Tag Archives: 1990s

Book Review: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Family is Central to A Place at the Table

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reading guide.

This review includes a fairly detailed summary of the plot.  I leave the plot twist out though.

I’ve had an ARC of Susan Rebecca White’s book for years now. Sorry, Susan. But I’m glad that I waited this long to read it, because maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before I’d matured some more.

This is a heartbreaking story of pain and trauma, of otherness, of love and marriage and ultimately of survival, finding oneself, forgiveness, family, and accepting one’s roots and backstory.

This story follows three primary characters, whose lives all intersect over a cookbook and a shared love of food and a bright and cozy kitchen. It begins in 1929 in Emancipation Township, a black community in the rural, Jim Crow South. There we’re introduced to young siblings Alice and James Stone, close enough to believe that they are able to read one another’s thoughts. After refusing to play the meek black man, James is forced to flee North Carolina.

Leaving the Stones, we join Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son, white, probably upper-middle class, in 1970 Decatur, Georgia. His Meemaw lives in a neighborhood that is now mostly African American. He tries to befriend one of the neighborhood girls, but his brother’s racist language thwarts that. Later in 1977, he finds himself friends with a displaced Yankee, his equal on the track team. The two of them find themselves more than friends when alcohol, a late night, and a sleepover coincide, and Bobby begins a life in exile from his family, first with his Meemaw and later, in 1981, in New York City, where we stay with him through 1991. Bobby during his early years in New York finds himself working at the restaurant, a once-renowned haunt of writers and bohemians, where Alice Stone was once the well-known and –loved chef. He returns the restaurant to its gentrified-Southern roots and gains fame for himself. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s, and he loses his lover and partner to the disease.

Alice’s editor and friend has a niece, Amelia, living in upper-middle class Connecticut. She marries a Southerner from Georgia, who as they begin their life as empty-nesters in 1990, turns emotionally abusive towards her. She struggles with her desire to make her marriage successful and the fear for her own safety.

Individually, each character’s story of hardship and survival is fascinating.

If I was not necessarily eager to return to this book between minutes I was able to read, neither did I want to stay away, with which as much heartache as was in the book and knowing that I tend to avoid reading about characters in deep pain, I think must mean that these characters were well-developed and compelling.

For all that Alice is the glue that holds these stories together (it’s Alice’s restaurant that takes in Bobby, and Alice’s editor’s niece), it’s Bobby with whom we spend the most time, and whose story is explored most fully. As the true tale unwinds, Bobby, though, seems the outside observer, and the story seems more fully Alice’s and Amelia’s and James’. That was a little jarring, but Alice, Amelia, and James’ story makes up in emotional wallop what it lacks in page count.

What all these characters share—apart from a love of good food and cooking—is an exile from family, a crumbling of the idyllic family, and a longing for the return to home (Alice’s cookbook is Homegrown). Alice’s family is broken when James is forced to flee, and James’ worldview is shattered when he realizes himself to be part-white before being forced to flee his home. Bobby is kicked out of his family home after he is discovered kissing a boy. On his grandmother’s advice, he like James before him, leaves the hostile South altogether for the rumored, liberal paradise of New York City. Amelia has never spent time in New York—her family never visited, though they were nearby—but when her own marriage falls apart and with her children out of the house, she finds herself seeking comfort from her aunt, who lives there. Alice and Bobby both cling to their Southern roots through the food that they eat and prepare for others, even as they make new lives for themselves in New York. Amelia discovers her own Southern roots.

None of the characters return to the South but each of them is awarded some measure of reconciliation with their families. So it seems that family is the root to which White argues that one should return and with which one must reconcile to be fully known to oneself.

***1/2

White, Susan Rebecca. A Place at the Table. New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Rebecca White, Touchstone, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, Miss White is an alumna of the graduate program at my alma mater.