Friday, July 23, 2010

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen is my hero. She has an incredible ability to vividly yet succinctly describe a scene. Reading her prose is effortless; I never feel like I am wading through unnecessary text, yet I can perfectly envision the world she narrates. Honestly, I have read almost none of Quindlen's more well-known column writing, but I have read every novel she has written so I couldn't wait to get my hands on Every Last One. I finished it yesterday and sat thinking, "Wow."

If you have never read any of Quindlen's fiction, be forewarned. Her books are heavy! And emotional. I cry more reading her than almost any other author. Yet, I respect the dilemmas Quindlen forces her characters to face much more than other author's emotive problem-driven plots (think Jodi Picoult). For me, Quindlen doesn't force a particular emotional response on her readers. Her characters are flawed and human rather than idealistic or purely bad. She doesn't tell a reader how they should respond to a situation; instead she presents the situation and allows the reader to decide how they feel about what happened. Moreover, Quindlen doesn't give away the plot on the dust jacket. I will say, the crisis in Every Last One caught me off-guard. I was completely blind-sided by the events that unfolded in the story. At 3 am I lay in bed sobbing with the main character.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the story of Every Last One revolves around a normal all-American family: a doctor father, a part-time working mother, a 17-year old daughter thinking about college, and twin 15-year old brothers one who plays soccer and the other who plays the drums. The daughter breaks up with her long-term boyfriend, the drum-playing son suffers from depression, the mom ponders her childrens' futures. The reality of Quindlen's characters is what gives her book power. We can all imagine ourselves or our neighbors in Quindlen's fictional family. The realism is what gives the tragedy even greater weight.

I would not recommend reading Every Last One at the beach, or anywhere else in public. But I strongly recommend reading it. It really makes you think.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

Once upon a time a book-loving sixth grader met a generous intelligent librarian. This librarian, wise in the ways of tween girls, introduced our heroine to the world of fantasy books. Recognizing the dreams of young girls to be princesses and marry princes the librarian offered the young girl Robin McKinley’s books, in particular The Hero and the Crown.

Across the miles and years a tween boy entered the realm of fantasy reading the classic tale of Robin Hood as retold by Robin McKinley in The Outlaws of Sherwood.

Time passed, the two met and shared a love of good fantasy, Robin McKinley having faded into the background of other authors and works. Until the day when our heroine brought home Rose Daughter thrilled to read a new book by the person who introduced her to fantasy. Her husband (and very own prince) saw the book at home and exclaimed, “I remember Robin McKinley. She was …” and our heroine, older, wiser, and no longer desiring the life of a princess finished his sentence, “…one of the first fantasy authors I ever read.” And so ends our story…

Yes, I’m a cheeseball. But yes, it’s true. Both my hubby and I first delved into fantasy reading Robin McKinley’s books. She is the idyllic fantasy author for tween readers. Her stories offer romance and adventure and magic but they are innocent and appealing. Many of her works are retellings of famous fairy tales and Rose Daughter is no exception. As a matter of fact it is the second book by McKinley to retell the story of Beauty and the Beast (the first being her well-loved and recognized Beauty.)

In Rose Daughter McKinley works all the details of the infamous story of Beauty and the Beast into a nuanced version which focuses around the importance of the rose. In this version Beauty is one of three daughters, her special talent being gardening. When she travels to the Beast’s palace she focuses on bringing his rose garden, housed in a large greenhouse, back to life.

The story was intimately familiar but yet novel enough to not be boring. Robin McKinley has an incredibly vivid descriptive writing style without laboring over too many details. All in all, Rose Daughter reminded me of my introduction to the world of good, innocent (romantic) fantasy. A great light summer read.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep satisfied everything that the last two books I read have not satisfied. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, even if it wasn't exactly what I thought it would be.

My husband noticed me reading a new book the other night and asked what I was reading. Based on the quotes on the cover I replied, "A female version of A Separate Peace.” My answer was largely tongue-in-cheek but having finished the book, it was actually an extremely apt description. Prep is the story of a fish-out-of-water and her four year experience at an elite East Coast boarding school. From the first day Lee Fiora does not match the stereotypical description of a boarding school student of which she is hyper aware. Throughout the novel her comfort level waxes and wanes and she makes friends, learns to navigate academics, and explores sexual relationships. I think there is something of Lee in every girl.

