Bright Futures and Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade 10th Anniversary Edition

Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade is deserving of the 2003 Coretta Scott King award and would be a welcome addition to classroom reading lists because it would foster understanding  and self-expression while encouraging us to celebrate our differences. While it has been a long time since I was in junior and high school, I’m pretty sure school (which is not nearly as beautiful of a word as library) and my teachers conspired to make me hate reading.   At least, that’s what I felt at the time, and still do to this day in many ways.  Not only could I not  identify with my teachers or parents or the books on our assigned reading lists, but I was really winging it when it came to being a teen. And being a teen was brutal at times: I was an incredibly intuitive person with so much to say yet I lacked the language proficiency to fully communicate my emotions and experiences with the people who guided me.

But that’s where art, poetry, and amazing teachers come into play.

When you’re not legally an adult, you rely on the adults in your life–parents and teachers, mainly–to help you through this thing called life. You rely on them to provide you a platform to share your story, and you hope they don’t drop the ball.   And then there are the teachers–the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Hopefully you had the kind of teacher movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and School of Rock celebrate. In my experience,  “good” teachers facilitate self-directed learning opportunities, foster curiosity, and help students identify and build upon their strengths. That’s a tall order, since much of the work good teachers do is an extension of what good parents do. In Bronx Masquerade, Mr. Ward is one of those teachers who deeply impacts his students in ways they can only begin to understand. He makes his entrance early on when he assigns a lesson about The Harlem Renaissance and other works by popular and lesser known African American authors. The classroom environment begins to take on a life of it’s own: students no longer shame their peers for wanting to read and feed their intellects. Eager to relate hip-hop and rap to the rhymes and rhythm of poetry, students begin writing and sharing original poetry.  The act of writing and the resulting community they find in Mr. Ward’s class profoundly changes them.

In terms of format, Bronx Masquerade  introduces you to a cast of characters, most of whom are Black and Latino with a White and Asian minority, whose lives intersect around poetry and Mr. Ward. Each subsequent chapter introduces you to a new character: Diondra, Amy, Art, Raul, Natalina, Porscha,  Mai Tren, Wesley. Aside from Poetry itself, Tyrone is the central character around which all of the characters revolve.  By the end of the book, Tyrone’s life has changed for the better, and “Open Mic Friday” is at the center of the positive change. As other students begin to read and perform their poetry, sometimes in the style of a poetry slam and often incorporating musical rhythms and beats, Tyrone’s guard begins to come down.And most notably, for the first time, he can envision  a real future for himself and his peers, a future that seemed distant and dismal at the beginning of the book.

By the end of the book, it is clear that through poetry and community, Tyrone has developed a new understanding of himself and his peers. Most remarkably, the opportunity to create and share his writing under the wing of Mr. Ward has literally changed the course of his life that now includes a bright, beautiful future.

Online Reading Challenge – Halfway Home!

So, how is your St Petersburg/Moscow/Russia reading adventure going?

I admit I’m struggling a bit this month. I wanted something a bit light and modern and, guess what – apparently that doesn’t exist in Russian fiction. Russian authors, historic and modern, tend to write really dark, really tragic stories steeped in mysticism and history. And it’s always cold.

Obviously, this is a huge exaggeration but I still could not find anything that wasn’t deeply sad (and not bittersweet sad but depressingly sad). I think a lot of this has to do with tradition and with Russian history which seems especially harsh with despotic leaders, crushing military battles and the bleakness of Soviet communism. And Siberia truly is extremely cold. Surely someone, somewhere has been happy? And warm? Sadly, I’m still looking for that book (please let me know if you’ve found one!)

Instead I’m going to watch the DVD of Anna Karenina starring Keria Knightly. Yes, very sad and tragic (and cold), but I’ve read that the costumes are exquisite and the production is very theatrical. I’ll let you know what I think.

If you’re still searching for a Russian connection, you might try a DVD too. The Americans, a TV series starring Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell is about a young Russian couple that have been sent to America as “sleepers” – KGB agents that are infiltrating the United States by posing as Americans. It’s gotten lots of great reviews. Or check out The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer about Leo Tolstoy’s later years when, to his wife’s horror, he said he planned to give up everything to live in poverty. Child 44 stars Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman about a disgraced Soviet police officer that has been exiled to the countryside and is now searching for a serial killer.

