El Deafo

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Cece Bell’s graphic novel El Deafo is a charming, insightful memoir that I didn’t want to end. El Deafo chronicles Bell’s early life from healthy infant, through her getting meningitis and navigating school and friendship after she became deaf. I learned a lot about the options in terms of hearing devices and how they were worn and how they made Bell feel awkward. I enjoyed all her memories of TV shows like x and y, slumber parties, and riding the school bus.

Friendship is a major theme in El Deafo and I could feel for Bell who had a hard time making friends. When she does find a friend, Laura, she’s put off by how bossy she is. Yet Laura doesn’t make a big deal out of Cece being deaf. Still the bossiness is hard to take. Later Cece meets Ginny, who loves all the same TV shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons,

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The title El Deafo comes from a superhero name Cece gives herself once she gets a new hearing device that lets her hear her teacher wherever she is in the building — in class, in the teachers’ lounge, in the restroom and this super power changes Cece’s status forever.

The story captures what it’s like to strive to find a friend in a challenging social landscape and enlightens readers on what it was like to experience hearing loss all of a sudden and how complicated it is to learn to cope with it. I highly recommend El Deafo as a book for all ages.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

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Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword delights. Mirka is an Orthodox Jew who lives in a culture I haven’t see covered in fiction. This story of an adventurous teen has wit and spirit. Smart, lively and brave, Mirka helps her brother fend off bullies and a wild pig. The pig can talk and is prominent in the book offering a tongue in cheek wit as pigs are taboo in a kosher house. (The pig never goes inside the house).

Mirka’s family is very traditional and she doesn’t get along with her stepmother, who’s a strict disciplinarian. Yet rather than presenting the stepmother as a villain, it’s this sharp-tongued woman who most helps Mirka the most.

The book is a fun, fast read that takes readers inside a culture that’s rarely presented. There are two other Hereville books and I’ve ordered them all.

 

You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons

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In You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons Mo Willems captures the joys and travails of the tourist on the road. This sketchbook cum travelogue Willems takes readers on a bumpy around the world trip. The book is 90% cartoons and 10% background insights.

Willems clearly travels as I do in 2nd class open to the real experiences found in Asia and Europe. Kudos to Willems for venturing to Qufu and other cities that most tourists don’t have the time or fortitude to get to. (It can take some chutzpah to buy your own train tickets to smaller towns or figure out where to stay and eat unless you’ve been in China a while.)

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I think I’d read this years ago. Nonetheless it was still funny. It’s a grade A quarantine read. Available on Hoopla.

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The Young Adventurer

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Another Horatio Alger book read. I’m catching up on my Good Reads 2020 Reading Challenge deficit.

In Alger’s The Young Adventurer, teenage Ben’s a new orphan at 14. His mother died when he was young and now his father’s just died. The $400 he inherited won’t last forever and there aren’t many opportunities in his hometown so though his uncle would like him to stay with him, Ben sets off to New York to make some money. He plans to earn enough to get passage to California where he can make a fortune mining gold.

Like a lot of Alger’s heroes, Ben encounters some swindlers, and luckily manages to avoid them with his funds in tact. Then he lucks out and meets and heiress in distress who asks him to accompany her to California and pays him to locate her fiancé. The adventure continues.

While the story offers a likable hero and plenty of villains, I wasn’t as enthralled as usual. The Young Adventurer is dated in its treatment of a Chinese character. The language of the era came off the way old Charlie Chan stereotypes do. Alger isn’t on the side of the bigots and those bigots probably were presented authentically, but I couldn’t stomach those chapters even though King Si, the Chinese miner, ends up doing well. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book to kids. Now maybe they should read about how people people discriminated and hurt others as that is the real history, but I’d find another book to recommend.

 

Frank Fowler: Cash Boy

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To catch up on my Good Reads reading challenge, I figured an Horatio Alger book was just the ticket. I got Frank Fowler: Cash Boy in a couple days. Frank Fowler, an orphan decides to go to the big city to get a job. He leaves his step-sister, who he thought was his biological sister. On her deathbed his mother admitted that Frank was adopted, that he was adopted under mysterious circumstances. Such is the storyline of a Horatio Alger book. Frank’s pal’s family agrees to take in his sister to keep her from the Poor House.

Though he comes across the swindlers common in these books, it’s not till Frank is hired to read to a wealthy man each evening that he meets his nemeses, the housekeeper and the man’s nephew. They fear Frank will worm his way into the old man’s heart. They plot to get Frank out of the house so that they can get the lion’s share of the old man’s will.

