Sandy MacDonald

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Again and again, in a prodigious and distinguished body of work, Julius Lester has addressed the great horror at the heart of the African-American experience: the inescapable legacy of slavery. His latest book, Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, centers on an historical two-day auction in 1859, the largest ever recorded, when Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler cashed in 429 lots of chattel to cover his gambling debts: this abomination came to be known as the weeping time.

The novel is written as a prismatic array of fictional dialogues. We witness the event primarily through the eyes of Emma, age 12 at the outset and charged with looking after Butler's two young daughters (Butler's wife, the famous British actress Fanny Kemble, left him when he refused to emancipate the vast population of slaves who supported his lavish lifestyle). Master has promised Emma that she will not be among those sold off.

Lester gets inside the souls of 25 characters, ranging from a career auctioneer to a broken old man too easily dismissed as an Uncle Tom. The author's gift is such that we come to understand them all, villains and victims alike. And in following Emma through the course of a long, difficult and ultimately rewarding life, he provides a vital link to the past. Having known the devastation of being wrenched from her own family, she still manages to summon the courage to create one anew and forge a better life for those who follow.

In this riveting reading experience, Lester once again brings history to life.

 

Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Again and again, in a prodigious and distinguished body of work, Julius Lester has addressed the great horror at the heart of the African-American experience: the inescapable legacy of slavery. His latest book, Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, centers on an historical two-day auction in 1859, the largest ever recorded, when Georgia plantation […]
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We've all, at one point or another, committed acts we wish we could take back. In Margot Livesey's seriocomic romp of a novel, Verona MacIntyre, a single, pregnant, 37-year-old London radio talk-show host, engages in a series of serious faux pas. First she hoodwinks handyman Zeke Cafarelli 29, a "Raphael angel" lookalike with a mild case of Asperger's syndrome into letting her spend the night in the house he's renovating by claiming to be the owners' niece. Then she vanishes but not before capturing his heart. The remainder of the book alternates viewpoints as he tries to reunite with her, and she, equally smitten but on the lam from her feckless brother's financial malfeasance, leads him on a far-from-merry chase to Boston and back to London.

The question of "will they, or won't they?" (ever get together again) engenders plenty of suspense, right up to the last chapter when they're finally on the same continent and just starting to face the trust issues that confront all potential couples. Meanwhile, we've been afforded generous glimpses into the souls of these seemingly mismatched lovers: sophisticated Verona, whose very high-mindedness puts her at risk when it comes to her brother's machinations (not to mention the Pinteresque goons on his trail), and emotionally naive Zeke, who's "no good at metaphors and subtexts and other people's problems" but nonetheless has a knack for getting roped into them not just Verona's, but his parents', as their marriage hurtles toward disintegration.

Though the plot could easily fit the rubric of chick lit, the depth of the characters vaults it into another category entirely. Despite occasional longueurs (Zeke's first plane trip belabors the "innocent abroad" shtick), the narrative offers a rich and rewarding voyage into two very distinctive interior lives, which might, with any luck, find a match and move forward as one.

 

Sandy MacDonald writes from Massachusetts.

We've all, at one point or another, committed acts we wish we could take back. In Margot Livesey's seriocomic romp of a novel, Verona MacIntyre, a single, pregnant, 37-year-old London radio talk-show host, engages in a series of serious faux pas. First she hoodwinks handyman Zeke Cafarelli 29, a "Raphael angel" lookalike with a mild […]
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Breathes there a child who has not fantasized about carrying out some dramatic rescue? The little girl who narrates this stirring tale about the Warsaw Ghetto is fictional, but her voice rings true, and her daring story is based on historical accounts from World War II. With the compressed power of poetry, Newbery Award winner Karen Hesse elicits chills with a simple account of homespun bravery.

We see from the start that our heroine is kind and empathetic in the way she observes that the stray cats she befriends "belonged once to someone. . . . Now they have no one to kiss their velvet heads." Her own situation is comparable: though fortunate to have escaped the extreme privation of the ghetto by passing ("I wear my Polish look, I walk my Polish walk"), she is still marginal, never more than "almost safe, almost invisible." Wendy Watson's watercolors, mostly in subdued earth tones, perfectly complement the mood of oppression and anxiety.

