Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Freedom Riddle

Written by: Angela Shelf Medcaris and John Ward 

First line: It was finally Christmas Day! 

Why you should read this book: It is apparently based on a short story written by William Falkner, which was apparently based on a true story. In the antebellum south, an enslaved Black man named Jim makes a deal: it's Christmas day and slavery is, from a literary perspective, supposed to be nominally less inhumane on Christmas, to the point that a man who is totally cool with owning human beings agrees to allow Jim his freedom if Jim can tell him a riddle to which he can't guess the answer. It takes Jim an entire year and a few observations of the natural world, but he succeeds. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: I guess I'm personally uncomfortable with this type of narrative because it seems to mitigate the horrors of slavery and I'm not sure we need light hearted stories about human bondage, especially in a country where the evils of slavery continue to echo, loudly, through society and continue to harm living people.

Ordinary Mary's Extraordinary Deed

Written by: Emily Pearson and Fumi Kosaka

First line: One ordinary day, skipping on her way home from her ordinary school, she passed an ordinary vacant lot filled with ordinary bushes growing ordinary blue and juicy luscious lovely berries.

Why you should read this book: Setting aside the fact that there is nothing ordinary about a vacant lot full of viable blueberry bushes ready for harvest, this is an introduction for very small children to the "pay it forward" philosophy that suggests doing good deeds can have a magnificent and positive "ripple effect" in the community, and that anyone, regardless of skill or ability, has the power to do good in the world. Ordinary Mary bakes the ordinary blueberries into some ordinary muffins and leaves them for a neighbor, who is then inspired to do good deeds for five people, all of whom are then inspired to do good deeds for five other people. You get the picture: in the end, the goodness comes back to Mary, and she is a recipient of the fruit her own good deed, making this a satisfying read for small children.

Why you shouldn't read this book: It's cute for kids but it's not for cynics, who know that no good deed goes unpunished.

Changed

Written by: Tom Cantor

First line: Many of us have dark secrets that we want to conceal from others.

Why you should read this book: You should not. This book is appropriate only for lining bird cages or, in a pinch, as fireplace tinder if you can't find a more wholesome fuel, because even inhaling this content in particulate form is probably a bad idea. The nicest thing I can say about this book is that it appears to have been professionally proofread, so kudos to whoever did that work for hire without vomiting on the manuscript.

Why you shouldn't read this book:  I don't normally review irredeemable books, but I was surprised to find a less worthy and more egotistical tome than John Bolton's memoir, and this is a public service to spare others the discomfort of wondering what is inside this crime against paper, ink, glue, humanity, and the US Postal Service. 

Changed is a self-published biography whose author chose to waste millions of dollars to not only print his grotesque vanity project, but to forcefully distribute it to unsuspecting and non-consenting people, primarily those of Jewish heritage, through the US mail. Its content is misogynist and antisemitic, and its author, who claims to draw strength from Christianity, completely misses the point of Christianity, which is obvious when you consider how much money he spent on self-aggrandizement when millions of Americans are desperate for food and housing and he could have actually made a real difference in the world and shared Christ's values by giving that money to a food bank. I received my unsolicited copy in the mail, determined the bizarre nature of the package via lazyweb, and then subjected myself to its 85 pages of large print out of morbid curiosity. Based on my informal survey of other Jewish people who received this unwanted tripe, 99+% of these books go directly to the recycling bin or the trash. This asshole has spent a small fortune and burned countless fossil fuels generating literal garbage and delivering it to strangers' mailboxes across the country.

What's inside? Well, the story goes like this. Little Tom Cantor has an unhappy childhood because his parents are Jewish and divorced, which, apparently, causes him to commit countless "sins." His particular sins are not delineated, but they are so bad that he is sent to military school at the age of 7. (Military school is something that Jewish parents threaten unruly children with, not someplace that Jews typically send children.) Poor Tom is immediately expelled from military school. Eventually he is arrested for stealing records at 15 and is sent to boarding school in Europe, where he continues to get arrested and expelled from school.

