“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). 

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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)