Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Eleanor and Park

By Rainbow Rowell

Young adult books often get a bad rap, especially young adult romance. Infamous series like Twilight come to represent the whole body of young adult literature, obscuring true gems of the genre that could stand up to any critical test of quality. Case in point: Eleanor and Park.

Big, redheaded, and garbed in unapologetically outlandish outfits, Eleanor is a walking target for high school ridicule. Park, a good-looking, comic-book-and-music-loving Korean kid, is an expert at flying under the radar. His possession of the last single seat on the bus lands him Eleanor as a seatmate when she starts school late after returning from exile by her abusive alcoholic of a stepfather. It sounds like the set-up for a Hollywood-grade meet-cute, but this is the first of many expectations of the convention that Rowell will flout throughout the novel. Eleanor and Park’s relationship begins quirkily with her reading comic books over Park’s shoulder on rides to and from school, which soon births a system of Eleanor borrowing comics each night to finish and return the next morning. The comics give Eleanor an escape from her tense and oppressive home environment – sharing her bedroom with several younger siblings, living in fear of a volatile stepfather, deprived by poverty of basic comforts and necessities – long before they ever even begin to talk, and the growing connection with Park soon becomes a lifeline.

With Eleanor and Park, Rowell enters that infamously far-fetched realm of teenage romance and reifies it. Their relationship is sweet, awkward, and authentic; it’s romantic but not romanticized, realistic but not belittling. Eleanor and Park’s feelings are real, but the world is not kind to them; forces from school bullies to bullying stepfathers conspire to interfere at nearly every turn. It’s their strength of character and commitment to their feelings that keeps them together, and that – more than any sappy, happy ending (don’t expect one here) – is what gives this book so much heart. Rowell’s almost lyrical descriptions, as perceptive as they are creative, are frosting on the cake – both sensual enough to cause butterflies and earnest enough to strike a chord of truth.

Literature is an exercise in empathy, but it is also an exercise in self-discovery. Never, arguably, is this function more important than in YA, whose readers by definition have such limited ranges of their own experience to draw on yet are in such a rich period of exploration and growth. Literature, for them, offers an opportunity to enter a realm in which they can explore, witness, and learn from experience without threat of consequence. Eleanor and Park successfully provides such opportunity. The story enthralls while portraying an authenticity of experience from which readers can glean meaningful new understanding about what it is like to be young and in love, to be both underdog and outsider, and to stay steady in an unstable home environment. There are no false notes in Rowell’s treatment of Eleanor’s harsh home life (which could easily slip into the melodramatic), the sense of “us versus the world” Eleanor and Park feel at school and at home, or the star-crossed-lovers-esque drama of their fight to be together. At turns heartwarming and heart wrenching, Eleanor and Park will make young adults yearn and adults nostalgic for the inimitable tumult of first love.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Silhouette of a Sparrow

By Molly Beth Griffin

Four Things I Liked About Silhouette of a Sparrow:
1. Setting/time period
2. Character-driven plot
3. Garnet’s silhouettes
4. Coming of age

I felt an affinity for this book before I even read it. For one, it’s published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit publisher in Minneapolis, close to where I go to school. I like that Minneapolis has such a rich and productive literary community, all too uncommon outside of NYC. For another, the author and I share the same first name. According to a recent psychology lecture I attended, we are naturally predisposed to prefer things that even contain the letters in our name. So can’t blame me for liking something that contains the whole thing! ;)

It’s 1926 and Garnet Richardson is being exiled to the lake to limit her exposure to the polio epidemic endangering the city. Unlike many a disgruntled exiled heroine before her, she thrills at the freedom the lake resort and its nearby amusement park offers her. She dreams of a summer of fun and independence before she returns to an engagement and her final year of high school in the fall, after which she’ll be expected to settle down with her nice but bland boyfriend and surrender her passion for ornithology and learning to the demands of keeping house. Everything is not as she dreams, however. The watchful eye of her aunt cum chaperone compels Garnet to seek independence and excitement where she can, in a new job and a clandestine friendship with a flapper who makes life just a little brighter and Garnet herself a little more bold. But Garnet cannot escape the looming shadow of fall, and before the summer wanes, she will be forced to face challenging dilemmas about identity, loyalty, and what it means to do the right thing.