So tell me, what you reading (or watching) this month?

The Crown – Now on DVD!

Good news if you’re a fan of English history or royalty. Or, you know, a fan of excellent film making and story telling. The first season of The Crown, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith is now available on DVD!

Opening with the young Elizabeth about to marry Philip, season one of this brilliant series follows the first ten years of her reign, from her accession to the crown upon the death of her father King George VI through the turbulent years guiding postwar England into a new, modern era. There is a strong push/pull between the old ways – which just won World War II – and the inevitable new. English society, with its long-held class structure and tradition, struggles with the changes and the Royal family, as an example to the country, must show the way, often with great personal sacrifice.

Highlights from the first season include Elizabeth and Philip’s sometimes rocky early marriage as Philip struggles to find his place as consort and yet maintain some independence (Parliament at first refused to allow him to take flying lessons); Elizabeth’s sister Margaret falling in love with a divorced man (very scandalous, especially after Edward VII abdicated to marry a divorcee); Elizabeth’s coronation; the question of how to treat the disgraced Edward VII and the reluctant stepping down of Winston Churchill. Throughout, Elizabeth remains serene (at least on the surface) and steadfast in her devotion to her country. The demands put on her, not just by the government and her duties, but by her advisors and family, is staggering.

Beautifully filmed, superbly acted (Claire Foy won an Emmy for her role), sparkling storytelling, this is a series well worth bingeing on – if you don’t have Netflix (who produced it) or missed it when it first came on, now is the time to catch up – season two begins December 8!

For more background both on the events and how they actually happened (the writers took some liberties although they stayed close to the facts) as well as insights on filming the series, pick up The Crown. Volume 1: the Official Companion by Robert Lacey. The book includes side-by-side shots from the time period with shots of the same event from the film – the similarities are striking. In addition, Lacey provides more information on why things happened like they did in more detail than can be done in the series. It makes for fascinating reading (and watching)!

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Being a woman cop in the 1970s meant your day was filled with harassment from multiple sources: the men you worked with, the people you encountered on the streets, and usually the family you left behind to become a cop. No matter what you did, you would feel the heat from everyone around you. You were never good enough. This type of harassment and degradation led to some women not even making it through the police academy and for those that made it, enduring that treatment only fed their fire to become the best cop that they could. Reading fiction and nonfiction about women during this era showed me that those pioneering women were continuing on a quest for equality that started many, many years ago.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter dives into what policewomen in the 1970s went through on a daily basis by following the Atlanta police force in 1974 as they struggled to deal with the murder of an officer and a suspected murderer on the loose. It’s Kate Murphy’s first day on the job. From the moment she steps foot in the precinct, Kate realizes that the Atlanta Police Department is not the place for her. The other police officers are not welcoming to the women and even within the female ranks, they’re all separated by color. Kate is juggling with the fact that her uniform is way too big, she’s not sure how to handle her gun, and the men she’s supposed to be working with only see her as a collection of attractive body parts. Add in the fact that the Atlanta Police Department is still reeling from the death of a fellow officer and Kate has walked into an extremely volatile situation. Despite all of this, Kate refuses to give up. She sets out to try and prove herself even though she really has no idea what she is doing.

Maggie Lawson is only too familiar with the craziness in the Atlanta Police Department. Both her brother and her uncle are on the force. Add in the fact that Maggie is a cop as well and her family life is more than a tad complicated. Having family so enmeshed in the force means that Maggie has to continuously prove herself and that has left her with multiple axes to grind. When Kate Murphy shows up, Maggie knows she is going to be a handful. Kate and Maggie soon find themselves partnered together, even though it’s against regulations. This action is made to isolate Kate and Maggie from the rest of the police, to essentially keep them out of everyone else’s way. Despite being paired together, the women soon find themselves right in the middle of a major criminal situation.  Kate and Maggie are forced to learn to work together to figure out who they can trust and what the real truth is.


This book is available in the following formats:

Now Departing for: St. Petersburg, Russia

Hello Online Reading Challenge Readers!

November has arrived and that means it’s time for our next destination – St. Petersburg!

