Book Review: The Nickel Boys

I started The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead with low expectations.   Because of my own tastes as a reader, I was not as awed as the rest of the world by his 2016 bestseller, The Underground Railroad.  I could not completely buy into Whitehead’s magical realism and his fantastical vision of an actual railroad, secretly operating underground, freeing slaves. For better or worse, my feet are firmly planted in the historical fiction camp.

And for this reason, The Nickel Boys completely blew me away.  It is an amazing documentation of the atrocities endured by the students at a real-life “reform school,” the Dozier School for Boys, which was operated by the state of Florida for over 100 years until it closed in 2011. (A University of South Florida investigation discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by December of 2012, and has continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March 2019.)  

Whitehead’s re-creation of the school and the segregated south that gave rise to it is thoroughly researched; he presents what he learned through the story and relationships of a fictional character, Elwood Curtis.  As Elwood tries to attend his first day of college, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets accused of stealing a car.  He is sent away to become a “Nickel Boy” at the Nickel Academy, where he must endure sadistic treatment beyond imagining.  

He endures nonetheless, trying to live by the words and teachings of Martin Luther King, which he was exposed to by the strict grandmother who raised him. Despite everything that happens to him while he is at the school, he persists in his belief that he “is as good as anyone.”  His best friend Turner is more the skeptic; he tries his best to protect Elwood from his innocent idealism and its inevitable, sometimes tragic consequences.

No spoilers here, but when I finished the book (in one sitting, on a plane), I was gobsmacked. The Nickel Boys is a totally engaging narrative that shines a light on the physical and emotional scars of racism inflicted by institutions of the Jim Crow south. Within this framework, Whitehead creates truly believable and human characters; he weaves them into a surprising and moving story about friendship, loyalty, and regret.

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Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

Book Review: Priestdaddy: A Memoir

For the only time that I can remember, I finished a book, turned to the title page, and read it again. Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy: A Memoir is that good: witty, perceptive, and crafted. She’s a poet, and it shows, the imagery and the diction are that vibrant.

Priestdaddy is the story of a warm, weird family and the nine months that Lockwood and her husband lived with her parents, after more than a decade on her own. Her father received a dispensation from the Vatican to be ordained when Lockwood and her siblings were children. Sharing the rectory are her blunt, punny mother and a young seminarian with a good sense of humor. He needs it.

Greg Lockwood is larger than life. He collects electric guitars and regularly retreats to his room to pick out “The Riff.” In the sanctity of the rectory, he foreswears pants and strip to boxers, no matter what.

Lockwood took notes during her visit; the result is verbatim dialogue so outrageous it had me shaking with laughter. She also flashes back to events form her childhood and adolescence that shaped her, and she traces her development as a poet. The tone she establishes is a rare one — simultaneously light and dark.

I’ve already ordered Patricia Lockwood’s two poetry collections. I want to read everything she writes.

Review Nancie, one of our volunteer shelvers.

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Book Review: What to Do When I’m Gone

What to Do When I’m Gone is a collaboration of wisdom shared between a mother and her daughter in a graphic novel format. Suzy Hopkins, a former newspaper reporter, explores the topic of death and offers advice to her daughter about living. Her daughter, Hallie Bateman, is an illustrator and author, and provides the heartfelt drawings for each daily dose of advice.

“Day 5,500: Ask questions. We’re here to look for answers. It’s not that you’re going to find them – it’s that you’re striving to find them.” Through this book, Hopkins provides an instructional manual about learning how to live without your mother. It is powerful, funny, and earnest. I was moved to remember that no matter how alone we feel we are in this world, we can find solace in each other and the memories that remain. This book is guaranteed to make you smile, relax, contemplate, and, inevitably, to cook for others.

Review by Katy Dodge, Head of Children’s Services

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In Memoriam: Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Book Review: Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara

Even fashion icons start out little and have big dreams! Coco Chanel challenged and changed the way women wear clothes forever. Follow the career of the infamous Coco Chanel, born Gabrielle Chanel in a charity hospital in France. As she grew up, she sewed by day and sang at night. People in the audience called her “Coco.”

This lively children’s book explores Chanel’s career as a seamstress, hat-maker, cabaret-singer, and finally, as the world’s most famous fashion designer. The illustrations by Ana Albero are colorful, stylish, and appealing. Little People, BIG DREAMS is a series that sends empowering messages to readers about growing up and pursuing your passions. 

Book Review: Three Little Words

Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

This amazing and epic tale begins as Ashley is being taken from her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, along with her half-brother Alex.  “Sunshine,” her mother says, “You must mind the one taking care of you, but she’s not your mama.”  Thus, the stage is set for years and years of yearning for mother, of setups and disappointments, mother’s drug problems, her unstable living situations, mother disappearing and reappearing for just long enough to deliver an Easy-Bake Oven, and then disappearing again.  Ashley is pushed and pulled and abruptly taken from 14 living situations in nine years.  She is taken in by family, the family loses her because of the grandfather’s behavior, she is placed in homes, then moved due to paperwork errors, then returned to homes, then moved on.  Sometimes she doesn’t even know why.  She is in good situations, okay situations, overcrowded situations, and abusive situations.  She meets well-meaning social workers, therapists, family therapists, doctors, and then finally a guardian ad litem who digs through it all to save her.