Then there's a lot of nonsense about how much he hates himself (ironic given how intensely self-centered and self-serving he is), which goes on until he meets a redemptive woman: a being so very pure that her undifferentiated pureness can save poor, damned Tom from a life of self-loathing. Hallelujah! His pattern of unchecked behavioral issues and self-abasement will magically end once he climbs into the matrimonial bed and cleanses his member in her pristine aperture! He's very certain of this. But then—tragedy. Someone rapes his immaculate woman before Tom can claim the healing power of her pussy. This is a huge catastrophe, not for the woman, whose psychological ordeal is not discussed (he clearly doesn't consider women to be real people), but for Tom, because his means of salvation has been sullied by this violent assault. The healthy virgin vagina is now, in his eyes, "defiled," just like him, and can no longer rescue him from the calamity of his own poor decision making abilities and lack of serotonin. Rather than supporting the love of his life with the reassurance that her victimization changes nothing for him, that she remains perfect and pure in his eyes, and that he will love her with all his might and honor her body and her experience, he continues on with the narrative that he, Tom, is the only real person in the world, and the only one whose feelings matter, and the only true victim of this crime.

Oh, no! How will Tom ever feel good about himself again? Simple. He will embrace one sentence out of the New Testament (never mind the rest of the book), making himself the absolute lamest Jew for Jesus in the history of the generally lame "Messianic Judaism" movement. Now he is "clean" and so is the redemptive hole! Hallelujah again! Except, the woman is pregnant and apparently nobody can feel truly clean with a rape baby around. So they give that baby up for adoption and then Tom keeps "his" secret for years, until genetic testing demonstrates that you can't actually sweep an entire human being under the rug. Hallelujah a third time, because Tom is finally "free" from his shameful secret, which, I guess, is that he is still an unmitigated piece of shit. Now it can finally be revealed that he's an antisemitic, misogynistic hypocrite. Thank goodness he doesn't have to keep that under wraps anymore.

This book is a fucking hate crime. Tom Cantor, far from believing that he's saved, should recognize that he's a gross excuse for a person. If there is a hell and anything like a sense of justice in the world, Tom Cantor will spend eternity completely alone and covered in feces.

Time You Let Me in: 25 Poets under 25

Edited by: Naomi Shihab Nye

 First line: If you drive old farm road 43 from Corpus Christi, Texas, up to Driscoll right at dawn and for the thirty or so minutes afterward, through the tiny towns of London and Petronila, past the cotton gins and weather-beaten farmhouses and few stop signs and blinking red lights, past the mysterious old tractors, some shrouded under tarps, some parked right where they stopped working, you'll sometimes see a soft haze or mist. 

Why you should read this book: This curated collection of young poets features a refreshing selection of short pieces, four per author. While the subject matter ranges far and wide, one thread that seems to connect them is a groundedness in sense of place; whether the poet is discussing their childhood home, their ancestors' struggles, or observations from travel, the reader feels transported to very specific worlds through each. These are rich, beautiful, mostly hopeful poems, appropriate for children, but often covering important topics such as race and class. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: Well, it lies; there are 26 poets jammed in there.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Piper

Written by: Jay Asher, Jessica Freeburg, and Jeff Stokely

First line: People in my village think I cannot understand what they say because I cannot hear.

Why you should read this book: The Pied Piper legend, which seems to have some root in historical fact, has been given the modern treatment as much as (or more than) any other fairy tale, and although it's a simple story, it's weird enough that there is plenty of room for speculation, romance, and embellishment of the basic narrative. In this version, Maggie, an deaf orphan girl raised by the kindly Agathe, develops a friendship with the mysterious musician who vows that he can rid Hameln of the plague of vicious rats that make life nearly unbearable even for the village's elite. But Maggie, being unable to hear the piper's music, is the only person in Hameln that he can't control, and when Maggie discovers that she has the power to control him, she must choose between a village that has never respected her and a man she can never trust. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't pay your debts

The Missing

Written by: Tim Gautreaux

First line: Sam Simoneaux leaned against the ship's rail, holding on in the snarling wind as his lieutenant struggled toward him through the spray, grabbing latches, guy wires, valve handles.

