Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Reading Roundup: Books That Deserve More Than A Reading Roundup


I just embarked on this Western reading project, just got the book for my next book club meeting, and just returned from the ALA Midwinter meeting with a stack of exciting new books to add to my shelf. Coincidentally (and appropriately), I just ordered a new bookshelf for our apartment today.

Well, despite all of this, it is necessary that I tell you about these two books I read last year, but because of all the things mentioned above, it is also necessary that I do it quickly. It is unfortunate, however, because both of these books deserve more than a quick comment. But, I will do as I must before I get even further behind; this is my last week of freedom…school starts next week, which means more time to read but less time to blog!

I actually read In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard back in November, so I am sorry to say it is a bit fuzzy at this point in time. I can say, however, that I liked it! I read it off a recommendation from a former library co-worker with whom I usually share a taste in books and whose opinion I completely trust. I wouldn’t really classify In Zanesville as a coming-of-age story, per se, but it is told by an unnamed 14-year-old girl. Our narrator has the voice of a somewhat awkward teen, not fully comfortable with herself but mostly okay with that fact. She doesn’t have the confidence that some of her peers seem to have and she doesn’t really get why it’s necessary to feel and act so “grown up.” She’s got a companion in her best friend “Flea,” though, which makes life in junior high manageable until Flea seems to get caught up in the influence of their more “sophisticated” classmates and the narrator feels abandoned.

I’m just going to speak for everyone here by saying UGH, JUNIOR HIGH. This story takes place in the 1970s, but no matter the era, those years are cringe-worthy for most. Beard’s writing is simple but effective in transporting you back to those years of petty drama in day-to-day school life. It’s the feeling of constantly walking on egg shells, hoping to blend in but still attract enough attention to be deemed popular—when friendships and relationships are volatile and constantly teetering between friend and foe. I was going to compare In Zanesville to Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach and Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie, and then I saw that my former coworker did as well. Guess she was spot on with this recommendation once again.


Another good find from a trip to the library in December was Vaclav & Lena, the debut novel of author Haley Tanner. And it was especially cool that the book was set in Brooklyn and the author appeared at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint just a couple weeks after I picked this one up (except I didn’t actually get to go…I just found it coincidental!).

Vaclav and Lena are Russian immigrants growing up in Brooklyn, sharing the shame heritage but living in completely different worlds. They quickly bonded in ESL class and spend afternoons together working on homework and practicing for the magic show they hope to perform one day at Coney Island. But one day Lena doesn’t come to school and disappears from Vaclav’s life. She doesn’t disappear from his thoughts, though. Eight years later, as a high school student who has gracefully settled into an American lifestyle, Vaclav is about to give a final farewell to his memories of Lena when his phone rings and she comes running back into his life. The two reconnect and explore the circumstances that tore them apart when they were too young to understand.

Tanner’s characters were easy to sympathize with. The story is written mostly from a Vaclav-centric perspective, and as the reader, we see how the story unfolds mostly through his eyes. However, the young Vaclav’s grasp is limited by his 9-year-old naivety, and as an adult reader, we know there must be something more—and darker—than immediately shown on paper. Nothing in the story ever feels too overwhelming, though. It has the quality of a children’s story in that the villains and horrible events are somewhat masked and we almost overlook them because we’re focusing too much on our stories’ heroes. [I mean, think about Hansel & Gretel. Do we, as kids, ever really think how horrible the concept is of a old woman luring kids with candy to then cook them?? No, we just kinda glance over it and hope they escape.]

I thought this a great debut novel, and I look forward to reading what else Tanner puts out there. Her own story is rather heartrending as well, which makes Vaclav & Lena feel all the more full of love.

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