Situated on the Baltic Sea in western Russia, St Petersburg has an interesting history. It’s relatively new (for Europe), having been established by Peter the Great in 1703. It served as the capital of Russia from 1713 to 1918 when the central government moved to Moscow. It has had several name changes, from St Petersburg to Petrograd (in 1914) to Leningrad (in 1924) and now back to St Petersburg (in 1991). It is considered more “Western” due to its proximity to the rest of Europe, than Moscow which is thought of as more traditional. St Petersburg has more tourist traffic and it has less of the “Soviet bloc” architecture than Moscow and, while there is no shortage of art and culture in Moscow, St Petersburg is considered to be more of a cultural mecca.

There are some great books set in St Petersburg, but somewhat limited in quantity. Because of that, I’m expanding this month to include Moscow (or, really, any setting in Russia you’d like to read about). Here are a few titles to get you started.

One of my favorite books is City of Thieves by David Benioff. Set during the siege of Lenningrad (as it was called then), it brings this horrific chapter of World War II vividly to life. Yet amongst the suffering there is friendship and joy and hope. I wrote about it in more detail here. Highly recommended.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay follows the memories of a retired Russian ballerina who lived through the Stalinist era. Her memories of the dark, Postwar years and what she did to survive are equal parts haunting and beautiful. Read more about it here.

If you like history, you may wish to read more about the last Tsar of Russa, Nicholas II and his family’s tragic story. Try The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport or The Romanovs: the Final Chapter by Robert Massie or the greatest mystery, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a relatively new book that has been getting a lot of positive buzz. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, a member of the nobility is sentenced to live the rest of his life in a hotel in Moscow. His watches and observes the changes that his country and the world go through, all from his small room above the city.

Of course, if you wish, you can go the classic route – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Let me know how that goes!

Watch our displays at each building for more ideas of some great reads set in Russia.

 

Now Arriving from – China

Hello Reading Fans!

How did this month of the Online Reading Challenge treat you? Did you find something really fantastic to read? Something that opened a little window of understanding of the great mystery that is China?

I’m afraid I didn’t do so well this month – I got caught up in reading other books and never came across anything China-related that grabbed my attention. These things happen sometimes (This is why I’m not very good with traditional book clubs – the rebel in me doesn’t always want to read the chosen book!) Fortunately, there aren’t any Library Police and I can simply try again next month!

I do want to draw your attention to two favorite movies set in China that deal with the ancient history of China and are deeply rooted in mysticism. Both are absolutely beautiful

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon caused quite a sensation when it first came out and you may very well have already seen it. Beautifully photographed, superb acting and a story that requires the watcher, much like the characters, to take a leap of faith makes this a film that linger long after the closing credits. A young Chinese warrior steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation with serious, long-reaching consequences.

Hero, starting Jet Li, was released shortly after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and may have been overshadowed by it, but it is stunning in it’s own right.  Set in ancient China, warring factions plot to assassinate the most powerful ruler, Qin. When a minor official defeats Qin’s three deadly enemies, he is summoned to the palace to tell Qin the story of his surprising victory. The martial arts scenes, beautifully, artfully choreographed, are worth watching alone but the message, about power and how it is wielded is relevant to all times and societies.

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai

 

People who don’t read romance tend to assume the books are fluff. And I love fluffy books where couples meet cute and banter through silly misunderstandings until they fall in love. However, some of my favorite books in the genre are emotional heavyweights, where  main characters deal with some pretty dark emotions and difficult situations in order to get to their happily ever after.

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai is one of those books.  It follows a couple that were each other’s first loves, until a tragedy tore apart their families. Now over a decade later, they can’t stop wanting each other, but their family and personal issues still keep them apart.

Over a decade later, Nicholas runs the business every one knows was stolen from Livvy’s family. Livvy has just kept on running, moving from one city to another, working as a tattoo artist. The only constant in her life  is the one night a year they both meet up for steamy sex, and no discussion of their current lives or past relationship. Livvy finally ends the encounters when she turns 30, and at the beginning of the book, she has finally returned to town to help her mother recover from surgery. Nicholas knows a relationship with Livvy would be disastrous, but he still wants answers about what happened.

While Livvy and Nicholas are trying to fix their relationship, they also work on trying to have healthier relationships with the people in their lives.  Livvy has dealt with depression her entire life, and she is realizing that leaving her family behind and losing touch with people she cares about has made things worse.  She’s trying to reconnect with family and friends she hasn’t been there for, but as everything family related, it’s complicated. Her mother is not eager to have her adult daughter show up out of the blue, and she’s still adjusting to her aunt and best friend sharing opinions on her life, or forcing her to rethink family dynamics.

