Graduates in Wonderland

graduatesinwonderlandSometimes a book comes along, and as you read the description, you realize it ticks every one of your boxes. Here’s the tagline for Graduates in Wonderland from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: “Two best friends document their post-college lives through emails in this hilarious, relatable, and powerfully honest memoir.”

Best friends. Check. More books should have friendship at their core.

Post-college. Check. This book occupies that nebulous “new adult” space, and proves NA isn’t just YA with sex scenes.

E-mails. Check. I love a good epistolary novel, and these e-mails are really in-depth letters.

Hilarious, relatable, honest, etc. Check. I take any adjectives in a publisher’s description with a grain of salt, but as it turns out, these ones apply.

I don’t know if Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale wrote these letters with an eye toward publication the whole time, or whether they were edited after the fact (for clarity and grammar if nothing else), but either way, this is a fantastic read that I wanted to recommend to many of my friends before I’d even finished it. Because of the format (e-mail), both authors use a casual, honest, straightforward style. They reveal their fears and insecurities about their nascent careers and love lives, and they encourage each other, offer advice, and build each other up.

Graduates of Brown, the authors are privileged but conscientious. Jessica moves from New York to Beijing to Australia, while Rachel spends more time in New York before going to Paris; both of them end up in London, though the book ends before they settle there. They are both creative, and explore various career paths; they aren’t completely sure what they want to do at first. They’re also struggling with living in unfamiliar places and speaking second languages, and of course they’re both looking for The One. The e-mails strike a perfect balance in subject matter between work and romance.

They are honest: I don’t think the people I see on a daily basis realize how down I really am.”

They are funny: Get a French person to try to read the word hodgepodge out loud. They will say, ‘hogey-pogey,’ and it will be the best moment of your life.”

They are practical: Note to future selves: Never buy anything. You will just have to pack it in a suitcase one day.”

They are observant: Yesterday, I was in a park and I saw a Chinese man out walking his birds. In each hand he held a birdcage as he strolled, showing the birds the park scenery before hanging the cages from a tree while he went to go socialize with his fellow bird-walkers. I’m really going to miss this place.”

They are contemplative: Everywhere people and friendships are changing. I’m starting to wonder how many friends I’ve made here will still be friends for the long haul. How many places can you leave people behind and still expect to keep in touch with all of them?”

They are, sometimes, wise: “I feel like I haven’t lived enough to really focus on my writing. I don’t think I’m ready.” / He sounds great, but we need to listen to the warnings that guys give about themselves.” 

They have a sense of themselves in the world: These beautiful moments are a nice distraction from the stagnation of my career. (Is it stagnation if it hasn’t begun?)”

While I’m not sold on the title or the cover, I really, really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is in college now or who has graduated in the past ten years or so. It fits perfectly between Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr’s novel Roomies, which takes place in the summer between high school and college, and Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Frienda memoir of the author’s experience moving from New York to Chicago after getting married.

roomies MWFseeking BFF

“A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog, with minor modifications.

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” -Emily Dickinson, quoted in To The Letter by Simon Garfield

An epistle, from the Latin epistulais a letter: a composition in prose sent from one person to another, or from one person to a group of people. An epistolary novel is a novel in letters, a unique style of narration. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first novel written in this way was Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1740; Richardson employed the form again with Clarissa in 1748. Other authors began to write epistolary novels as well, including Goethe, who published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. And one of the most well-known epistolary novels is Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Acquaintances), which has been adapted into film more than once (Dangerous Liaisons in 1988Cruel Intentions in 1999).

Why are epistolary novels so compelling? One reason may be that they feel intimate. There’s the illegal thrill of reading someone else’s mail, but there’s also a first person voice, usually one character writing to another that they know well, or come to know well. The pace of the correspondence may heighten the suspense as characters – and readers – wait for a reply.

griffinandsabineMost epistolary novels are printed in the same way as regular books, but some go as far as to include actual envelopes and letters. Nick Bantock’s beautiful, mysterious Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence is one of these: Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem correspond in handmade postcards at first, then move on to longer letters, which the reader pulls out from an envelope and unfolds to read. (A word to the wise: there are six of these books. You may want to get them all at once and set aside a day or two to read them. You will want to know what happens next.)

guernseyOne deservedly popular novel in letters is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. This book has had lasting appeal, and at least some of that appeal must come from the style in which it is written. The characters’ letters are direct, honest, funny, sorrowful, angry, heartbreaking, and romantic in turn. The reader feels as though she has direct access to the characters, without the authors as intermediaries.

attachmentsOther authors use a more traditional style of narration, but employ letters, journal entries, or – more recently – e-mails, text messages, and chats. A significant chunk of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, is told through two characters’ e-mail exchange – an exchange read by a third person, their company’s IT manager. Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia includes text messages and facebook status updates. The young adult favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient; Roomies by popular YA authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando also includes lengthy e-mails between the two main characters, high school graduates who are to be roommates in the fall.

lettersfromskyeOther recent epistolary or semi-epistolary novels are Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, set in Scotland and America, and The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, set in France. These two novels don’t just use the contents of the letters to tell the reader a story; the letters’ discovery by other people becomes part of the plot. Letters are physical: they can be lost, delayed, delivered to the wrong address, or received, read, and tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until someone else comes along and finds them.

