Okay for Now

okay for now

I enjoy persuading adult readers to read well-written young adult books. Gary Schmidt’s  book is one I recommend, perhaps even more for older readers than for a middle schooler. It made me snort with laughter and it turned me into a sobbing, sniffing mess.

Doug Swieteck has a lying, blustering, bullying, abusive father. His mom tries to compensate, neutralizing her husband’s venom to the best of her ability within the strictures of 1960’s mores. Doug’s older brothers are plain mean.

I tried to talk to my father about it. But it was a wrong day. Most days are wrong days.

So convincing is Doug’s voice that I could hear it. “Terrific.” “I hate stupid Marysville.” “You know how that felt?” and Doug’s trademark phrase, “I’m not lying.”

Perhaps we’ve all grown up with someone like Doug, a mixture of bravado and vulnerable. Someone outside the family takes an interest and tries to pull that kid up above his/her circumstances. Doug had his share of tormentors, but also four mentors who invested in him.

There are some things in this world that we cannot fix, and they happen, and it is not our fault, though we still might have to deal with them. There are other things that happen in this world that we can fix. And that is what good teachers like me are for.  — Miss Cowper, English teacher

A few things seduced me. One brother is only identified as “my jerk brother.” He is changed by a horrific situation — converted (not religious) — and Doug begins calling him by his name. It is a subtle but significant clue. The smile motif captured me. Pay attention to the smiles.

I listened to the audio version (5 stars for Lincoln Hoppe’s narration–except he mispronounced  Cowper— it’s Cooper), but was compelled to read the words.

And see the pictures. Doug Swieteck’s doorway to a better life comes through John James Audubon’s bird pictures. (The hefty Birds of America was the first gift I gave my husband after we married.) Each chapter is named after an Audubon bird; the audio experienced is diminished without seeing the prints.

There is a broad ranged of interests represented in this book: Audubon, Apollo 11, the Vietnam War, Jane Eyre, Periodic Table, baseball, and Aaron Copland. There is drama, devastation, and unexpected grace. I loved the book. Would a young teen love it?


The Walls of Windy Troy

schliemannsexcavationI’m digging through my shelves, reading children’s books that I never got to when my children were, you know, children. One of them is Marjorie Braymer’s biography of Heinrich Schliemann, The Walls of Windy Troy.

This is a story of the rewards and risks of being an autodidact (self-taught scholar). Schliemann, the son of a German pastor, was nineteen, injured and destitute. He embarked on a ship to Venezuela, survived a shipwreck, and landed in Amsterdam.
Ever since he first heard Homer—music with the cadence and swing of the sea in it, language like the beat of armies surging across grassy plains—he was fired up with a burning desire: to find Troy. When told that Troy wasn’t real, just a story, his resolve hardened.

He needed to make money to fulfill his dream. To be a master of men, one has to master their languages. He picked up Dutch by immersion in the culture, then taught himself Spanish, English, French and Russian.

Soon he was reading English novels, always aloud, always in full voice, without stopping to translate. He had discovered this to be a more efficient system than studying grammar. Words and sounds and meanings made connections in his head, and he gradually got the sense of what he was reading. (emphasis mine)

When he struggled with Russian, he made progress by hiring a Dutch student (who knew no Russian) to listen to him read. That busts me up, but he actually learned enough Russian to move to and work in St. Petersburg. He wanted above all to learn classical Greek, but disciplined himself to learn languages that helped him in business first. After he garnered Greek, he added Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Arabic and Turkish. That accomplishment is dizzying!

002_Schliemann 1890His wealth and international prestige grew to the point that he could travel to Turkey and start digging. Believing in the exactness of Homer’s word, Schliemann chose to ignore received wisdom and broke ground at a site he felt more closely matched Homer’s words.

And, lo, he made epoch discoveries. Did he discover Troy? It’s hard to say. He found layers of civilizations. Initially he made sweeping claims. The science of archeology hadn’t yet been developed; Schliemann’s work destroyed some valuable layers as he dug deeper for Troy. There was not an established protocol for the ownership of the artifacts dug up. He had to learn humility by acknowledging his own errors and asking for help from other scholars. Clearly, his work has added to our knowledge of ancient cultures.

This is an instance where I greatly enjoyed reading a biography written for young adults. For me, this is enough. There are a handful of books by Schliemann and an armload about him, but, in the vernacular of friends declining an offer, ‘I’m good.’

Tamar, a Novel


As with any good mystery, I immediately wanted to re-read Tamar to look for clues and to see the significance which I missed in the first reading.  The 1944-1945 story of two spies for the Dutch resistance, code named Tamar and Dart, is interwoven with the life of a young woman—named Tamar—in 1995 London, attempting to learn her Grandad’s and Gran’s shrouded personal history.

Grandad defends his silence: I happen to think there are certain things that are best left buried, that we should take to our graves with us. Terrible things that we have witnessed. I’m sure you disagree. You belong to a liberated generation; you believe in freedom of information.  Gulp.  This took me back to a moment around a table when I waltzed into our aunt’s memories of growing up in WWII Austria. “What was it like?” I probed, with no clue what my question cost. Aunt Anita was quiet, looked down, gathered herself, and then replied, “Oh, we really don’t want to get into that now.” 

It is hard to write about the narrative without a spoiler. The espionage parts are intense; my muscles tensed while reading them. The nighttime ambush of Nazi SS Lieutenant General Rauter and retaliatory executions is true.   

Some quotes:

It was so damned hard to know what the old man was feeling. He was like one of those office blocks with tinted windows; you could only see in it you happened to look from a certain angle when the light was right. 5

The fear was on him suddenly, like a thin covering of ice over his entire skin. 65

Dart had become so unused to good feelings that he’d acquired the habit of examining them like a careful shopkeeper who’d been paid with a big banknote. 173

The teenaged Tamar finally connects with Grandad through algebra and crossword puzzles.

Grandad taught me that the alien signs and symbols of algebraic equations were not just marks on the paper. They were not flat. They were three-dimensional, and you could approach them from different directions, look at them from different angles, stand them on their heads. You could take them apart, and put them together in a variety of shapes, like Lego. I stopped being afraid of them.

I discovered that Grandad’s world was full of mirages and mazes, of mirrors and misleading signs. He was fascinated by riddles and codes and conundrums and labyrinths, by the origin of place names, by grammar, by slang, by jokes—although he never laughed at them—by anything that might mean something else.

He taught me that language was rubbery, plastic. It wasn’t, as I’d thought, something you just use, but something you can play with. Words were made up of little bits that could be shuffled, turned back to front, remixed. They could be tucked and folded into other words to produce unexpected things. It was like cookery, like alchemy. Language hid more than it revealed.

I’m not an expert in Young Adult fiction, but I question that slot for this book. It tilts strongly adult and not so much young. I have some other quibbles, but to bring them up here would spoil things.

Reading this fiction made me want to read Leo Mark’s non-fiction Between Silk and Cyanide, a book waiting patiently on my TBR shelf. I was delighted the Mal Peet acknowledged this title as very helpful in his research.

I wanted to read this book after reading Sherry’s review at Semicolon. Her Saturday Review of Books is a primary source of good reading!