Sunday, December 20, 2009


Many and frequent are the books that pass through my various reading stacks. There are some beside my easy chair, a pile in the bedroom, a stack in my upstairs art room, and a partial shelf of soon/someday books in the bonus room. The titles that make it into these occasional postings are the books I have read and enjoyed and felt were good enough mention to readers of this blog. Who knows how many of you benefit from these modest recommendations? I am aware of a handful of friends who usually comment, or pass along thanks, and sometimes even read selections from the books I name. You special few keep me going with this posting theme. So Merry Christmas. If any of these become favorites of yours or even only give you pause for thoughtful reflection, perhaps you'll consider it a holiday gift worth the time you can invest in it.

George Guthridge. The Kids from Nowhere; The Story Behind the Arctic Educational Miracle. Alaska Northwest Books; Anchorage/Portland, 2006. Even in the often empty vastness of Alaska there are few places more remote and isolated than St. Lawrence Island, some 200 miles southwest of Nome in the middle of the Bering Sea halfway to Russia. In this most unlikely place a dedicated teacher and a mismatched bunch of "uneducable" Yupik Eskimo students with few books and no computers, children of whale and walrus hunters, who spoke English poorly as a second language were challenged to achieve in academic battle against other schools using a learning model known as the Future Problem Solving Program. Their struggle with acquiring knowledge in the midst of a clash of cultures and minimal opportunity is heart-wrenching. The steady grinding out of step-by-step success and eventual triumph against the best students of the best schools in North America is spell-binding. It is a quick read, but one that will easily stay with you for ages. There are few equals to this astonishing story of unprecedented achievement.

David A. Neiwert. Strawberry Days; How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community. Palgrave Macmillan; New York, 2005. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans has successfully established themselves in a number of Pacific Coast communities, and had proven themselves to be hardworking and industrious workmen in spite of the persistent bigoted oppression to their presence. In spite of increasing legal and political pressure against them, most Japanese Americans, including both those who held American citizenship and those older emigrants who were ineligible for that privilege, established credibility as skilled, family centered, workers, farmers, and businessmen. The story of Bellevue, Washington, in that era serves as a grim example of how one representative community was virtually dismantled by the combination of white social rejection and the National Internment Program which relocated nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into remote desert concentration camps. Strawberry Days is one of many recent books to help document the injustices against American citizens who happened to share the ethnic and racial characteristics of the enemy. A somewhat heavy read, this book is extensively documented, almost to excess in the text. However, to those who are intrigued by this unique chapter in American socio-political history, it makes a fine contribution to the collective literature. I have added it to my collection on this subject.

Chaim Potok. The Gift of Asher Lev. Fawcett Columbine; New York, 1990. Readers who cherish the best works of this author (The Chosen, The Promise, etc.) may have missed the sequel to the earlier "My Name is Asher Lev", as I did for over a decade. Picking up Asher Lev's story twenty years later, Potok gives us insight into the artist's quandary as to how to continue his unique career following the exhibition of his highly controversial crucifixion paintings which had upset the entire Jewish community in Brooklyn. Living in exile in Paris, Asher Lev, his wife and children are called to New York for a funeral and subsequently they begin to reconnect with the Hasidic leaders who comprise much of Asher's own family. This book will not stand alone; reading or reviewing the first book will be necessary to identify and profit from the nuances of the interactions he experiences. It is a tense and compelling masterpiece. A new favorite for me.

Katheryn Stockett. The Help; A Novel. G.P.Putnam's Sons; New York, 2009. In Mississippi, in 1962, a young woman, newly graduated from Ole Miss. and trained in journalism tries to begin her career. Struggling to find work and purpose she is challenged to write about what she knows best: it turns out that what she chooses to write about is "the help", as in the colored domestic helpers who have worked for decades in many of the homes of the wealthy, white employers, but who have been treated as non-entities and non-persons in spite of having raised the white children and cleaned and cooked and served the families faithfully for years for a pittance. The stories, moreover, are told both by and from the viewpoints of several of the domestic women themselves, although written by Skeeter, the young journalist. This first novel is a blockbuster in emotional tension and impact. Here is insight into how the separation of racial lives, black and white, existed in non-connected parallels in the early years of the American Civil Rights era. It is both warm (as a human story) and chilling (as a social phenomena).

Velma Wallace. Two Old Women; An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival. Epicenter Press; Fairbanks/Seattle, 1993. This is another book I wish I had read when it first came out over fifteen years ago. Apparently based on historic, oral, Athabaskan memories of primitive life in the north lands, Wallis tells the tale in the wonderful, spare, style of language the women would have used. This gives the flow a quite authentic flavor. Deemed to be of too little value to the tiny tribe because of their age and lack of apparent contribution, the two women are "left behind" in the hope that casting them off would increase the chances of the rest surviving. The two, however, realize their plight, combine their strength and skills, and not only rescue themselves, but eventually bring about a remarkable and unexpected triumph. Don't let the small size of the book dissuade you from reading this record of the huge human spirit.

[Bonus: I also recently reread Willa Cather's story Death Comes for the Archbishop. I know such writing is often overlooked because it is "classic". May I point out that the classics are classic because they are recognized as being excellent, proven, meaningful and enduring literature. Read the classics as deliberately as you would read significant non-fiction. Both provide balance to an excess diet of pulp fiction!]


At 8:18 AM, Blogger Patty said...

Okay, set them all by the door for me. I'll be by for them later.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Linda said...

I, for one, always enjoy your book reviews and usually find a title or two to add to my want-to-read list. Thanks, John.


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