Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A new pile

Picked up a nice little pile of books at my local thrift store - look at these treasures!
Three Carol Shields books that I hadn't even HEARD of - OMG, I'm so excited to read those.  That Guernsey Literary and Potato thing, two of those Clan of the Cave Bear books that I've been wanting to read ever since we saw those caves in France.  And The Awakening, by Kate Chopin - apparently a Must Read in the history of feminist literature.  

Right now I'm reading Great House by Nicole Krauss right now which is mildly challenging following the brain vacation I've been on recently.  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Before I Fall

I got a nice handful of YA books from my Secret Santa (bro-in-law) at Xmas - Before I Fall (2010) by Lauren Oliver was the first one I read.  It's about a mean girl, Sam and her mean friends who are in a car accident after a party and Sam gets killed.  But, she wakes up and relives that day all over again.  And again.  And again.

The premise is compelling, and even though I really didn't like Oliver's writing style very much, I could barely put Before I Fall down.  I just wanted to find out what happened and what changed every time.   What I also found interesting was how Oliver humanizes the bully.  She doesn't pull any punches with Sam and her friends, who do some truly rotten things to the other students at their school.  As Sam relives the day over and over, she becomes more cognizant of how her actions are effecting those around her, but she doesn't turn her back on the Queen Bee and her best pal, Lindsay.  
Lindsay, with her angel's face and messy, dirty blond hair and chipped black nail polish and battered leather Dooney & Bourke bag that always has a film of tobacco and half-unwrapped Trident Original at the bottom.  Lindsay, who hates being bored, always moving, always running.  Lindsay, who once said -"it's the world against us, babes" - drunk and looping her arms around our shoulders when we were out in the arboretum and really meaning it.  Lindsay, mean and funny and ferocious and loyal and mine. p.346
Oliver explores elementary theory from a combination of Butterfly Effect, Schrodinger's Cat, and a wee bit of Quantum Physics, as any decent time-travel story naturally would.  I'm obsessed with Quantum Mechanics so I enjoyed those bits:
It amazes me how easy it is for things to change, how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new.  Just one false step, one pause, one detour, and you end up with new friends or a bad reputation or a boyfriend or a breakup. It's never occurred to me before; I've never been able to see it.  And it makes me field, weirdly, like maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different.  (p. 285)
I saw Young Adult recently - a movie about another Mean Girl played by Charlize Theron who happens to write YA fiction (unironically) about Mean Girls.  That stood as an interesting comparison to this book, for me, largely because Theron's character doesn't really learn any Life Lessons and also because it brought full circle for me this rather new (am I right?) concept of the Mean, Popular Girl as fictional heroine.  It's like, this girl is popular, smart, beautiful, witty, has a ton of fun, learns some Life Lessons (unusally) and comes out on top.  In any event, I'm sure Before I Fall would be quite interesting to teen readers and any adult like me that likes reading YA fiction.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Goats

The Goats (1987) by Brock Cole had been popping up on my radar.  It seems to be one of those YA books that has an effect on people who read it as children, like The Chocolate War.  Like The Chocolate War, I somehow missed it when I was but a wee, moody, bookworm adolescent.  I suspect they hid books like these to keep us from getting ideas.  But it's just a suspicion.

In The Goats, two children are tricked by their summer-camp-mates into going to a small island, where they are briefly physically assaulted and then robbed of their clothing and left.  (An aside: my sister and I were talking about someone being assaulted within earshot of her 4 year old.  I thought he wasn't listening, but later on he spilled salt on the table, flicked it at us and said it was a' salted.)  The general idea, by the camp bullies, is that the two clumsy, unlovable outcasts would find humiliating solace in each others arms in animalistic, goat-like behavior.  The two children are, naturally, humiliated  and escape the island by swimming away and hiding out, with the intention of never returning to camp.  The girl calls her mother, who initially doesn't understand the urgency of the matter and refuses to come to the woods to pick her up.

What I found interesting as an adult reader was how Cole positions their youth and sexuality.  The children are pretty specifically pre-adolescent - the girl is described as having "[...] no breasts, just two shriveled nipples. At the bottom of her belly was a little patch of hair, like a Hitler mustache.  That meant she was more mature than he was.  He didn't have hair yet."  They spend about 3-4 days together hiding out and testing their capacity to live in the woods together.   They don't have anything approaching a sexual relationship, but their relationship is certainly sexualized.  "Covering" themselves, like Adam and Eve after The Fall, is first priority.  Of course, it could be that it's merely my interpretation of the book as focusing on their pre-sexual interactions.  The (adult?) reader is perhaps (more) aware of the children's ever-present consciousness of their sexual fragility.

The Goats really manages to tap into the no-one-understands-me element of being an adolescent, and I can easily image how it could be so impressionable on young readers.  The fantasy of hiding out/running away that's fairly appealing to young people is lived out.  For me, that book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), in which two children run away and hide in the Met.   In parts The Goats reminded me of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (I need to re-read that!) in which the main character runs into the woods and tears off her clothes - if I remember correctly, she fantasizes that "fur" will grow, allowing to live in the woods without concern for frippery modern amenities like clothes.

Unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, which I think are really engaging reads for older readers, this book is less likely to appeal to mature readers, aside from satisfying literary curiosity, like mine.  But, I should think it would be a very fine book to read and discuss with a young person.  Some parts are a bit dated... In one section, the children fall in with some kids from the city.  These African American and Latino characters are caring and wise, and fall precariously near (or in) the "Magical Negro" stereotype.  Also, I have a real pet peeve of white authors writing in the voice of exaggerated black voices.   It's not really offensive, but it felt forced.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Top Fives

Some of my Top Fives on Newcity Lit...

I was particularly proud of "Top 5 Book Titles We Have in Mind to Capitalize on the Success of “Go the F*ck To Sleep”

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

2011 Stats!

It's that time of year again, for tallying and list-making...  Here's what I read (generally) in 2011:

35 fiction and 8 non-fiction books, a conscience effort to read more books by women than men.  2011 was the year I read Freedom (and did NOT fall in love with it) - I also read Super Sad True Love Story and A Visit from the Goon Squad - although those were published in 2010, they were my absolute favorites of 2011.  Oh, I also quite enjoyed March by Geraldine Brooks.  And did I mention Divergent?  That was definitely my fave YA pick of the year!  Plastic and Moonwalking with Einstein were by far the most influential non-fiction books I read in 2011, both of which had a pretty profound effect on my thoughts and actions (I've been trying to use a lot less plastic and I've put Foer's palaces to work).

I published about 20 reviews in NewCity Lit, which I'm fairly proud of - looking forward to doing some more reading for that in 2012!

I'd love to hear your favorite books of the past year - please leave a note in comments!

Woolgathering (2011)

My review of Woolgathering on Newcity!

The Skull Beneath the Skin

I lucked upon a PD James mystery at my local coffee shop - The Skull Beneath the Skin - and it was a a fabulous diversion.  I'm becoming a real mystery-lover.  I mean, like, I want to move to England, live in a cottage decorated only with tartans, and read mystery novels while sipping tea all. Day.  Long. 

But, who wouldn't?  Amirite? 

This is a classic mystery novel, in the footsteps of Agatha Cristie (if I'm not mistaken, there was even a quote from And Then There Were None although I'm too lazy to verify.)  On a private island off the coast of Dorset, a man invites some folks to his castle and, well...  I hate to ruin anything.  James had me guessing until the very end (I'm talking like, last 30 out of 416 pages). 

The Skull Beneath the Skin was published in 1982 and I think also takes place in the early 80s - it was a bit difficult to tell and frankly might have mentioned the year somewhere and I didn't pick it up.  It really could have taken place in just about any time period as the location and the characters avoid most modern conveniences.  To me, that's a telling quality in a mystery novel, because it's very boring to read them and think the whole time, "If they only had a cell phone!"

The protagonist is Cordelia Grey, the owner of a detective agency that seems to specialize in finding lost pets.  She's very thoughtful and thorough.  The pet-thing is very funny.  Apparently she's also in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for which I'll be on the look-out.  Her hero, Adam Dalgliesh, makes not so much an appearance but a quick reference or two, which will cause heart of the PD James' fans to trill a bit.

James uses the phrase "poison pen" (must be an British saying?) to describe a nasty letter writer - Dorothy Sayers also centers her Gaudy Night around this conceit, so I couldn't help but think of that great mystery novel frequently (also English, also with a lady detective). 

By the way, I generally try to find the cover matching the one I read for my blog, out of some sense of continuity, but I couldn't find my exact one - and I thought these were both quite amusing. 

If you're looking for a great mystery, I really don't think you can go wrong with this one - it's an engaging read!