Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fiction | All of London That’s Fit to Print

Ever since I read Edward Rutherfurd’s New York: The Novel a couple years ago, I’ve been slowly stockpiling Rutherfurd’s other works, anticipating an opportunity with oodles of time to devote to his sweeping historical narratives. Over my Christmas break from grad school, I finally picked up London, which I opted for over Sarum simply because my copy of Sarum is a gigantic brick of a hardcover that I did not want to carry around.

Rutherfurd’s structure and style is just the same as I’d experienced; he follows the lineage of several families through hundreds of years, each chapter acting as a portal into any specific moment in history. London spans from the early Roman days of Julius Caesar through the late twentieth century, and we see a city grow from humble beginnings to a bustling metropolis with an incredibly thick and colorful history.

I loved New York because I felt such a strong sense of place. Beyond the fact that I live in New York and thus was immediately familiar with any location in the story, at any given moment you could see how characters were simultaneously shaping their world and being defined by the world around them. It was a delicate balance of character and setting that worked so well.

London did not work for me in the same way. I felt the setting was far less important, and I didn’t feel the same strong sense of place; it was often hard to remember we were in London. The story was more focused on the characters as independent of their setting, which was disappointing—I wanted to learn more about the evolution of London (a city of which I am very familiar having studied abroad there), and I felt that aspect was lacking. Though the novel does carry you through some of the  most important moments in the city’s development, the city itself just seemed like background. London covers such a greater span of time than New York—2,000 years as opposed to a mere 400—which may have had something to do with it; transitions between chapters often jumped so far in time that you lost your sense of place. It felt much more a collection of separate stories than one continuous, flowing narrative. It also made it very difficult to follow the characters and their ancestries as time passed. In New York, I was constantly aware of family histories as we jumped chapter to chapter, but here I just completely lost track (though there is a helpful family tree printed at the beginning of the book). Overall, I felt disconnected from the city itself, as if these characters could have existed anywhere and behaved much the same way.

It’s difficult to get into much more detail about this book, just because it contains so much. My favorite parts to read about a place’s history are always about its earliest days—what life was like when such a huge city was just a tiny settlement and how the people living there survived day to day. It’s exciting to imagine a well-known place as it once was, a setting that would be completely unrecognizable. London does provide this fictionalized history of its namesake, and it’s a style that Rutherfurd is very good at writing. I won’t hop into another one of his for a while (this one took me FOREVER to finish), but I won’t write him off because of this one, either. Many Goodreads members seem to have the same thoughts I do, encouraging me to give Sarum and Russka both a try.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fiction | How Suicide Saved Zeke Cooper

As a Nashville native, I’m a sucker for any book with “Tennessee” in the title. This book’s cover image also didn’t hurt its chances that I would pick it up.

I grabbed Amy Franklin-Willis’ The Lost Saints of Tennessee last year at PLA for both of the reasons listed above. The booth attendant also gave it a glowing recommendation. The story opens with 42-year-old Zeke ready to leave his hometown behind and eventually end his own life. There’s a lot we don’t know about Zeke, but we see little snippets that indicate there’s way more to him—we just have to discover it.

Well, Zeke gets cold feet with the suicide plan, though unfortunately just after he fed his old loyal canine companion enough pills for successful murder-suicide pact—resulting in an emergency visit to the vet to pump pup’s stomach. (Don’t worry, he survives.) After this brush with death, Zeke decides to escape for a bit and returns some cousins’ farm in Virginia that he hasn’t visited since living there in college, twenty years earlier.

Here’s what we know about Zeke: he’s recently divorced, and his wife has remarried; he has two daughters, one of which, at this point, mostly hates him; his brother Carter died in a tragic incident over ten years prior; Carter was Zeke’s best friend. All the back story is what we discover as we read. The novel is divided in a handful of parts, alternating between Zeke’s perspective and his mother Lillian’s perspective. We learn about the experiences and incidents that shaped both of these characters and influenced their decisions—and how those decisions had an affect on each other, often through miscommunications and misunderstandings. The Lost Saints of Tennessee isn’t all about being trapped in the past, though; Zeke looks at his past experiences to help him start afresh, accept his life, and rebuild relationships.

