Friday, July 30, 2010

Shivers Down My Spine

Photo credit

I don't always know what to do about book hype, particularly when the book being hyped is a Young Adult novel. I have nothing against Young Adult Literature, but ever since the Twilight fiasco, I have been a bit wary. Imagine my surprise, then, when I devoured Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater, in a mere day and a half. I didn't know much about the book, but when I saw it on the library's new books shelf, I thought to myself, "what the heck. I'll give it a try."

Boy, am I glad I did.

First let me just say how much I appreciate that Stiefvater's publisher a) did not give away the entire book in the blurb and b) did an amazing job on the cover art. Okay, on to the review!

I'm not going to give a plot synopsis here since I am probably the last person in the blogosphere to have read this book. The main characters are Grace and Sam, and I liked both of them almost immediately. Grace is a junior in high school, but she pretty much keeps her family together: both her parents are rather scatterbrained, so most of the care giving responsibilities fall on her. Sam had a pretty rough childhood, and his teen years are proving to be quite trying, too. I don't want to give away the twist here, but I do want to commend Stiefvater for writing two great characters who feel like real teenagers. She understands teens without condescension or cliche. It's a book that deals with lots of emotions, but these emotions never feel fake or melodramatic; they are real and genuine and, as a result, evoked some pretty real emotional responses from me.

This is a sweetly told story, and it maintains its sweetness and sass despite some not-so-nice details. I especially appreciated that Stiefvater explored and present Grace and Sam's relationship in a realistic but tasteful way. She conveyed the strong feelings that so often come when great amounts of emotions and hormones are involved, but it never got weird or icky. The ins and outs of their relationship were very well done.

Needless to say, the book delivers. It is all about longing, loss, pain, and love, and it is supernatural/fantasy writing at its best: it takes a complex human dilemma, clothes it in some rather fantastical clothing, and then lets the situation unfold in a realistic, moving way despite its fantastical elements. If anything, because it is fantasy it allows for a more honest, up-close look at and answer to how we deal with the complexities of wanting someone, loving someone, and helping another person conquer his personal demons.

I am eagerly waiting for my turn to come up on the library's hold list so I can get my hands on the next book in the series, Linger. The last book in the series will be published next summer, and I'm sure it will be hard to wait if Linger is anything like Shiver.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Excuse Me? or a Defense of Reading Fiction

My parents and I had lunch with some old friends and other people the old friends knew. We had eaten lunch, and the women had settled in for a delightful post-lunch conversational meander. The talk turned to books (four of us were teachers, so this was no surprise), and in the midst of discussions about Harry Potter (yay!), the Twilight series (blech!), and whether the standards for the Newberry had changed, one lady casually mentioned that she only allows herself one novel per year.

*Insert crickets, blank stares, and a rather uncomfortable silence where the rest of us looked at each other awkwardly, not quite sure how to respond*

This lady then went on to explain that she had so much to read with her cookbooks and children's school books (she homeschools them) that she just couldn't justify allowing herself to read more than one novel a year.

I have to admit that I was more than a little put off by her rather nonchalant statement. I can understand people who don't like or want to read (crazy people that they are) not wanting to read much in a year, but how is it possible that someone who suppposedly enjoys reading, who is trying to instill in her children the importance of words and reading, deprives herself of so much great material? This lady is clearly reading other things, but it irked me that she made this statement as an obvious testament to how pious and worthy she was because she wasn't reading the drivel and slop that the rest of us were because she didn't read multiple novels each year.

And this, really, is the heart of the issue: people still see reading fiction as largely a waste of time. I know there are people who prefer non-fiction, which is fine. There is a lot to be said for personal taste. I also know that people who are not readers cannot quite grasp the sometimes obsessive nature of a booklover's desire to read. But what I want to know is how a responsible, educated person can assert that all fiction, across the board, is frivolous and meant to be doled out in tiny bits like too-rich candy to children who might get sick if they eat too much of it. Is there frivolous, fluffy fiction? Certainly; the same, however, can be said for non-fiction.

What I really wanted to say in response to this woman's statement (but didn't because I was too dumbstruck) is that fiction has value. It's an argument that's been debated since the beginning of literature: what makes literature valid and valued? Is it only worthwhile if it instructs (which many associate with non-fiction)? Is it valuable if it only entertains? I would assert that the best literature (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, you name it) does both, but it is not necessary to feel actively instructed to take something valuable from a work of fiction. Sometimes it is enought to recognize yourself, your situation, or your feelings in a work. Even better if you learn something because of it.

I have gained so much from the fiction that I have read throughout my life. My appreciation of and love for music and beautiful things have been heightened by works like Bel Canto and the poetry of Liesl Muller. I have understood sacrifice and true love (romantic and non) more deeply and more truly because of Our Mutual Friend, Lord of the Rings, Little Dorrit, and even something as silly as Belong to Me. I have seen great moral lessons played out in To Kill a Mockingbird, Tale of Two Cities, and Things Fall Apart. I can hardly make a respectable dent in all the historical fiction I have read that not only taught me about the time and place but also brought significant history to life (Outlander, the Sunne and the Splendor, Macbeth, Gaskell's North and South, all of Dickens' works, The Bronze Arrow, the Little House on the Prairie books, Maude Hart Lovelace's Betsy, Tacy, and Tib books, and so many more).

I can honestly assert that my life would not have been the same if I had not read the books that I read, and most of those books have been fiction. Regarding all fiction as suspect is as problematic as assuming that every work in a certaing genre is valuable because it is that genre. It smacks of smugness and ignorance, and I don't like it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Do We Go On? Living in the Face of Suffering

I recently finished two extremely different books that both dealt with the issue of how we as individuals and as a nation can continue living a supposedly normal and disinterested existence when we know what other people are experiencing around the world.