Letters often become a part of history, like journals, newspapers, books, and other documents. Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing provides dozens of examples of historical letters, from Cicero to Kerouac. Many biographies include a subject’s letters and journals (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in LettersThe Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen’s Letters). There is even a website, Letters of Note, that gathers fascinating letters from a variety of letter-writers, such as this one from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife.

There are far more epistolary novels and excellent collections of letters than I have mentioned above. What’s your favorite? What are your thoughts on this manner of telling a story? And when was the last time you wrote (or received) a pen-and-paper letter?

“Men and women have been collecting letters since letters began. Unlike other collecting hobbies, philately say, or beautiful antique cars, the collecting of letters has always been a wholly natural endeavor. If you treasured what was said in a letter you kept it, and once you have three, you had a correspondence, and no one would accuse you of being a nerd or obsessive.” -Simon Garfield, To The Letter

Swash_ornament_zeimusu

“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.

The Pleasure of Picture Books (and Reading Magic by Mem Fox)

readingmagicI’ve been on a picture book kick recently, starting with the indescribably adorable Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid, which I read about in a review from Kirkus. The children’s librarians at my library were happy to provide me with more contemporary picture books, and then I started revisiting old favorites.

Along the way, I read Australian author Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. As a librarian, and as someone whose parents read her stories every night, I’m already sold on the reading-to-kids idea, but Fox emphasizes how important it truly is.

Among all the anecdotes and tips for reading aloud, I came across this quote on page 142, which struck me as perfect for Banned Books week. But Banned Books Week is in September, and I didn’t want to wait to share:

“The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”

Books are a safe place to encounter new ideas and situations, and think (or talk) through them. Experiencing something vicariously or hypothetically is often safer than having that experience oneself. Though “difficult topics” may be uncomfortable for some, books are an excellent “vehicle for true learning and understanding.” (For more on this topic, see “Censorship and Invisibility,” one of my Banned Book Week blog posts from last fall.)

Picture books naturally lend themselves to discussion. For those of us who tend to focus on the text, they are also a good reminder that reading an image requires another type of literacy. In a good picture book, the text and the image complement each other; the pictures aren’t just a representation of the text, they can contain more information – and often jokes. It’s worth taking a bit of extra time to look at the pictures on each page closely, not just because they are colorful or cute, but because there is more going on. (Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann is an excellent example of this.)

oliveralligatorcoverHere are a few of my favorite picture books, old and new. I keep a current list, tagged “children’s” in LibraryThing.

Sometimes I Forget You’re A Robot by Sam Brown, 2013

Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner, 2013

Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid (also, A Pet for Petunia), 2011, 2013

A Kiss Like This by Mary Murphy, 2012

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (also, This Is Not My Hat), 2011, 2012

13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman, 2010

Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett, 2007

Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh, 1992

Julius, the Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes, 1990

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz, 1972

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham (also, Harry by the Sea and No Roses for Harry), 1956-1965

What are your favorite picture books from childhood? When was the last time you read a picture book, quietly to yourself or out loud?

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

landline

She had to call. You can’t just ignore a phone that calls into the past. You can’t know it’s there and not call.

In her three previous books, Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell has demonstrated an ability to create characters that are as recognizable as real people. She has proven herself adept at writing all kinds of relationships – romantic and otherwise – for characters in high school, college, and early adulthood. In Landline, Rowell leaves the YA realm and returns to the adult world, delving into the marriage of Georgie McCool and Neal Grafton.

Georgie and Neal meet in college, marry at twenty-three, and have two children. Georgie works as a TV writer with her friend Seth, who has been her writing partner for longer than Georgie and Neal have been together. Georgie and Seth are on the verge of achieving their longtime dream of getting their own show, but there’s a catch: they have to have material ready in a matter of days. But it’s almost Christmas, and Georgie is supposed to go with her family to Omaha for the holiday.