While Livy is trying to reconnect with her family, Nicholas is trying to untangle his. His father is power hungry and volatile, and Nicholas tries to play peacemaker with him at work, while protecting his sister’s place in the family. Since he can’t control his father, he maintains tight control over his life, leaving no room for emotion or indulgence, except for his one night a year with Livvy.

Both Nicholas and Livvy are still mourning people they lost when their families fell apart, and part of the story is figuring what really happened in the fallout, and taking a look at how the past is still impacting them.

Between family secrets, steamy romance, and two main characters with a lot of issues, this book has a lot going on, and Rai’s strong writing  pulls it all together. In the end, the emotional payoff is worth all the drama we went through getting there. We don’t get every  answer to the families tragic past, but there are two sequels planned, and they sound good. (Wrong to Need You, about Livvy’s best friend  is coming out the end of November.)

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult tells the story of lost souls trying to find their place in the world. Alice Metcalf grew up knowing that she wanted to study elephants. They always fascinated her. Traveling to Africa to study them, Alice, upon watching the elephants’ behavior, decided to focus her scientific research on how elephants grieve. Alice’s life changed drastically when Thomas Metcalf walked into her life. She soon found herself becoming a mother and wife. Balancing those two new roles with her scientific research and helping Thomas run his elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire quickly became difficult to do. She struggled balancing all of her desires and found herself in a sticky situation she could not easily see a solution to. Alice was a beloved researcher, wife, and mother, but it’s been over a decade since anyone has seen her. Alice disappeared under mysterious circumstances more than ten years ago and left behind her husband, small daughter, and all the elephants that she had become especially attached to.

Alice’s daughter, Jenna, has grown up into a thirteen year old who lives with her grandmother since her father has gone mad with grief and is locked up in a facility. With her father never seeming to recognize her and her grandmother refusing to even discuss her mother, Jenna refuses to believe that her mother just up and abandoned her. Something horrible must have happened to Alice because the opposite, that she chose to abandon Jenna and start a new life, is unthinkable. Jenna decides that she must do more to find her mother.

Jenna finds herself on the doorstep of Serenity Jones, a psychic with a legitimate gift who fell from grace and has not had contact with any actual spirits or ghosts in years. After contacting Serenity, Jenna searches out Virgil Stanhope, the detective who first worked her mother’s disappearance and the unfortunate accidental death of one of her mother’s coworkers. The night her mother disappeared was a mess and nothing seemed to be handled correctly. Jenna figures that Virgil must know more about Alice’s disappearance. If not, Virgil surely botched her mother’s disappearance and he owes Jenna the opportunity to find her mother. He has to help. Both Serenity and Virgil soon find themselves wrapped up in the web of Jenna’s grief, anger, frustration, and hopefulness that her mother will soon be found. Jenna, Serenity, and Virgil all seem to be wandering around lost until they are in each other’s company when things finally start falling into place.

This book is full of twists and turns. The twist at the end totally caught me off guard and 12 hours after finishing it, I still find myself trying to figure out how I never figured out the ending. This book is a beautiful piece of fiction. Picoult once again has written a deeply moving book that examines how the love between mothers and daughters defines one’s entire life.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Agatha Christie was my favorite mystery author growing up, thanks to my grandmother who consistently bought me her books and watched her ‘Marple’ and ‘Poirot’ series on television. The classic whodunit mystery holds a special place in my heart. As a result, I have turned into a picky mystery reader. A mystery novel has to grab my interest quickly, sustain it through the end, and be complex enough that I am unable to predict whodunit. Enter in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and I felt like I was back at my grandma’s watching Poirot solve a crime. This book felt like a delicious dive into my childhood.