The girl's elder sister "all that's left of our family," a heartbreaking hint at unimaginable loss gets involved in an underground effort to smuggle food to those trapped in the ghetto. When the Gestapo catches on, the plan seems headed for tragedy until the girl hits upon a scheme to call on her feline friends for help.

The tragedies of the Holocaust might seem a topic scarcely suitable for a children's picture book, typically a realm of sugary sentiment and bedtime bromides. However, The Cats in Krasinski Square exudes assurance that come what may, people can usually be counted on to figure out how to look after one another.

 

Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Breathes there a child who has not fantasized about carrying out some dramatic rescue? The little girl who narrates this stirring tale about the Warsaw Ghetto is fictional, but her voice rings true, and her daring story is based on historical accounts from World War II. With the compressed power of poetry, Newbery Award winner […]
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Small-town life has always been subject to petty power struggles. The political-religious squabbles that beset colonial Boston in the 1630s were especially fervid, given that founding governor John Winthrop foresaw, correctly, that the fate of this hardscrabble "citty on a hill" would ultimately "be made a story and a byword through the world." Little wonder, then, that when a well-spoken newcomer, Anne Hutchinson, the 44-year-old mother of 15 children, began attracting influential men to "conventicles" (scripture discussions) held in her parlor, Winthrop and his ministerial cohorts soon singled her out as a potential enemy of the church and the state in those days, essentially the same entity.

Drawing on a staggering amount of historical detail (including transcripts of Hutchinson's two trials, the only paper trail left by most woman of that era), 12th-generation descendant Eve LaPlante plots her forebear's downfall with the vivid immediacy of a novel. While some of the doctrinal debates recounted might strike the modern reader as hair-splitting sophistry, LaPlante reminds us that, for the colonists, such theological wrangling represented not only the path to eternal salvation, but the be-all and end-all of permissible entertainment.

Banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson went on to found the colony of Rhode Island (the only woman who can claim such a distinction), but her path ended in tragedy a turn which Winthrop greeted with unseemly schadenfreude. Still, her legacy lives on, and American Jezebel, released during National Women's History Month, comes as a timely reminder of the causes she held dear: freedom of speech, religious and racial tolerance, and the spiritual fulfillment available oh, heresy even to females.

 

Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Small-town life has always been subject to petty power struggles. The political-religious squabbles that beset colonial Boston in the 1630s were especially fervid, given that founding governor John Winthrop foresaw, correctly, that the fate of this hardscrabble "citty on a hill" would ultimately "be made a story and a byword through the world." Little wonder, […]
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Disaffected youth don't come much more disadvantaged than 18-year-old Cuzzy Gage. He's living out of a sleeping bag on a town beach, in a depressed Adirondack backwater called Poverty. He has been relying on the kindness of relatives since the age of 12, when his mother died, shortly after his father, a road crew worker and Baptist lay preacher, tried to become "at one with the blacktop" and was duly institutionalized.

Into Cuzzy's literally hand-to-mouth existence comes a stranger borne on a silver Porsche. In town to organize the papers of his dearest friend, a local scion who recently died, Tracy Edwards offers Cuzzy, in quick order, a ride, a job, a home and a life enriched with music, poetry and unlimited horizons. Though it takes some doing, eventually Cuzzy is able to cast off his almost feral distrust. Just as he begins to form a bond with his benefactor, his past catches up with him, in a fast-paced and horrific finale.

With startling authenticity and even beauty, Halpern has stripped the narrative down to a hard, tight core encompassing the compelling questions of human existence: why we're here, how we're meant to treat one another, and, in the words of Cuzzy's father, "Why is everyday life so goddamned hard?" Halpern finds living proof in the person of this confused, inchoate boy, a preordained "loser" that the struggle matters, on whatever level it's carried out.

 

Sandy MacDonald is a writer in Massachusetts.

Disaffected youth don't come much more disadvantaged than 18-year-old Cuzzy Gage. He's living out of a sleeping bag on a town beach, in a depressed Adirondack backwater called Poverty. He has been relying on the kindness of relatives since the age of 12, when his mother died, shortly after his father, a road crew worker […]
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Unlike E.R. Frank's acclaimed previous novels, Life Is Funny and America, both prismatic portraits of urban adolescents traumatically coming of age, Friction is structurally straightforward and seems relatively tame—at least on the surface.

