Posts tagged ‘Autobiography’

Rise

Rise.jpgTitle: Rise: How a House Built a Family
Author: Cara Brookins
ISBN: 9781250095664
Pages: 310 pages
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Press, c2017

Pouring the house’s footing had been a wake-up call. Not only was the project a million times more difficult than I had imagined, but it was a mere metaphor for what I really needed to do. I had fooled myself into believing that building a physical house was the same as rebuilding our family. While we might still use the physical build to accomplish the personal one, they were two distinctly different creatures and required individual diets. I felt enormously out of my league in both cases, like I’d adopted a Saint Bernard and an elephant. (92-93)

Cara Brookins and her four children suffered from her marriages, first to a man suffering from delusions and schizophrenia and then to an abuser. Both were scary in their own right, leaving everyone in the family, including the dog, jumping at shadows, looking behind their shoulders, and checking the locks on their doors. Intent on making new memories and helping her kids and herself, Cara pursues a piece of land, a construction loan, and a nine month timeline to build a new house, and hopefully a new home for her family. With no experience, knowledge, or free-time due to school, work, and chores, even they realize the impossible task they have created for themselves.

Even though I laughed over the image of the kids and me as a construction team, I liked the idea a lot. Sure, it was a little nuts, but it was the first workable plan I’d come up with that fit our limited finances. We could do it. I knew we could. Building a house would prove we were strong. It would prove that despite my stupidity in staying with idiots for so long, I was still intelligent. It would prove so many things–most of all that we were alive. (22)

Several of the reviews mention that Cara embarked on this effort due to financial necessity, but if that was mentioned I didn’t catch it. Instead, she stresses repeatedly the need for a safe harbor, a place where ghosts wouldn’t plague their fragile state of mind. In alternating chapters, she jumps from flashbacks focusing on two of her unsuccessful marriages (briefly touching upon her first marriage to an unnamed high school sweetheart) to an accounting of the nine months it took to raise the house from nothing. The flashbacks are graphically detailed, and the fear the whole family felt is palpable when they are chased in a car by the schizophrenic ex-husband and their dog is abused when left alone at the house. It’s psychological warfare, whereas the third husband is physically abusive towards Cara.

The actual build is composed of delays, setbacks, and uncertainties. Things get slightly repetitive, and the addition of pictures and diagrams might have aided in the explanation of how the walls were raise, the pipes were laid, or the electric wires were strung. That was when I felt most invested in that part of the story, like when she discusses how she rationalized the choice of piping, or what they had to do to make the waterlogged wood work. The enterprise began in 2009, when YouTube was in its infancy and there were no smart phones, which makes it all the more impressive.

It’s impossible to not be awed by her tenacity, but I do wonder about the children, who Cara frankly admits do not get to experience a true childhood during that time frame as they slog through mud, slinging studs and sand around. There are benefits in their pursuit, as they all gain valuable skills and confidence and come together as a family. For those who might be inspired to follow her pursuit, she might have included a timeline or list of resources. I’m a huge fan of triumphant underdog stories, and while it does leave me wondering what I could accomplish if I committed to a goal like Cara and her family, I certainly don’t have the confidence (or is it naivety?) to attempt it by myself.

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.jpgTitle: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition)
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
ISBN: 9780803740808
Pages: 293 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of the Penguin Group LLC, c2015

Many of you have probably been saying, “But doesn’t everyone have electricity?” It’s true that most people in Europe and America are lucky to have lights whenever they want them, plus things like air-conditioning and microwave ovens. But in Africa, we’re not so lucky. In fact, only about eight percent of Malawians have electricity in their homes, and most of them live in the city.
Not having electricity meant that I couldn’t do anything at night. I couldn’t read or finish my radio repairs. I couldn’t do my homework or study for school. No watching television. It also meant that when I walked outside to the toilet, I couldn’t see the big spiders or roaches that liked to play in the latrine at night. I only felt them crunch under my bare feet.
Whenever the sun went down, most people stopped what they were doing, brushed their teeth, and went straight to bed. Not at ten p.m., of even nine o’clock–but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, most of Africa. (54)

William Kamkwamba was born into a family of six sisters, located in a tiny village in the heart of the African country of Malawi.He spent his time studying for school, helping his family maintain their farm, and fixing radios in his spare time. When he was 13, tragedy struck as a drought swept the country, and with it extreme shortages of food and starvation. With no money for school and no crops to tend at the farm, William started spending time at the library. It was there he discovered the power of windmills, and the idea that a windmill could pump water from the well, fertilize their crops, and provide them with free electricity. He spent the next year teaching himself and collecting and buying scrap metal, including a rusty bicycle, a tractor fan, and a shock absorber. But would a teenager who barely passed middle school be able to design and assemble these pieces and parts together and make something?