Instead, Georgie stays in California to work on scripts with Seth while Neal takes their daughters to Omaha. Georgie’s mother and sister treat her as though Neal has left her, which is not what Georgie thinks has happened at all…or has it? Georgie begins to fall apart. She can’t get in touch with Neal on the phone, until she tries calling from the old landline phone at her mom’s house. Talking to Neal on the phone brings back old memories of their time in college, and the terrible week when they were broken up, before he drove twenty-seven hours back from Omaha to California and proposed to her on Christmas morning. Georgie can’t remember that week very well, but as she talks to Neal, pieces she didn’t know were missing begin to fall into place.

The plot hinges on two phones: Georgie’s dead cell phone, and the landline (a.k.a. the magicfuckingphone). I found the landline, where present-day Georgie talks to past Neal, much easier to go along with than the idea that a responsible adult with children would let her cell phone die as often as Georgie did. But that’s my one complaint.

Rowell has an incredible depth of understanding of her characters, and of marriage generally, but she also has a lovely light touch: there are plenty of funny, witty moments alongside (and sometimes during) the darker, bleaker ones. At one point, Georgie realizes that even though Neal is perfect for her, she might not be perfect for him; that “she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” Throughout the novel, Georgie wrestles with big questions like these. She has always known what she wanted: a career in TV, Neal, and her kids. Neal has never really known what he wanted, except for Georgie. Seth adds another layer of tension to Georgie and Neal’s relationship: there’s no love lost between Seth and Neal, but they’ve maintained a tense truce all these years, for Georgie’s sake. Is Seth ready to break that truce? 

Readers may occasionally pause to dwell on issues of feminism. (Georgie wanted to take Neal’s last name, but he wouldn’t let her, because “You don’t come into this world with a name like Georgie McCool and throw it away on the first pretty face.”) In the McCool-Grafton marriage, Georgie is the careerist, the breadwinner, the busy one, while Neal is the stay-at-home dad; Georgie’s own sister points out that Neal would get custody in a divorce. But the novel doesn’t read like a book with an agenda; it only presents a scenario that is the reverse of the traditional one.

Rowell is as magical as her landline phone. Georgie and Neal’s marriage, with all its history and weight, comes through clearly: their good moments and bad moments, the joys and stresses, the selfishness and compromises. Georgie and Neal recognize that they may not be perfect for each other, that their lives might not “fit together,” but, as Neal says, “Nobody’s lives fit together. Fitting together is something you work at. It’s something you make happen – because you love each other.” Stranded half a country away from Neal and her kids, Georgie has to figure out how to make it happen.

I had incredibly high expectations for this book, and though high expectations often lead to disappointment, that wasn’t the case here at all. Instead, I was wholly delighted, and I think Rowell’s fans will be too. In fact, moving seamlessly between YA and adult, she’s likely to bring her old fans with her and attract some new ones as well.

I received an e-galley of LANDLINE from publisher Macmillan via Edelweiss. The expected publication date is July 8, 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, not the final copy.

Intro to Historical Fiction

Cross-posted, with a few changes, on the Robbins Library blog. Links go to past blog posts or LibraryThing reviews. 

Recently, a friend asked me for some recommendations of historical fiction books. She said she had read a lot of historical fiction when she was younger (think A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), and had recently enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. She has also enjoyed historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book) and Colm Toibin. She expressed a preference for books about wholly fictional characters rather than fictionalized real people from history.

Using the above information as a starting point, here’s what I came up with:

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: CodeNameVerityMarketed as a young adult novel, this book has earned rave reviews almost universally. I loved it for its journal-style narration; the friendship of its two main characters, captured spy “Verity” and downed pilot Maddie; and the fantastic plot twist. It is WWII fiction, but unlike much of WWII fiction, it doesn’t take place in Germany and doesn’t center around Jewish characters: Verity was captured on a mission from England into France, with Maddie as the pilot. The narrators on the audiobook are absolutely wonderful; there’s a lot of added value there, but the voices come through in the text as well. A wrenching, incredible book.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: anorthernlightThis is another young adult book, a classic coming-of-age story set in the Adirondacks in 1906. I find it difficult to imagine the reader who could resist sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey, who loves school and dreams of being a writer, but may end up sacrificing that dream to take care of her family, as she promised her mother on her deathbed. As an additional complication, there is a murder at the hotel where Mattie works – the same murder that inspired Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

Astray by Emma Donoghue: astray_donoghueDonoghue has written historical novels and short stories before, but Astray is a standout collection. Each story is based on some fragment of historical truth, and Donoghue builds on these facts to create fully realized characters. Each story is preceded by its setting (time and place) and followed by a note about its inspiration. The audio production is stellar; I highly recommend listening to this book, because it makes the stories last longer. My favorite in the collection is “The Gift.”

