fin and lady

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In the same conversational style as The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Catherine Schine creates a story about an orphaned boy and his irrepressible fun-loving guardian in New York City – a modern “Mame” – in her short novel, Fin and Lady.

After his mother dies, eleven year-old Fin leaves the comfort of a farm in Connecticut to live with his wealthy half-sister, Lady, in Greenwich Village.  Twenty-three year old Lady, the family black sheep, provides Fin with a reading list, enrolls him in an unconventional bohemian school – the progressive New Flower, and enlists his help in deciding which of three suitors she should marry before she is twenty-five.

Although the plot sounds frivolous, Schine manages to channel the changing times from the sixties through the Vietnam War era, and reveal the insecurities of the main characters as they support each other in navigating their lives.  Supporting characters add humor to the unlikely escapades, some fitting nicely into the stereotypes that Schine uses to skillfully create expectations that never materialize: the Hungarian refugee and art dealer Biffi; the ascot-wearing lawyer Tyler; the Yale-educated Jack; Biffi’s Hungarian mother who hides her jewels in a paper bag of stale cookies; Mabel, Lady’s maid with an attitude.

In addition to the highlights of New York City as Lady tours Fin through the museums, art galleries, shops, and restaurants, Schine offers flowing descriptions of Capri, when Lady escapes to find true love:

“The town was full of steps and alleys. Enormous lemons hung from vines. The beach was tiny, the harbor full of brightly painted boats. There were dolphins one day. The sun was high and hot… Everything seemed enchanted.”

The narrator of this love story is unclear until she is revealed later in the story, and, at times, I found myself backtracking – thinking the author had missed a typo in the narrative – when the mysterious voice intermittently inserts an opinion.  Otherwise, this short read is humorous and disconcerting – a happy ending but a sad life.

Related PostThe Three Weissmanns of Westport

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Ok for Now

How do some kids survive?  In Gary Schmidt’s young adult book OK for Now, eighth grader Doug Swietack successfully uses his grit, curiosity, and artistic talent to battle the abuse, poverty, and intolerance that would bring him down.  In a poignant story that mixes Audobon’s famous reference book, Birds of America, with Joe Pepitone’s Yankees glory, Schmidt will have you cheering as well as crying as Doug grows into himself.

When Doug’s father loses his job, the family moves to Marysville, New York, but Doug has more problems than being the new kid in town.  His father is abusive; he has a reading disability; and his brother is a bully. Schmidt follows Doug through his developing interest in art when he discovers the Audobon book under glass in the local library.   Illustrations of Audobon’s famous birds connect the action, as the librarian instructs Doug in the finer points of sketching.  Schmidt includes copies of the Audobon birds at the beginning of the chapters, and it’s tempting to flip back to study their lines.  When the birds soar, so does Doug’s life; when they drop into the water, Doug’s misadventures seem to follow.  Part of the story includes a quest for restoring the famous book that has had pages sold to fund the town’s needs – snowplows and salaries.

Through Doug’s new Saturday job at the local deli, he meets his future girlfriend and a series of town eccentrics.  The school principal and PE teacher/coach become instant adversaries, but the English teacher who tutors him into literacy and the science teacher who chronicles the Apollo landing on the moon also add to the mix. A constant flow of caring adults helps Doug slowly develops into the kid you’d like to know and want to succeed.

Doug breaks out of the text at key moments to talk to the reader  – “You know what it feels like,” he says – and you do – whether you’re an adult or young adult reader.  The story ends with the promise that Doug will be more than OK – and so will the reader for knowing his story.

Cronkite

With many now getting their news from comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the presence of a respected newsman regularly delivering nightly news may seem an outdated medium, but in his biography – Cronkite – Douglas Brinkley humanizes a legend. The size of this book can be intimidating – over two inches thick, a companion to a good Oxford dictionary, but two sixteen-page inserts of photographs might be a good place to start.

In the first 50 pages – “The Making of a Reporter,” Brinkley touches on Cronkite’s Missouri roots, high school graduation in Houston, the influence of Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas, and young Cronkite’s first love (before meeting his wife). His research delivers scripts from Cronkite’s early radio and sports reporting, foreshadowing a career as “The Most Trusted Man in America.”

The next 5 chapters document Cronkite’s life and career through World War II, the moon landing, the death of President Kennedy, the Vietnam war, and finally “Retirement Blues” at 64 years old. Brinkley conveniently prefaces each chapter with a list of its subtopics, effectively summarizing the key points. As I am reading, I find myself skipping around, looking for topics that interest me – in no particular chronological order. No matter what point in history, Brinkley manages to insert anecdotes about Cronkite that place him not only reporting but also shaping events. Cronkite’s bugging of a political convention room surprised me.

Although written in an easy to digest conversational style, Brinkley’s biography is complete and, subsequently, a long slow read. This history lesson across decades chronicles important events through the life of the newsman who had “accuracy, timeliness, and the trust of the audience.”

I’m enjoying getting to know the man behind the desk, who always looked the same, no matter what his age. As he reminded viewers daily with his signature sign-off,

“And that’s the way it is.”

Inside Out and Back Again

Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts 
our lives will twist inside out…
 
The war is coming
closer to home.
 

A young girl escapes the war in Vietnam in Thanhha Lai’s National Book Award finalist Inside Out & Back Again.  Written in verse, Lai’s poetry follows the escape of a young Vietnamese girl, Hà, from her war-torn homeland to her new home in Alabama.

Lai offers poetic images of the conditions on the escape boat, the rescue by the Americans, the stopover in Guam – poignantly told by a little girl, who is at once angry, afraid, and hopeful as she waits with her family to be sponsored…

“We wait and wait,  but Mother says a possible widow, three boys, and a pouty girl make too huge a family by American standards.”

Hà struggles to acclimate to new surroundings in Alabama with a new language, reciting the rules as she learns verbs and endings – “so this is what dumb feels like” – nothing to the humiliation of being put on display at church by their sponsors.

“No one would believe me..but at times..I would choose..wartime in Saigon..over..peacetime in Alabama.”

Over a year, Hà and her mother become more assertive, determined to not just survive but to reclaim their lives.  Lai’s poetry gives a sharp, focused image to their struggle, as told by an angry fourth-grader, and clearly offers insight into the daily challenges of starting over.