This is an uplifting true story about the power of engineering, ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. William didn’t know about electricity when he first started taking apart and putting back together radios, but he wasn’t afraid to learn. After dropping out of school due to lack of funds, William tries valiantly to stay on top of his studies so he can rejoin the class next year. He copies his friend’s notes and visits the library often, which he describes in great detail. I can picture the dusty shelves stuffed haphazardly with books that libraries here in America probably discarded because they were out of date or didn’t have colored pictures, but their information is still relevant enough to get William the information he needs.

Anything he can’t find he’s willing to work to acquire. He pleads with this father to have the broken family bicycle. In order to pay for the services of a welder, he stacks firewood for hours to get enough money. When he needed washers, he collected bottle caps, pounded them flat, and hammered a hole into the center. It’s inspiring to think that this young man who so many would see as disadvantaged could do something so extraordinary that it would capture the public’s attention.While the book includes color photographs of his family and invention, it would have been nice and more enlightening if the book had included diagrams of his innovation. The descriptions are very detailed and paired with a picture you get an idea, but for children wanting to duplicate his efforts they may need to mimic his methods and do some more research.

William’s family is disadvantaged, and he recognizes it, but it doesn’t impact his happiness. He doesn’t complain about using the latrine or lacking running water or electricity, only bringing up these details to better explain his situation, not try to excuse it. Overall he has a relatively happy life, with friends and games and free time to pursue his passion, even if that happens to be electrical engineering. In American he’d probably be playing with Lego Mindstorms instead of old radios. It’s important for readers, especially here in the United States, to understand his circumstances and the uniqueness of his accomplishment, and that he had to improvise with what he had instead of purchasing something he needed. The scenes of famine are heart-wrenching, but not sensationalized, and I think every reader will grow teary-eyed at the matter-of-fact telling of the situation with his dog and the medical maladies that fall on William and his friends. It’s one thing to say that African nations are poor or undeveloped or suffering from a famine, but it’s quite different to read about it through the eyes of a child who experienced it and brings those feelings to life.

Rather than stay in American after college, it’s also unique to see that William wants to return to his country and work on projects for Africa, in Africa, and run by Africans. He doesn’t disparage his country or community, and wants to help it thrive by building on what is there, instead of changing it culturally or Americanizing it. Ending this blog post in the same way Kamkwamba ends his autobiography, hopefully his story will inspire others.

Often people with the best ideas face the greatest challenges–their country at war; a lack of money or education or the support of those around them. But like me, they choose to stay focused because that dream–as far away as it seems–is the truest and most hopeful thing they have. Think of your dreams and ideas as tiny miracle machines inside you that no one can touch. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take you with them. (290)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings

Enchanted Air.jpgTitle: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
Author: Margarita Engle
ISBN: 9781481435222
Pages: 192 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

In one country, I hear the sweet words of another.
Dulce de leche means sweet of milk.
Guarapo is sugarcane juice.

At home in California, when I speak
boastful English, I can say that I fly,
but when I make the same claim in Spanish,
I have to say: voy por avion
I go by airplane

Two countries.
Two families.
Two sets of words.

Am I free to need both,
or will I always have to choose
only one way
of thinking? (13)

Margarita’s mother is from Cuba, and her father’s family is Ukraine. For a while they travel from Cuba to the United States and back, visiting family and a whole new culture and world in Cuba. But then conflicts between her two homes flare, and her family is unable to travel back to Cuba. In the beginning, her family is observed and questioned, but as the hostility continues Margarita can’t understand the animosity present, and how her fellow Americans are uneducated and unaffected, since she is privy to a wholly different perspective.

This is another book I have a hard time envisioning recommending to someone unless they had a special interest in autobiographies, prejudices, and the Cuban/American tensions. The word choices and verses are powerfully brief in nature, and fans of Brown Girl Dreaming may also enjoy this novel. But this is essentially a travelogue without any travel. Starting with some prettily portrayed trips, the second half details the prejudice and trials that the family faces. Instead, she waxes reflectively on idealized travels to Cuba in her childhood, where she rides horses with her cousins and juxtaposes them with the horrors of a closed Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion. It’s an eye-opening portrayal and certainly one that is relevant in the recent reopening of relations with Cuba by President Barack Obama, but not one that is discussed in-depth in schools, a disparity that is ironically addressed in the book itself and will impact and contribute to its obscurity. I can’t end this review without commenting that the cover is horrible, with a symbolic dove overlaid by half an illustrated face, and not at all appealing.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

 

El Deafo

El DeafoTitle: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Color: David Lasky
ISBN: 9781419710209
Pages: 242 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, c2014.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2015)

I wake up every morning happy and relieved to be home. I stay close to Mama, no matter where she is. But suddenly, I lose her. Where is she? I call out but she doesn’t answer me! When I finally find her, I know that everything is different. I think she knows it, too. I can’t hear. (11-12)

As a result of meningitis when she was four, Cece spent some time in the hospital. When she got back home, her parents and her realized that there was something wrong. She had become deaf. After being fit with hearing aids, Cece attends a special school to adapt to her lost hearing, but a family move means she leaves behind the welcoming environment. A new school means she needs to adapt to kids not understanding what the hearing aids do and how to react and interact with her.

