Friday, November 9, 2012

YA Reading, Round 5: Historical

Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied has been on my queue for about as long as I've been writing this blog, but I didn't realize until it was on my reading list for class that it's considered a YA book.

The story follows sixteen-year-old Evie who is about as naive as they come. Her stepfather Joe has returned home to New York after World War II, and the family's postwar normalcy resumes pretty quickly. Someone, though, has been trying to get in touch with Joe, and he decides to drive the family, on a whim, down to Palm Beach for vacation, even though summer has just ended. Everything changes for Evie in Palm Beach. As a teenager aching to grow up, she gets her first taste of adulthood with fancy clothes and a crush on a dashing young man named Peter who served in Joe's company during the war. But then a tragedy occurs that leaves Evie searching for the truth in all she's seen and learning that she hadn't really grown up as much as she thought.

This was a National Book Award winner which really surprised me. I thought it was okay...not great but not bad, and not incredibly memorable. The thing about this book for a YA audience, though, is that it has a ton of appeal factors. You could classify it as historical fiction, as coming-of-age, as a mystery, as a thriller. There is an incredible amount of ambiance filling the pages of this book—smoky dinner parties, a muggy noir-ish Floridian atmosphere, the deceiving glamour and simplicity of postwar America—all masking the more serious undertones running throughout. You have this main character who is yearning for womanhood, yearning to be taken more seriously, and as an adult reader, you know what's going to happen because you can see the reality that immaturity prevents Evie from seeing.

On paper, this has all the ingredients of a book I'd love, but I think Evie got in the way for me. I just never liked her attitude (which may not be a good sign if I plan on working with young adults someday!). It does, though, have plenty of appeal for a YA reader.

At the beginning of the semester, my professor's comment on Markus Zusak's The Book Thief was, "Eeeeveryone loves The Book Thief; who doesn't love The Book Thief?" Well, sorry prof. Maybe you hyped it up too much, but I (and many of my classmates) weren't as in love as you thought we'd be.

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany at the beginning of WWII. At its opening, we observe the scene of a young girl at her brother's grave. She finds an object left in the snow, which turns out to be a book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, fallen out of a gravedigger's pocket. In the following years, as she's moved in with a foster family and started a new life, Leisel's book thievery continues. She's fallen in love with the written word. Meanwhile, the atmosphere surrounded her small German town is tense. The Nazis are on the rise; Jews are being chased out of town; work is harder to come by for Leisel's foster parents; and there's a Jew hiding out in their basement. As the world around Leisel falls apart, she has her books. And, of course, her eyes are opened to what's happening around her.

So, I am a sap for affecting sentimentality—plot lines that are sometimes sad, sometimes glad (e.g. I can't keep a dry eye during Parenthood). But there is just something in my emotional make-up that prevents me from getting affected by actual, serious depressing topics. It's like my brain doesn't fully process them and keeps them at a distance to prevent me from actually facing the issue. This book is sad; that's not even up for debate. But it never really upset me, and most people bawl during it. So something just must be wrong with me, and it affected my reaction to it. 

I think this is a difficult book to recommend to a teenager. Really, it's not a YA book. It can be, for the right reader, but for the majority, I think it has a low appeal. It has an intriguing format in that Death is the narrator, telling the story from an omniscient point of view. And the chapters are told as brief snippets, moments that Death witnesses, with Death's commentary scattered throughout. Overall, though, I think it's a tough book to get into. It's slow-paced and more "literary" in format. I think it's creative; I think it has merit; I think it is touching. But I just didn't feel it as much as I expected. And it will take the right reader to get something out of it.

1 comment:

Aarti said...

I admit I am one of those that loves The Book Thief. I saw a play version recently and wasn't nearly as moved by it as by the book. I just fell completely in love with Rudy :-)

As for the first book, I remember it was all over blogosphere for a while, but every time I see it in the library, I pause and then pass over it. So I can't want it that badly!