Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: The Orchardist (Coplin)

Mixed thoughts about The Orchardist, the debut novel of author Amanda Coplin. The book has been widely reviewed and is well regarded and appropriately so. Coplin establishes herself as an emerging talent and her book is readable and engaging. I struggled at times to relate to her characters, but I also think that is by the author's design and is largely the point of the book: characters struggling to relate to one another while burdened with their own personal histories. I finished this book a few weeks ago and still think about it from time to time.
Coplin's narration, at times detached, fits her characters. None were inclined to readily reveal emotions and motives. Talmadge, her protagonist, begins the novel at the turn of the twentieth century, living a solitary and lonely existence, tending his orchard in the remote Wenatchee Valley in what was then the new state of Washington. (Coplin herself was raised here and the local landscape plays an important role in the novel). Talmadge’s life changes irreversibly when two young girls, pregnant and ragged, appear at his remote orchard. The girls have a feral quality – refusing to speak, come near, or even directly look at Talmadge, who leaves food and blankets on his porch for the girls while he leaves the cabin to work in the orchard. Only when he departs will the girls approach the things they need to survive. 

Talmadge, we learn, lost both his parents by the time he reached his early teens and was left alone with the orchard and younger sister. One day his sister wandered into the orchard and disappeared without a trace. Motivated by his solitude and haunted by the loss of his sister, Talmadge becomes a patient and devout protector of the girls, especially Della (for reasons that are important to the plot). Della and the other girl, Jane, had escaped from a sadistic and deranged man who exploited them for his pleasure and profit in his crude and cruel frontier brothel. Subjected to unspeakable abuse, Della and Jane meet Talmadge after they fled the outpost while avoiding settlements for fear that they would be discovered and returned to their abuser.

As events unfold, Talmadge becomes the de facto guardian of Della as well as Angelene, the surviving infant of the two pregnant girls. His relationship with Della is the source of much of my ambivalence about The Orchardist. Coplin sets forth an intriguing story in beautiful prose, but I keep wondering why Talmadge continued to reach out to Della, a troubled girl and young woman who desperately needed a hand, but who repeatedly refused to take it. Meanwhile, Agelene wants and needs a connection to Della, who refuses it, and provides devotion to Talmadge, who nonetheless remains detached because of his frustrated attempts to rescue Della from herself. Each of these characters struggle for needs they don't fully understand and fully realize and that is both the frustration and reward of the novel.

In the end, this struggle is what makes me remember the story and causes me to think about how this same problem seems to play out in our own lives or the lives of people we care about. While I struggled to fully empathize with Talmadge and Della and wished they would come to their senses, Coplin’s detached style allows readers to dig into the bigger issues of struggling, damaged souls attempting to find their way. Solidly recommend.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Memory Wall (Doerr)

As a Boise resident, I’ve made it a point to read books by Boise-based writers. I have previously reviewed books by Mitch Wieland (God’sDogs) and Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist) and have become big fans of both. Wieland and Udall are not local writers, but rather grifted writers who happen to live and work in Boise as a result of connections to Boise State University’s M.F.A. program. I recently finished a book by a third talented Boise-based writer, Anthony Doerr, who also has taught at Boise State’s M.F.A. program. As an aside,Doerr has written a spot-on article that articulates what many of us love aboutBoise. What I was discovered was another talented storyteller and skilled writer.

Doerr’s Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010) is a collection of six short stories (plus a bonus story if you waited for the paperback edition). The stories are unrelated in time and space. But they all related to universal themes of the human condition.  Fear and hope. Death and renewal. Suffering and resilience. Faith and uncertainty. The book’s namesake story “Memory Wall” is about an aging white South African woman with dementia whose fading memories become valuable to others and as a consequence become a threat to her safety. “Procreate, Generate” follows a young couple in Wyoming whose marriage is tested by long-simmering emotional issues exacerbated by infertility. “The Demilitarized Zone” features an Idaho man whose wife has left him and who attempts to shield the news from their son, a young soldier serving along the North and South Korean border. “Village” is the story of cultural changes in modern China, as an old woman loses her ancestral home and occupation when forced to a city apartment when a new dam floods her village. “The River Nemunas” is about a 15-year-old girl from Kansas who has lost both parents to cancer and moves to Lithuania to live with her maternal grandfather. “Afterworld” explores the dreams of an old woman dying in Ohio and dreaming of her childhood in Nazi Germany, in particular her friends from the orphanage where she lived who did not escape the Holocaust.  “The Deep” is set in Detroit during the Great Depression and features a young boy living with the knowledge that a defective heart assures that he likely will not survive beyond his teens.