Honolulu by Alan BrennerthonoluluHonolulu is excellent historical fiction: it sheds light on a little-known time and place in history, it has a compelling main character, and it covers several years without ever dragging in pace. The Library Journal review sums it up perfectly: “This sweeping, epic novel follows Jin from her homeland of Korea to a new life on the blossoming Hawaiian Islands. The year is 1914, and Jin is a “picture bride,” a sort of mail-order bride to a Korean man living in Hawaii whom she has never met. Not the wealthy husband she was promised, he is a poor laborer who treats her cruelly. Escaping her abusive husband, Jin must make her way in Honolulu, eventually finding love and stability…Seeing life through Jin’s eyes is a pleasure as she changes from a farm-bound, repressed immigrant girl to an outgoing, educated member of Hawaiian society…” There are also strong female friendships in this book, which is nice to see.

Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull: losingjuliaHonestly, it’s been over a decade since I’ve read this, but I remember really liking it; partly I found it refreshing (if that’s the word) to read a war book that wasn’t about WWII, though nowadays with the Downton Abbey craze we’re seeing more WWI fiction. Patrick Delaney narrates, focusing on three time periods in his life: his time as a soldier in WWI, ten years post-war, and his present situation in an old folks’ home. Hull’s description of war is graphic and immediate, and the love story is poignant and romantic without being sappy. I may have just talked myself into re-reading this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. StedmanlightbetweenoceansSet in Australia after the Great War (WWI), The Light Between Oceans has few characters but a big impact. Soldier Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island. On a trip back to the mainland, he meets and then marries Isabel Graysmark; they live together on the island, alone and happy, until Isabel has a miscarriage, then another, then another. At the center of this beautiful book is a moral dilemma, and a love story. It’s thought-provoking, discussion-worthy, and its setting in a remote part of Australia is unique.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles:rulesofcivility I love this book for two reasons: narrator Katey Kontent, and the way 1937-1938 New York comes to life. I find it hard to believe this (first!) novel was written by an investment banker (with an M.A. in English from Stanford, but still), but obviously I shouldn’t judge; Rules of Civility (the title is from a pamphlet by the young George Washington) is a remarkable book. Katey is independent, well-read, serious, fun, and moral without being prissy. New York in the late thirties is a character all its own; if ever you were going to read a book for the setting alone, it could be this one.

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara:cascade If Mattie Gokey was ten years older and was an artist instead of a writer, she’d be Desdemona Spaulding, nee Hart. Set primarily in Massachusetts in the 1930s, with a few scenes in New York, this is the perfect book for fans of A Northern Light. Dez faces the family-or-career choice that many women still face today. In O’Hara’s own words, “life is full of tough choices between less-than-perfect alternatives.” Readers may sympathize or disagree with Dez’s decisions, but no one could say they were easy ones to make.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: thosewhosaveusThis is another WWII novel, one that alternates between WWII-era Germany and present-day Minnesota. I enjoy split narratives, and this one is easy to follow, but some readers prefer chronological narratives. The character in the present is Trudy, a history professor, and the character in the past is her mother Anna, who had an affair with a Nazi officer during the war. Anna has never talked to her daughter about her past, but Trudy is determined to find out what happened. This compelling book stands out among the glut of WWII fiction.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres: corellismandolinIt is rare to find a book that has moments of such humor (it begins with a doctor curing a man’s deafness by removing a pea from his ear) and scenes of such overwhelming horror, cruelty, and sadness; in fact, one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read is in this book, which takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during, and after WWII. Captain Corelli is a member of the occupying Italian army who falls in love with the daughter of the deafness-curing doctor. Yes, Corelli’s Mandolin is also a movie, but – as is nearly always the case – the book is better.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: suitefrancaiseAs if we did not already have enough reasons to hate Nazis, here’s another: they have deprived us of volumes 3-5 of this book. Suite Francaise contains two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” but the author intended to write five parts; unfortunately, she was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and killed before she completed them. However, Nemirovsky – who was born in Russia, but moved to France with her family when she was a teenager – accomplished a great deal in the first two parts of Suite Francaise. She captures the atmosphere of France during the early part of WWII: in “Storm in June,” people flee Paris as the Germans invade, and in “Dolce” German officers are quartered in French homes in a small village. Moral complexities abound, as difficulties bring out the best and worst in people.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society guernseyby Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer: Don’t let this long, tongue-twister title put you off; Guernsey is a delightful epistolary novel (a novel in letters), and at its center is Juliet Ashton, an English author looking for a subject for a new book. Set in England in 1946, Guernsey has a WWII story embedded in it, but primarily the reader sees the aftereffects of the war, both in London and on the island of Guernsey. If I were forced to muster up a complaint about this book, it would be that the characters, especially Elizabeth, are too perfect; but I’ve read it three times now (once on audio, which I recommend) so it’s not really a complaint at all.

