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Book review: 'The Reading Promise' by Alice Ozma

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Alice Ozma's father read to her every night before bed for 3,218 days straight. "The Streak," as Ozma and her father, Jim Brozina, called it, began when Ozma was in fourth grade and didn't stop until the day she moved into her college dormitory when she was 18 years old. This significant, deeply odd, sometimes-embarrassing, often-inspiring accomplishment is chronicled by 23-year-old Ozma in a new memoir, "The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared."

In a sense, "The Reading Promise" is Ozma's explanation to herself — and the rest of the world — about just why she and her father, an elementary school librarian, kept it up. It started on a train when she was little. Brozina promised to read to Ozma every night for 100 days. After those days were over, they simply didn't want to stop. The bond of the ritual — the way it defined their days and nights, brought them together and helped them examine their lives — meant too much to them to give up. So they stuck with it until it became a sacred pact.

Their determination can be attributed to the fact that family life was not easy. Ozma's mother had a series of affairs before attempting suicide and abruptly leaving her father; her sister, Kath, studied abroad, remaining physically and emotionally distant for most of Ozma's young adulthood; and money was scarce. Brozina is the only stable figure in Ozma's world.

As memoirs go, the book is uneven, clearly written by a young woman still searching for her voice and somewhat afraid to probe the dark, unattractive corners of experience that make memoirs truly memorable. But as a record of love between a father and daughter — and a story about the importance of rituals in family life — Ozma's debut is touching.

If the book misses its mark, which it does, it's because Ozma fails to focus enough on the reality of her father's life. The last chapter, which is among the most fascinating in the book, is about her father's battle with his school district to keep his library stocked with books, which the district removed entirely. He is also forbidden to read aloud to students, a development that leaves him drained and unhappy. He eventually finds a way to keep reading aloud: at a home for senior citizens.

Despite his love of literature, the reader is left wondering what drove Brozina to continue the Streak even when Ozma's budding adolescence made it uncomfortable at times. For example, Ozma is involved in theater in high school, and her rehearsals often run late. One night, rehearsal drones on until almost midnight, at which point Brozina shows up and requests that Ozma be excused. Grumpy and exhausted, the director asks why she should be allowed to leave when everyone else must stay. Ozma cringes under the stage lights because she knows what's coming.

"I need to read to her by midnight," Brozina says.

Baffled, the director lets Ozma leave, and because she and Brozina know that they can't make it home by midnight, he reads a chapter of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" to her by the car. As the rest of the cast members leave the theater, they try not to look at the odd spectacle, and for a moment Ozma feels embarrassed by the Streak, and ashamed that she is embarrassed. Her father understands and reads as quickly as possible. For this she is grateful.

"I think the root of embarrassment is feeling totally misunderstood, wanting to explain yourself over and over but knowing that you won't make much sense to anyone even if you do. The Streak always posed that sort of problem," Ozma writes.

Brozina even goes so far as to censor certain books when he reads them to her, not because he is worried about Ozma, but because he is embarrassed for himself. At least that's the case when he cuts out entire passages of "Dicey's Song" by Cynthia Voigt, which chronicles the advent of menstruation and the growth of breasts in its young heroine. The anecdote stands as evidence that there is generally a reason why fathers stop reading to their daughters when they are still little.

Now, as a young woman just beginning her adult life, Ozma says her boyfriend tells her bedtime stories. It's a strange admission but one that, given Ozma's back story, seems strangely acceptable. Because of "The Reading Promise," the woman can stop explaining the girl.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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