Why you should read this book: Sam, sometimes knows as "Lucky," missed the fighting in World War One by a day but still has perhaps a bit more experience of loss than others in his generation. Smart, sensitive, and perceptive, he's happy in his comfortable post-war career as a security guard in a high end department store, until the day that a little girl is kidnapped on his watch. Suddenly, Sam's entire world is upended and no matter how many times he tries to walk away, he still feels a relentless compulsion to find this lost child at any cost. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: You get motion sickness just thinking about boats.


Monday, January 11, 2021

Shooting Kabul

Written by: NH Senzai

First line: It's a perfect night to run away, thought Fadi, casting a brooding look at the bright sheen of the moon through the cracked backseat window.

Why you should read this book: Fadi and his family have to escape Afghanistan before the Taliban comes for his father, but everything happens so quickly, and even though Fadi was holding his sister's hand, in the space of a moment she's lost, the family has no choice but to continue to America without her. Wracked with guilt, Fadi tries to hide his own shame while doing his best to keep his head down and avoid trouble in his new school, but then the attack on the World Trade Center changes his relationship to his classmates and forces him to stand up for himself and others. Fadi places all his hope in winning a photography contest, which he is sure will be the solution to all his problems, and allow him to make up for the mistakes of his past.

Why you shouldn't read this book: It made me cry like fifteen times.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Year in Review

Overall, 66 is the smallest number of books I have in any year since I started blogging books 14 years ago. Blame it on 2020. In fact I read a decent number of novels but hardly reviewed any picture books. And I didn't read much of anything else except kids' novels. I mean, the library was close for a lot of it. 

I actually read way more books than this, but I only review ones I haven't reviewed before, and I ended up rereading a bunch of things in my own collection, along with reading a bunch of books I've been carrying around for years and never read (like the VALIS trilogy, which I bought when I was 15 because someone told me it was a book that smart people read. Me of 1990 couldn't make heads or tails of the first chapter and gave up, but 2020 me, with 30 years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom, got it just fine) and it only took a pandemic to get me there.  

Dragon's Library Year in Review, 2020

Picture books:           

Middle grade/YA:     25 

Nonfiction:                

Graphic Novels:        16 

Memoir:                    

Novels:                      14 

Plays:                         

Poetry:                      

Total:                         66

Grand Theft Horse

Written by: Corban Wilkin 

First line: I can't believe I'm about to do this. 

Why you should read this book: I adored this deep but endearing nonfiction graphic novel about the author's cousin, the first person to be charged with "Grand Theft Horse" in a hundred fifty years. Gail Ruffu, who has devoted her life to the love of horses, defies a group of powerful and unscrupulous lawyers to save a racehorse called Urgent Envoy, but she sacrifices everything else in the process. Just a tremendously enjoyable story about a remarkable person demonstrating tenacious devotion in pursuit of doing the right thing. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: You would kill to commit insurance fraud.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Ciel

Written by: Sophie Labelle 

First line: You might not believe me if I tell you, but I have a special power. 

Why you should read this book: Ciel, a non-binary trans teen, is comfortable with who they are, but starting high school is stressful enough for gender conforming kids, and now that Ciel's boyfriend, Eiríkur has moved to Iceland, and their best friend, Stephie, decides that she doesn't want to be out as a trans kid in high school, Ciel isn't always sure where to turn. Stephie has an entirely new set of fun, cis friends, Ciel has a new crush that develops in Eiríkur's absence (it doesn't help that Eiríkur is a terrible penpal), and when they accidentally make a viral video about the difficulties of being non-binary, they find themselves targeted by bigots and online bullying. Ciel has to decide how to ask for the treatment they want, and how to present themselves to a world that isn't always careful with a young teen's delicate sense of self. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: While the story it tells is a good and important one, the voice (or possible the translation—I think this book was originally written in French?) feels amateur and the writing is overloaded with unnecessary and distracting exposition that doesn't advance the story or the characterization.