And here are some historical fiction novels that do take real historical figures as their main characters:

Fever by Mary Beth Keane (“Typhoid” Mary Mallon)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda Fitzgerald)

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Edith Wharton)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Hadley Hemingway)

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright)

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (George Mallory)

Best of 2011: Fiction (continued)

“I’ll be posting more soon,” I wrote (February 28, 2012). If we are going by geological time, I suppose nearly two years later qualifies as “soon,” but by normal human calendar time, I missed the mark a bit. Here is the final batch of read-in-2011 favorites, a continuation of this “best of 2011″ post.

Many of these books have gotten a fair amount of attention in the last couple years (Cloud Atlas was made into a movie), and some authors have published additional books since these: Hilary Mantel followed up Wolf Hall with Bring Up the Bodies, Patrick Somerville published This Bright River in 2012, Emma Donoghue published Astray the same year, and Simon Van Booy came out with the slender and luminous The Illusion of Separateness last year. Here, though, are my brief and belated roundups of some favorite novels I read in 2011.

everythingbeautifulEverything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy (2011): Having read Simon Van Booy’s short stories (The Secret Lives of People in Love; Love Begins in Winter), I was looking forward to his first novel, and it didn’t disappoint, although I think his style is best suited to short stories and novellas. Characters take precedence over plot in this story (except for one main event): the relationships between Rebecca, Henry, and George are the central aspect of the story. The setting – Athens, Greece – is also a character of sorts. Van Booy’s writing is poetic, and creates a mood that lingers even when you’ve put the book down.

goonsquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010): This novel spans a few decades, stretching into the near future; sections are linked through loosely connected characters. Each section serves as a snapshot or cross-section of a time in a life, and the character’s interaction with others during that time. I enjoyed these sections on their own (many parts appeared in The New Yorker in advance of the novel’s publication) and would have gladly spent more time with the characters. However, I remember not liking the sections set in the future as much as the ones set in the past or present, and now that it has been a few years, I don’t remember the overall arc of the book.

cloud_atlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell (1999): As impressed as I was with Goon SquadCloud Atlas blew me away. Structurally, the book is unlike any other I’ve ever read: like the eponymous “sextet for overlapping soloists” described in the novel (“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order”), the book is made up of six sections, five of which are divided in half, with the sixth in its entirety in the middle of the book. The six narratives are so wildly different in setting, character, voice, and style that they could have been written by different authors, but a single theme emerges. Most readers will prefer certain narratives over others, but overall, the book is masterful, and David Mitchell’s genius is apparent.

wolfhallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009): Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are two of the most popular characters for historical fiction authors, but Thomas Cromwell, who lurks in the shadows in most books, takes center stage (center page?) in Mantel’s. She describes his miserable childhood, his travels as a young man, and his rise to power with superb and engaging thoroughness, so the reader empathizes with the character completely. Wolf Hall has a strange grammatical quirk – every “he” or “him” refers to Cromwell, regardless of subject/object conventions – but this quirk was ironed out in the subsequent Bring Up the Bodies. I can’t wait for the third and final book, The Mirror and the Light, expected sometime in 2015. (Will it, too, win the Booker Prize?)

widowerstaleThe Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (2010): Set in the Boston area, The Widower’s Tale may be Glass’ saddest book to date, but it is also one of her best. She weaves a web of interconnected characters, creates a beautiful and believable setting, and writes with emotional truth about the people she has brought to life – in this case, the Darling family, including retired librarian and grandfather Percy; his daughters, high-achieving Trudy and floundering Clover; and his grandson, Harvard student Robert.

room_donoghueRoom by Emma Donoghue (2010): A distinctive departure for Donoghue (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories, The Sealed Letter), Room centers closely on two characters, mother and child, in a tightly circumscribed environment – the single, eponymous room. The reader gleans that the mother has been kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, but her five-year-old son Jack knows none of this; the room is his whole world. When they manage to escape, the real world is a shock to both of them, for different reasons and in different ways. A novel premise, thoughtfully carried out.

cradle_somervilleThe Cradle by Patrick Somerville (2009): For better or worse, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of buzz about this book when it came out, so reading it felt like a wonderful and secret discovery. It is about the marriage of Matt and Marissa, who, facing impending parenthood, are reflecting on their own family histories. On the back of the book, Benjamin Percy wrote, “Like a magic trick, The Cradle will make you blink, chew your lip, try to figure out how he did it, how in the world Patrick Somerville managed to sneak this big, beautiful story of familial love into such a slender novel – a saga writ small, swiftly paced, intricately structured, precisely told.” Well put.

