Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park


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The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

buddha-otsukaJulie Otsuka’s beautifully and poetically written second novel tells the story of young Japanese “picture brides” who leave behind a life of poverty and hard labor in Japan in the hope of finding happiness and prosperity in America. Their hope, however, turns out to be based on an illusion. Upon arriving in America, they discover that not only are the men waiting for them much older than they were led to believe (they had sent 20-year-old pictures of themselves), but that the stories of their husbands’ prosperity were merely the fabrications of the matchmakers who had brought them together. In reality, their husbands treat them with crudeness and they experience a kind of suffering they are not prepared for.

Otsuka writes in the first person plural point of view, as though the women are speaking collectively about their common experiences. This makes the telling of their saga more powerful than one individual story would have been. “Some of us were from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.”

Though the women continue to feel like outsiders in their adopted country, by the 1940’s they have settled into their life in America, many running businesses with their husbands and establishing their own communities. Their children have assimilated into the culture, speaking fluent English and feeling ashamed of their parents’ old fashioned customs and broken English. But life becomes surreal again with the outbreak of World War II and the looming threat of internment camps.

The Buddha in the Attic is in a sense a prequel to Otsuka’s first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which details the life of a Japanese family living through World War II. Her novels are based in large part on her own family’s history, as Otsuka’s grandparents and parents were among those taken to the internment camps. Their stories should not be forgotten.

Winner of the Penn/Faulkner Award for Fiction and a National Book Award finalist.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Buddha in the Attic.


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The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

other-peoples-houses

I really enjoy books that take me to a time or place very different from my own. Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese is one such title, with its tale of a young Native American man reconnecting with his father.  The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is another such book.  The setting in Alaska’s early days of statehood, its environment of rough-and-ready native hunting and fishing families, and its narrative related by four very different voices from four very different perspectives really succeed in placing the reader in that different time and place.

Four children’s perspectives are woven throughout this story, which is broken into the events of spring, summer, fall, and winter. Ruth suffered the loss of one parent to a plane crash, then another as her mother loses her mind from grief. Dora wants to get out of her life, but doesn’t trust her luck when it happens. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away from home than to stay, and Alyce works hard practicing dancing but her hard work on her father’s fishing boat threatens to keep her from her dreams—or does it?

What’s notable in this book is the children’s assumption of agency. At some point, they take control of their lives. They have seen what their lives are and know it is up to them to embrace or reject the status quo. With this, the characters all play a role in other characters’ lives, whether it’s as an instigator, a beacon of hope, or a fellow traveler in their lives’ journeys. The gentle interaction between all their stories remind us that we can all be catalysts for each other, even though we suspect we have nothing to offer.

This book works as a coming of age story (well, four coming of ages) as well as a peek into another life and world that can illuminate our own. Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s narrative is well constructed and solidly grounded in Alaskan life. Good authors can make a setting feel real, but great authors make you feel as if you are there. Read this book and be transported to 1970s Alaska—you won’t regret it.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Smell of Other People’s Houses.


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Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese

medicine wagameseA deep book needs plain language, and the beauty of Medicine Walk is the measured manner in which the events of this book are related. While his protagonist works his way through his walk with his father, the power of family history and feelings are made that much more intense by the unfettered tone of the prose. In the end, you feel like you were a fellow traveler.

The book begins when Frank’s father, Eldon calls for him. Frank is a young Indian boy who was abandoned by his father, leaving Frank with a local farmer named Bunky. Bunky is white, and does his best with Frank, but recognizes the difference in cultural heritage and how Bunky’s mentoring lacks Native American knowledge. But the faithful day comes when Eldon comes calling for his son. Bunky encourages Frank to find out what his father wants, despite the abandonment.

It turns out that Eldon is dying, and he asks Frank to take him on a days-long journey so he can die as a warrior. What follows is as much a journey as a meditation on family, life, history, and what it means to be a man. While they travel, Eldon fills in Frank on what he missed: Eldon’s history, his mother, the tragedy that forced Eldon away, and the details of his life, ruined by drink. The journey takes them through both the sparse back country and the past. Frank’s skills, learned at Bunky’s knee, overcome obstacle after obstacle as they approach what will be Eldon’s final resting place.

Author Richard Wagamese is no stranger to Native American issues, both current and past. What Eldon has had inflicted on him gets, heartbreakingly, passed through his son through tales of love, tragedy, and neglect. Frank’s quiet stoicism and steady competence point the way to a kind of reconciliation between father and son, past and future. The neat, blunt prose is Wagamese’s gift to the reader.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Medicine Walk.


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Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

fifth business deptford trilogy davies

It’s Canada Day, and we’re celebrating with our neighbors to the north by recommending this distinctly Canadian masterpiece.

Robertson Davies is one of Canada’s best writers, and any book of his you read will be amazing. Fifth Business is the about how a child’s carelessness leads to the ruin of multiple lives and begins a middle-aged obsession.

It opens with the event—Dunstan Ramsay is a young boy in a Canadian town. His best friend and sparring partner in childhood, Percy Staunton, throws a snowball it him while quarreling. Dunstan ducks, and the snowball hits Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the local minister. The shock causes her to give birth to a premature child and unhinges her mind.

The book follows Dunstan’s life from there. As a young boy, Dunstan experiences both fascination and pity for the wife, as well as guilt about the premature child and immerses himself in his study of the saints.

Later, Dunstan fights in World War I and spends an extensive time as an invalid. He begins to believe that Mary may be a fool-saint. He returns home to find that Percy has prospered in the war, and the two become friends.

The guilt Dunstan feels is exacerbated by Percy’s successes, and comes to a horrible climax where all the events from the past swirl around like angry ghosts.

Robertson Davies is a writer of amazing depth and lyrical language. His layered storytelling invokes Jungian archetypes and synchronicity, in addition to religious and societal themes. This is not an easy read, but a very rewarding one.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Fifth Business.


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The Clasp, by Sloane Crosley

clasp crosleyEver had a short story that you wish someone had made into a complete novel? Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is hilariously expanded and modernized in the deft hands of Sloane Crosley. Her witty and insightful personal essay compilations, I Was Told There Would Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number, foretold a well-crafted, literary and fun fiction title if Crosley ever turned her hand to it, and The Clasp delivers.

Three college friends meet up eight years after graduation at a wealthy classmate’s wedding. It’s clear right away that the bright futures they had expected have wilted in the onslaught of adult life and the real world. Victor has been recently fired from his job with an Internet search engine company, Kezia has made a critical misstep in her designer jewelry career, and Nathaniel has dropped his literary pretensions to run into a wall as a TV writer. This love triangle (Victor loves Kezia, who loves Nathaniel), find a common cause in the search for a family heirloom, lost in Normandy in World War II. Much of the comedy and tension comes from the group’s inability to connect with each other and be their most essential selves while on this all-consuming quest.

Crosley’s writing is tight and carries you through both interpersonal drama, personal and societal insights, and references to de Maupassant’s original text with delightful ease. Sharp insights zing throughout the text, such as “The world was not subtle about telling single people what they were missing.” Who hasn’t felt that way in early post-college life?

If you want a book full of excellent snark which will make you laugh out loud, reflect, and wince, while having a good time, “The Clasp is for you.” Sloan is a sharp observer of her generation, and I look forward to essays, fiction or, really, anything she writes, tweets included.

Check the PPLC Catalog for The Clasp.


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Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

forgive me quickJust thought I’d clear the air and tell you that this is my favorite book that I’ve read all year. I’m totally biased and will only say awesome things about this book and the author.

It’s Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday, and he’s eating breakfast alone. His rockstar father left a few years back and his ex-model mom is so obsessed with her career in fashion that she’s totally forgotten this momentous day. Leonard has special plans for his first day as an adult: he’s going to murder his former best friend and then kill himself with a Nazi pistol he inherited from his grandfather. But before he can complete this murder/suicide, he must hand-deliver four gifts to the people to whom he wishes to say goodbye. These four individuals are all vastly different and have impacted Leonard’s life in ways he struggles to fully understand but must acknowledge before he ends his life. Leonard, prior to his birthday, would often take days off school to dress up in a suit and ride the train. From there he’d find the most miserable looking adult on their way to work and follow them hoping for insights into adulthood. Leonard is not buying the whole “It gets better” campaign. When not on the train he exclusively hangs out with his elderly neighbor watching old Bogart movies or writes letters from his future self/family to his present self. Leonard’s mind is cluttered and often his thoughts and words are not expressed in the way he’d like which often makes other people uncomfortable.

As we follow Leonard through the delivery of his parting gifts, the history of his mental instability is made clear and we see how he struggles to rationalize the killing of an old friend and himself. There are several nods to the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings not just in direct reference but also in dialog and choice of words like “uber morons”. While Forgive Me does have a lot of humor and fantastical moments, it does not skim over the severity of what Leonard plans to do. Quick has done something pretty unique here by writing a story from the side of a potential murderer. He clearly does not take this topic lightly and does a fine job addressing issues that most people are too squeamish to even think about. I recommend this title to those who liked We Need to Talk About Kevin, those interested in the effects of mental illness, and those looking for a great story of perseverance but aren’t too weak in the knees.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.


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Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

everything ng“Lydia is dead.” The opening words of this novel shatter any hope that this young girl we’re about to read all about could possibly be alive. Lydia was the middle child of Marilyn and James Lee. Marilyn, a typical WASP, wanted desperately to not end up like her mother, a housewife with no aspirations other than raising a family. In the 1960s that meant working harder than her fellow male students and catching a lot of sexist resistance on her way to becoming a doctor. James’ parents came to America from China and had to work day and night to give their son a chance to achieve the American Dream. James constantly faced discrimination growing up and desperately sought to assimilate and just become a typical American, going so far as to plan a career in history (the American West). When James and Marilyn meet in college they find in each other what they’ve been searching for. But having their first child derails Marilyn’s school dreams and she becomes resentful. After the birth of Lydia she promises that her daughter will never have to grow up like she did. Marilyn will push her daughter to academic excellence. James is also determined to see Lydia, the only child to inherit blues eyes, fit in. He wants Lydia to have all the friends he never had.

The problem with all of this is Lydia doesn’t want any of it. The burden of her parents’ gaze is too heavy. After her death, her family struggles to discover why she’d end her life and they reach out in unexpected and devastating ways. Their other children Nathan and Hannah might hold answers that their parents were oblivious to. But can these answers help their family recover from such a tragedy? Are they going to be broken forever?

This book was crazy intense. I could not put it down and I was thoroughly depressed by the end… but in a good way? Ng does a great job shifting between character perspectives and weaving a story that is both haunting and profound. My favorite character was little Hannah. So used to being ignored she has taken to lurking under tables and stealing family possessions that won’t be missed. She’s emotionally attuned to everyone in her family and offers great insight. I highly recommend this title and will admit that it lives up to the hype that surrounds it.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Everything I Never Told You.