Garnet is such a charming protagonist, guys. I love her bookishness, her independent streak, her loyalty to the people she loves, her sense of self, her willingness to take a chance, and, of course, the silhouettes of birds she cuts out of fabric for fun. The 1920’s setting – featuring the requisite flappers and dance houses and bootleg liquor, despite taking place in the countryside – is always fun, and Griffin uses it to its best advantage, painting its trappings as quintessentially embodying the vivacious and rebellious spirit of youth. Though the 1920's may seem like an obvious setting for this kind of story (for the very reason of its devil-may-care metaphorical resonance with young adulthood), details like Garnet's interest in ornithology keep it quirky and fresh. The amusement park was a fun addition, too, being something new and controversial that we take for granted as being universally accepted and approved of today. I like how Griffin tackles GLBT themes without making them The Issue, rather weaving them as one thread into the complex web of identity discovery that takes place at Garnet’s age; it comes across as a forward-thinking lesson to be learned from a book that takes place almost a century ago. And, indeed, that’s one of the things that ultimately makes Silhouette of a Sparrow so compelling – the way Griffin crafts a tale as rooted in its historical setting as it is resonant with contemporary adolescents. That, to me, is the beauty of historical fiction at its best, when it connects the past with the present and reminds us how little we have really changed.

Books Read This Year: 19
Top 100 Progress: 50/100

Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Misérables (Top 100 #50)

By Victor Hugo

I am one of those people who don't like to see a film adaptation of something without having read the original book. Thus, moved by a curiosity about the new Les Misérables movie that came out recently - having never seen the Broadway show - I decided to tackle the colossal tome (1,232 fearsome pages long) that is Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. (And, finally, I'm able to mark one more book off the BBC Top 100 list!) I started it about a week and a half before I came home for winter break, and only finished it on Christmas day. That is a long time for me to take to finish a book.

That being said, I did not find Les Misérables a slow read. Not at all, in fact! Like Anna Karenina before it, Les Misérables surprised me by being quite readable indeed. In my experience, with books like these it's all in the translation. I got the movie tie-in copy (I know, I know, for shame) because it was cheaper, and that translation proved to be a good one, not that I have anything to compare it to. The storyline is engaging and Hugo's prose is flowing and descriptive without - at least in my opinion - being overly long-winded, as some writing of that time is wont to be. However, Hugo's approach to Les Misérables is as much that of a historian as that of a novelist, resulting in a number of lengthy (upwards of 50 pages) sections devoted to detailing this battle or that uprising without advancing the plot. During these sections - but these sections alone - my interest would wane and I would begin skimming rather than really reading, having a hard time ingesting the information when I couldn't easily plug it into a clear schema of plot or characterization.

For those, like me, not familiar with the storyline of Les Misérables via the Broadway musical, it concerns escaped convict Jean Valjean and the chance path that leads him to adopt Cosette, daughter of Fantine, who died alone and penniless, a victim of larger societal forces that conspired to separate her from her young daughter and leave her in abject poverty. Devoted to the protection and well-being of Cosette, Jean Valjean is forced to live under ever-changing assumed identities in order to evade discovery by Javert, a policeman obsessed with bringing Valjean to justice. These personal crises, shaped and exacerbated by the forces at work in the chaos of early nineteenth century Parisian society, come to a head in the July Revolution of 1830.

Les Misérables' characters tend toward the archetypal, but considering Hugo's ultimate purpose of crafting a sweeping landscape of society and the times rather than a detailed portrait of one individual's trials, I think it's appropriate that the characters be somewhat two-dimensional. Thus the portrayal of society's ills is individualized so as not to be overwhelming, but it's not so overly-individualized as to be non-universal. Jean Valjean's, Fantine's, and Marius's hardships are unique but not un-parallelled; similar stories of hardship and struggle were simultaneously played out in thousands of endless permutations throughout the city. The experiences of the characters of Les Misérables are microcosmic stand-ins for the collective experiences common to all Parisians during the tumultuous and downtrodden times of nineteenth century France, a period of near-constant revolution and perpetual unsettlement.

I haven't seen the movie yet, so I can't offer any opinions on the adaptation from page to stage to screen, but having read the book, I am more eager than ever to see it. Whatever your interest level in the movie may be - a long-time devoted fan or a disparager of musical theater - Les Misérables is a book worth the time investment, a classic for a reason. I would absolutely recommend it, daunting girth of the spine and all. The only reason I didn't give it five stars is because, while it was consistently good throughout, it lacked a certain "wow!" factor that it takes for me to endorse a book that highly.