Doerr writes with clarity and purpose. He does not invite you to pity his characters, nothing is romanticized or sentimentalized. At times his writing seems detached and understated. But you begin to appreciate the complexity and depth of the characters as the story unfolds. He treats readers as adults: you get a few loose ends and have to make some informed conclusions but you have ample material to anticipate the answers. And while Doerr’s writing style is terse, he delivers a rich and evocative reading experience. 

Memory Wall is a wonderful collection of stories and is worth your time. And while you’re at it, give Brady Udall and Mitch Wieland and look too. You can thank me later.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Put Me In Coach: 40th Anniversary of Title IX

Book Monkey Syd posted this a year ago, adapted from an end-of-year school project.  We are re-posting to recognize the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IV which happened on June 24, 2012. The Book Monkeys will discuss the topic  tomorrow night on the drive to Book Monkey Syd's summer AAU basketball game.

Hey there!! I just wanted to let you know that some nerds (like me!) don’t just read Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, they read non-fiction too! I recently acquired a copy of Let Me Play - The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America, by Karen Blumenthal (2005, Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division).  I highly recommend it, as it is about the unfair treatment of girls and women across America before 1972 (the year Title IX passed), and how Title IX has helped girls across America take on jobs that had traditionally been reserved for men only. It also opened opportunities for girls to play in high school and college athletics. It was the main source for my PYP (Pick Your Passion), which was titled "How Title IX has Affected the Lives of Females Today." If you don’t feel like reading the book, or can’t find it, you should read my report, which includes a lot of information from the book. If you want to read it, email me at


Friday, June 15, 2012

10 worst book covers in the history of literature?

You be the judge. Here's the link from the website So Bad So Good. A teaser is provided at right.  There's a lot going here, but when you imply your book has the ability to transform readers from cool to awesome, you better bring your A game to the cover design.  Or maybe I don't understand cool.  Anyway, good stuff.  One criticism, though: the folks as So Bad So Good overlooked my favorite unfortunately titled children's book cover/title.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Danica McKellar: More Than A Pretty Face

Danica McKellar. You all know her from The Wonder Years and The West Wing, right? Well, know her from her kick-butt math books that helped me amaze my classmates with the power of LCM (Least or Lowest Common Multiple.) She also graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics.

I own all three of her books currently out. Math Doesn’t Suck: How To Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind Or Breaking A Nail, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed. She’s coming out with a geometry book, Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, in August and I can’t wait! Math Doesn’t Suck is the most helpful to me, since I’m doing “Middle-School Math” and, no, I’m not losing my mind or breaking a nail, but thanks for asking. 

In Math the other day, we had Problem Solver Packets, which tell you how to do the problems. But since the problems were LCM, I just looked up the “Birthday Cake Method” in Math Doesn't Suck, which shows how to do LCM's using "layers" of a "cake." Then the problems were SOOO easy. My teacher, Mrs. Brady, asked me to show how I got the problems since that method wasn’t one of the methods in the packet, so I showed her the book. She said this was way easier than the ones in the packet (which included counting the multiples!). I was sooo impressed with Danica!

She also helped me with my study skills and my … well, there’s no other word for it – life skills. In every book there are quizzes, such as “What’s Your Learning Style?” (I’m a visual learner, thank you very much,) “Do You Pick Supportive Friends?” (Yup, I do!) and “Are You A Perfectionist?” (Well, I’m in between “balanced” and “perfectionist,” but that’s good, right?)

She helped me think of ways to deal with schoolwork, chores, siblings (I know, they’re such a pain, aren’t they?) Danica McKellar should REALLY keep writing!


Friday, May 25, 2012

Kiddie Lit Review Reveals Ugly Truth: Adults are Expendable (and/or Evil)

Have you noticed the books young readers enjoy most tend to place adults into three categories?  We olds are fools, fiends, or dead.  Huck Finn’s mother was dead and his dad was a bigoted drunk (Tom Sawyer was an orphan who routinely outwitted elderly Aunt Polly, his guardian).  Harry Potter was an orphan raised by buffoonish and abusive relatives, who later was forced to save the wizarding world from the evil Voldemort.  Oliver Twist was an orphan who escaped an abusive orphanage only to be manipulated by criminals.  Matilda had fools for parents and a tyrant headmistress.  Jem and Scout ? Motherless, as was Nancy Drew.  Sure, Atticus Fitch and Carson Drew were decent enough, but not exactly hands-on parents.  The kids would have been fine without them.  Pippi Longstocking had no mother and a weird father. Katniss Everdeen, the pride of District 12, had an ineffectual mother and her father died in a coal mine explosion. Laura Ingalls Wilder appears to be the only kiddie lit author who wasn’t out to settle a score against the adult world: it seems she was too busy dealing with her middle child issues and extracting revenge from whoever inspired the Nellie Oleson character than to turn her pen on Pa and Ma.  The conclusion is obvious: our children are plotting our demise to create their independence and thus accomplish great things when free from our meddling and interference!

Or maybe our children only fantasize about becoming emancipated (let's just assume that we died fighting for a noble cause ) and thus are free to accomplish great things without our meddling and interference. Wait. That's kinda what we hope will happen if we do our jobs as parents correctly.  And that's what every kid in the world is hardwired from birth to want.  So maybe it's no surprise that independence and self-sufficiency are such popular plot components in kiddie lit.  Our kids don’t really want to overthrow us, at least not yet.  They just want to imagine what it feels like to be (improved) versions of us.  Which is what we want for them too.   So Huck Finn and Harry Potter inspire them to save the imaginary world but, at least for now, they still come back because they need $20 to go to the movie with a friend in the real world. No doubt a movie about a kid saving the world for villainous adults despite well-intended-yet-unproductive meddling  for her surviving parent (the other having vanished at sea while trying to save a dolphin from the fishing nets of a heartless tuna boat captain).  

I am reminded my own reading-inspired escapist fantasies whenever I sneak a look out the kitchen window into my backyard and see Book Monkey Syd, my blogging partner, her Mockingjay novel bookmarked and resting on the arm of chair on the deck where she had been reading moments ago.  She’s alone and whirling and swinging a sword-length scrap of PVC pipe at enemies unseen (by me), battling forces of evil and probably saving her little sister from peril while her father frets helplessly from the sidelines.  So I stay in the kitchen and try not to interfere. She’ll be in soon enough, asking me to air up her bicycle tire or let her download a new book on her Nook. If I'm fortunate, I'll get a hug out of the deal. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach)

Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, is story of friendship, self-discovery, relationships, mental illness, and the promises and pitfalls of potential.  The plot is solid but the well-developed, complex characters are what kept me up late turning pages.  The Art of Fielding is also about baseball, but in the same way Moby Dick is a book about whale hunting.  The heart of the novel is the relationship between Mike Schwartz and Henry Skrimshander, two members of the Westish College baseball team, and how their friendship and relationships evolve over their time at Westish College.

The fictional Westish is a cozy Division III liberal arts college on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan whose main claim to fame happens to be that Moby Dick author Herman Melville once spent a summer there (the college’s mascot is the Harpooners). Schwartz grew up poor and neglected in a tough part of Chicago before enrolling in Westish where he becomes  captain of both the football and baseball teams.  His fierce intensity, high expectations, and demand for perfection, in himself and others, find the perfect subject in Henry, a slender, malleable kid from small town South Dakota who is freaky good with his glove as a shortstop.  His slight build and lack of strength, however, limit his utility as a batter.

At Westish, under Schwartz’ unrelenting tutelage and Henry's own capacity to compulsively endure the boundaries of his physical abilities, Henry transforms himself into a powerful and productive offensive weapon, hitting with both precision and power.  By his junior year, he  emerges as one of the top Major League Baseball prospects in America, and the Westish Harpooners, perennial conference doormats, emerge as potential national champions.  Life is good in Westish and promises to get better.

Meanwhile, handsome and heretofore heterosexual Westish College President Guert Affenlight, a former Westish quarterback who went on to become a renowned Melville scholar and Harvard literature professor, is developing an infatuation with Henry's roommate, Owen Dunne, an urbane, openly gay, and intellectually gifted black student (who also is an outfielder for the Harpooners).  The budding romance is complicated by the arrival of Affenlight's college-aged prodigal daughter and struggling artist, Pella.  A brilliant but undisciplined young woman, Pella seeks refuge with her father from an unhappy marriage to an architect several years her senior and a crippling bout of depression aggravated by the relationship. She soon discovers Mike Schwartz, who has his own set of issues that he has no idea of how to fix.

While all of these complicated relationships are developing, the unthinkable becomes thinkable.  Henry Skrimshander, the shortstop with the grace of Baryshnikov and the cool efficiency of the super-computer Watson, on the verge of establishing the college record for consecutive errorless games, experiences a sudden loss of confidence in his ability to throw a baseball to first base.  Which jeopardizes his errorless games streak, the lucrative MLB contract, and a national championship for the historically hapless Harpooners.  Henry is not equipped to handle these sudden changes and emotionally implodes.  Don't want to give away too much but Pella and Henry maybe complicate their relationship with Schwartz, and President Affenlight and Owen maybe go places a student and college president should not. 

How Harbach sorts this all out is why this novel is so rich and enjoyable. He disassembles and reassembles relationships in ways unexpected but plausible.  You need not be a baseball fan to appreciate this book (but Harbach nails the baseball part). You only need to appreciate strong characters and great storytelling. Recommend.