Although Alger’s books follow a formula, I don’t tire of his spunky, honest, courageous boys living in tough times when there were many children who had to take on adult responsibilities. It’s a quick, fun read.

The Starlet and the Spy

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It’s 1954 and outcast Alice Kim works as a translator for the US Army. She struggles to keep on keeping on after the horrors of war and the emotional wounds from her earlier romantic affairs. Alice gets chosen to translate for Marilyn Monroe who’s coming to Korea to entertain the troops, who remain.

Nervous, emotional and guilt-ridden, Alice feels alienated. A young woman, whose past haunts her must deal with seeing her past lovers and tries to track down an orphan she promised to care for.

While the story’s full of angst, I felt it lacked authenticity, which is surprising since the author researched war diaries and other primary sources. I felt there was too little Marilyn Monroe in the book and thought those chapters were based on stereotypes. I think Monroe was in the story to make it marketable.

The love triangle and the emotional crash that ensued when the married lover caught her in bed with her other lover didn’t endear Alice to me. She lacked the insight to figure out her own responsibility even though all the dots where there. I didn’t find the spy work compelling either.

I prefer Lisa See’s, Jung Chang’s and Winston Graham’s historical fiction. Ji-Min Lee’s The Starlet and the Spy is not a novel you must read.

The Trial

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Even people who haven’t read Kafka’s The Trial know that it’s about an ambiguous character Josef K. who’s charged with unspecified crimes. It’s a very modern story in that themes of alienation and a brutal faceless bureaucracy abound. The story begins like a sprint as a shot goes off and there’s a lot of momentum in the plot.

As K. seeks to find out what he’s charged with and how he can defend himself, he meets men and women who’re mean, uncouth, certainly unhelpful or brutal. I agree with those who liken the story to a dream, though I’d categorize it as a nightmare. What’s real? How can K. face such injustice without any specific charges?

Other questions I had were: Why aren’t there any charges? Why do the characters representing art, religion and law exemplify only the failures of these institutions? What does Kafka want us to think of the brutality K. witnesses and experiences? What do these themes say about Kafka’s relationships failed, who found little happiness in his work.

I thought of rereading the book to get more of its message, but while I enjoyed Kafka’s style, I soon put the book down because I knew the end and didn’t want more nihilism in my life.

Kafka didn’t want this unfinished novel published, but after his death it was. I learned that and more from the BBC’s radio program In Our Time. The guests clarified much of The Trial’s mystery, but the insights also sickened me and made me ponder the darker corners of this novel, which I had read quickly.

Chicago

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I enjoyed the audio book of David Mamet’s novel Chicago. Narrator Jim Fragione, captures the Chicago dialect and Mamet’s rhythm.

I expected a historical novel about Al Capone or some other well known criminal figure, but that wasn’t what Mamet had in mind. Set in post-WWI Chicago, jaded reporter Mike Hodge love a young Irish girl is viciously murdered and Mike seeks justice. Did her family do it? Or someone more nefarious? Capone, the Levee District and WWI figure prominently in the novel, but Hodge and the life of a reporter in the 1920s takes center stage.

The plot isn’t the book’s strong suit. That would be a tie between the references to Chicago’s red light district and criminal element and Mamet’s trademark philosophizing in a Chicago dialect. That’s what made the audio book soar.

Death on the Nile

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This coming week my mystery book club was going to meet to discuss Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I listened to the audio book and watched the movie. The audio book’s narrator David Suchet was terrific and brought the story to life.

While on a vacation in Egypt Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who’s forever telling people he isn’t French, gets on board a boat and finds his fellow travelers keep getting bumped off. There’s a love triangle consisting of Linnet, a wealthy heiress, Jacqueline her good friend and her Simon new husband, who was in love with the friend. There’s a German doctor, a rich, imperious woman and the young companion who resents her boss. The heiress’ trustee, her London lawyer her maid, and the maid’s married lover round out the cast.

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One eerie element to the story is that Jacqueline’s stalking Linnet. Everywhere they go Jacqueline’s there. Ever jumpy, things get worse when Linette is found dead. Poirot soon suspects everyone. Then the bodies start to pile up. The maid is found dead and then a third murder follows. Poirot finds almost everyone has a motive.

With Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Angela Lansberry, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Olivia Hussey, the film is chock full of stars. Alas, I found the story in both formats lacking. I wasn’t pulled in to the story as Poirot didn’t use much hard evidence. It seemed that his main talent was supposition and conjecture to find possible motives. He doesn’t draw me in the way Sherlock Holmes does. I was left craving a better plot and more complex characters. I felt Christie just took the idea of Murder on the Orient Express and just made a few small changes.