Suburban, soccer-loving, 12-year-old Alex has everything going for her: supportive parents and a nurturing alternative school where her teacher, Simon, is also a friend. The trouble starts when a new girl, Stacy, something of a drama queen, points out that Simon is also a hottie. Next, she suggests that Simon is hot for Alex, and vice versa.

You'd think that, with all the resources available to her, Alex could figure out a way to quash this insinuation. But she's just young and innocent enough, with inchoate desires of her own, to fall victim instead to Stacy's manipulations. Insisting that "it's natural for guys and girls to like each other," Stacy spins out her soap-operatic theories: that Alex's best friend, Tim, has a crush on Alex, thwarted because Alex is in turn hung up on Simon. For all that Alex protests (the scenario strikes her as "completely weird and gross"), she finds her face growing hot, her stomach "clamped tight." She does make repeated, if vague, efforts to turn to her parents for advice, but they try to joke her out of her discomfort ("Aren't you a little old to think romantic interest is gross?") and suggest that Stacy is just "acting out" to cope with the stress of being the new kid. The situation soon gets worse much worse. Stacy always seems to be on hand to catch Simon with Alex in the midst of a friendly gesture, and she rumor-mongers relentlessly. And when these allegations come to naught (although they do alienate Tim from Alex), she escalates her campaign, claiming that Simon has molested her.

The author makes it subtly clear that Stacy's compulsion to sexualize may have its roots in abuse. Frank, whose profession as social worker lends psychological veracity to her considerable descriptive skills, provides no easy out for her characters. Friction is a bold, perceptive and ultimately unnerving account in which people get hurt, some irrevocably. It's an illuminating novel that will help young readers understand themselves and adults a little bit better.

Sandy MacDonald is a writer based in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Unlike E.R. Frank's acclaimed previous novels, Life Is Funny and America, both prismatic portraits of urban adolescents traumatically coming of age, Friction is structurally straightforward and seems relatively tame—at least on the surface. Suburban, soccer-loving, 12-year-old Alex has everything going for her: supportive parents and a nurturing alternative school where her teacher, Simon, is also […]
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In her first picture book, Jamie Harper channels a bit of Hillary Knight: the three children in Don't Grown-Ups Ever Have Fun?, based on her own daughters, sport Eloise-inspired expressions when captured mid-mischief. But the book's narrative thrust, playful and creative, is all Harper's own, starting with the child's-view observation that adults lead draggy lives.

Throughout the book, the kids offer hilarious insights into the grown-up world. Adults "waste time sleeping . . . when there's a zillion things to do," like conduct a teddy-bear tea party amid the covers, or use the mattress as a launching pad. Grownups rush through their morning routines (Mom tries to down a cup of coffee while ensnared in a blow-dryer cord), whereas the three kids have the good sense to "take it easy" with a bubble bath. Dad wears the same clothes day after day, while cut to a dress-up session outside the parents' plundered closet "We're always changing outfits." It takes a daring remote-control intercept to disrupt the boring news and a colorizing makeover to transform Dad's drab black-and-white office. His "To Do" list, of course, is consigned to the trash.

What are grownups into, according to these kids? "Cleaning up's their favorite thing to do," notes the unnamed child narrator, with palpable disdain. When the children leap into carefully raked piles of leaves, they're merely doing their part to right the natural balance: "Why does it all have to be so perfect?" they wonder.

Luckily, a pasta dinner provides the inspiration for the put-upon parents to cut loose: they cast each other a conspiratorial glance, and before long they're wearing ziti crowns, constructing a ziti fort and slurping a shared strand of spaghetti a la Lady and the Tramp.

Don't Grown-Ups Ever Have Fun? is a playful debut that marks a talent to watch. The author's lively, subtly detailed watercolor illustrations make this a great shared read. Afterwards, though, parents will probably want to put the book aside and do something silly.

In her first picture book, Jamie Harper channels a bit of Hillary Knight: the three children in Don't Grown-Ups Ever Have Fun?, based on her own daughters, sport Eloise-inspired expressions when captured mid-mischief. But the book's narrative thrust, playful and creative, is all Harper's own, starting with the child's-view observation that adults lead draggy lives. […]
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If 20-something polymaths put you off, better pass on this clever, erudite murder mystery set in the literary Boston of the mid-19th century. But you'd miss an entertaining and at times illuminating read.