I thought this was a great, uncomplicated read. It deals with some heavy situations, but they’re never too bleak or burdensome. Zeke’s story is more enjoyable to follow, because it ends up extending beyond just Zeke; his life involves those around him, which is what he eventually discovers gives his own life purpose and meaning. A good read for fans of family stories, characters with a history, and Southern lit. Steady-paced with heavy themes and an uplifting tone.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fiction | Tales from the Typing Pool

On February 14, 1953, Valentine’s Day, Caroline Bender received a dozen long-stemmed red roses from Paul Landis with a humorous card. Mary Agnes Russo received a box of chocolates in a heart-shaped red box trimmed with white paper lace from her fiance Bill. Gregg Adams didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day because she had a hang-over and she was trying to revive herself sufficiently to attend a general audition for the ingenue lead in a forthcoming Broadway play, a role requiring a girl with clear eyes and a winningly fresh face. Barbara Lemont stopped on her way to work to buy some heart-shaped candies for her daughter Hillary. And April Morrison fainted on the sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Plaza.

Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything is sort of considered a best-selling classic. I read it once back in high school when it had a first “resurgence” as a readalike for fans of Sex and the City—independent women surviving in the big city…ok, I can see it. It’s had a more recent second resurgence as a readalike for Mad Men—different appeal factor (historical setting) but still relevant. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was reminded of this book by a Mad Men list on NPR long ago, but it actually took NINE MONTHS of waiting on the NYPL hold queue to finally get this book. (Note to NYPL: consider purchasing additional copies, also because the single one in your system is completely falling apart.)

Though I had read this before, I remembered nothing from it except that I was pretty sure I liked it the first time around. The Best of Everything is set in 1950s New York City and focuses on the often-overlapping lives of five young women. They can all be considered “modern” women, because they’re in their early- to mid-twenties…and not married. They’ve chosen, for one reason or another, to join the work force, and it is that one you often see on Mad Men—secretaries in typing pools. In this case, it’s a publishing house that bring these girls together.

What really gives the characters some depth is that they’re going against the grain for women of the era. but they’re not necessarily okay with it. For some, it’s not so much a choice to be single and working, rather a necessity—or at least a natural consequence—of some past experience. Caroline’s fiance broke off their engagement; Barbara has divorced her husband and is raising their young daughter. While being a single girl in the city is beyond common—maybe even the standard—in today’s society, all of these characters are experiencing life at a time when the norms are changing but haven’t quite changed yet. There’s a lot of conflict and tension you can feel between these girls and the world they live in. They’re not quite sure where they fit in, and you, the reader, start to feel a little out of place as well.

However, don’t get the impression that all of these characters are all strong, independent women that deserve resounding applause. Sometimes, they are terrible. And pathetic. And you want to yell at them because they’re actually taking a step backwards for women everywhere. But one of the fascinating things about this book is how relatable it can be. In this regard, it is sort of like Sex and the City, because something that someone does is probably going to strike a chord. As Jaffe was writing this, she shared pages with girls like her characters who were dying to read more, because finally, this was a story that felt true to their own lives.

So while you can finish this and say, “Thank god I don’t have to live in a world with such expectations,” the relationships, the loneliness, the uncertainties, and conflict between self and society—and all the emotions involved in finding one’s place—are still there. And you realize, there are more commonalities than you may want to admit!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

YA Reading, Round 11: Romance

This is it guys—THIS IS IT! This is the last YA Reading post, concluding my semester-long review of the YA books I read for my YA materials class in the fall. I have to say, though—while I am enjoying now getting to read what I want, my reading count has dropped drastically since I no longer have to cram in 3-4 books a week!

After all the sci-fi and adventure, I was really happy with the concluding genre of this class—romance! Finally! Light-hearted, cheesy, teenage angsty puppy love!

Sarah Dessen is very well known in the YA community, but Along for the Ride was my first encounter with her (not counting one day when a food truck outside of the Union Square Barnes & Noble was giving out free cupcakes in promotion of her then-newest book). In Along for the Ride, Auden is a quiet, somewhat haughty intellectual teen spending the summer with her dad and his new family in their quaint little beach town. Auden’s new stepmom is the exact opposite of the motherly figure Auden is used to. Where Auden’s mom is a serious feminist academic, Heidi owns a fashion boutique drowning in pink. Auden has put herself in an environment that is the opposite of everything she’s used to, and has usually judged with disdain, but the new environment is healthy; her summer experience is sort of opening her eyes to all she’s missed out on as a teenager—crushes, girlfriends, summer jobs, parties, etc. After befriending Eli, a fellow insomniac loner, Auden begins a quest to live like a teenager and open herself up to new experiences.

This is just the kind of book I would have loved as a teenager (ok, yes…and still as a 27-year-old). It’s a realistic story, with characters who are just learning from their experiences and trying to figure themselves out. Sort of made me miss the teen years. (Am I the only one that ever misses high school?) I get the feeling that Dessen’s books are fairly formulaic (feel free to refute if this is an incorrect assumption), but this can be good for many readers—easy to recommend their next read!

