Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Concluding Thoughts on BAD MARIE

Fundamentals of Writing 101: A novel can have an amazing premise, but if you don’t care about the characters, it’s a dud. Characters are what draw you into the story, make it relatable, humanize it. Love them or hate them, characters are created to draw emotion out of the reader. You know the characters from the books you love; you can’t remember the ones from the books you don’t.

An opening line: “Sometimes, Marie got a little drunk at work.”

Simple. Effective comma usage. A+ in my book of excellent opening lines. It’s not bold and definitive—”Marie gets drunk at work.” Or toned down and giving the benefit of the doubt—”On occasion, when Caitlin is sleeping, Marie will have a drink while still technically on the job.” It’s ambiguity at its finest, urging you to read on and find out more about this “Marie.”

What we find out about Marie: she’s thirty years old; she just spent six years in prison for being an accessory to a bank robbery and murder. But Marie wasn’t any part of that, really. She was just a young girl madly in love, dragged into that unfortunate business. On the day Marie is released from prison, no one is there waiting for her. With no one to turn to, she ends up on the doorstep of her childhood friend Ellen’s brownstone and lands a job as nanny to Ellen’s two-year-old daughter, Caitlin. What follows is a journey of ups, downs, and bad decisions as Marie runs off to Paris with Caitlin and Ellen’s French novelist husband, Benoit Doniel, and makes her way across more than one continent with the titles “home-wrecker,” “kidnapper,” and “ex-con” chasing closely behind.
I couldn’t really like Marie just because of how lazy and screwed up she is and how many stupid, selfish decisions she makes, but for some reason, I felt a bit of empathy for her. Not a ton, but enough to keep me interested in reading. Her dynamic with Caitlin is perhaps the most telling—Marie hasn’t advanced much emotionally beyond a two-year-old. She does what she wants and takes what she wants without thinking her actions through, without weighing their consequences or considering their effect on others. She has a history of depending on people who are not strong enough to support even themselves, and inevitably, the dependent Marie is left to fend for herself. She’s hopelessly immature, and her morale rollercoasters between high and low. But most importantly, Marie never lives with regret.
I easily read the first half of this book within a matter of an hour or two. Dermansky sucks you in quickly, and you’re aching to know what happens next. But around page 130, I started to get bored with Marie and the places she was taking herself. It’s like, the author finished the picture of Marie and then just kept painting on details that didn’t add anything to the overall work. The places Marie went and the people she met didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know; they just reinforced the story rather than adding to it. And for me, it got a little tired. By the end, I was more interested in wrapping up the plot rather than the character, because I had no faith that Marie would change.
But alas, a character-driven story has a character-driven ending, and I was left a bit unsatisfied. However, Marie remains the most finely-crafted fuck-up I’ve encountered in a long while.
Oh, and the cover art completely ROCKS.
Bad Marie was released by Harper Perennial on July 1st.
Review copy provided by the publisher (at BEA).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where was Betsy-Tacy during my childhood? Part I

Sometime last fall, I suddenly heard all this hype around these old children’s books called Betsy-Tacy—a series that follows a couple of friends from childhood to adulthood. And I thought, “…why have I not heard of these before????” I’ve been such a reader my whole life that few children’s series have passed my radar undetected…and I’m still a sucker for children’s books. I usually read Harriet the Spy once a year, and all things Anne of Green Gables hold a special place in my heart. When I joined a local book club and one of the members who shares my love of classic juvenile fiction raved about Betsy-Tacy, I knew it was time to dive right in.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve quickly devoured the first four books in Maud Hart Lovelace’s series: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. [One book is the perfect length for the plane ride to Nashville.] As I expected, they’re pretty addicting.

