Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading Roundup: Adventures for Youth

It’s been a good while since I read a graphic novel, so I decided to pick one from my list and request it from the library. The lucky chosen was Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends with Boys, a YA story about a girl, Maggie, who is starting high school after having been home schooled her entire life. Can you think about anything more terrifying than starting a new school—a new high school—having never stepped foot in a school before?

Maggie has three older brothers who have taken the plunge before her, though, so she’s not totally alone; she has them for backup as she tries to make friends and navigate her new campus. It also becomes clear that Maggie’s mother has recently left the family—though we don’t have too many details on that. Oh, also, Maggie is haunted by a local ghost. All things that are totally manageable, right?

The art is humorous and lighthearted, creating a fun dynamic between the characters in their daily high school lives. It’s also a multi-faceted story—Maggie’s trying to fit into her new school, meet new friends, adjust to a new family dynamic, and solve the mystery of what happened to this ghost that’s been following her. Friends with Boys is an enjoyable, quick read about a girl trying to fit in and find her place in a new environment.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is an odd little book I picked up at a book sale because I adored the cover. It’s hefty for a children’s book—almost 500 pages. Once you get into the story, though, you realize it’s quick to read and the plot is a puzzling adventure.

Reynie Muldoon is the hero of this story. When we first meet him, he’s living in an orphanage and encouraged by his tutor to answer a newspaper ad aimed at gifted children looking for special opportunities. So Reynie embarks on a journey to a mysterious location to take a mysterious set of tests, questioning what exactly is behind all of this with a handful of other children in his same boat. As the details are revealed, Reynie and his new friends Sticky, Kate, and Constance realize they’ve been recruited for a very serious mission. Essentially, the future of the world is in their hands.

The fun thing about this book is that you, the reader, have the opportunity to solve the puzzles alongside the characters—and you realize that each of their individual strengths have power; they may reach the conclusion in different ways, but all their methods of thinking are valuable. I think that’s a fun approach to life, in general. While this is an adventure story, it’s not incredibly fast-paced; a reluctant reader may get antsy for some action. However, I think it’s good for more mature middle grade readers, and this is just the beginning—there are three other titles in the series!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on Drugs, Class, and Modern Pakistan

Last month for my book club, we read Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke. I read his second, more well-known novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a couple years ago and quite enjoyed it, thus I really pushed for Moth Smoke during the decision-making part of our prior book club meeting. I remember thinking The Reluctant Fundamentalist would be great for discussion, and I hoped this one would be the same. [Honestly now, I can hardly remember a thing about TRF except that I liked it…and my review on it was too ambiguous to jog my memory!]

For a book that you read and feel has so much to discuss, it was actually another one of our unusually short discussions. Perhaps we felt the story was pretty straightforward; perhaps none of us had enough personal connection to the culture to really share insight; perhaps it left us in the same wordless daze I clearly felt when writing about TRF.

In Moth Smoke, the main character, Daru, is a young man clearly on a downward spiral. At the opening, we find out he’s on trial, and it’s the story’s subsequent flashbacks that give us the full picture. After getting fired from his banking job, Daru can’t find another job and eventually loses motivation to do so. Naturally, his funds dwindle and he finds himself surviving without the luxuries he once had. His casual habit of smoking weed spirals into a pervasive, though not crippling, drug addiction. Daru turns to drug dealing and a series of heists to keep money in his pocket, and you, the reader, are following his story knowing the ending, but wondering how he got there.

The notable thing about Moth Smoke is how slowly and naturally Daru’s downward spiral feels. It’s never set in a melodramatic light; even the big occurrences that signal his decline are told casually and without much fanfare. Further, the story is told through different perspectives—that if Daru, his best friend Ozi, and Ozi’s wife Mumtaz. As you read each of their words, you understand each of their perspectives. And it ends up diluting the gravity of Daru’s situation; essentially, we’re seeing several angles to the story, rather than a Daru-centric one.

I think one of the big takeaways from this book—and I believe from TRF as well, because the background of the two main characters were strikingly similar—is a statement on the influence of class in Pakistan culture. Daru and Ozi grew up together and attended the same well-to-do private school, but their different backgrounds dictated what they did with their adult lives. Daru grew up poor, was given the opportunity for a good education, but didn’t have the same wealth to fall back on in his adult life; he had to continue working for his place in society, and that left him with a lot of resentment.

The most interesting character to me was actually Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife. She attended college in New York with her Pakistan background mostly absent from her life, even dreading run-ins with traditional Paki boys she met. When she met Ozi, they married, had a child, and headed back to Pakistan, her life took a turn she was unprepared for; growing up so independent, so much an “American” woman, she strongly disagreed with the traditional role of wife and mother she was forced into under Pakistan culture. Mumtaz reminded of so many girls I met in college, wondering if they ever feel as conflicted about their cultural heritage as she was.

This book had a fairly positive response amongst our group, but I don’t think anyone really felt passionate about it. The main reason for that, as discussed, was just that no one really liked Daru. And you don’t have to always like your main character, but no one cared about him. He was ultimately a lazy individual that blamed everyone and everything around him for his current plight, without ever making a real effort at improving himself and his situation. And who has time for people like that?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Revisiting Anne, Part 6: Anne of Ingleside

After my somewhat disappointing re-read of Anne’s House of Dreams, I was pleasantly surprised by the 6th in the series, Anne of Ingleside. It almost felt like a return to the Anne I knew and loved; little details and remarks indicating that grown-up Anne is somewhat the same as adolescent Anne, with the same romantic view of the world and a bit of that driven individuality.

Once again, Anne’s world is expanding—as is her family!—as Anne moves beyond the beloved “house of dreams” of her and Gilbert’s early married days. Ingleside is their new home, and though Anne misses that cute little first home dearly, she’s finally fallen in love with Ingleside as well. Gilbert and Anne are parents to 5…6?…kids (I lose count), and they start to take center stage in this installment. We meet the Blythe kids through their own stories—the same kind of hijinks and heartbreaks that we followed with Anne as she grew up. Jem, the eldest and most independent, yet a sensitive soul; Nan and Diana, the fraternal twins who constantly fall victim to the emotional traps of girlhood; the romantic Walter with an imagination that runs wild; and I think there is another one or two, but I can’t remember him/her. We also spend a lot of time with Susan, the hired help we met in Anne’s House of Dreams. She’s that wonderful nanny figure who just adores the kids she, actually, helps raise.

I think the rest of my thoughts on this book can best be summed up in a nice PRO and CON list, but overall, I did like it much better than the last one. It does have that bittersweet sort of feeling, though…where you feel Anne’s story is almost done, and the childhood innocence and upbringing is over. We’ve moved on to the next stage in her life, which, to us readers, can feel much less entertaining, but to Anne, you’re certain it’s even more exciting.

PRO: The story begins with a great interaction between Anne and Diana (bosom friend, not offspring) in Avonlea, reflecting on their childhood days and giggling like kids again. You realize they’ve never lost it.
CON: See above paragraph.

PRO: We reunite with characters like Marilla and Rachel and Miss Cornelia.
CON: It’s a very very brief reunion. I fear they are lost to us now, fellow reader.

PRO: We get a snippet of an Anne motivated outside her matronly role; she does a bit of writing, including one very troublesome obituary.
CON: I emphasize “a bit” because this is definitely not the focal point of Anne’s life. She has settled down, and the motivated Anne of her youth seems to have fizzled. Maybe she’s okay with this life of wifehood and motherhood, but I am always disappointed that the Anne stories didn’t give her more. It feel so much like settling for the precocious girl we knew.

CON: Where is Gilbert? Seriously, he’s such an outlier, it’s like he doesn’t exist. Movie Gilbert is so much better than book Gilbert. (Jonathan Crombie, be still my heart.)
PRO: The scenario involving Gil’s old flame, Christine Stuart, with Anne and Gil was pretty fabulous. It finally made Gilbert an active character, albeit briefly. And it showed an Anne with flaws and jealousy…just like a normal person.

I’m afraid, from what I remember at least, that Anne of Ingleside is the last of the true Anne stories that actually involve Anne—though I think many Anne fans would argue that House of Dreams is that. (I thought she still played a large role in this one, though she did share the limelight with her kids.) The last two books in the series are so majorly focused on her children that Anne becomes a true background character, if she’s in them at all (can’t remember!). Farewell, dear Anne!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Fiction | Whatever Happened to the Novaks?

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh is not a book that eases you into the story. You are thrown into the middle of Novak family history and left to sort through who’s who and what’s happening to them. That doesn’t mean it’s confusing, though. This is a family saga that hops from one family member to another, sharing each person’s experiences as the decades pass.

Bakerton is one of Pennsylvania’s many coal mining towns that saw a boom of industrial growth with World War II. It’s a town defined by the coal mines—the company owns the houses; they own the general store. Unless you’re a member of a more elite class, the coal mines define your entire livelihood. And background doesn’t matter. Bakerton is a melting pot of Irish-, Polish-, Italian-Americans.

The story begins with the death of the Novak family patriarch. His widow, Rose, is left raising five very different children—George, the eldest who left Bakerton early for the war and rarely looked back; Dorothy, who returns to Bakerton emotionally fragile after years working as a young woman in DC; Joyce, the strong, militant daughter that takes control of the Novak family after her own stint with the Air Force; Lucy, the youngest daughter, always doted upon and, as a result, struggling with her own sense of self; and Sandy, the youngest son, raised in a world entirely different than older brother Georgie, a free spirit that wheels and deals his way around the country.

Baker Towers follows each of these characters as they find their own places in the world for the next thirty years or so. While they each have their own personal conflicts, much of it is tied to their relationships with both family and town. Bakerton is as much a character in this novel as any member of the Novak family. It follows its own rollercoaster of ups and downs; it directly affects its residents and their lifestyles. It pushes these characters away but the ties are strong and cannot be broken so easily. This story is especially one of Bakerton as a town so strongly defined by industry; its very existence is dependent on its livelihood. So what happens what that is threatened?

This sweeping saga is subtle, as time creeps along, and these contrasting characters reflect their own time and upbringing. It’s a story of town and family when you’re not quite sure which one has a stronger grasp on the characters. If you like this one, I recommend picking up An American Family by Peter Lefcourt for a very similar trip through one family’s history.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nonfiction | America by Highways and Byways

On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.

There’s something about road trips that holds a special place in the American psyche, that has inspired generations of folks to hit the open road and discover what makes this country tick—the forgotten towns and the people in them forgotten, too. One thing I took away from college in New York was the reminder that “there’s a whole other country out there; you’re living in a bubble, and there are as many ways to live as there are people.” Road trips have always been about discovering those people and those ways of life, and probably discovering something about yourself along the way.

At least, that’s the romanticized version you usually read about.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon takes us on a journey around America by the back roads. The author strays from the interstates and highways and circles the country via the back roads that wind through those small forgotten towns. Escaping, however impermanently, from the fizzling end of a relationship, he sets out in a makeshift fort of his own—a trusty old van equipped with sleeping and cooking utilities—to “discover America.” Along the way, he meets an America that is “disappearing.” [Though, seeing as how this book was published thirty years ago, it’s probably already gone.]

This is about one person out to explore, without anything particular in mind. It’s about the journey being more important than the destination. And it’s a reminder that there’s more out there than what you see every day.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was the author’s style of writing. He shares his experiences with a frankness and honesty that conveys his own confusion or apathy or curiosity during his journey; he paints small scenes that capture a moment that can say so much without words. Mostly, though, he serves as kind of a straight-man riding through the country, letting the experiences bounce off him so that we can more clearly see them. As he rolls up in small towns and converses with strangers, we see little glimpses into these ways of life that are probably very different than our own.

I don’t think any record of “travel writing” can truly convey the vastness and diversity of a place and/or its people, because travel writing is so inextricably linked to the writer, the one voicing the experiences. But it does introduce you to people you’ve never met, places you’ve never seen, and fuel that drive to hit the road and experience for yourself.

I wish there was a cross-country road trip memoir that is more current (and if there is one and I’m missing it, feel free to share). Society is a lot different now than it was in 1979 and I’d like to see if that small-town isolation still exists in our current technologically-driven and -connected world.

If you like this, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins is another travelogue from the same era with a similar feel. And that’s one of my all-time favorites.