Ni-Ni Simone is an author who seems to have a similar repertoire as Dessen, but I guess she’s the more “urban” voice, as publishing defines “urban” (really, it’s just a racial/cultural difference). In Upgrade U, Seven has just started freshman year at Stiles University. Her roommate situation is great—her best friend Shae and new friend Khya; and her high school boyfriend Josiah is already a hot man on campus. Seven quickly learns, though, that college is not high school; life changes and people change. Her friendships are tested, and she’s starting to wonder if she can trust Josiah when she sees the same girl constantly hanging around him. The introduction of a hot new stranger, Zaire, leaves Seven questioning if what she has is what she wants of if it’s time to move on.

Hey, I liked this one too. Same kind of story format as Along for the Ride—simple, character-driven story that teens can really relate to. I think Upgrade U addresses that really awkward and emotional transition from high school to life after high school when you’re not really sure who you are or where you should be. The dynamic between Seven and her roommates was the most enjoyable part. Like Dessen’s books, if a teen likes this, the author has many more to read.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is one everyone has read by now, right? A lot of our class discussion on this book revolved around how you would describe, or pitch, this book to a teen. You don’t want to open with, “Well, it’s about two kids who have cancer…” because who wants to read a book about cancer? Guaranteed depression. Here’s essentially what we came up with: “Hazel and Augustus have a lot of similarities: they feel like outsiders, and they both really want to experience life and love. Their meeting begins a journey of discovery and experience, exactly as both had wished. Oh, and they both have cancer.”

I was expecting to read this one with more judgment than I could just because I’m usually that jerk that doesn’t want to like what everyone else does. But, I actually really liked this one. It wasn’t sappy; it wasn’t contrived; it wasn’t garnering sympathy by dealing with the big Cancer. Hazel hated cancer sympathy, and that attitude carried throughout the rest of the story. The two teens in the story have had to face more serious questions than most teens, but they’re still relatable to anyone—the feeling of isolation and loneliness and the desperate hope that you’ll find someone who just gets you. So yes, while it’s a book that has cancer in it, it’s not about cancer. Clearly the teens approve.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Revisiting Anne, Part 4: Anne of Windy Poplars

From what I remember of my high school reading of the Anne series, book four, Anne of Windy Poplars, is the most unique in style. At this point in Anne’s life, she has finished college and is working as the principal of Summerside High School, living in a quaint, cozy house with a couple of quirky old widows. She’s finally engaged to Gilbert who is a medical student in Kingsport. Anne of Windy Poplars starts as a series of letters from Anne to Gilbert during their three-year courtship apart. The voice switches back and forth between Anne’s letters and the third-person narrative we’re used to in the Anne books.

If you’ve seen the Anne of Avonlea movie, a good deal of the plot is taken from this book. Anne, as principal, finds herself up against the influential Pringle family that seems to own the way of the town. For the first time in Anne’s life, she’s up against folks that definitely could not be considered “kindred spirits.” They give no reason for disliking Anne; they just don’t like her. And she doesn’t understand that. So Anne is having her first brush with an attitude that resides outside of her optimistic fantasy-world. (Granted, it seems to happen a little late in life for her. In reality, that’s called adolescence!) It’s just the next step in Anne’s journey as she becomes a part of the world around her. Her world has been expanding throughout these four books, but this one has little connection to her comforts of home. (Never fear…Anne, of course, eventually wins them over as usual.)

This book, to me, feels a lot like Anne of Avonlea. You have your usual cast of quirky characters, while Anne faces challenges and naturally solves their problems; and the plot feels very episodic as she’s sharing snippets of life with Gilbert through her letters. I enjoyed this one more than Anne of Avonlea, but it’s almost to the point where Anne just seems too perfect for words. Aside from the episode with the Pringles (which is resolved in the first half of the book anyway), everyone worships Anne. Everyone loves her and she solves everyone’s problems. She almost doesn’t seem very realistic anymore; she’s described more akin to a saint than a human being! I find that frustrating after I spoke so highly of her character development in Anne of the Island. (Though I do still like the Katherine Brooke story.)

A little investigation tells me that this book was, in fact, written much later than the rest of the Anne stories, which perhaps explains the feeling that it’s simply filling in some of the gaps of time between the big events in Anne’s life with small, inconsequential anecdotes. (Book six, Anne of Ingleside, was actually the last one published, 31 years after Anne of Green Gables. I’ll have to keep that in mind and see if that’s obvious.) Ultimately, though, I guess these little episodes aren’t completely inconsequential because it’s the experiences that define the person. I just hope in the proceeding books, she’s painted as a bit more realistic person.