chroniclesharrisburdickThe Chronicles of Harris Burdick: fourteen amazing authors tell the tales (2011): I have long been entranced by Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations, especially The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Each illustration in this collection has a title and a caption that tantalizes the imagination. As the subtitle of this edition suggests, fourteen authors have taken on the challenge here, with one story per illustration (how did they decide who got which?). Each tale is magical and inventive; some are funny, some are dark. My favorites are “Oscar and Alphonse,” written by Van Allsburg himself, and “The House on Maple Street” by Stephen King. Great for most ages (10 and up?).

 

“New Adult” Revisited, Or, Where are all the books about college?

It’s easy to find books about characters in high school. And it’s easy to find books about adult characters anywhere, doing anything. But there is a sparsely populated area between these two: books about characters who are transitioning from childhood/teenagerhood to adulthood. A few years ago, in response to a post on the Young Adult Review Network (YARN), I struggled to come up with a handful of titles that fit this category. YARN responded with additional titles (November 2011), but I don’t think anyone was satisfied that there were enough “new adult” books at the time.

fangirlinfinitemomentofusThe topic came up again at ALA 2013. I didn’t attend in person, but followed the coverage on blogs and Twitter; Hannah Gomez’s piece for YALSA’s The Hub provides a great recap, as well as a link to a resource list, which has been updated – a pleasant surprise! - since the conference. (There’s another good piece on The Hub about adult books with teen appeal, from August 2012. I’d add Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt to this list, and I’m not alone – it’s a 2013 Alex Award winner.) I was glad to see that a few of my recent favorites that fit snugly into the “new adult” category are on the reader’s advisory resource list, including Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando, and Just One Day and Just One Year by Gayle Forman; I’d also add How to Love by Katie Cotugno.

howtolovejustoneyearThe years after high school, whether they include college or not, and the first few years in the working world are a transitional time of great change and (hopefully) growth. It is strange that authors haven’t mined this emotion-rich area more. Perhaps these books fell into that gray area that is neither YA nor adult, and publishers weren’t sure how to market them, but if that’s the case, it’s a weak one: so many adults are openly reading YA lit now that these”crossover” books should appeal to both audiences, rather than being lost between them.

roomiesbunheads

Lourdes at YARN made an important point about some of the books I suggested back in 2011: that they contained an element of nostalgia, and were told from an adult point of view in a present that looked back on the past, as opposed to being told from the point of view of a young adult in the present. The books I mentioned above fit this criteria much better, and I hope to discover and read more of these (suggestions are welcome in the comments).

However, as a reader, I like the adult-looking-back perspective; one example I can think of is Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, which starts when its three main characters are in college. Maggie Shipstead’s forthcoming Astonish Me (April 2014) also begins when its main character is a young adult, and it follows her until her own son is a teenager. (I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who liked Bunheads.) Much of the action in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes place when the narrator is in college, though in the present she is middle-aged. Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters also deals with three young women who have been out in the world for a few years, but who don’t yet feel like (or, sometimes, act like) adults. All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian is also adult fiction, but its main character, Maral, grows from fourteen to twenty during WWII in Paris – perfect for “new adults” who like historical fiction, as Maral makes several difficult and important choices as she comes of age.

The titles in the paragraph above were gleaned from my own reading over the past several months, so clearly “new adults” exist in literature – they can just be hard to find. I’d love to see more books like Fangirl and Roomies, though. Again, if you have suggestions, let me know in the comments!

Note: There are many definitions of the “new adult” category (and many disagreements about whether it’s a genre or a marketing ploy, exciting or a hassle), but no consensus. Therefore, I’m using my preferred definition of “new adult”: books about characters who are in the 18-25-year-old range, told from their perspective (not necessarily first person, present tense, but not from an adult perspective looking back). 

Best of 2011, Part the Third: Nonfiction

Some might say it’s too late to revisit favorite nonfiction books read in 2011, but I disagree, partly because I am intent on cleaning out my drafts folder, and partly because plenty of good nonfiction stands the test of time. Especially when that test is only three years. (Those who are interested in my other “best of 2011″ reading posts can catch up with the “prequel,” favorite young adult books, humor and baking books – separate categories, same post – and fiction).