The idea of portraying the people as bunnies was an inspired choice on the author’s part. Deafness seems more pronounced when exhibited by an animal with such pronounced ears, and that makes real the anxiety that the author feels when trying to hide her defining characteristic. I had a classmate with a similar hearing device that Cece wears and uses in school, and it’s interesting to see the world from that perspective. Cece’s reluctance to learn sign language was surprising to me, but her reasoning makes sense. She is trying so hard to not appear different that she is isolating herself because she can’t change her differences. It’s when she finally embraces her differences and uses them to the class’s advantage (like a super power) that she makes friends. But honestly, I’m glad she made friends like Martha, who didn’t care about her hearing aids, either as a positive super power or a negative disability.

Most of the feelings of acceptance are universal, they are simply amplified by Cece’s difference. Fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will probably enjoy this graphic novel with a similar story line. These books are important to have to teach acceptance to children and share unique perspectives, but some may be turned off by the continued emphasis of the differences and the primary role they play in the plot.

The Dumbest Idea Ever

Dumbest Idea EverTitle: The Dumbest Idea Ever
Author: Jimmy Gownley
ISBN: 9780545453462
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014.

“I have tons of notebooks filled with drawings…
… but nothing I do looks right.
I wish this dumb town has a place where I could take art lessons. Or an art store where I could get decent supplies. Or at least had…
… I don’t know…
… at least something.
The truth is, Girardville is just a slate-gray scramble of row houses and rocks plopped in the middle of Pennsylvania’s coal region. It’s home to six churches…
… seventeen bars…
…zero libraries…
… and me. (10-12)

Author of the Amelia Rules graphic novels presents an autobiographical account of his coming of age and becoming an artist. Jimmy Gownley is on the top of the world, attending school with his friends, and scoring points both in the classroom and on the basketball court as their high scorer. After spending weeks out of school and missing his championship basketball game (his team loses in the final minute) due to first chicken pox and then pneumonia, Jimmy’s grades start slipping. But Jimmy is more concerned working for months on his first effort as a comic book writer and illustrator. When he shows it to his friend though, he realizes that his piece of art is a piece of junk. Will he ever get anything right again?

At the local elementary school where I work, each student has a yearlong assignment to read a set number of books of different genres. While some teachers leave biographies as a vague category, others specify one must be an autobiography, which is one of the hardest genres for that age level because so many autobiographies cover the entire life of the subject. Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands , John Scieszka’s Knuckleheads, Miley Cyrus’s Miles to Go and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Girl are the ones that immediately come to mind, and after that we have to do some real digging. So this is a must buy in my opinion for public libraries because it adds another title to the autobiography list, it is less serious in tone, and it meets that ever elusive over 100 pages criteria that is usually implemented for book reports.

If you are at all familiar with the Amelia Rules series, you’ll recognize the artwork and color scheme, but author Gownley adds something to it. When character Jimmy is sick, the illustrations turn gray and washed out, and they don’t turn bright and bold again until he enters the comic book shop for the first time, resulting in a Oz like page turn when the curtain is pulled back in a colorful landscape of possibilities. During a visit to a museum, the characters interact with famous paintings that are imitated really well. A flashback sequence featuring a childhood friend is rendered like the old Archie comics, with beige-yellow backgrounds interacting with the present day scenes. It’s done really well.

Jimmy is relatable to just about everyone. His teachers misunderstand him and he struggles with his first crush. He has one best friend who is honest with him and he also has several friends that he interacts with that rotate in and out of his life. There’s homework that doesn’t get done and class discussions that get heated. Towards the end of the novel, Jimmy and his friend are having a conversation about his comic that struck me as great advice.
“You’re not trying to get rich! There’s no way that’s why you’re doing this.”
“Well, no… of course not.”
“Then don’t pretend like it is.” (233)
If you’re doing what you love doing, isn’t it enough? As people are pursuing their life goals and ambitions, they should think about why they are doing something and try to accomplish that, not try to accomplish something they know won’t result from those efforts.

The only complaint is that while the characters noticeably age and grow, the actual amount of time passing is a little foggy. The story starts in what appears to be eighth grade, they move into high school. There are at least two summers that get glazed over pretty quickly as working vacations that Jimmy spends crafting his comic strip. Then suddenly Jimmy is attending the prom, but he’s still asking his dad for a ride to the comic book store over an hour away. Other than that though, it’s a fast read that encourages kids to follow their dreams, regardless of how many times they have to restart.

nonfiction mondayA portion of this review was cross-posted at the Nonfiction Monday blog. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

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