I warn you: this book will make you mad.  It may make you furious.  It will also make your eyes open to the conditions in some foster homes.  It will also, I hope, make you hopeful that survivors like Ashley are present in the world and will teach us how to survive the most overwhelming adversities.

Book Review: Inspector John Madden Series

Rennie Airth, born in South Africa but now a resident of Italy, began the Inspector John Madden series in 1999 with River of Darkness. The novel was inspired by his uncle, a soldier in World War I. The crime the Scotland Yard detective takes on is set in rural England in the postwar years. A survivor of the trenches of the war himself, Inspector Madden suffers from what was then called ‘shellshock,’ and this informs the investigation that follows the horrific crime in the small village in Surrey. The mystery is well-written and includes a host of flawed characters who can also rise to a moral challenge when confronted.  Airth also introduces Dr. Helen Blackwell, the local GP, who assists Madden with the forensics of the investigation and becomes his romantic companion in the process.

The language Airth uses can be graphic at times and readers my wish to know this in advance. I have read the first five of Airth’s Madden series and enjoyed each one. I am looking forward to reading the sixth installment which will be published next January. It is important to read this series in order as there are significant details which carry forward into the next book. Patten Free Library owns all the available titles with exception of The Reckoning,which is available at other Maine libraries and can be requested through interlibrary loan.

The Inspector John Madden series (click title to request a copy):

River of Darkness

The Blood-Dimmed Tide

The Dead of Winter

The Reckoning

The Death of Kings

The Decent Inn Of Death (to be published January 2020)

Review by Mary Ellen Wilson, Interlibrary Loan Coordinator.

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

If you like to get to know people by asking them about their favorite books, read this. Take it to the beach and devour it in an afternoon; revel in its tidy celebrations of the transformative power of love and the power of a good book.

A.J. Fikry owns a struggling independent book store on (fictional) Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. His wife has died in a car accident. His grief has isolated him, made him drink too much red wine, and hardened his sharp edges.

He is a bit of a book snob. Princeton educated, Fikry doesn’t just stock any old book in Island Books (“No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World”). When he meets Amelia, the new, young, and idealistic (yes, eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep on her first trip to Alice Island, he is pressed to share this litany of his old-fashioned sensibilities:

“I do not like postmodernism, post­apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.”

Two tipping points of the story follow this painful and awkward first encounter with Amelia: a rare first edition of Poe poems is stolen from the bookstore; and then, a mystery package is left there, and Fikry must contend with it. These two events are the starting points for his new path forward.

I loved the way that Zevin starts each chapter with one of Fikry’s bookstore “shelf reviews.” These are just as enjoyable as the plot itself; they reflect his changing literary sensibilities and emotional changes as he let go of his grief and allows love back in to his life. Zevin skillfully makes books and stories an integral part of this transformation.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Explosion

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Explosion is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the tragedy of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant explosion in 1986 from the perspective of those who suffered the greatest. Author Svetlana Alexievich traveled around Russia in the regions close to Chernobyl and gathered the stories of those who worked there, residents of the neighboring towns, and family members of the first responders. It is both tragic and enlightening.

The book starts with the story of the wife of a firefighter who was in the first group responding to the explosion, a gut-wrenching tale of how unprepared they were heading into Chernobyl and the tragic death by radiation that eventually killed them all. The gravity of the situation is palpable in her words as she recalls how she sneaked into the ward where her husband lay dying, and how she cared for him every day, even though she was pregnant and his radiation exposure made him toxic. Hers is only one story of many of how this tragedy rippled through Russia and exposed the harsh truth about the government’s blatant attempt to cover it up.

Each story tells a different angle of the tragedy. Alexievich is barely visible in the book as she lets the people share how Chernobyl affected them, and the country as a whole. Although difficult to stomach at times, Voices from Chernobyl is something everyone should read. I kept trying to put it down, the stories too heart wrenching and raw, but I felt it was my duty to read every word to honor the lives lost and affected by this tragedy. If you are only vaguely aware of what happened in Chernobyl, read this book for the truth behind the explosion, and the reality of the aftermath. Within these pages and these stories the truth is laid bare. In 2015 Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her dedication to telling the oral histories of the people of Russia.

Book Review: Economix: How our economy works (and doesn’t work) in words and pictures by Michael Goodwin, illustrated by Dan E. Burr

I cannot for the life of me believe how much I enjoyed this book!  Who would have believed that a book about the economy could offer entertainment and even humor?  That I would look forward to picking off a chapter every night, and learn so much about such a “dry” subject?  That I would find comfort in understanding just why millions of Americans in the middle class find themselves struggling? 

This book follows the American economy and economic forces from before America even existed up until modern times, including the market crash.  It uses drawings to represent forces such as corporate interests, the poor, different parties (the familiar donkey and elephant), and such so that the ideas are easier to understand.  In particular, the interaction of the drawings makes the interaction of the forces easier to understand.  The book excels at showing how rules and regulations from various players in the global market (represented by distinct caricatures) affect other players and forces, including, of course, the consumer.  The book does NOT rely heavily on graphs and numbers, but instead relies on scenarios to show what happened at what time.  I would recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves subject to the forces of the economy – which is everyone, if you’re counting. 

Review by Andrea Terry, Circulation Assistant

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