So many of the conundrums Sittenfeld places on Lee resonate with modern teenagers - whether in boarding school or at home. As I read I found myself personally relating to the angst Lee felt. But I also found myself reflecting on my friends as we traversed the high school issues. One friend in particular suffered from so many of the self-doubting characteristics of the main character that I felt as though I were in her head and I began to understand her better.

I had friends who went to boarding school and while some of the challenges were undeniably unique, I don't think this book speaks exclusively to that audience. I found myself thinking back to college classmates who had gone to boarding school and middle school friends who chose boarding school. In some ways they always seemed a world apart; they had an experience to which I could hardly relate. Yet, I found myself thinking about the intense dynamics of dorm life - even if Lee suggested college dorms were quite different from high school ones. And if nothing else I have read a distinct canon of boarding school literature which addresses similar themes across the ages.

I loved this book as much as I disliked The Secret History. To some that may seem antithetical - after all they are both "academic/literary fiction" - situated in the insular worlds of rich East Coast academia. So I think it only fair to explain the differences in my mind. Neither book is particularly plot driven. Yet I found this one so much more engaging because it was about the development of a teenage girl on an individual and extremely personal level. Interestingly, in the Reader’s Guide Sittenfeld says,

I consider plot above everything else except character. There’s nothing I hate more than some book that’s all just exquisite language. That’s so boring….I very consciously think about plot and say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise.

To me that is indicative of the difference in the two novels. Moreover, Sittenfeld felt like a real person in her interview whereas Tartt annoyed me in hers.

The other main difference between the two stories was the characters. I could empathize with Lee’s plight and I could understand her angst. She was flawed and at times annoying, but generally I would describe her as a character I enjoyed reading. Tartt’s characters were so flawed as to be unlikable.

I read Prep in less than 48 hours. It was a book I thought about and couldn’t wait to pick up again. Now that I’m done I still find myself think about Aspeth and Dede and Martha. I am curious how these individuals lived and worked together. More than anything longevity of thought is a sign of a great book.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Murder in Miniature by Margaret Grace

Murder in Miniature is a true cozy mystery. Nothing violent happens on screen - it is like reading a classic play. The only people who die, die offstage. The characters hear about what happened to them but never actually see any gore. Even the main character is never put in real danger - no gun toting or kidnapping. It is very sanitized.

After finishing The Shipping News which is not plot-driven I needed a story with a bit more to lead me through it. Margaret Grace succeeded on that front. The plot revolves around a temporarily kidnapped friend, a murdered drifter, and a found sapphire. The main character is an aging widow and her ten-year old granddaughter. The theme is building dollhouses. The characters are always on the looking for ways to incorporate found objects into their dollhouses. The sapphire is found inside a craft tote bag of dollhouse making materials.

This would be a perfect book for your great aunt who doesn't like things that are too messy. Or for your 11 year old niece who wants to read more grown-up books but doesn't need all the gore or sex so many books can have. It is innocent - while still a murder mystery.

Great literature? No. A good summer diversion? Yep.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I don't appear to be genetically created to appreciate literary award winners. The Shipping News won the Pulitzer prize after all and yet I found it... boring, honestly. Okay, I am glad that I read it now that I'm done. But it was not a book I enjoyed reading. I can understand why it was award winning when it comes to novelty of style and setting the stage for the plot. But the plot itself is just not very interesting.

The story of The Shipping News revolves around a single father, Quoyle, who finding himself at loose ends moves with his aunt and his two young daughters to a small village in Newfoundland. Although he has never been there before his family is from there and still owns property in the area. Quoyle is an accidental journalist who becomes involved in the town's life while writing the news of the boats coming in and out of port.

Proulx has a unique writing style. At least half of her sentences are fragments. They evoke distinct imagery and the purpose of her style is clear. Yet if 90% of writers tried to emulate Proulx's writing they would be kicked out of school for poor use of language. While I appreciate the idea behind her voice I personally did not find it engaging to read. As a book lover I found it discouraging that every five pages I was more inclined to set the book down and find something else to do rather than keep reading. Last night I had to force myself to focus just to get through the final 30 pages of the story. It is rare that I am that unengaged in a book. Once again I am guessing I am alone in my views on this book. Friends raved about it and gave it to me encouragingly. Other reviews I have seen give it an overwhelming thumbs up. Maybe I just need to realize that I don't appreciate "novelty" and "literary qualities" in my book reading.

I am glad I read The Shipping News. I gave it points for uniqueness and novelty of voice. But the story itself just never caught my attention. To me plot overrides writing style. What can I say, I guess I'm just an action-oriented girl.