Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fiction | Learning to Love the Unexpected

Back when I first read Sarah Dessen for my YA class last fall, I knew she would become a go-to when I wanted a wonderful, light, teen-angsty read. I found The Truth About Forever at the book barn back in the spring and have been holding onto it for the right moment ever since. [I also discovered the Nashville Public Library has, I think, her entire collection available for eBook check out, so I am definitely all set for the future.]

When I first read the synopsis for this book, I thought I might be offended: its main character Macy is spending her summer at a “boring job in the library” filling in for her perfect boyfriend who is away at Brain Camp. A) Boring job at the library, no such thing. B) I am offended you would even suggest as much. But ok, I know not every teenager has such a library-obsessed attitude as I did, so I decided to let it slide. In Macy’s story, she’s spending her summer this way because it’s all part of her plan. She’s very organized, very driven, and very safe. She’s been that way since her dad died suddenly of a heart attack. Unable to cope with something she could never control, she tries to control everything else in her life. It’s what helps her get through.

But living as Macy does is no way to live. Her plan leaves no room for error, for spontaneity, for adventure, for experience. When perfect boyfriend Jason decides to put their relationship on hold, from a distance, Macy starts to lose control…but this time she holds on for the ride. A new job with an eclectic catering company, new friends, and new experiences helps Macy open up and finally face the grief she’s worked so hard to smother.

I get the feeling that Sarah Dessen’s books are somewhat formulaic, and based on what she writes, I think that’s unavoidable. She writes about real, relatable characters that, yes, can be considered unique as every individual is indeed unique. But they’re all very normal. The settings are very Anywhere; the situations can happen to Anyone. Is this a turn-off? Heck no! As a kid, I always preferred “normal” stories about real people and real settings than anything fantastical, and I’m mostly still that way. Dessen’s books are a great escape into a life that could be your own but isn’t your own. And to prevent burn-out or that formulaic feeling, maybe space out your Dessen reading.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on an Anthropological Botswanan Journey That’s Really a Love Story

I’ve talked about all the light reads I’ve been working my way through this fall, but my October book club choice was the opposite of a light read. Take one look at Mating by Norman Rush and everything about it says heavy read. It’s almost 500 pages; those pages are nearly transparent; even the cover makes you think, “…Oh, this is definitely literary.”

These surface judgments were only half accurate. If a book can be both dense and easy to read at the same time, then this one does that. Let me explain: the narrative isn’t told in a hard-to-understand way; the language is fairly conversational, and there is a plot there—it’s not just musings. But it’s actually this casual language that makes this book take a lot longer to read than most. (To give you an example, I had 200 pages left on the Thursday before our meeting, and that night I read from about 6pm to 11:30 pm, minus about 45 minutes, to finish those 200 pages. It took that long. My usual approximate 1 pg/min rate did not apply here.) Dialogue punctuation is non-existent, so you really have to get in the flow of what’s happening to follow. (Not a book that can be read in short little 10 min subway commute chunks.) Also, the language is sort of stream of consciousness but not in a totally rambling way. More of a, this is how I would say it if I were talking to a person, with interrupting clauses and without correct sentence structure, way. 
So now that I’ve given this great rundown on how this book is written, you probably want to know what it’s actually about. The year is somewhere around 1980. Our unnamed narrator (and she remains unnamed throughout the entire novel—a fact I didn’t realize until our discussion) is an American anthropologist in Botswana. She’s around 32, highly intellectual, highly independent, and also incredibly curious about people. Specifically, her relationships with people. We gather early on that this narrative is a recollection; she’s telling us, from the beginning, about her relationship with one Nelson Denoon, the fascinating but mysterious founder of an alleged utopian society out in the desert. Denoon becomes our narrator’s obsession, as she is bound and determined to venture to this settlement and make herself part of Denoon’s life.
While this book is somewhat plot-driven, what’s most interesting is the story running below the surface. At the basic level, you have this woman on her own in Botswana, seeking out a man out of curiosity. A bit deeper, though, Mating is about this woman and how she makes decisions, and this relationship and how these two people interact. The setting alone could be its own story, but Mating isn’t really about the setting so much. It’s more about our narrator and Denoon, their lives simply set against an interesting backdrop. Our narrator is a unique character in a unique setting. Perhaps it’s this quality and this quality alone that made her feel like a somewhat distant character, unrelatable to a degree. But Mating also felt very much like a product of its 1980s time, and maybe 32 in 1980 is very different than 32 in 2013. (E.g. At 28, I’m at the point where I related more to 30 than 20, but I felt nothing in common with our narrator.)
To be honest, I expected to get a lot more out of our discussion. And maybe we did dig deeper, but I had two glasses of wine at our meeting and then stayed up way too late…so I could just be forgetting all our ground-breaking points of discussion! Either way, I did enjoy this book and it felt good to stretch my heavy duty reading muscles for a change. To me, reading serves one or two purposes, sometimes both at the same time: it provides entertainment and it, in some way, educates. Sometimes one trumps the other when you choose a book off the shelf, but both are fabulous.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Revisiting Potter, Part 2: The Chamber of Secrets

Continuing on my re-read of the Harry Potter series, and I am just so glad I am doing this. My brain that has been oh-so distracted this year (as I mentioned before) is extra excited by fun reads. The only books I’ve been able to devour recently are ones that are enjoyable and don’t require too much deep thought. I like broadening my reading horizons more than most, but I haven’t enjoyed light reads this much since my high school Chick-Lit binge.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is where we meet some series regulars, like Dobby the House Elf (who drives me nuts) and Moaning Myrtle, and the annoying and pretentious guest star, Gilderoy Lockhart, who is really just worthless. It’s also where we get to know the youngest Weasley, Ginny. Other than these folks, we’ve already been pretty well introduced to the characters we’ll follow through the rest of the series. Loyalties and intentions have been proven—we known Ron, Harry, and Hermione are a team, and the Malfoys are of a dubious character. Harry has made a home at Hogwarts, settled in, more comfortable and confident than in the series’ previous title.

The main plot here (so I don’t forget, because I know by book 6 all these stories will inevitably run together in my brain) is that someone, or something, is attacking students at Hogwarts, leaving them in frozen, petrified state. Harry and his gang have heard rumors about something called the Chamber of Secrets, a room hidden in Hogwarts by Salazar Slytherin that only his true heir can open. Rumor also has it that the Chamber has been opened before, and Harry embarks on a mission to find out the truth and stop the attacks.

Remember how I said in my first post about Potter that the series sets up what’s to come from the very beginning? I still think that’s true, but it’s subtle in these early stories. Chamber of Secrets is another action-adventure story with good characters and good humor but without monumental revelations…unless you know the whole series and can see the hints Rowling leaves. [ie: Having read the whole series, we can see the pattern in the things of Voldemort’s that Harry destroys…but it’s not completely clear yet.] All of this doesn’t make Chamber of Secrets any less enjoyable. I love these characters. And I love that what happens to them is so quintessentially them. [Ron is really the best.]

Because this is only my second time reading this series, I have nowhere near enough knowledge or familiarity to judge them against one another. Maybe that will change as I get deeper into the series, but for now, they’re all just so fun and so imaginative. It constantly blows my mind how much attention Rowling paid to the smallest details, and how completely immersed the reader gets in the Potter World via the tiniest plot points, like de-gnoming the garden and the Howlers. Overall, I look forward to seeing how the pieces of the Potter Puzzle unfold.

And in following up from my last HP musing with the profound words shared by Dumbledore, this is without a doubt probably the gem from Book 2:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

It’s Fall! Reading Roundup: Part 2

It’s a miracle I haven’t created another back log of books to write about in the time since my last post, but my reading pace seems to be way down this year from years past. I guess you could chalk it up to being a busy year, but I also haven’t had any reading projects or read anything super amazing lately. I actually just wasted about a week’s worth of reading time on a book I eventually had to abandon. [A story about a flock of sheep solving their shepherd’s murder sounds so amazing, right? Well, Three Bags Full did not live up to my expectations.]

Anyway, to start Part 2 of my quick reading roundup, we have The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell. The length is short, appealing to my distracted brain; the setting, historical; the perspective, varied. Rowell depicts the very ordinary lives of several different folks, from New York down to DC, as the Bobby Kennedy funeral train rolls through. The year, obviously, is 1968 as the country is embroiled in Vietnam and Civil Rights conflicts. But what Rowell tries to show is the relationship between these very big things and people’s very small day-to-day lives. You see things happening on the news and read them in the paper, but then you turn the TV off and put down the paper and they become back matter, because you have bigger crises and conflicts in your own immediate life.

I liked this story, because it didn’t try and link everything together to sum up with some big conclusion. It was a snapshot of individual lives and their interaction with the surrounding world. The characters weren’t all connected in some sort of Love Actually type web; their situations were different but their experiences were all a product of their time. Simple and thoughtful.

Tish Cohen’s The Truth About Delilah Blue, like Evenings at the Argentine Club, as been sitting on my shelf for about as long as I’ve had this blog. And in my quest to read what has thus far remained unread, I finally picked it up. It’s actually unfortunate I let it sit there so long, because it was different than I expected…and I really liked it a lot. Lila is a young woman living in LA with her father, always believing her mother abandoned her at a young age. Lila’s own life is sort of unsettled. Her interests lie in art, but her father won’t pay for art school. So, she’s taking to the osmosis theory of learning by working as a nude model and picking up what she can from the classes. Her father, who’s been her protector and confidante as long as she can remember, is developing early onset Alzheimer’s but remains mostly in denial about it. Lila’s world really turns upside down when her mother comes back into her life, and everything she believed about her past is thrown into question.

That sounds like a very melodramatic plot, but it’s not told in a melodramatic way. The reader is always privy to both sides of the story, and we’re left, like Lila, trying to figure out what to feel and what to do about it all. The story is actually very moderately paced, lending to the tone of realistic, rather than contrived, drama. This is a good mix of a character-driven and plot-driven story that keeps your attention.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It’s Fall! Reading Roundup: Part 1

It feels like I haven’t done a reading roundup in a while because I’ve actually stayed on top of my review writing! I guess that is pretty representative of my summer—it was gloriously relaxed after what was a very hectic, stressful spring. WELL, it’s back to a busy fall with work and class (last semester!) and too many other things on the docket that seem to keep me busy nearly every waking hour. (So maybe some of those “things” are actually just binge-watching Revenge, but it’s still an important thing!) Anyway, it’s time I play catch up before I get unmotivated from being too far behind…

Alice Mattison’s When We Argued All Night is an epic story of friendship, following two Brooklyn boys Harold and Artie through several decades of their lives. Beginning in 1936, we meet two young men who are full of ideals, trying to find their place in world that feels chaotic. Through their personal lives (jobs and wives and children) and what’s happening in the world around them (World War II, the Red Scare, and Flower Power), Harold and Artie remain each other’s counterpart and confidante. Somehow.

Harold and Artie have the type of friendship that seems incredibly toxic because it’s so competitive. They feud like crazy, but we have to somehow believe that their relationship behind the words the author put on the page is actually full of love and respect. I couldn’t really feel it…because they were both just so selfish! I didn’t find either of them very likable—their flaws were certainly apparent!—but I enjoyed the book because I liked the structure of the story. I love the multi-generational saga; I love reading about characters strongly shaped by their time. So while this book may supposed to have been about friendship, I liked the historical aspect better. Peter Lefcourt’s An American Family has that same sweeping saga structure.

Evenings at the Argentine Club by Julia Amante is one of the very first books I got from a publisher as a result of this blog…which means it’s been sitting on my shelf a long time! This was the perfect choice to follow When We Argued All Night because I knew it would be light, enjoyable, and really fit the mood I wanted. (Sometimes, you just have to save a book for years, waiting for the right moment to read it!) This story centers around Victoria, the eldest daughter of Argentine immigrants who have made their life in California owning a popular Argentine restaurant. Victoria has always been deeply connected to her family and culture, helping with the restaurant at the expense of her own dreams. She’s never had much of a relationship; she wasn’t ambitious with college; and she’s never thought much about it until an old school and family friend, Eric, returns and reminds her about a life outside their close-knit Argentine community.

This actually reminded me quite a bit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, just in terms of theme and characterization. But that’s not to say this is just a re-telling of that story with a different culture. Victoria is her own character, and it’s enjoyable to see her determination and success as she blossoms on her own. Definitely a quick and fun light read that’s the perfect antidote to the heavier stuff.