Matthew Pearl, 26, a recent Yale Law School grad, became fascinated with Dante's work while at Harvard, where he earned the Dante Society of America's prestigious Dante Prize in 1998. The Society is in fact an outgrowth of a translation club founded by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge in 1865, during an era when Harvard's governing board was dead-set against admitting living languages as a valid area of study, preferring to cleave to Greek and Latin. Their reluctance also echoed the community's escalating xenophobia, prompted by the recent waves of Irish immigration. Italian, Pearl explains, "particularly represented the loose political passions, bodily appetites, and absent morals of decadent Europe." Hence, in preparing the first American edition of Dante's Inferno for publication, Longfellow's little club whose evolving roster of members included poet James Russell Lowell, litterateur/physician Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and publisher James T. Fields was involved in a somewhat seditious undertaking.

Pearl ups the ante by introducing a fictitious series of murders, each as the four appalled literati quickly realize based on a specific punishment to be found in Dante's various levels of hell. Whereas the recreations of academic chitchat (however faithful) can be a bit tedious, the pace picks up considerably once the quartet is hot on the scent: picture middle-aged Hardy Boys in frock coats. Pearl has a gift for the grisly recounting, for instance, the disjointed dying thoughts of a too-pliable judge whose brain is being slowly dismantled by maggots, or the shock of a greedy minister experiencing his first human touch in many years: "The grasp was alive with passion, with offense." His demise is especially unpretty.

It's only in retrospect that one can appreciate the intricacy of the plot. As one red herring after another falls victim, the true villain hides in plain sight. Forehead-smacking is in order when the revelation finally arrives.

In all, the novel represents quite a feat, if not quite a tour de force. It's intriguing to imagine what might transpire if Matthew Pearl were to cast off the bonds of historicity and decide, like many a successful lawyer-novelist before him, to tackle contemporary chicanery.

Sandy MacDonald is a writer in Cambridge and Nantucket Massachusetts.

If 20-something polymaths put you off, better pass on this clever, erudite murder mystery set in the literary Boston of the mid-19th century. But you'd miss an entertaining and at times illuminating read. Matthew Pearl, 26, a recent Yale Law School grad, became fascinated with Dante's work while at Harvard, where he earned the Dante […]
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In classrooms across the country, children and teens who are newcomers to the U.S. struggle to assimilate. In the process, the richness of their own experience is often devalued; their stories, lost. Edwidge Danticat’s first novel for young adults represents the initial entry in an admirable new series from Scholastic Books called First Person Fiction, in which notable authors from various backgrounds are asked to combine the themes of coming-of-age and coming to America. A writer of considerable complexity and style, Danticat here adapts the straightforward, occasionally ingenuous voice of young diarist Celiane Esperance in the fall of 2000 as she waits with her mother and 19-year-old brother, Moy, in a remote village in Haiti for the opportunity to join her father in New York City. They have not seen him for five years: He had to leave to seek work when the family farm could no longer support them.

Their journey evolves in stages, each with its own challenges hence the title, drawn from the Haitian proverb, Behind the mountains are more mountains. Conditions in their village may be subsistence-level (with no power or telephone, their only way to communicate with Celiane’s father is via a battery-powered cassette machine), but she manages to glean delight from unlikely sources, for instance, from the red glow of discarded cooking cinders ( like finding stars on the ground ). The occasional visit with her aunt in town involves pleasures and stresses in equal measure; the latter prevail after the bus in which they’re traveling is hit by an election-protest pipe bomb. The disaster, as it turns out, has an up side, as it helps to speed their emigration application, and soon Celine must confront new fears: What is the plane falls out of the sky? . . . What if we hate New York? The joy of reunion is indeed quickly supplanted by family tensions, and Celiane is flummoxed by such seemingly easy tasks as figuring out how to catch a bus home from school. We know she will cope, and eventually prosper. However, anyone who has ever been in her shoes and that’s everyone who has ever left home will empathize, not just with Celiane but with brave voyagers everywhere.

In classrooms across the country, children and teens who are newcomers to the U.S. struggle to assimilate. In the process, the richness of their own experience is often devalued; their stories, lost. Edwidge Danticat’s first novel for young adults represents the initial entry in an admirable new series from Scholastic Books called First Person Fiction, […]

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