As I’m now writing about books I read about three years ago and my memories of them are not comprehensive, my notes will be correspondingly brief, but I still remember and recommend the following biographies, histories, and memoirs:

Under the Banner of Heaven: a story of violent faith by Jon Krakauer (2003): Booklist calls this a “true-crime/religious expose, which delves deep into the heart of Mormon fundamentalism,” which sums it up neatly. Krakauer alternates between a history of Mormonism and contemporary Mormon fundamentalism. As always, he chooses a gripping topic and writes in a clear, compelling way.

unbrokenUnbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010): Incredibly, for a book that came out four years ago, there are still holds on the library copies. This is an enduring work: an incredible piece of scholarship and research, written in an accessible and gripping way, with some truly stomach-churning scenes. Technically it’s a biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner in the 1930s and an airman in WWII who was shot down, spent over a month at sea, only to be held as a Japanese POW for the remainder of the war, but the story seems too big to belong to just one person.

The Devil in the White City: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America by Erik Larson (2003): Larson’s book, too, remains popular more than a decade after its initial publication. He tells twin narratives: that of the Chicago World’s Fair architects, and that of the serial killer Henry Holmes. The year 1893 comes alive, both the “white city” and the “black city.” I had thought that the two narratives would eventually weave together and converge, and that doesn’t happen, but it’s still an excellent read – sometimes terrifying, filled with interesting details (did you know the Ferris Wheel premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair?), and never boring.

professorandmadmanThe Professor and the Madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (1998): The subtitle really sums it all up. The eponymous professor, James Murray, was the editor of the first edition of the OED, and the eponymous madman was one Dr. William Minor, an American doctor incarcerated in an asylum in England, and a significant contributor to the OED. Fascinating on a number of levels, and refreshingly brief at under 300 pages.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (1998) and My Life In France by Julia Child (2006): Those who like memoirs and who are interested in food couldn’t choose a better book than Tender at the Bone. Reichl is a funnier writer than I expected, and I still intend to read her other books (Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me With Apples). Having said that, for those who like history and travel as well as memoirs and cooking, My Life in France is the book for you. Child is funny, observant, brave, and unselfconscious; I adored this book.

Life by Keith Richards (2010) and John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2008): If you are planning to read both of these books, read Lennon first; Norman’s book is packed with detail, thanks to his thorough research, but it is less lively and immediate than Richards’ Life. Partly the difference stems from the voice; Lennon is a biography, while Life is an autobiography, and Richards’ account has the benefit of being in his own words. He remembers far more than anyone could expect him to, and in addition to plenty of anecdotes, Life contains memorable lines like “I imagined everything. I never thought it would happen.” (The audiobook is great too.) The Norman is a bit drier, but it does contain plenty of early Beatles history, who-wrote-what-and-why bits, and perspective on the later years; while one can’t help thinking John was a bit of a jerk, Yoko Ono is presented in a way that even I can’t hate her (as I was brought up to do). On balance, though, Keith’s book is just more fun.

charlesandemmaCharles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (2008): Biographies written for adults – especially biographies of such major historical figures as Charles Darwin – tend to be doorstops, which can deter those of us who want to learn about someone without, perhaps, learning every single thing about them that a biographer can unearth. Charles and Emma is written for a young adult audience, but it’s a wonderful book for older readers too. Heiligman chooses to view Darwin’s life through the lens of his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood; she is a faithful Christian, and he is a scientist whose theory still sends modern Christians into fits (see: evolution vs. “intelligent design” in science textbooks). Their marriage is a microcosm of this debate that is still ongoing, but it is a thoughtful and respectful one.

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

I hesitate to mention this, as it’s January 14 and this is my first post here since the beginning of the year (though I did write about Simon Garfield’s engaging To the Letter, and the letter-writing resolution it inspired, on my other blog last week), but one of my new year’s resolutions is to post here more regularly: specifically, once a week, although occasionally there may be extra posts, and I’m allowing myself to miss the occasional week for vacations, illnesses, etc. I’m sure my twenty readers will be crushed by these lapses.

While I was considering a reasonable frequency for blog posts, I was also considering content. Should I limit myself to book reviews? That would focus things a bit more; this could be a book review blog. But I like having the latitude to write about any issue relevant to libraries, publishing, intellectual freedom, etc. that catches my interest, so I decided not to change the content much.

tenyearsinthetubThat said, Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub, a collection of his columns for the Believer over the past decade, presents a really excellent structure for writing about books, the only problem being that Nick Hornby’s already gone and done it. Even though, given 2,000 words a month, I’d write different things about different books (and I wouldn’t write at all about cricket or football), it seems a bit cheap to steal his format.