Books Read This Year: 108
Top 100 Progress: 50/100

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling

For those quick to make comparisons between J.K. Rowling's new adult debut and the cultural monolith that is the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy could not be more different from Harry Potter. There is no magic to be found in The Casual Vacancy. Quite apart from the fantastical veneer that made even the darkest moments of Harry Potter magical, The Casual Vacancy portrays reality with the unforgiving zoomed-in hyper-clarify of high-definition. Ostensibly about filling the casual vacancy left by the sudden premature death of parish councilman Barry Fairbrother, the story more substantively concerns itself with the occupants of Pagford (a small, idyllic town in the British countryside), their private lives and their politics.

The Casual Vacancy is an unromantic group portrait of small town British life; it is British (and Western) society in microcosm. From death to disease to addiction to bullying to the hardships of marriage and the trials of teenage-hood to psychological troubles to petty self-serving local politics, JKR tackles just about everything that might hide behind the picturesque doors of countryside cottages. She unearths the big problems eating away at the fabric of an outwardly charming small town (and, extrapolating, the society that subsumes it), and she does so with tight, engaging, and creative descriptive language that as an aspiring writer I could only admire in awe. Her characters, as usual, are three-dimensional, interesting, and well-crafted. And the plot, while not reaching the riveting, can't-put-it-down enthrallment of the Harry Potter series, marches along at a steady pace to reach the final dramatic and unexpected, yet satisfying, conclusion.

Though I can't pretend it's not jarring, at first, to find swearing instead of spell-casting, drug-using instead of potion-making, you grow used to it; eventually the swear words, like the spells and other magical lingo, stop being jarring and become just the language of the story, a language the reader achieves fluency in as naturally as the magical dialect of Harry Potter. Each instance of harsh adult reality that shocks at first soon stops catching you short; after a while you accept these divergences from the reassuring voice of the Harry Potter books and become - just as you were with Harry Potter - immersed in the story. It helps that I can fully understand why she chose to embark on such a departure from the fantasy of Harry Potter and flex her story-telling muscles in a completely new and opposite manner. I can see it being a case of wanting to prove herself a versatile writer to herself as much as to any naysayers who might've had her pegged as one genre wonder, or an exclusively children's author, or an out of control instance of beginner's luck, or whatever other ridiculous things people come up with to try to belittle the phenomenon that is Harry Potter by trying to squeeze it into some contrived, constrictive box. That said, due its grittiness and frequent use of profanity, The Casual Vacancy won't be for everyone. Especially those expecting something with the charm and positivity of the Harry Potter series.

The Casual Vacancy, although not going to worm its way into a place next to Harry Potter in my heart, does its job as a sophomore (in terms of being a distinct work) debut. It reaffirms what devoted fans already knew without question: JKR is a Talent.

Comment questions: Have you read The Casual Vacancy? If not, why? If so, what did you make of the dramatic departure, the swearing and the grittiness? 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Darkest Minds

By Alexandra Bracken

**Doing a standard review rather than a poem for this one because I was lucky enough to get access to an advanced copy via NetGalley and want to give it the full treatment!

I have been a bated-breath fan of Alex Bracken ever since her 2010 release of Brightly Woven which was reminiscent of Tamora Pierce's fantasy classics in all the best ways: a vibrant, original fantasy world; interesting and likable heroine; a charming and loyal if troubled and mysterious rogue of a romantic interest (not to mention a deft balance between romance and friendship, romantic development and actual action). I was totally enamored of her debut and have been eagerly waiting to see what she would do next ever since. The Darkest Minds, her forthcoming second novel (released on December 18; I got my advanced copy via NetGalley), absolutely lived up to my expectations. Girl delivered.

A fusion of the supernatural and dystopian genres, The Darkest Minds is set in a dystopian, economically broken United States in the not too distant future.  In the midst of economic collapse, a mysterious disease ravages the country's children, attacking them as soon as they enter puberty. The unlucky majority die; those that survive develop supernatural abilities instead of succumbing to the disease. Abilities they don't understand, that make them a threat to the fragile US government, who decides the best course of action is to relocate these children to "rehabilitation camps." This is where we meet 16-year-old Ruby, at a rehabilitation camp called Thurmond, where she has been an inmate since her 10th birthday when her own parents called the police to come pick her up. When the truth about her powers risks exposure, Ruby makes her escape from Thurmond. On the road, she finds herself in the company of an eccentric band of fellow escapees - including their charming leader, Liam - in a race against time and truth as they attempt to outrun enemies who would exploit their powers in a fight against the government and make it safely to the East River, reputedly the last outpost of kids with abilities left free from the clutches of outside forces. But life outside the camp is a lot more complicated and a lot more dangerous than Ruby could've known and it's not always clear who the real enemy is - least of all when Ruby fears it could be Ruby herself. As Ruby grapples with her powers and the mixed dangers and responsibilities that come with them, she must decide where her loyalties lie and what side she must take in order to protect the ones she loves.