Betsy-Tacy introduces us to Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly when they’re five years old, in the early twentieth century. Tacy moves in across the street from Betsy in a small Minnesota town, and the two become fast friends. Betsy-Tacy and Tib throws another player into the mix: Tib Muller—the new girl that moved into the beautiful brown house down the street at the end of Betsy-Tacy. The addition of Tib makes the duo a trio. Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill involves magical tenth birthdays and the discovery of a local immigrant population and befriending of a young Syrian girl. Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown takes the girls—so grown-up at twelve years old!—downtown to the public library and into the production of a traveling theater show.
The unofficial History Book of Friendship has always told us that “three’s a crowd,” but that’s no fun for children’s books; so Betsy, Tacy, and Tib get along perfectly well. They each have very distinct personalities—Betsy is, more often than not, the gang leader, a bit of a firecracker, but a bookworm at heart with a vivid and poetic imagination; Tacy is the shy one of the group who usually goes along with whatever Betsy says; and Tib is almost the antithesis of the other two—realistic, outspoken, and never afraid to take center stage. Together, these three have all kinds of adventures and discoveries as they learn how to grow up with each passing year.
Some fun facts about Betsy-Tacy:
  • The series is based on stories from Lovelace’s own childhood. She was inspired to put them on paper since they’d been repeated so much as bedtime stories to her daughter.
  • The characters are based on real people in the author’s life—her family and her two best friends.
  • Lots of these places and events really existed/happened, too. Lovelace was big on historical accuracy. The setting is pretty accurate, even down to there being an immigrant community in her small Minnesota town.
I can’t help but love simple stories like this series. It’s a world so foreign to us now—without technology. Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are entranced by a telephone and the first motor vehicle they see…can you imagine seeing those things for the first time? Inventions were a new, exciting possibility. And now the only new technological advancements seem to be replacing a 3G network with a 4G one…and I have no idea what that even means. I sound like an old geezer using the phrase “It was a simpler time,” but…it was. And sometimes that is really refreshing—to unplug, power off, and focus on what’s living and breathing right in front of you. I have a really hard time imagining what office work was like 20 years ago before everything was run by a computer. And now, how crippled are we when the internet is down in our offices? I have nostalgia for the days I never even lived, when we didn’t want or need information instantaneously and face-to-face interactions were the most frequent.
Other things:
  • I like how the reading level increases as the characters age. The first three read almost like easy readers from the 1950s, and the fourth immediately felt much more advanced.
  • Does anyone else think Tib is getting jipped with these book titles? It’s always “Betsy and Tacy _______.” Why no Tib??
  • I really want to get my hands on the recent re-release versions from Harper Perennial. LOVE the cover art style, good collection to own.
  • The NYPL doesn’t even have the next in the series, Heaven to Betsy, in circulation! Utter failure, NYPL. Now I have to hunt it down elsewhere!
So until then…are there any series that hold a special place in your heart?
PS, has anyone seen the Road to Avonlea series? Is it worth my time committing to on Netflix?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

In Conclusion: Stuck in memorial mode

I chose to read War Memorials by Clint McCown as part of the Spotlight Series on Graywolf Press. I picked this one based on two criteria: 1) the premise of small-town life sounded appealing, and 2) it was available at the New York Public Library [though, despite requesting it (twice) from the NYPL on June 23rd, it still had not been put into transit to my local branch by July 19th, so I just had to trek down to the West Village to pick it up (losing points, NYPL…losin’ points)]. And it was just a bonus that it ended up taking place in small-town Tennessee of all places. Win!

War Memorials is about Nolan Vann, the son of a WWII veteran who was inaccurately reported dead twice during the war, returning home to a successful career as a life insurance salesman. Nolan isn’t quite the local hero his father is. After his father fires him from the insurance company, he picks up work with a cousin as a repo man; he has no real ambition; and his marriage isn’t exactly one of great success. All in all, he’s just kinda going through the motions, while trying to have some big revelation and figure out what his life and what it all means.
Small towns intrigue me because of this: I grew up in a big city but one that is close enough to many small towns that the small-town way of life was still familiar. Fifteen minutes on the interstate in one direction leads me to the symphony hall, while fifteen minutes the other way leads to farmland where the pick-up truck is the most populous vehicle and rebel flags line tents selling fireworks (true story: just saw it while at home). It was a life I could not (and still cannot, really) picture living. I always drive through these areas and wonder how these people live. What do they do day to day? Where do they work? Where do they go to eat? What do they do for fun? And one great observation that McCown uses as a foundation for his whole story: why do small towns always seem to hang on so dearly to the past? Committees preserving an old theater or historic house, or fundraising to build a memorial. Always a war memorial. Reminding future generations that someone who frequented that very same drugstore on the corner where you fill your prescriptions played some part in an American war, allowing the historical record to imply that their livelihood, their memory is much more important than yours.
McCown’s writing is engrossing, because he says so much in simple ways. He has a great way of blending humor with the serious to create a story that isn’t too dark, but isn’t too comic either. He describes the unpredictability of any given day without ever exaggerating the action of it. He can take momentous events, like a snake bite or the accidental shooting (by arrow) of a local resturant owner (yes, so random and so amazingly creative), and humanize them, so we remember that real people are living through these things, reacting to them, dealing with them, and the drama of the event doesn’t take over.
I really enjoyed War Memorials. Nolan is a likable character because you just have to sympathize with a guy who feels stuck. It’s like he’s unhappy with the life he has, but he doesn’t know any other way; what do you do then? The answer I took away from the story is this—life has its imbalances but the uncertainty and the guesswork keep us going. So just go with it and try not to take it too seriously.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Book gushing over FINNY

It’s a really good and rare thing when you read the teaser of a book and think, “This will be amazing!” and then it actually lives up to the hype in your head and actually is amazing. That’s what happened with Justin Kramon’s debut novel, Finny.

