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review 2020-04-03 22:11
The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom - Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is an excellent writer of journalistic nonfiction, and always picks great topics for books, which is why I’ve read all of them. Unfortunately, the quality of her books seems to me inversely proportional to how much she features herself in them, and The Newcomers falls on the wrong end of that scale. But this book has an even more basic problem, in which Thorpe appears to have committed herself early to a particular premise and clung to it even as it proved increasingly infeasible and even inappropriate.

The premise is that Thorpe spent a year embedded in a Colorado high school classroom in which non-English-speaking students newly arrived in the U.S. learn the fundamentals of the language. Most of these students are refugees, hailing from various war-torn parts of the globe, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia to Central America. Teacher Eddie Williams generously agreed to host her, and Thorpe shows up eagerly to class, hoping to write about the lives of these kids and the circumstances that led them to flee their homelands.

And here’s where the problems start. First, Thorpe was determined to write a book about a group of people, who, by definition, don’t speak her language, and she doesn’t speak theirs. Second, those people are traumatized, confused teenagers, with traumatized or missing parents who understand life in the U.S. no better than their children do. Gradually the book turns into Thorpe pumping for information on the personal lives of people who don’t actually want to share. Even the teacher, her entry point, doesn’t want to go there, which doesn’t stop her from highlighting more than once that he refused to talk about the circumstances of his having a child outside wedlock. (Good grief, it’s the 21st century. This is probably the least interesting thing about him.)

Okay, she can do without the teacher’s inner life. But the students are no more forthcoming, and no wonder. Throughout the book, numerous older students and interpreters, former refugees themselves, advise Thorpe against prying into the kids’ lives: they’re new, they’re traumatized, they’re not ready to discuss their worst experiences with anyone – let alone, one presumes, the general public. But instead of changing the plan and focusing the book on people who were ready, she substitutes by speculating about the kids’ inner lives, or by recounting mundane classroom activities as if they were freighted with deeper meaning than seems evident to me. She notes that when Jakleen, an Iraqi girl who is one of the book’s more prominent characters, started and then stopped wearing a hijab, “I was not sure how to interpret this statement, and she never cared to enlighten me”; when Jakleen stops talking to a boy, it’s “for reasons that remained unclear.” When Methusella, a Congolese boy also prominently featured, makes a collage in group therapy, it’s “one of the few times [he] had revealed himself all year.”

He only actually revealed himself to the school therapist, but she hastened to pass on details of his work’s symbolism to the author, in one of many moments that made me question this story both in terms of consent and storytelling. All but one of the kids agreed to “participate” in her project (perhaps feeling it would have been rude or pointless to refuse, when she was in their classroom every day regardless), but none of them ever tell their stories fully, the way the subjects of Thorpe’s previous books did, leaving their experiences rather opaque. Which means the book loses out on including any more depth than what Thorpe was able to glean by following the teenagers around for awhile, and that most likely all this speculation about their emotions and histories was published without their first having the opportunity to withdraw consent. I’m sure many worthwhile nonfiction books have made their subjects uncomfortable, but it’s one thing to do that to an informed adult, another to an underage refugee with limited English proficiency.

And then there’s just so much of Thorpe in this book. She seems determined to convince readers how important her friendship is to these kids, and to the two families – Jakleen’s and Methusella’s – to whom she becomes a regular visitor. Unfortunately in her interactions with the teens she comes across as stiff and hopelessly middle-aged, and the focus on her own reactions takes away from informing the reader. For instance, when Methusella’s father endeavors to explain the situation in the DRC to her, she writes, “Then we got into an alphabet soup of armed groups . . . I got lost somewhere in the middle, amid the acronyms and all the tribal stuff. I could not absorb all the details, but I came away with the notion of a jumble of allegiances and betrayals, mixed with a lot of weaponry.” Look, lady, I don’t care about your experience of learning about Congolese history. This is supposed to be a book about the refugees, not your memoir.

All that said, this book did engage me. It’s accessible and, especially as we get to know the families, the kids and their parents are very easy to empathize with. I enjoyed spending time with them and wanted the best for all of them. While there’s a ton of fiction and memoirs out there about refugee experiences, there’s much less popular nonfiction, so it’s a great idea for a book. And I learned a bit about the refugee resettlement process from it. The contrast between the Congolese family, which quickly seems to thrive in the U.S., and the Iraqi girls and their widowed mother, all of whom struggle quite a bit, is interesting and vivid. Thorpe’s brief trip to the DRC and meetings with Methusella’s friends and relatives there was a nice touch. But I suspect Thorpe would have produced a far better book if she’d regrouped and written about people willing and able to fully engage in the process, and kept herself out of it.

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review 2020-04-02 21:18
Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard
Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832 - Stella Tillyard

This is a well-researched and engagingly written group biography of four sisters, daughters of a duke and great-granddaughters of King Charles II of England and one of his mistresses. Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox all wrote to each other (and third parties) constantly, leaving a trove of correspondence that the author used as material for this book. Tillyard brings the four of them – and the people and places around them – to life with vivid descriptions, and seems to have a strong handle on the personalities and psychologies of each of the sisters. She also includes a lot of background information on their world where it enhances the story: from everyday details about the dozens of departments involved in the running of an aristocratic household, to background on the Irish Rebellion of 1798, in which Emily’s son Edward Fitzgerald was a leader.

