David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.
Immigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.
Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes — the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.
This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.
Life is Far from Fair for Odette Zyskowski in Elana K. Arnold’s new novel. If it had been put to a vote, Odette would not have elected to sell her family home, move into an ugly RV and share one cell phone with her quarreling parents and volatile younger brother. But her father didn’t ask for Odette’s opinion before quitting his job and uprooting the family, and the list of unfair occurrences in her life has begun to pile up at a rapid pace as they travel to Grandma Sissy’s home. However, none of the problems and predicaments along the way compares to the unfairness Odette discovers when they arrive.
When Odette and Grandma Sissy are discussing how powerless Odette feels during this time of upheaval, Grandma Sissy reveals what Odette calls a “grownup truth” — those things grownups know to be true, but don’t typically share: Sometimes you are powerless. Sometimes, bad things happen and we can't stop them. This book contains many such grownup truths, but Arnold does not preach to or talk down to her readers. Hard subjects are confronted gently but directly.
The settings, all the way from suburban California to Washington’s Orcas Island, as well as the difficulties of living in an RV, are so superbly described it may leave you wondering if the author herself ever embarked on such a road trip. The book does indeed have true life beginnings: After Arnold’s husband was laid off, they sold their home and belongings and hit the open road. Meanwhile, Arnold pursued her dream of being a writer. Far from Fair is her sixth novel for teen and young readers.
For more well-written children’s fiction that confronts issues of family life and illness, check out So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata.
Was Ramona Quimby one of your best friends? Did you want a mouse on a motorcycle? Then you enjoyed the imaginative and timeless worlds created by Beverly Cleary. Cleary’s wonderful books have impacted generations of readers and, today, as she celebrates her 100th birthday, we pay homage to a standard bearer of children’s literature.
Cleary noted that when she a child in the 1920s and as a young librarian, almost all of the children’s books she came across were about kids in England. Determined to offer children something more relatable, she put pen to paper with a simple writing style infused with humor and a story based on common human experiences. Her first book, Henry Huggins, published in 1950, was about a boy, his dog and their friends, all of whom lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, a street in Cleary’s childhood neighborhood. According to Cleary, Henry Huggins and the other child characters in the book were based on children she grew up with and those who attended story time at her library. She would go on to write several more books about Henry Huggins and his friends, including the Quimby sisters, who would be featured in their own books, the first of which, Beezus and Ramona, was published in 1955.
Popular with children, she was also a favorite with critics who recognized her skill and talent with numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Cleary's books have been published in 20 different languages, and 91 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide since 1950. Indeed, her popularity is just as strong in Baltimore County with all of her titles in all formats circulating almost 4,000 times this year alone! A few weeks ago, Cleary sat with The Today Show for an interview where she was asked about this milestone and her career and she said she’s proudest of the simple fact that "children love my books."
Yann Martel hit superstardom in 2001 when Life of Pi was published. Soon thereafter, in 2002, won The Man Booker Prize. In this year’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel seeks the surreal in order to make better sense of the sorrows of life.
The High Mountains of Portugal is actually three loosely interrelated novellas, the longest of which is the first: “Homeless.” Set in Portugal, 1904, “Homeless” stars Tomas, a man who has lost his child, his lover and his father over a fairly short time. For obvious reasons, he feels betrayed by the world and by God, so betrayed in fact, that he has decided to walk backward for the rest of his life. This causes his uncle great consternation when he tries to show Tomas how to drive one of those new-fangled automobiles. It’s all fun and games until Tomas runs into his greatest tragedy and finds exactly what he thought he was looking for.
In part two, “Homeward,” Eusebio is a pathologist, and his town is in the shadows of the mountains of Portugal. Over the dying hours of the last day of 1938, Eusebio has a deep conversation with his wife regarding how Agatha Christie’s novels relate to the mysteries of the Bible. And then things take a turn for the weird. Magical realism sneaks into the office in the guise of a dead man and his wife. What Eusebio finds within and what he does thereafter must be read to be believed.
