Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Reading Promise

My three-year-old, Lilah, promises me several times a day, “I’ll always be your baby.”  I believe her.  I’ve read Love You Forever; I know that when she’s 37 I’ll still be crawling across the floor to her at night.

My five-year-old, Benjamin, recently told me that, of course, I’d be able to take care of his kids when he grows up.  After all, we’ll be living in the same house.  I believe him, too; he will take pity on me in my dotage and bring me into his home.  That kid walks with his heart first.

I’m reluctant to let them grow up and away from me, but I know it’ll happen and I appreciate their sweet reassurances.  But it wasn’t until I read the opening chapters of The Reading Promise, by Alice Ozma, that I realized the most heartrending truth of all: someday, maybe someday soon, they will stop allowing me to read to them.

Here was the passage that made me go cold, right there on page 3: “My sister was in fourth grade when she said she no longer wanted my father to read to her.  It seemed childish to her, especially since she was already reading novels on her own.”

I read this passage while sitting on seven-year-old Zachary’s bed.  He was next to me, reading The 39 Clues, his latest series.  He spends hours a day alone reading these books if he can, but every night after I’ve read to the other two kids, I read him a chapter from wherever he is in the book.  Then I go get whichever book I’m reading and sit next to him on his bed, reading side-by-side.

We need this time together desperately. Zachary is a very cerebral child (in case you missed that).  I am a very cerebral adult (in case you missed that, too).  We’re not snuggly, cuddly folks.  In fact, if I put my arm around him while I’m reading, he always moves away in a couple of minutes.  But the reading together?  That brings us together, connects us.  I read to all three children, and they’re all very into books, but it’s core to my relationship with my eldest.  Books are what we do. 

So, when I read those sentences on page three, I almost stopped breathing.  Then I interrupted his reading – a sin of the highest form.  “You’ll always let me read to you, right?”

“Of course,” he said, not looking up from his book.

Over the next week, I read about Alice Ozma – named for two of her school-librarian father’s favorite characters – and her dad, who promised each other they’d read together every night until she went to college.  I read about her dad’s discomfort with physical affection and how for years the only time they touched was during reading.  I read about his commitment to her, and how he embarrassed her, and how dedicated he was.  It’s a beautifully simple, elegantly crafted book, and it would be humiliating to me as a writer that Ozma can write like that at twenty-two if I didn’t admire her so much.

I finished the book tonight, sitting next to Zachary on his bed.  As he read his 39 Clues, he tilted his head and brought it to rest on my shoulder, the first time he has ever done this.  For tonight, and I hope for many more years to come, we have books to bring us together.

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When We Danced on Water

When We Danced on Water, by Israeli novelist Evan Fallenberg, is yet another of the World War II books I seem to have picked up lately. It’s not by design, I swear.  I wonder if part of why we’re seeing so many of books on the topic is that the last of the survivors of the war are beginning to die off, and so it has recaptured our imagination.

Fallenberg’s Teo Levin is one such survivor.  A famous Israeli choreographer, in his mid-eighties he has never stopped regretting the dancing career he could have had in Europe if Hitler had not come to power.  He becomes friends with Vivi, a fortyish waitress who dabbles in one artistic form after another.  Vivi is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who tries to imagine herself as part of the generation that has put the Holocaust behind them.  Tries is the key word, here.

Their relationship is sensual yet believable, despite the difference in age.  Through it, they both come to a place of peace and acceptance.  To get there, however, they need to walk through the fire of their memories.

Fallenberg’s story is of two Israelis who lost their selves to men in Berlin, only to find them again together decades later.  It is perfectly wrought, and the precise prose delivers a plot that is breathtaking in its devastation.  The characters are at once sparsely sketched and fully developed.  Place is important in this book, and Berlin becomes almost a character in itself.

Consider reading this one for your book club.  If you have a book club of really intense people.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

I seem to be on a reading-about-World-War-II jag.  The last book was about the Japanese internment, and guess what?  This one is too!  It’s a theme, even.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Kickass title for a book, no?

It’s set in Seattle during 1942 (and 1986).  Henry, a twelve-year-old Chinese-American boy, lives with his very anti-Japanese father and less-vitriolic mother in Chinatown, right next to Japantown.  His parents send him off to a white prep school on scholarship.  On Henry’s way out the door, his dad pins a button that reads, “I am Chinese” to his chest.

Therein lies the question.  Henry doesn’t self-identify as Chinese, exactly, but he doesn’t see himself as not Chinese, either.  Through his friendship with Sheldon, a black jazz musician, and his love for Keiko, an American girl of Japanese descent, he begins to shape his own identity.

The text goes back and forth between 1942, when Henry watched his Japanese friends and neighbors be evacuated, and 1986.  Henry’s wife has died after a lingering illness, and he is again as much in search of himself as he was in 1942.  A long-abandoned hotel is purchased, and the new owner uncovers a cache of trunks, boxes, and parasols, all belonging to Japanese families who were carted away during World War II.  Henry, having just closed the middle chapter of his life, goes back to the first chapter before deciding how to live the last one.

Unlike the last book I reviewed, which was also about the Japanese-American internment, this book is sparse, leaving room between the words for the reader to think, wander, and discover.  Jamie Ford does a wonderful job subtly changing the voice for pre-adolescent Henry and middle-aged Henry.  The characters are fully developed, but with light, sensitive prose.  The plot is engaging, the setting remains a backdrop, and the full horror of what happened in the US during WWII is realized because the reader is required to play along.

Snow Falling on Cedars

I’m incredibly behind on book reviews, which is funny because it’s not like someone’s paying me to write them and only about 8 of you are reading them, but this little book blog is my gift to myself, and I want to write about each book I read.

I went through a long, long phase of not reading books because of children and work and moving.  But about a year ago, I started reading again, and now I’m reading like a maniac.  Not my old pace of a book every day or two, but certainly at least a book a week, and usually more.  It’s kind of distracting, since I’m supposed to work and take care of the kids and sleep, but instead I’m pretending that I’m sorting the laundry and sneaking in a page.

Last weekend, we went out to breakfast.  The kids were maniacal, and my husband looked over at me, annoyed.  “What are you doing?” he demanded.

I snapped my head up from the iPhone in my lap, which I thought I had so cleverly hidden.  “Just reading the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice.”  Totally caught red-handed reading Jane Austen while allowing my husband to deal with three kids in a restaurant.

This, however, is not a review of Austen who is the bomb and does not need me to say any more.  This is a review of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.  All of you have probably read it, but I’m just now catching up.

If you haven’t read it, you should know that it is filled with beautiful images of woods and strawberry fields and the sensuousness of a woman.  A Japanese-American woman, blossoming into her fullness and beloved of a passionate white American man.  (Yes, that sentence is meant to be read rather wryly.)  It’s a bit much, all the sensual imagery, honestly.  The man really could have made the point with somewhat less detail and not an insignificant reduction in words.

That said, it’s an imaginative and enjoyable read, and it brings up questions of justice, passion, love, and truth.  It breathes life into the Japanese interment, a period of time that for many Americans is just a chapter (if that) in our history books.

Jane Austen it’s not.  It takes itself a little too seriously.  Nonetheless, worth sloughing through all those words that underscore the difficulty of that shameful moment in American history.