It is a well-told story and makes for much quicker reading that Tillyard’s A Royal Affair, splitting its attention between human feelings and relationships on the one hand, and history on the other. While none of the sisters seem to have contributed much to history in their own right or really stepped out of the roles of wives/mothers/lovers, they did have pretty interesting love lives: one eloped and was temporarily estranged from the family; one began an affair with her children’s tutor and later married him across class lines after her first husband’s death; one was George III’s crush, before hastily getting into an unhappy marriage followed by a public divorce. In her preface, Tillyard emphasizes the intimacy of the sisters’ letters, allowing modern readers to connect with them even across a great gap in time, and this is certainly true.

The subtitle is a little misleading as to the time period, though. About 80% of the book focuses on the period from the 1740s through 1770s; in my edition, it’s not until page 397 out of 426 that we hit the 19th century. A couple of other better publishing decisions might have been made, in that the chapters are way too long and might have been broken up for easier reading, and there’s no family tree, which becomes especially confusing when talking about Emily’s life with her 22 children. Even a list of everyone’s kids with birth and death dates would have been extremely helpful.

I’m also never happy to see a nonfiction author who doesn’t cite the sources of specific facts. I understand that this is original research and the author does list her sources generally in the back, including mostly archival sources. Still.

In the end, I enjoyed reading this book and found it quite interesting, but never found myself with much to say about it. Maybe it’s because it’s largely a domestic history, not too different from stories that could be told about many other families; its four subjects were ultra-wealthy and privileged, but in the end we are reading their story rather than someone else’s simply because they happened to leave more writings behind. Maybe it’s because Tillyard did such a good job bringing her subjects’ personalities to life that, while I enjoyed reading about the sisters’ complex personalities and admired each of them at various points, I ultimately didn’t like them very much; they all come across as rather self-satisfied and entitled in the end. So I didn’t love the book, but I did like it, and it has a lot to recommend it whether your interest is anthropological or escapist.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-04-02 07:01
Book Review: The wicker king K . Ancrum
The Wicker King - K. Ancrum
March 22-April 2

Jack once saved August's life . . . now can August save him?

August is a misfit with a pyro streak and Jack is a golden boy on the varsity rugby team--but their intense friendship goes way back. Jack begins to see increasingly vivid hallucinations that take the form of an elaborate fantasy kingdom creeping into the edges of the real world. With their parents' unreliable behavior, August decides to help Jack the way he always has--on his own. He accepts the visions as reality, even when Jack leads them on a quest to fulfill a dark prophecy.

August and Jack alienate everyone around them as they struggle with their sanity, free falling into the surreal fantasy world that feels made for them. In the end, each one must choose his own truth.

Written in vivid micro-fiction with a stream-of-consciousness feel and multimedia elements, K. Ancrum's The Wicker King touches on themes of mental health and explores a codependent relationship fraught with tension, madness and love.

Review : this book was freaking crazy and I loved it I didn't think I would but I did the relationship between the boys is definitely very toxic I will say . This book is very interesting cause if you read the physical book the pages start out light and then go to black very cool. This book is about Jack and August . Jack sees a world August cant and August will always fallow Jack . Jack is seeing a fantasy world where he is the wicker king and they need to get jack to stop seeing visions and August knows he should take jack somewhere to get help but then they burn down a old toy factory and get sent to a mental hospital Jack had a tumor and he finally stopped seeing visions Jack and August kissed .

I never said I didn’t feel the same,” Jack said harshly. “Just because I don’t see the kingdom doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist,” Jack said furiously. “As long as one of us remembers it, it still counts. We decide the end of the game, not them. Not anyone else. You’re so stupid, August. You’re so stupid and I love you so much.”
Jack kissed him so carefully that August thought he would fall to pieces. Kissed him with the weight of knowing the price of risk. Then he gazed back at August like his heart was already breaking.

It was the same face that Jack had made on the roof, in the middle of the night, when they rolled in the grass, when he sat back with August’s blood and ink on his hands, when his face was lit orange with flames, when he’d opened the door to Rina’s room, when he stared across the gym at the homecoming dance, when he pulled him from the river and breathed him back to life.

Jack had been waiting. He’d been trying. He was scared. There were tears in his eyes and it took August’s breath away.”


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review 2020-04-01 14:00
A Time to Kill ★★★★☆
A Time to Kill - John Grisham

I hadn't read this since it was first published in 1989, and boy has it aged. It's still a pretty good courtroom thriller, and far better than the more recent Grisham books I've tried, but oh boy I had forgotten what the world was like in the 1980's and I wish I wasn't reminded. 


Although Jake is the protagonist here, and the nominal hero, he's no Atticus Finch, crusading for justice. Or at least, Atticus Finch as we know him from Mockingbird. I still try to pretend I never read Watchman. He's self-serving and self-interested, doing his damnedest for his client but not adverse to furthering his own career and reputation. He's mean. He's dismissive toward even the women he admires. He discards people once he's gotten what he wants from them. 


Still, it's a good story, and a savage look at the justice system and the society that maintains it. 


Audiobook, via Audible. Michael Beck's performance is excellent. 

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review 2020-04-01 13:42
A Conjuring of Light ★★★★☆
A Conjuring of Light - V.E. Schwab

The final book in the trilogy was very satisfying, if not quite as compelling as the first. I truly enjoyed this telling of four worlds with four Londons and the battle for magic and dominance and the nature of power and love and identity and duty. 


I appreciated that I could not fully like any of the main characters, but could empathize with them all. I appreciated that most of them remained at least partly a mystery, and that Lila's history is never explained, even to herself. 


Audiobook, borrowed from my public library via Overdrive. Kate Reading did ok with her portions of the narration, but I found Michael Kramer's a little off-putting. I really hate when audiobook publishers use different readers for the different books in the same series. Their interpretation is different, their accents are different, their voices are different. It's jarring. 

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