Review – Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

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This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading a soon-to-be-released book. One of my favorite things about book blogging is getting to read amazing books before they come out, and Sarno’s Just Under the Clouds is exactly that.

Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she has been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

Just Under the Clouds is middle-grade fiction, which I don’t usually read, but as I’m switching out of the music room and into the English classroom, I’m making a concerted effort to fix that. And something I’ve realized as I’m making that effort? A good book is a good book–regardless of its intended audience–is a good book.

Just Under the Clouds intrigued me from the start. Cora’s voice is authentic. It feels real and it feels like the voice of a young teenager/preteen.  So often in fiction, children speak too much like adults. I’m guilty of this in my own writing, as well. But as someone who spends several hours a day with teenagers, I know how teens should talk. I know the thoughts that young teens have every day. I know how they function. And it’s clear that Sarno does, as well. (Or she has a really good editor. But I’m going to give Sarno the credit here.)

Cora’s story is sad. From the opening of the book it’s sad and heavy and there is little hope. Cora finds the beautiful things in life and in nature, but at the end of the day, it’s apparent that Cora and her family are returning home to a shelter, to temporary housing. Cora is still mourning the death of her father. Cora isn’t doing well in school. And she is forced to play surrogate parent to her younger sister with an unstated mental exceptionality. (I assume she is on the autism spectrum, but it’s never explicitly stated.) It was tough to read, even as an adult. But it was important.

Something I really love about Just Under the Clouds is that it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s important to be told. Sarno has given a voice to people who don’t typically have a voice in fiction. And she’s done it masterfully. She’s done it artfully. And she’s done it in such a way that the readers are able to put themselves in Cora’s shoes. The reader is able to feel empathy—not pity—for Cora and her family.

“Home is more than a place. It is a feeling. Of warmth and security. Of love and stability. That no matter what we face out there, in here, we will always be looked after.”

The opening letter of this book—written by Julia Maguire, an editor at Knopf—tells the reader from the beginning that this book is about finding home. And that home is about a lot more than just having somewhere to sleep at night. This, alone, is an important lesson for anybody to learn. As a teacher, I know many, many students who do not feel at home in their own houses. Safety, security, and stability are just as important as having a roof over your head.

Just Under the Clouds opens in the middle of Cora’s story, which is something I really love. I love when the book opens and the reader is thrown into the fray of day-to-day life. I don’t like exposition. I don’t like back story. Eventually I want it, but not at once. I want to love the characters before I learn why they’re the people that they are.

Cora starts the book in a tree, watching her little sister, Adare. When her mother calls, she quickly descends and prepares to meet her mom, with Adare in tow. Except Adare is holding her breath and refuses to let it out. From Cora’s commentary, it appears that this is a regular occurrence. And this is a theme that runs throughout the book. The breath holding is important and it matters.

Another thing I love about Sarno’s writing is how everything matters. Everything in this story is important and returns later. She’s very much like J.K. Rowling that way. She’s a very smart storyteller.

As the story unfolds, we see Cora fail math. This is not uncommon in students—even brilliant students—whose needs aren’t being met. Maslow theorized that students had to have their needs of food and security and stability met before any learning could take place. And after seven years in the classroom, I believe he was onto something.

We also see Cora make her first true friend, a drifter of a very different nature named Sabina. Sabina grew up on a houseboat, floating from port to port, existing in her family unit and never attending public school. Her life is very unlike Cora’s. Her life is very like Cora’s.

Just Under the Clouds is peppered with little hints of the issues that come with homelessness, issues that don’t occur to most people. In the middle of the story, Adare and Cora are enjoying an after-school snack. When Adare doesn’t finish her peanut better, Cora feels obligated to eat it, merely so it won’t go to waste. This very subtle detail hit me hard. This is real life. And this is real life every day for students I come into contact with daily.

This is daily life for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. It’s heartbreaking.

But stories like this offer hope.

I’m excited to stock this book in my classroom library. Many of my students have never considered what life is like on “the other side.” Most of the students I teach have never been homeless or had want for anything. They’ve never missed a meal or spent a night in temporary housing. And that’s okay. But because they’ve never had these experiences, chances are they’ve never reflected on experiences like this. It’s their privilege.

Before anybody gets their feathers ruffled: yes, I believe in privilege. I believe I’m privileged. I believe that everybody has varying degrees of privilege. And I think it’s important to understand and identify our innate privilege. Everybody’s is different. Everybody’s brings something unique and special to our society.

But it’s there. It’s real. It’s a thing that has to be acknowledged. It’s so well-written; it will make a great read for any middle grade reader, or a fantastic read aloud to younger readers. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and your children about the issues that others face.

I’m excited to share this book with you and with my students. I think Sarno has told a story that’s important.

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno will be available June 5, 2018 at all major book retailers. Pick yourself up a copy ASAP.

Plucky’s rating?

4 out of 5 stars.

Pablo Neruda – A Master of Love

In continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I revisited some of my favorite poems by Neruda. He was a master of the love poem. I’d have fallen in love with Neruda if he’d written these poems to me. Guaranteed.

Neruda’s poems are beautiful in translation, but they’re so much better in the original Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, anymore. I haven’t had someone to practice with in a long time. But I still read it pretty well and Neruda’s poems are so lovely.

I also have this wonderful edition of Neruda’s poems that prints the original text along with a really good translation. It really helped me to check my understanding. My favorite poem from this collection, however, is “Tu Risa.” I am posting the original text, alongside its translation.

“Tu Risa”

Quítame el pan, si quieres,
quítame el aire, pero
no me quites tu risa.

No me quites la rosa,
la lanza que desgranas,
el agua que de pronto
estalla en tu alegría,
la repentina ola
de plata que te nace.

Mi lucha es dura y vuelvo
con los ojos cansados
a veces de haber visto
la tierra que no cambia,
pero al entrar tu risa
sube al cielo buscándome
y abre para mi todas
las puertas de la vida.

Amor mío, en la hora
más oscura desgrana
tu risa, y si de pronto
ves que mi sangre mancha
las piedras de la calle,
ríe, porque tu risa
será para mis manos
como una espada fresca.

Junto al mar en otoño,
tu risa debe alzar
su cascada de espuma,
y en primavera, amor,
quiero tu risa como
la flor que yo esperaba,
la flor azul, la rosa
de mi patria sonora.

Ríete de la noche,
del día, de la luna,
ríete de las calles
torcidas de la isla,
ríete de este torpe
muchacho que te quiere,
pero cuando yo abro
los ojos y los cierro,
cuando mis pasos van,
cuando vuelven mis pasos,
niégame el pan, el aire,
la luz, la primavera,
pero tu risa nunca
porque me moriría.

“Your laughter”

Take my bread, if you want,
take my breath away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the spear that you shed,
the water that suddenly
explodes in your joy,
the sudden wave
of silver that is born in you.

My struggle is hard and I return
with my eyes tired
of having seen
the earth that does not change,
but when your laughter enters
it rises up to heaven looking
for me and opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the
darkest hour,
your laughter, and if suddenly
you see that my blood stains
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

By the sea in autumn,
your laughter should raise
its cascade of foam,
and in spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower that I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my sonorous homeland.

Laugh at night,
in the day, at the moon,
laugh at the
crooked streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me the bread, the air,
the light, the spring,
but never your laugh
because I would die.

Very few stanzas in poetry touch me that way this opening does. Take away my bread and my breath, but do not take away your laughter. It’s so moving. It’s so lovely. It explains what love is like. It describes an attainable love that seems so unattainable and unachievable. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.

And it seems real, at the same time.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m making no sense at all. That’s okay, too. I still love this poem so, so much.

I hope it brings you as much joy to you as it does me.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

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Today, I am sitting in a lovely little coffeeshop between a rehearsal and a performance. I think I have spent more time, collectively, in coffee shops than anywhere else in my entire life. And I’m perfectly okay with this fact.

Sitting today, I have a little time to reflect the book that I finished yesterday.

Call Me By Your Name is not a book I would describe as lovely. (Which is shocking, I know. That’s my standard adjective for a book I love.) But it was a beautiful, moving, and touching story.

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I didn’t know really anything about this book going into it. I knew that it had been recently made into a film. I knew that it was considered for a lot of awards. And that’s the extent of my knowledge. Needless to say, I was not prepared for the emotional onslaught that came as I read this book.

Call Me By Your Name is the tale of Elio, a young Italian boy whose family owns a villa where they host writers who are working on new works. The writer of this summer is a beautiful man named Oliver with whom Elio is nearly immediately smitten. Immediately, the age gap between the two is noticeable. It’s a chasm that seems insurmountable when the book opens. Elio is 17 while Oliver is 24.

The book that follows is about the relationship these two men develop. It’s not your typical romance novel, and it really is like nothing else I’ve reviewed from this blog. It is intense. It’s about the intense emotions people feel when they first discover true sexuality and infatuation. It was about lust and raw attraction.

But it was also about the 80s. And about life in the 80s. And about being gay in the 80s.

Not so spoiler alert: Oliver and Elio do get together in this book. And they must do so in secret. It is the 80s, after all, and the world was not nearly as accepting of homosexuality as it is today (which is saying a lot, considering how non-accepting some place still are.)

But so much of this novel is just awkward. I read most of this book with an uncomfortable feeling in my gut. Part of it, I’m sure, is my very conservative view of sex. I am a good, southern boy after all. Sex should only be euphemized; never discussed directly. (I know. I’m bizarre. But that’s not a secret to me.)

Part of it is the apparent age gap. There is a huge difference between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. At those ages, seven years seems like a generation of difference, even if Elio is the most mature teenager who’s ever existed.

Elio seems to obsess over Oliver for much of the novel. For all of the novel, in fact. And I get it. I can remember being unable to shake feelings I’ve had about people. It was real, too real. I never want to relive adolescence again. (I mean, seriously, I teach teenagers every day. I never want to relive adolescence.) But Call Me By Your Name made me do so in a nearly tangible way. I could connect with Elio and understand what he was feeling.

Unfortunately, Call Me Be Your Name does not tie up in a sweet little boy. Every string is still dangling. Ever knot is undone. And that is hard for me. I want more closure than this book offers.

All this seems like a bad review, right? But no. I loved it. It made me uncomfortable. It made me queasy. But it was a great book. It was a wonderful read. It was thought-provoking. It was modern stream of consciousness and it was twisted and it was different for me.

It’s not a book that’s for everybody, but I’m definitely grateful that I read it.

Plucky’s rating?

4/5 stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader