Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fiction | Resisting History

You remember Oliver Stone’s JFK? (I know…who doesn’t? It’s a pop culture icon, also infamous from an episode of Seinfeld.) Well when I first saw that movie, that whole conspiracy thing got me—hook, line, and sinker. I Wikipedia-ed the crap out of everything relating to that assassination (because, yes, I first saw JFK so recently that Wikipedia existed).

Anyway, to say that the plot of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 intrigued me is putting it mildly. JFK assassination AND time travel? What an amazing combination! I’m not exactly sure why it took me so long to read this book. I’d heard of “that new Stephen King book” since it first came out when my mom thought about buying it as a gift for Colin, but I knew nothing about it; just figured it was another Stephen King book. When I saw it on the library shelves recently, though, an uncontrollable impulse just lead my arm to reach out and grab it, so then it was pretty much decided. I was going to read it.

And it’s actually the first and only Stephen King book I’ve ever read.

The plot of this book, for those of you still as clueless as I was, can be summed up in a sentence: Modern-day English teacher Jake Epping finds a wormhole that leads back to 1958, and he decides to take a stab at changing the course of history by stopping the assassination of our 35th President.

That’s putting it simply. In its 849 pages, this book gets sooooooo much more complex. We jump through the portal as Jake does, discover its quirks as he does, put the pieces of the puzzle together as he does. And we’re left to decide, as he is, if a different course of history would necessarily be better.

At 850 pages, 11/22/63 qualifies as a top-shelf chunkster, but it reads so unbelievably fast that you won’t even notice it. I am not exaggerating when I say this story sucked me in, completely and hypnotizingly. I got so caught up in this fantasy world that it put me in a daze whenever I stopped reading. King pays such ridiculously close attention to detail that you do forget you’re sitting in 2012 reading a fictional story. And further, the plot has got that same feature of The Shadow of the Wind in that it covers any and all genres that may interest you. Action, sci-fi, history, romance—it’s all thrown in and mixed together to create this really amusing and thought-provoking ride through history. Because say somehow, some way, you can change history…do you think it really wants to change?

Monday, September 17, 2012

YA Reading, Round 2: Contemporary

This week’s theme in my YA Lit class was contemporary life, with subjects like coming-of-age, identity, relationships, and so on and so on. It was quite a departure from last week’s classic YA novels, and it’s pretty amazing just how many types of stories are available to the YA audience. The three books I read were each very different in plot and theme and appropriate for very different audiences. They each contained a story that would resonate with its audience, though—stories that would hopefully connect to their readers.

The most lighthearted of the bunch, Maryrose Wood’s My Life: The Musical, is a pretty simple story about a pair of Broadway-obsessed best friends. Emily and Philip haven’t been able to stop thinking about Aurora since the first time they saw the show. Literally — it’s all they talk about, all they write about; Emily has even been ordered not to write another English class paper on anything relating to Aurora or Broadway. However, rumor starts that their favorite show is about to close, and the desperate Emily and Philip are forced to think of life beyond Aurora while grappling with many of their own day-to-day issues.

This was sort of the most painful one to read, simply because it reminded me of my own high school days when I was beyond obsessed with Buffy. I cringed just thinking back on myself then and how I let a TV show consume my life. On a whole, though, it’s just a light read for the right teen. A theatergoer is the obvious target, but someone with a really strong interest in some form of media would find this relevant. It has a titch of identity-awareness as Philip questions his sexuality, but that plot point doesn’t dominate the story.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson is apparently a pretty well-known YA pick as of late. The story follows a high school senior, Tyler, who used to be your average overlooked high school boy until he got busted for graffiti art on his school’s building. Since then, he’s gotten himself a rep, and he’s having some trouble adjusting to his new identity. Trouble seems to follow him now, and, worst of all, people expect it to. A string of events that could seriously affect his future leads him to question everything in his world.

This book carries quite the punch. It deals with some serious identity issues, especially as they interact with environment — parents, siblings, school, peers. Tyler is struggling with all of these things internally, as many teens do, but he has the added complication of an external identity shift. I think that’s a very realistic predicament, and it’s often out of an individual’s control; people will make up their own minds, and that’s often very difficult to change. Add on to that, Tyler has a poor support system in his parents, and he has trouble finding help. Twisted isn’t a downer, really, but it does deal with some serious topics that are pretty universal to the teen brain.

Matt de la Pena’s Mexican WhiteBoy is probably the one I enjoyed the most, partly because it dealt with a specific community of people, one that is foreign to me. Danny is half white and half Mexican. He’s spending the summer with his dad’s family in San Diego because he wants to be closer to his dad who’s somewhere in Mexico. However, he’s the only one that doesn’t speak Spanish, and he feels just about as out of touch as I would in his situation. Oh, but he can throw a baseball. Like, seriously throw it. So there’s that to get him through. Danny’s summer opens his eyes to a lot about himself and his family and helps him find a place in a world he’s never felt a part of.

Danny doesn’t talk much, but you still understand how he feels, and he has a lot of the identity issues that any teen may have, not just teens of mixed race. I really noticed the dialogue between the characters and how casual it felt. It never felt like forced conversation of the author trying to imagine what a group of teens may say; it felt like he just jotted down a conversation he had recorded. I think this book would be good for a reluctant reader because it’s fairly short and it doesn’t try to smack the reader in the face with a big message or moral. It’s just a good story about a simple character trying to figure it all out.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fiction | Maggie Now or Never

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been one of my favorite books since I was about 17, and I’ve only re-read it once since then.

One of the great things about it? I never remember the story exactly; I just remember how it made me feel. And whatever that feeling was, it was great. That’s my favorite kind of book—the kind that sticks with you not because of the plot, but because it made you feel so amazing during and after reading it.
Since A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I’ve tried to pick up some of Smith’s other novels. I read Joy in the Morning a year or so ago, and when I saw Maggie-Now—one I’d never heard of—at a book conference this winter, I picked it up to add to my collection, expecting great things.
Maggie-Now is the daughter of a reckless Irish immigrant, Patsy, who married Maggie’s mother mostly just to prove something to her father. Patsy was a lowly stableboy when he first came to America, Brooklyn specifically (obviously, since this is a Smith novel). The daughter of the household for which he was working, Mary, took a liking to him. Her father was not a fan of these affections, but they proceeded with a marriage anyway. Once we’re post-wedding, Maggie-Now enters the scene—a curious, mischievous, bright-eyed girl who earned her nickname by people always yelling after her, “Maggie, now stop doing that,” or, “Maggie, now come inside,” etc, etc. When Mary dies in childbirth with Maggie’s much-younger brother, Maggie’s life changes as she takes control of a house and child while still just a teenager.
Despite quite a long build-up to even get to Maggie’s story, the rest of the novel follows the decades of her life—from raising her brother almost as a son, to falling in love with a travelling man, to the never-ending daily struggles with her quarrelsome father. Maggie-Now matures before our eyes through the slow, gradual pace of the novel. My favorite reflection of hers:

What a pity, she thought, that you get used to things and never see them again the way you saw them for the first time.

I think that all the time.

Maggie-Now was written with a tone nearly identical to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The structure is similar—following a young girl protagonist as she learns the ins and outs of life, its joys and disappointments. But this book did not have nearly the same effect. Why is that?
Frankly put, I couldn’t much sympathize with Maggie-Now. I read one comment on this novel that called her the “proverbial doormat” and I think that’s it, dead-on. She lets the men in her life walk all over her. And she claims she wants this lifestyle, but I can’t accept that. For someone who was so precocious and full of life as a child, her character just…sagged. Once she passes out of adolescence, she lacks the spunk, the independence, the backbone, and the curiosity that made A Tree‘s Francie such a strong character. Overall, I found this story lacking, because I just couldn’t get behind the character that the reader was so clearly supposed to support. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the two, but the books are so similar in tone that it’s hard not to, and it helps decipher why this one just fell flat.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reading Roundup: Tales from Across the Pond

According to my “recently read” shelf, I unintentionally took a literary trip across the pond, hopping from Scotland to England for these two imports. They’re not exactly Jane Austen, but at least they still serve afternoon tea.

The incomparable Maisie Dobbs—do you know how difficult it is to get a hold of this book from the NYPL? I was on the wait list for an embarrassingly long amount of time! I first tuned into this series after seeing some promotional pieces in a publisher’s booth at a library conference (can’t remember which one). I love a good series, so I immediately put myself on the hold list, having no idea it would take so long. (At this rate, I will move out of New York before even getting to book 3.)

At the story’s opening, we learn that it’s London in 1929, and Maisie Dobbs has set herself up as a private investigator, following in the footsteps of her beloved, and retired, mentor. Most of this book, though, tells Maisie’s backstory—her humble beginnings as a housemaid, her unconventional education, and her nursing experience during WWI. Though the series has fallen into the Mystery genre, this one was more historical than mystery, as Winspear painted an elaborate backstory to the character we’ll follow for many more books down the road. You get a good grasp of English society post-WWI and come to understand how unique Maisie is as a woman with a profession. I think this will be a fun, light series. I probably won’t remember them all in detail, but I’ll enjoy reading them.

Jane Gardam’s Old Filth—not about a dirty old man, instead an old lawyer who Failed In London, Try Hong Kong; our protagonist has lived quite the international life. Old Filth (a nickname, of course) was born to an Englishman in the Eastern Empire, turned “Raj” orphan once his mother died, but “saved” by a missionary and shipped back to England. There, he jumps from place to place, never fully connected to a family but funded by his absent father. University leads to law; law leads to Hong Kong; retirement leads back to England, where Old Filth never feels fully settled.

My book club read this over a year ago, and I had purchased the book but was unable to attend the meeting. The Book Club Member Whose Opinion I Trust really liked this book and thought I would, too…but I found it just ok. I liked the overall structure of the story, in that it was like storytelling on why this part of his life affected that part of it and affected who he is now. I keep reading how the story is very Dickensian, though, and based on my limited experience with both this book and Dickens, I would have to agree. Normally, I really like character-driven stories, but maybe my tastes are changing a bit; I find it hard to really like such a book if I don’t have very strong feelings for the character in it. And that’s how I felt about our Old Eddie Feathers; he was just kinda there. I chuckled at some incidents and sympathized with him at others, but overall, I wasn’t head-over-heels compelled by his story. But many many others disagree with me, so maybe it’s just me. The Man in the Wooden Hat is Gardam’s follow-up—which I have that on my shelf—so maybe I’ll try that one out, too.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Revisiting Anne, Part 1: Anne of Green Gables

I’ve posted before about my epic love affair with Anne of Green Gables and the recent completion of my own personal set of the series—a collection process lasting well over a decade! Though I’ve read the entire series before, I haven’t picked one up since high school, and I thought now would be a good time to slowly make my way through the series again.

I have to say, my introduction to Anne began with the CBC miniseries, and I don’t actually remember my first experience with the classic novel. Unlike most stories I’ve read over and over and love from the bottom of my heart, I can’t remember anything about how that first encounter long ago with Anne of Green Gables made me think or made me feel; I can’t remember where I was when I read it; I don’t know if I savored it or sped through it. So in some regard, despite already knowing and loving the story, this re-read is like reading it for the first time. Maybe my thoughts will come back to me, but maybe I’ll form new ones.

The opener of the Anne series is nearly identical to the first film, and reading the book now, it’s hard to separate the two. Anne is an endearing character—optimistic, curious, and always always thinking—but she’s not without her faults. She’s vain, occasionally selfish, impulsive, and rash. She has the imagination of a child, which constantly gets her into trouble. I’ve never been able to really relate to Anne throughout our history, because I’ve always felt my personality to be so incredibly different than hers. Reading it now—as a person who is, by definition, an “adult,” but still so determinedly refuses to grow up for good—I can see how I’ve always connected to Anne…

She refuses to grow up for good, too. In this first book, we watch Anne develop from early adolescence to her “grown up” late teens. As she matures, the lovable, troublesome faults of her youth are “pruned down and branched out,” as she says, but she hasn’t lost the curiosity and imagination and introspection of her childhood days; she has just learned how to control them to keep her out of scrapes. Anne is still the same Anne, and will always be the same Anne, no matter how old she is.

Beyond the title character, Montgomery’s descriptions of people, places, and relationships have always made these stories special, because those descriptions appeal to my Anne-like sensibilities. I read them with all my senses, permanently locking those feelings in my brain as a special memory, as you only can when you know how something looks and smells and tastes and feels for those experiencing it.

As I re-read this series as an adult, and follow Anne on her own journey through life, I wonder if maybe I’ll find more to relate to in the characters and stories. Maybe I’ll see them from a new perspective, or maybe they’ll just remain the sentimental stories I’ve always loved. Either way, I’m sure I’ll enjoy them.

It’s not too late to hop on the read-along! I’ll be reading Anne of Avonlea this month, and moving on to Anne of the Island in October. Join in — I’d love to hear your Anne experiences!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

YA Reading, Round 1: Classics

You’re going to start seeing a lot of YA books on this blog.

This semester, one of the classes I’m taking is called Materials for Young Adults…and basically that just means reading a lot of YA books. The purpose of the class is simply to make one familiar with YA materials—based on genre, interest, ethnicity, reading level, certain issues, etc, etc. While I’ve never been averse to YA books, and read them voluntarily from time to time, much of the genre does not pique my interest. Teenage angst, dystopian realities…these are just things I don’t really care to read about. But now I am going to have to…and there are a lot of them to read! Since this is going to take up a good chunk of my reading time, and these are books I’m supposed to sort of remember for my future career, this is going to be the start of a little series I’ll just have to call “YA Reading.” I’ll mix in my opinion with some comment on its appeal to its intended audience.

These first two titles are labeled “Classics” by my course syllabus, and I haven’t read either of them before. (That is the point of this class—read things you haven’t encountered.)

Robert McCormack’s The Chocolate War was one I’d heard of but always surmised it to be similar to the good-humored The Pushcart War. It is not.

The Chocolate War tells the story of one boy, Jerry Renault, who refuses to sell chocolates during his (boys’ Catholic) school annual fundraiser. It starts out as a simple enough prank, masterminded by the school’s not-so-secret society, The Vigils, but his continuing refusal defies the very structure upon which the school and its students run.

This is definitely one of those typical required reading books for the 7th or 8th grade, because it is filled with tons of the ‘themes’ and ‘motifs’ and ‘metaphors’ that junior high English teachers love to analyze. In fact, I can hear my own 7th grade English teacher as she drilled the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man” into our heads, because it would apply to this story. Ultimately, it’s about groupthink, to a degree, and mental manipulation; how evil exists, and the only thing you can do is try and fight it; and how powerful an agent fear can be. Lots of parallels can be drawn to goverment control and historical events, but honestly, I think all of this would just make this book boring to a lot of 13-14 year olds–analyzing the heck out of a book is the worst. But I also think this is one that, if you had to read as a teen, you’d probably understand it more once you go back and read it as an adult.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, like The Chocolate War, is a timeless story, one in which the plot isn’t dependent on a particular time and place in history. The story is set during the summer after Angie Morrow’s high school graduation. She has always gotten by as sort of an ‘outsider’ to her peers–never popular enough to be found at the local hangout with a group of people, but not unhappy either; she’s always just been off the radar. It’s surprising to her, then, when popular and attractive Jack Duluth takes a sudden interest in her. They start a summer romance which serves as an awakening to Angie–what it means to grow up, what it means to love, and what it means to really think about the future.

Aside from some dated evidence of mid-century innocence, the sentiment of Seventeenth Summer still rings true. Angie is an eloquent, pensive character, and all her thoughts are put on paper; the narrative is wonderfully descriptive. There’s just something about adolescence that makes everything feel heightened; emotions feel stronger, experiences feel more memorable. It’s a time where details mean a lot, and you can tell Angie’s voice was written by an author aware of this. [Daly was 17 when started writing this.] Some teens may have a hard time getting past the simplicity of a time where hand-holding was something to swoon about, but I think if they ignore the small nuggets of the 1940s, they’ll find universal thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

An interesting sidenote: some consider Seventeenth Summer to be the start of the YA genre; it’s one of the earliest books written about adolescents specifically for adolescents.