For today, then, I’ll just write about what Hornby has written about what he’s read. (How’s that for meta?) For those who aren’t familiar with his Believer column, he starts each one off with a list of “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” (It’s already a brilliant idea, isn’t it?) The overlap between the two lists varies from month to month, as you can imagine, and it’s interesting to see how one book leads to another, what gets read and what gets set aside, sometimes cropping up months later.

As he is writing about so many books in a relatively small space, his transitions can be a bit jarring (or rather, transitions are often lacking entirely); some books receive several paragraphs of attention and others are dealt with in a sentence or two. We can forgive this unevenness though, because Hornby writes with humor, self-deprecation, and intelligence. He often turns on himself, retracting something he wrote in a previous month or even earlier in the same column; for example, one month he writes, “Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else.” Yes! But the next time the World Cup rolls around, he does a reversal.

Hornby has a talent for articulating thoughts that might have occurred to many of us in a fuzzier form, but he does it in a way that is concise and sharp, observant and true. In two or three separate columns, he wrote about major works that have influenced literature in a significant way since their publication. Here he is, once he’s finally gotten around to reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: “But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement.” And here again, after reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (whose other books he gobbled up like candy – or perhaps the more apt metaphor in his case would be ‘inhaled like cigarettes’): “Influential books are often a disappointment, if they’re properly influential, because influence cannot guarantee the quality of the imitators, and your appetite for the original has been partially sated by its poor copies.” Finally, here he is on Voltaire: “The trouble with Candide is that it’s one of those books that we’ve all read, whether we’ve read it or not….The meat was picked off it and thrown to the crowd in the eighteenth century…”

It just so happens I’ve read and loved all three of those books, though I was younger than Hornby when I read them. (I’m still younger than him now. Ha!) Candide, in particular, I read in eleventh grade; I remember being intimidated because it was old, and French, and a classic, but felt better when I saw how tiny it was, and upon reading it thought it quite funny and not intimidating at all. I do see his point about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; I saw the movie after reading the book (I think) and Maggie Smith was – as she always is – tremendous, and memorable. The point stands, though, about influence, and it makes me feel a bit better that I didn’t love Catcher in the Rye the way I was supposed to, even though I read it when you’re supposed to (age 16 or thereabouts). For a young adult classic, I love The Perks of Being a Wallflower a hundred times better.

Though at one point Hornby warns against revisiting old favorites, in case they don’t hold up over time, he also sees forgetting as an opportunity. In one column, he writes, “A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read….I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.” This is cheering, indeed. I used to re-read books much more often than I do now; as Hornby says, “I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.” But at least a few times a year, I’ll read a book that I know, usually even before I’ve finished it, that I want to read again. Off the top of my head: Gold by Chris Cleave, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. (Incidentally, that’s two British authors and two Americans, two men and two women. Neat.)

After I graduated from college and began working in publishing, I went on what could pretty accurately be described as a two- or three-year fiction binge. I forget which year it was that I made a resolution to read at least one nonfiction book a month, but I did it when reading nothing but fiction came to feel like eating nothing but candy. (Not to say that fiction can’t be just as “good for you” as nonfiction. I’m not getting into that here.) So when Hornby wrote that he was “beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes,” I knew exactly what he meant. (My reading diet has been much more balanced since that resolution, though it still skews toward fiction.)

In two of his more recent essays, Hornby wrote about books “of the moment” – those books saturated with contemporary period details, set in a very particular place and time, complete with all its cultural references. It’s often noted in criticism of books like this that they will lose their appeal over time. “The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last; but what else do we have that delves so deeply into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? ….Some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter what the cost to the work’s durability, no?” Hornby asks. These books, he argues, have just as much if not more historical value than well-researched historical fiction, because they provide insight to what people were thinking and feeling in a given place and time.

Speaking of “the moment,” why, when we have e-books, do people still buy and read printed books? In part because “all the books we own, read or unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal….With each passing year…our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are.” For readers, our books are us, and our bookshelves show who we are, what we love, who we aspire to be. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

As someone who often tracks down books referenced, even fleetingly, in other books, it’s not surprising that I ended up with a nice list of books to add to my already intimidatingly long “to-read” list by the time I came to the end of Ten Years in the Tub. Here they are:

skelligFiction (including children’s/YA)
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
We’re in Trouble: stories by Chris Coake
Skellig by David Almond
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (nearly certain I read this as a child, but have forgotten it sufficiently to warrant a re-reading)
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
any book by Anne Tyler

sarahvowellNonfiction
How to Live: or, a life of Montaigne, in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell (on top of Hornby’s recommendation, I remember that the reviews and awards for this book were spectacular)
Book of Days: personal essays by Emily Fox Gordon
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord
The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (this was already on my to-read list; I loved The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes)