Book Reviews

What are your “greatest hits?” What are the best moments of your life that you would like to relive over and over and over again? You might have a few that pop directly to the surface, or you might have an oddball moment that came out of nowhere.

This is what it’s like for Samantha Kingston as she dies tragically in a car accident at the age 17. Instead of her life flashing before her eyes, she remembers an odd day from middle school. But instead of going peacefully, Sam wakes up to relive her last day on this earth over and over and over again. Would you do anything differently if you had another chance?

In Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, Sam tries to fix the mistakes she made on the last day of her life, hoping it will change her fate.

By her own account, Samantha is your typical, snotty, popular, self-absorbed teenager. Many girls in her high school are jealous of her attractive boyfriend, her best friends are just as popular and snotty, and she gets away with whatever she wants.

Aunt Polly

For a brief shining moment in the spring of 1969, I was Aunt Polly. The 8th grade class of St. Peter’s enacted a little play based on some scenes from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We all got to choose parts, and I petitioned long and hard (it seemed so, for there was heavy resistance) for the part of Aunt Polly.

Who in their right mind would want to be Aunt Polly, you might ask, and me a boy as well?

But I looked on it as a challenge – could I, a 12 year old boy, bring off this crotchety old maid? I felt I was up to the challenge. Besides, I had the outfit already. On the Halloween prior, I decided that I wasn’t going to get dressed up in any of the more typical outfits – superheroes, skeletons, ghosts, the characters in the YMCA song – no, I was going to paint Dorchester, MA, red as an old woman.

And so, when it was announced that we were going to perform some scenes based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I figured, “I got the outfit, I’m gonna play the part of Aunt Polly.” As it turned out, I had no such aunt, and my mother had nothing about Aunt Polly about her, but Sr. Joseph Helen, our 8th grade teacher, known to all the students as “Jake” had a lot of Aunt Polly about her, and so I modeled myself on “Jake” and tried to channel Aunt Polly, with a little Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert thrown in.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth book cover

In The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins recounts the lives of six high school students and one new teacher. It's hard to decide which one of the students I grew most fond of: Danielle, the loner; Noah, the band geek; Eli, the nerd; Joy, the new girl; Blue, the gamer; Whitney, the “popular bitch;” or Regan, the weird girl.

Each one, in his or her own way, is a smart and creative individual. With passion for their interests and strong inner feelings, these seven individuals have much to offer.

But in spite of, or maybe because of their talents and individualism, they exist in the “cafeteria fringe.” Even Whitney, who is part of the in-crowd, feels that she has to continually prove herself and fights daily to keep her spot in the party car.

At times I was shocked at the cruelty with which kids treat each other. For years, shy and quiet Danielle has yearned for friendship only to be continually rebuffed. Having just about given up, she is begged by several kids to join a club. Danielle is hesitant, but could not say no to what she thought was a gesture of friendship. Only after she joins is she informed that it's a "hate Danielle" club. She is duped into becoming a member of a club formed to hate her.

One of my favorite quotes is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That statement from Faulkner’s 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, could be said of all of Faulkner’s writing, and for Absalom, Absalom! (1936) especially.

Oh, Tom Sawyer! Rascal, liar, ladies-boy, wicked heathen … be still my heart. I can still remember my very first encounter with Tom – from my much loved collection of Great Illustrated Classics (my first personal library, maybe?).

I can still picture the cover – Tom strolling regally down the road, barefooted, fishing pole in hand, behind the gingham-clad, blushing Becky Thatcher, steamboat in the background.

Nothing may have influenced my childhood more than the time spent poring over Tom’s adventures. It may even be the first chapter book I put my mind to. Well, that, or The Baby-sitters Club.

Still. Tom and Becky, Injun Joe, Amy Lawrence, Huck, Aunt Polly – from childhood, my conception of classic Americana owes a great debt to these characters. Every woman in a high collar and bun could be a Polly; every straw-hatted little boy becomes Tom. They inform my perception of everything from the idea of running away from home to roadside attractions (for who but a Tom-like character could conceive of charging $13.50 a carload to see giant cement busts of presidents?).

Having lived in the midwest for more than 10 years, I haven’t given much thought to our country’s borders or the people who reside near them. DiAnn Mills’ new suspense fiction, Sworn to Protect, gives an interesting look into the southernmost areas of the U.S. and the profession that works to keep the borders safe.

Set in McAllen, Texas, this page-turner opens with a dangerous operation that takes place near the Rio Grande, a river that serves as the Mexico-United States border. While on duty preventing illegal human and drug trafficking, U.S. Border Patrol agent Danika Morales recalls a dreadful event that happened two years ago: her husband, Toby, was murdered, and his body was left beside an obscure road. The crime went unresolved.

The unseen offender is now stalking her, aiming to end her life and destroy her family. As a single mother, Danika is concerned about her deaf little girl, Tiana, and Tiana’s nanny and family’s housekeeper, Sandra Rodriguez.

Bring on the blood oaths, the pirates' island, the foul play, mischief, buried treasure, Becky Thatcher, Huckleberry Finn, and Injun Joe. Bring on The Big Read!

Each week here on KC Unbound during this most festive of reading seasons, we'll be posting recaps of four(-ish) chapters of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, along with insight and commentary. And we want you to join in!

Before we get started, do you have the book? No? Hey, these aren't the CliffsNotes, pal. The Kansas City Public Library has 500 brand-new Penguin Classics editions of Mark Twain’s classic in circulation. Surely you can find one. Or, if you prefer to e-read, you can get a free digital edition through our website. Just follow these instructions.

As we all know, The Big Read is a community-wide reading celebration featuring a diverse range of free public programming aimed at connecting people together over a great book. Be sure to keep up with all the great special events, book discussions, reading podcasts, and get info about KC Ballet’s sure-to-be-amazing production of Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts – it’s all at kcbigread.org.

Rossi

I confess, I picked up Portia de Rossi’s memoir, Unbearable Lightness, for the title. The blurbs on the back were by some of my favorite authors, a plus. A quick scan of the inside jacket was enough to convince me to give it a try (I don’t like to read the whole blurb because I don’t want to know the ending).

I’m not big into television or celebrity goings-on, so it wasn’t until the last 50 pages of the book that I realized (don’t laugh), that’s where I know Portia from!

Which, for me, made the book that much better.

Portia tells her story in meticulous detail, without any judgment or self-pity. With gut-wrenching honesty, she is able to say: This is who I was. This is who I am. These are the things that make me, me. I am defined only by myself.

Her approach to her life is bold and fierce, but in writing about it, she is gentle. She writes simply and honestly about the people, things and experiences that make her who she is. Her journey is about gaining the ability and the strength to face her vulnerabilities.

ReadyMade

Tired of the same old crafts? Feel ho-hum about textiles or beads? Well, how about giving duct tape a try?  In Ductigami: The Art of the Tape, author Joe Wilson shows how to cut, rip, and fold duct tape to make objects such as wallets, aprons, tool belts, lunchboxes, Halloween masks, and more.

And now that duct tape comes in designer colors, as well as a transparent version, you can let your imagination get as sticky as it wants! Not just for NASA missions anymore, duct tape aficionados have formed clubs and sponsored competitions. Red Green, of the PBS syndicated The Red Green Show understands: “Spare the duct tape, spoil the job.” Duct tape crafters might also want to take a look at Stick It!: 99 D.I.Y. Duct Tape Projects, by T.L. Bonaddio. 

Here are some other titles you might want to check out in pursuit of the different:

Free-speech advocate, Hustler magazine magnate, and campaigner against political hypocrisy, Larry Flynt teams up with Columbia University professor David Eisenbach, Ph.D. in One Nation Under Sex, to shed light on how the private lives of America’s political leaders have shaped American history.