Magpie Murders is a book within a book, a mystery within a mystery, a murder within a murder. Susan Ryeland is the editor of Alan Conway’s mystery series featuring detective Atticus Pund. This book opens with Ryeland receiving a copy of Conway’s latest book, Magpie Murders, and her decision to read it over the weekend. Such begins the first foray into the book within the book. Conway’s Magpie Murders is the classic whodunit that takes place in the English countryside in a small village in 1955 where a well-known woman has died. Atticus Pund, a German concentration camp survivor who has become famous for his sleuthing skills, decides to head to the small village of Saxby-on-Avon to try to solve this Agatha-Christie like puzzle. A housekeeper named Mary Blakiston fell down a flight of stairs at Pye Hall. Her death had been ruled accidental, but the fiancée of Mary’s estranged son seeks Pund and asks for his help. There are many questions that Pund must answer and after a second crime occurs, Pund decides to visit on his own accord and figure out what exactly is happening in Saxby-on-Avon.

Flash to the present when Susan Ryeland has reached the end of the Magpie Murders manuscript only to discover that the last chapter is missing. Confronting her boss, Charlie Clover, about the missing chapters, both Clover and Ryeland are surprised to learn that the author, Alan Conway, has committed suicide. Conway mailed a letter to Clover before his death explaining why he decided to commit suicide. After reading the letter, Susan decides to look for Conway’s last chapter and sets off interviewing his family and friends to find it and to learn more about Conway’s motives for killing himself. That last chapter will save Magpie Murders and hopefully Susan’s business as the death of Conway will certainly sink the company if that last chapter is never found. As she searches, Susan comes to believe that maybe Conway didn’t kill himself. She soon finds herself becoming sort of a detective as she tries to figure out what exactly happened to Alan Conway.

I really enjoyed this book. Atticus Pund’s story was entertaining enough, but the addition of Susan’s story adds a delightful twist to the whole book. I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end in both stories. I also enjoyed how the stories intertwined together and how Susan was able to rely on the Magpie Murders manuscript to help her figure out what happened to Conway. There were so many tiny clues and revelations hidden in both Pund’s and Susan’s story that had me on the edge of the seat wondering whodunit.


This book is also available in the following formats:

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

I basically wanted to quit life for two days so I could do nothing other than read The Reason You’re Alive  by Matthew Quick. Apparently Quick wrote this gem in part as an homage to his late uncle, a Vietnam veteran who may have inspired elements of this novel’s “anti-hero”, David Granger.  The novel takes off right from the beginning, and amazingly, Quick sustains the momentum through to the end. I mean, check out this for an opening sentence: “They were giving me the mushroom treatment: keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullshit”. That just has to rank up there with the best opening lines of all time, right? I mean, talk about coming outta’ the box swingin’.

David Granger, main protagonist and narrator of the story is not supposed to be likeable, let alone loveable. But he is just that. After waking up in a hospital after brain-surgery, David rants about the evasive “Clayton Fire Bear” and how doctors are all corrupt scumbags who are either “pill pushers, needle pokers, or people cutters”. He’s right, though, isn’t he? I mean, who hasn’t had a negative experience with a doctor? But of course, he is wrong, too; and for every thieving people-cutter out there you will find a warm, compassionate civil servant who wants to take care of sick people. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

Throughout the course of this book, you’ll be amazed at the things that David says: and believe you me, he has something to say about everyone. And you’ll find that he’s right: why else would you be laughing SO HARD?  But he’s also wrong because, let’s be honest, it’s easy to stereotype and generalize entire groups of people without a second thought. And that’s where things get tricky, which is to say, human. David reserves a certain disdain for his son, Hank, his “mostly ignorant”, “ball-less”, cry-baby liberal son who wouldn’t cut it for a second in the jungles of Vietnam. And just wait until you meet Femke, Hank’s philandering wife, and their sweet daughter, Ella, who David notes is in the unfortunate position of having two complete morons for parents. All of the characters who fade in and out of David’s life are intriguing and memorable and will teach you something new about life.

This book beautifully reminds us that we see other people through the lens of our own experience. I think you’ll find, by the end of the book, when tears unexpectedly start welling in your eyes, that David strived to shield his family from suffering and pain, even at his own expense whenever possible (even when he was essentially shielding them from himself).This book is about loving and understanding your family and your friends on their own terms. This book is about war, madness, art, family, grace, and ultimately redemption. I dare you not to cry when you discover the rich meaning behind the title of the book, how David wrote it for his late wife, Jessica, and their son, Hank, the two most beloved people in his life. And then I dare you not to cry when it dawns on you that David was shielding you, too, as he had his family, from the heartache of having to let him go after finding out he was  good as gold all along.

 

 

 

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