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is a novel that is set in 1940 and 1941; the novel depicts the stories of the people living in a tiny coastal town in Massachustes (literally the last town in America before hitting the Atlantic Ocean), specifically the postmaster, Iris, the town mechanic, Harry, and the new doctor, Will, and his new wife, Emma. The novel also follows Frankie Bard, a woman reporter covering the Blitz in London and then trying to discover what the Nazis are really doing to all the Jews the are relocating.

The other book is The Bread of Angels, by Stephanie Saldana. In this memoir, Saldana recounts the year she spent in Syria (2004-2005); Saldana discusses the people she met, the struggles (emotional, spiritual, and physical) she encountered, and the most definitely unorthodox decisions that she made as a result of her time spent in Syria.

Both of these books were very fast reads for me, but I found The Bread of Angels to be a much more authentic answer to the question of how to continue living in the face of suffering. Saldana confronted the repercussions of war, poverty, and religious differences with honesty and authenticity; I never felt like she was hiding her pain or her indecision regarding suffering from the reader. In fact, I think it was Saldana's raw pain, doubt, fear, and insecurity that made this such a compulsive read for me. I didn't necessarily agree with all of Saldana's thoughts, resolutions, and answers, but I still found the book to be an honest portrait of a woman striving to define and live by what was important and mattered most to her.

Sarah Blake, on the other hand, ruined the good work that she did in her novel by feeling the need to explain that she was dealing with how people continued living, unchanged, in the face of suffering. I was interested to learn what inspired Blake to write her novel, but I felt a bit patronized by her explanation of why she discussed the Blitz and Frankie Bard's journey through Nazi-occupied Europe. Coincidentally, it was Frankie Bard's train journey, spent recording the stories of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime, that resonated most deeply for me; it was the least forced and most authentic part of Blake's story, and it was the part of the novel that evoked the deepest, truest emotions in me. It clearly presented the juxtaposition that Blake sought and was powerful enough to make Blake's explanation unnecessary. By contrast, the rest of the novel seemed to be working too hard to prove a point (a point that didn't necessarily match her content) without just letting the story be told.

Interestingly, The Postmistress has stayed with me, largely because of how it ended. I realize that part of the reason that I like Victorian literature so much is that there is always a neatly wrapped-up ending, and oftentimes those endings are happy. This was not the case with The Postmistress. I didn't feel as though the ending fit the book; it seemed as though Blake wanted to infuse as much suffering as possible into her novel, but, ironically, she never attempted to make sense of that suffering. Saldana, however, presented just as much pain and suffering, but all that pain and suffering (even though much of it was senseless and unnecessary) became a necessary piece of how her story was told.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, TKAM!

I LOVE To Kill a Mockingbird. It is possibly my favorite book, and all my fellow bookies out there KNOW how hard it is to land on an unconditional favorite!

To honor the fact that this wonderful, life-changing book has been delighting us for fifty years (and may it have many, many more), I am thinking about dedicating some yet to be determined amount of time on my blog to To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm thinking favorite scenes, favorite quotes, best themes, funniest teaching stories, and much, much more. Would anyone like to do this with me? Read it? Discuss it? Contribute quotes, etc.? If so, please let me know!

P.S. I just found out that my dad (my own father!) has not read To Kill a Mockingbird. This might be grounds for disowning him, especially since he didn't seem all that interested in rectifying the situation.

P.P.S. I hope that this continues to be true:

Im teaching To Kill a Mockingbird

UPDATE: I have found a lovely blogger who has already set-up a little schedule to honor To Kill a Mockingbird on her blog, so I will be working within the framework on Capricious Reader's blog. Do check it out!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Confessions of a Delinquent Blogger

A recent conversation I had with my mother:
What are you doing?

I'm working on my little blog, Mom

I didn't know you had a you have a following?

Probably not, since I started the blog in February and then didn't post for two of the four months of the blog's existence.


Apologies to you, dear reader, if you have felt any of the confusion my mother experienced. I could quote all kinds of excuses (and oh, they are many and reasonable), but really I just didn't make time to blog. Yes, there were papers to grade and musicals to accompany for and exams to write and apartments to pack, but I also found time to read the entire backlog of the love story between Ree and her Marlboro Man (at the fabulous Pioneer Woman, but be warned: it is VERY addicting!) and watch almost the entire first season of Lost. Again, my brain was tired, my sanity was shot, and my body was beyond over getting up at 6 a.m., but I could have prioritized.

Let's all just agree that this was an unofficial blogging break, and I promise to try to do better. I have had some major life changes that will probably mean more time (at least for right now) to read and blog: I have left the South and returned to the Midwest. I am currently living with the parents (and the brother and the sister and the two crazy dogs) while I try to find a teaching job in a more severe allergy-friendly environment!

I will wrap this up by giving a shout-out to two books I enjoyed recently: I loved The Last Summer (of You and Me)*, by Ann Brashares, when I read it two years ago, so I was very excited to learn that she had a new book coming out in June. I really enjoyed My Name is Memory *(and what a great title!) until the end. Then even the end was redeemed when I learned that My Name is Memory *is the first installment of a trilogy! Rock on, Ann Brashares!

*Disclaimer: While these books all deal with teen/young adult angst, they are by no means typical. If you don't like uncomfortable, unconventional, or sad situations, these books are probably not for you.