It’s said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Flynt and Eisenbach’s substantial, well-researched tome on the history of sex and sexuality in American politics proves that point early on with the case of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

The Secretary of the Treasury’s affair with Maria Reynolds quickly became complicated when her husband James Reynolds asked for a well-paid government job. After James learned of the affair with his wife, Hamilton found himself regularly paying “loans” to the couple and keeping up an affair that had long since fizzled to avoid being exposed.

Kansas City and its surrounding lands have inspired – and starred in – some fine fiction. Some of the authors in this roundup of locally grown novels disguise their native habitat, while others name it outright. Still other authors call KC home and drop their characters in foreign lands or challenging moral situations.

Readers who dip into the works of our local literati will not be disappointed and will be proud to say, “I know this place!” or “This author lives HERE!”

Dust off your spurs, slap on your chaps and saddle up your favorite reading chair to enjoy Patrick deWitt’s gritty and darkly amusing new western, The Sisters Brothers.

Set in 1851 in Oregon and California, The Sisters Brothers tells the dusty, violent tale of Eli and Charlie Sisters, sibling henchmen for a mysterious and wealthy man known only as The Commodore. Their mission is to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a strange little man who possesses a mysterious formula wanted by The Commodore, and who was last seen behaving bizarrely on his gold claim outside of Sacramento.  

From Oregon City, Eli and Charlie set out on an unexpectedly life-altering journey across the western frontier to find and dispose of Warm. Along the way, the outlaw brothers instigate shootouts, prowl saloons, meet unique characters, and put themselves in settings and situations common in traditional western stories. 

At first glance, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen isn’t exactly a book that brings to mind toe-tapping, rollicking good fun. The cover portrays the skeleton of a dinosaur, and the margins of the book contain all types of diagrams, maps and charts that you must read to fully comprehend the story. 

The author has designed the book in a way that requires you to experience the world of his main character and narrator, T.S. Spivet, through his words and his science. This is a great concept, considering T.S. Spivet is an aspiring cartographer who synthesizes the world through the maps that he creates. However, while a great concept, it is an eccentric flair that often makes for an arduous reading experience.

Yet, surprisingly, I would not have removed any of the maps or sub-text. The maps and sub-texts do exactly what they are intended to do; they help you understand how Spivet sees and feels about the world around him. The maps also make you realize that there are limits to what science can explain. (For examples of what they look like, check out the book’s interactive website.)

Wicked Girls

Many of us are familiar with the story of the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, a group of young girls accused several men and women in Salem Village, Mass., of being witches. The girls appeared to be equipped with a special gift for identifying witches, but what were these teenagers really like? 

Were they really tortured by unseen witches and saving the town from the devil?  Or were they merely unhappy teenage girls thriving on attention? In Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials, Stephanie Hemphill presents a fictionalized account of the events in Salem from the perspective of the young girls who accused so many.

The girls in Salem Village are often treated with disregard, if paid any attention at all.  Ann, Mercy, Margaret, Abigail, Betty, Elizabeth, and Susannah, all have interesting relationships. Ann and Margaret are cousins, Mercy is a servant in Ann’s household, and Betty is the Reverend’s daughter. They range in age from 8 to 17 years old, yet they are all looking for new games to play, new things to learn, and interesting ways to pass the time. 

Eugene O'Neill by Alice Boughton, Library of Congress

Hooray for the Summer of 1912!  For that summer gave us two of the greatest tragedies written in English: The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, both by Eugene O’Neill. That said, O’Neill wrote neither play in 1912, nor was either produced in that year. 

Long Day’s Journey into Night wasn’t produced until 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death. O’Neill had requested that there be no staging of the play until he had been dead 25 years, but his wife had other ideas, and so the play opened on Broadway 22 years earlier than O’Neill had expected.

But what’s all this about 1912? The dramatic date of both plays is 1912 (Iceman is set sometime in that summer and Journey more specifically in August of that year). And that year is significant for O’Neill himself, for in the first half of ‘12, O’Neill hit bottom in a dive very much like the setting of The Iceman Cometh, and later that year, as he vacationed with his parents and elder brother in Connecticut, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and entered a sanatorium, which is exactly what happens to Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey

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