From page one, Alex Bracken immerses you in the dark world the US has transformed into at the hands of the disease and economic crisis. Thurmond is an unsettling place and the dangers Ruby faces feel all too real - not quite distant enough from reality for the reader to feel entirely safe, either. I thought that Bracken's development of the kids' powers and the five categories they fall into - green, blue, yellow, orange, and red - was quite creative, and if I sometimes didn't feel like I fully understood them, it was only because the kids themselves (especially Ruby) didn't either. True of Brightly Woven but all the more so in The Darkest Minds is how well Bracken creates the subtle dynamics of characters' histories and personalities, and how those play into their relationships with other characters. Each character's personality is fully developed and unique, and the report between the characters - especially Ruby, Liam, Chubs, and Zu - is delightful. It invites you not just to read and observe but participate in the story. And when the story reaches its emotional and plot climax - woah, boy. Watch out. The Darkest Minds wriggles into your heart and forms a soft spot there, then the ending punches you exactly where it knows it will hurt. And you won't see it coming - at least I didn't. I can't wait for Book 2!!!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Diviners

By Libba Bray

The Diviners is the latest release from young adult author Libba Bray, known for her supernatural historical thrillers (The Rebel Angels trilogy and The Diviners) and her what I can best describe as hyper-reality contemporary fiction (Going Bovine and Beauty Queens, which I have previously reviewed on this blog). The Diviners is a serial murder mystery set in New York City in the 20's with a supernatural twist. I think my favorite part was her portrayal of New York in the 20's, a world of speakeasies and social movements, equal parts dangerous and exciting, modern and traditional - a whirlwind of constant motion and change, the old grappling with the new. But! It was first and foremost a murder mystery, so that's what I drew on for my poem.

"Naughty John, Naughty John
does his work with his apron on..."
The tune slithers its chilly finger
down your spine and you shiver
and your blood runs cold
and you want to scream
but you don't
because you know, with a sick,
foreboding certainty that there's no use,
because you're frozen in place
and your pulse races like a trapped,
panicked bird and you know
when you hear Naughty John's tune
he's got you.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

By Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is often heralded as the Catcher in the Rye of our generation. It's a cult classic among teenagers, and with the movie adaptation - written and directed by the author himself! - coming out this fall (starring the ever-wonderful Emma Watson), I thought I'd re-read it as a refresher before seeing the film! If anything, I liked it even more the second time around, with a few more years and experiences under my belt. Charlie's voice is simple and authentic, hovering alternatively somewhere between naive and jaded. He thinks just a little too much about the world around him, which causes him problems as a person but makes him a wonderful, perceptive narrator. Most adolescents (and adults thinking back on their adolescence!) will identify with some experience or feeling throughout the book, and that's what has earned it such a large and passionate following. The movie has been described as "nostalgic" and "life-affirming" and these two adjectives apply to the book as well. In keeping with my new blog initiative, I have written another poem for Perks (as it is affectionately called by fans). The most famous line from the book goes, "And in that moment, I swear we were infinite," and I couldn't help but take that as part of my inspiration.

There's a certain infinite quality
of the still lives immortalized
in photography; messy sprawling
jumbled relationships distilled
into their purest moments -
those clear, copacetic moments
when your soul is rushing soaring
swooping, buffeted by the tumult
of the nonstop motion of the world 
spinning and lives living, yet somehow
despite the chaos, you trust this moment enough 
to surrender to it, and in surrender 
a stillness wells within your soul, a quiet calmness
that spreds throughout your body
and fills your heart
and whispers,
"I feel infinite."

There's a certain wistful quality
to happy memories preserved 
in old photographs that makes me wish 
I could live in infinite observation 
of the moments they contain.
A wallflower - if you will - a witness
there to watch, to remember, to participate,
and when we're old or sad or we start to forget
those moments when we were together
and young and oh-so-alive,
it will be my privilege to remind us,
"We were there. We were happy.
And we were infinite."