Delphine “Finny” Short is a quirky, smart-alecky fourteen-year-old. And when I read in the teaser paragraph that this novel was going to follow this precocious character for twenty years of her life as she meets all kinds of eccentric, interesting characters, I said, “Ooooh, yes please!” because I love novels that follow a long period in a character’s life. As a teen, Finny gets a kick out of inciting a rise from her parents—a father who constantly quotes philosophers, writers, artists, and various other “Great Men,” and a mother who is super concerned with the public image of the Short family.

One day, Finny “runs away” but doesn’t get very far because she meets Earl, a boy who kind of ends up being a catalyst to the rest of Finny’s story. Once she meets Earl and his narcoleptic musician father, one event leads to another, introducing Finny to some interesting people and taking her far outside her rural Pennsylvanian town.

When you start reading a book that has just such an awesome premise and completely lovable, imperfect characters, you want to keep reading it forever. My go-to book with this description is Keith Maillard’s Gloria, a little-known masterpiece about a young woman navigating college and convention in the 1950s. And I love love love that book because it doesn’t matter what Gloria does—I still love her and sympathize with her and want to follow this character’s story until the day she dies. And Finny was kinda like this for me.

To make a great novel, though, there needs to be more than just an intriguing main character. Beyond this person, there needs to be a world that keeps both the character active, growing, and developing and keeps the reader entertained. The author built that for Finny, because as her world expanded, so did the reader’s. As Finny began boarding school and met her germaphobe dorm mother, Poplan, and her New York riche roommate, Judith, there was suddenly so much more potential to the story. Not that there wasn’t before—I just mean that as Kramon added characters and relationships, it just added layer upon layer of potential in the direction that Finny’s life would take. And as I’m already sucked into her world as she’s experiencing and questioning and developing as a person, that’s exactly what I want as a reader—to have no idea where this character is going to end up, but to love the journey so much that I don’t really care.

Kramon writes with purpose. From the succinct chapter titles that resemble elementary Reader titles (“Finny Meets a Boy”, “A Trip to the Principal’s Office”) to his poetic descriptions of inconsiderable emotions and moments, Kramon writes to paint a whole picture, to have you react to each supporting character as much as to Finny—good or bad, as long as you care. You get the impression from Kramon’s lovely descriptions that he really cares about this character he has created. And even if you don’t want it to end, or know how it will end, or, really, care how it all ends, you trust that he’ll let Finny end up okay.

Finny was released by Random House Paperbacks Tuesday, the 13th.
Review copy provided by the author.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Gooooal!

I took a look at Vladimir Nabokov’s Glory because I knew that it had a soccer element. And why not, as the world’s population is engrossed with the World Cup. Unfortunately the soccer in the novel is ever so slight, a subtle recurring theme – a trophy here, a description of goalkeeping there. Although soccer was underused, Glory itself was an interesting, slow-moving coming-of-age story that seems really more like a John Updike book than a Vladimir Nabokov one.

Martin Edelweiss’s parents are separated, and Martin lives with his mother in pre-revolutionary Russia. His father eventually dies, and Martin and his mother are forced to flee Russia when things get tough. Martin takes a liking to the ship that he’s on (he’s on a variety of modes of transportation throughout the book). His growing up seems airy and ephemeral – from one moment he’s sailing the Mediterranean in quest for a new live, in the next he’s up at Cambridge reading Russian literature and mocking poets. He befriends Darwin, a jocular, come-what-may kind of student. He falls in love with Sonia Zilanov, a girl from a family he meets out in England. Darwin also falls in love with her. They fight. They recover, even when Sonia rejects both of their marriage proposals. For his college team, Martin stops many balls from becoming goals.

It’s kind of a lazy story, as Martin really doesn’t have any goals in life. When he gets up to Cambridge, he doesn’t know what he wants to study (which is an oddity, as it’s usually mandatory to know what one wants to read there). When he graduates, he doesn’t have any idea what he wants to be. Even when he receives a soccer trophy as a gift, he’s not sure what to do with it – he fingers the stationary ball that’s under the soccer player’s foot. Falling in love with Sonia seems to be one of the few definitive things he does in life, and yet Sonia wants nothing to do with him, other than be friends.
Otherwise it is a relatively warm story. The characters are well cared for. As Nabokov writes in his introduction to the novel, ‘Martin is the kindest, uprightest, and most touching of all my young men; and little Sonia, of the lusterless dark eyes and coarse-looking black hair . . . should be acclaimed by experts in amorous lure and lore as being the most oddly attractive of all my young girls, although obviously a moody and ruthless flirt’. Although Nabokov himself may be employing aplomb, per usual, he’s not far off. Martin is a character that you must sympathise with. He seems like a typical 20th century male protagonist, trying to find his way in life without being able to settle down. There seems to be a similarity between Martin and Updike’s Rabbit.
Plus, it’s a good time to (re-)read Nabokov, as Vintage has taken the time to allow a redesign of all the covers due to the publication of The Original of Laura last year. They’re gorgeous.