Challenges, Fiction, Young Adult

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Cover image for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexieby Sherman Alexie

Illustrated by Ellen Forney

ISBN 978-0-316-013697

“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”

Fourteen-year-old Junior has spent his entire life on the Spokane Indian reservation, the subject of frequent bullying due to the lisp and stutter created by being born with hydrocephalus. When he unexpectedly loses his cool and hits his teacher with a textbook, he is suspended from the reservation school. Rather than returning at the end of his suspension, he seizes the opportunity to enroll at Reardan High School, in a nearby all-white farming town. Reardan is only twenty-two miles from Wellpinit, but it feels like another planet, where Junior must adjust to the culture shock in order to achieve his dream of becoming an artist.

Sherman Alexie’s popular young adult novel is a darkly funny story of the sort where you have to laugh so that you don’t cry. The emotional swings can be sharp, going from an awkwardly humourous anecdote to a character death in a matter of pages. At fourteen, Junior has attended forty-two funerals in his life, many of them related to the alcohol abuse that is rampant in his community. Originally published in 2007, the book has made ALA’s list of Top 10 Challenged Books every year since 2010, being challenged for everything from offensive language to drug use to sexual content to racism. Alexie’s raw honesty about race issues and teen behaviour has consistently proven to be too much for censors to bear.

Even after Junior combats some of the more overt racism at his new school, he still has to cope with the isolation that comes from being rejected by both his classmates and the members of his tribe who feel that he has betrayed them by going to the white school. As much as the rejection of his tribe hurts, Junior also has to come to terms with that fact that he isn’t really the underdog. When he joins the Reardan basketball team and faces off against his former classmates from Wellpinit, the prospect of victory is soured by the knowledge that many of the kids playing on the reservation’s team probably didn’t eat breakfast that morning. Alexie doesn’t pull punches or state things in delicate terms, but his story is full of keen insight and reflection nevertheless. His observations are counterpointed by Ellen Forney’s incisive illustrations, which sometimes cut to the heart of the matter better than words themselves.

If this book has a drawback, it is that so much happens to Junior in the period of one short school year. Sherman Alexie is trying to cover a huge number of issues in book that is well under three hundred pages long. Inevitably, some of the events do not get much attention, and plot threads are only partially resolved. Then again, life doesn’t play fair and spread tragedy out evenly, either.


the-inconvenient-indianYou might also like The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Biography, Criticism, Graphic Novel, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Top Picks, Young Adult

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2014?

Graphic Novel, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen Forney by Ellen Forney

ISBN 978-1-592-40732-3

“Sometimes it seems like ‘pain’ is too obvious a place to turn for inspiration. Pain isn’t always deep, anyway. Sometimes it’s awful and that’s it. Or boring. Surely other things can be as profound as pain.”

In 1999, shortly before her thirtieth birthday, cartoonist Ellen Forney learned she had Bipolar I Disorder. Diagnosed at the height of a manic episode, and terrified that being put on medication would destroy her ability to make art, Forney resisted treatment until she sank into a black depression that forced her to admit she needed help. Even as she accepted the need for treatment, she became fascinated with what she called “Club Van Gogh,” the long list of famous artists known to have suffered from mental illnesses. Documenting the four year journey to finding the right combination of medications, Forney explores the associations between mental illness and creativity, and how the relationship between the two complicated her feelings about the psychiatric medications prescribed to balance her emotional states.

Marbles introduces Forney in the midst of a manic episode, blithe and philosophical, and more than a little impulsive. Chapter two is a clinical contrast, showing Forney in her psychiatrist’s office reviewing the DSM list of symptoms for Bipolar I, and facing the stark realization that her “own unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper.” From there, she delves into the long list of famous artists with mental illnesses, many of whom attempted or committed suicide. Marbles shows what life is like with bipolar, acquaints readers with the clinical reality of treatment, and explores Forney’s personal concern with the stereotype of the “crazy artist.”

Forney uses the graphic medium to depict her illness to great effect. Her art manages to embody the frantic exhilaration of her manic state in one chapter, and the dark, lethargic depths of depression in the next. Wild, overflowing panels convey mania, while darker, spare, and constrained panels depict depression.  Although the illustrations are all black and white, it is easy to imagine the manic pages bursting with colour. On page 77, with a series of simple line drawings, she succinctly captures a day in the life of a depressed person. Jam-packed two page spreads, while less neat, clearly express mania. Equally fascinating are Forney’s numerous self-portraits from this time, an indication of her struggles with identity in her radically different states. This draws an interesting parallel to Vincent Van Gogh, perhaps the most famous “crazy artist,” who also painted numerous self-portraits.

Extremely candid and open, Forney shares the reality of living with bipolar disorder with humour and intelligence.


Challenge Badge for the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book'd OutThis title fulfills the Graphic Novel requirement for my participation in the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.



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