ian to completely overturn the school before the day is through.
Chevalier packs a tight and wrenching story into a day. The tension is constant throughout the book and when the conflict finally explodes, you’re still not ready for what transpires. I found this to be a masterful retelling of the original play, while giving it an infusion of contemporary identity politics that we can resonate with to this day. Further, because it is transposed to children, the conflict and moral dilemmas add an extra urgency and heartbreak. This was a fast read, but also a very stressful one.
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
I read The Joy Luck Club in college for a women’s literature course, and while it wasn’t my favorite book, it was certainly interesting. I do think Amy Tan gets pigeonholed quite a bit as a “Chinese” American writer, and while she writes about a heritage from China, it’s not exactly fair to think of the experiences she writes about as exclusive to Chinese-Americans, or even more broadly, Asian-Americans. I won The Opposite of Fate, a nonfiction collection, at my undergrad’s English Department annual Book Exchange one year, and I’m finally getting around to reading it.
Tan writes a lot of letters, op-eds, and essays about her life, her writing life, and her connections to fate. The essays vary in interest, topic, and scope, but they all deal on some level with the patterns that play out in the choices she makes and the events that unfold. There’s a terrific essay on playing in a band with other writers, and there’s another essay about why she doesn’t care to be described as an Asian American writer, but an American writer. There’s a letter about a flash flood she and her husband survived in their cabin retreat, and there are a lot of essays about growing up American in a Chinese family.
Nonfiction is not always my bag, but this was a decent and engaging collection of essays. I should pick up more of Tan’s work, as she tells an intriguing story. If you liked The Joy Luck Club, you’ll probably find her writing about it to be quite revealing and give you some insights into the novel and the subsequent film adaptation (which I still have not seen yet).
Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery
It’s a little sad coming to the end of a beloved series, and this is a sad book to close the series off. I always come away from this book glad and a little verklempt at the same time. We’ve been building to the Great War, and Montgomery finally dives in, with details from the homefront aspect of fighting, which gives a new perspective to a war novel. This book, like so many others, is haunted by the soldiers who sacrificed and the families who sent their children to the warfront.
Rilla of Ingleside focuses on the youngest Blythe daughter, Rilla. She is almost fifteen and full of shallow ideas of fun and frivolity. It all changes when the war sweeps her brothers and friends away into battle, and she settles in to fight in small ways: a Junior Red Cross, frugal dress, and raising a fatherless baby. Rilla learns how to be a woman in the midst of hardship, the promise of love, and the pain of heartbreak. Further, we learn about the progress of the war and the way in which it reshaped and changed global societies forever.
I won’t get too spoilery about character deaths, but there is one that reminded me a lot of what I’d read in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, particularly in the poetic dispatches. I felt that the character was probably supposed to be a stand-in for a Rupert Brooke or a Wilfred Owen, two famous young men whose poetry immortalized their service and sacrifice. Like I said, this is a deeply melancholy book and it feels like a crushing end to the series, but it’s a bookend that girds the series in the deep family love that Anne finds and shares with her children and community. I believe it’s always been my favorite of the series, and it certainly has a lasting emotional resonance for me.