Finally, in “Home,” Peter, a member of the Canadian Senate, has a breakdown. His wife is sick. His son is going through a bitter divorce. What better time to quit and run to his ancestral home in the mountains of Portugal with an ape named Odo?
How do all of these things fit together? What is Yann Martel trying to say? What’s with all the animals? How are humans to deal with such grief? It is not until the very end, until the final story ties all of the stories together, that the ultimate epiphany is realized by the reader.
Readers who enjoyed Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil will derive even greater enjoyment from this journey through humility, hubris and the examination of what it might mean to be human.
Two words. Quentin. Tarantino. He is an Oscar Award-winning screenwriter responsible for writing and directing hit movies, such as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. His most recent project is The Hateful Eight. The film version premiered in late 2015, but readers can get their hands on the 165-page screenplay clothed in book form. If you have not seen the movie, then read the screenplay first, or vice or versa to compare the two mediums and see how they differ.
The Hateful Eight takes place post-Civil War in the middle of a winter storm in Wyoming. A bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth travels in a stagecoach to a town called Red Rock, handcuffed to his prisoner, Daisy Domergue. John Ruth wants two things. One, he wants to deliver Daisy to the Red Rock sheriff so that she can hang for her crimes. Two, he wants to collect the $10,000 fee for turning her in. However, sabotage may be looming around the corner. On his way to Red Rock, he spots a familiar face. It is Major Warren, the bounty hunter, sitting on three dead frozen bodies in the middle of a snowy road. John Ruth's stagecoach driver, O.B., pulls over. Major Warren wants a ride to Red Rock to turn in the three dead men he uses as a seat cushion. Skeptically, John Ruth obliges. O.B. takes off in the stagecoach and they come across another loner stuck in the snow storm, Chris Mannix, who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. Chris adds that he needs to be present in Red Rock if the bounty hunters expect to be paid for their services. Although John Ruth finds Chris' sheriff story fabricated, he allows Chris inside his stagecoach just in case he is speaking the truth. Due to harsh weather conditions, the stagecoach detours at a very convenient place called Minnie's Haberdashery that provides food and drinks. What is odd is that Minnie, the owner, is nowhere to be found. A man called “Bob” welcomes them and mentions that he is looking after the place until Minnie gets back from her "trip." John Ruth and the others quickly discover that there are four suspicious looking strangers inside Minnie’s Haberdashery and most of them provide stories that they are heading to Red Rock when the weather settles down. Despite what they say, John Ruth believes that one or all of the strangers are there to sabotage his plan to get Daisy to Red Rock to hang. Who inside Minnie's Haberdashery aren't who they say they are? Who will make it to Red Rock when the weather clears? You'll find the answers to these questions inside Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
For those who are not familiar with Quentin Tarantino's work, I want to inform readers that The Hateful Eight contains profanity, violence and gore. With that said, Quentin Tarantino's screenplay was easy to follow and I had no problem visualizing the story. The Hateful Eight has a nice mixture of mystery, western, drama and comedy.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?
A rhythmically written biography with read-to-me value, Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler by Kate Klimo is a fantastic little journey that will help parents and children explore the inspiration and the legend of the iconic man known as Dr. Seuss. The book imitates the format that so many of his own did with large easy-to-read words and lush illustrations on every page. This playful format makes it a wonderful introduction to Ted Geisel’s journey, narrating his growth from whimsically doodling child to an advertising illustrator for hire to his first, then second, then eventually 44 published books for children.
Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler is quick to read but easy to linger on every page thanks to the detailed illustration and wonderfully inspirational story. It would be an ideal read-to-me story time book for younger children, or a good starting point for school-age children to use as a base for further research into Seuss, his process, his life’s history or bookmaking and creating children’s literature in general. Stories like The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are not only iconic pieces of modern pop culture but they were, at their inception, a transformative force that created a new movement of teaching children how to read in the United States. Celebrate a creative man’s life and learn a new thing or two with your children, and most importantly, have fun! It’s what Dr. Seuss would want you to do.