Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fiction | Highly Unlikely & Utterly Unbelievable

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When I heard early in the spring that Judy Blume was releasing a new adult book this year, I immediately decided it would be my "book published this year" for the Read Harder Challenge. And I'm not even a die-hard Judy Blume fan. Sure, I read lots of her stuff as a kid and enjoyed it, but I like her even more for her nonstop devotion to the library and literacy cause. Truth be told, I forgot she wrote an adult book once, because I never read it.

It was fated, then, that a friend works for Knopf, and one day this summer I found In the Unlikely Event sitting on my doorstop. I got to enjoy this puppy while soaking up sun on my pizza-shaped pool float and in between cat naps. (This school-schedule summer vacation really is the best.)

The premise of In the Unlikely Event is awesome, in a bit of a sadistic kind of way. Though the narrative alternates its focus between several characters, our main point of contact in this story is Miri Ammerman, a teenager in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. This particular winter, when Miri is fifteen and first finding herself in love, a series of plane crashes, in very short succession, rocks her town and everyone in it. This setting is based on Blume's own experiences as a teenager in shoes very similar to Miri's—at least in terms of time and place. These three plane crashes are actual events from the winter of 1951 that nearly closed Newark Airport for good. Sixty years later, it's still an unbelievable sequence of events.

That's about all the summary I need to share about this book, because that's really what the story hinges on. It's about particular people, yes, but these aren't people that are universal, able to exist in any time or place. This novel is their story in relation to these monumental, unfathomable events happening around them. At some points it feels like life is completely different for them than from before crash number one or number two; at other points, it feels like these crashes are events they witness from a distance and barely internalize, as if it happened in another place to other people. In this regard, it's difficult to really pinpoint what exactly the message is here that Blume is trying to share. Not that it needs a message, per se—perhaps it's just a portrait of an experience; but can we go so far as to call it Miri's coming-of-age, or is it just a snapshot of her life, along with so many others?

What the author was good at here was immersing the reader in the setting with details and ambiance. You can sense Blume's personal connection with the time and place, because she writes with a sense of nostalgia. The story itself opens and closes 30+ years later than the plane crashes, when characters are reuniting to commemorate the events of that terrible winter; and perhaps this contributes to the nostalgic tone—the story, within itself, is somewhat being told as a recollection. I very much enjoyed that we did get to see this peek into the future, to see how these characters turned out. It lent a "full-circle" theme to this story that ultimately just reminds us that life goes on. And while I don't believe this book is a monumental achievement, it's easy and enjoyable enough—with a unique premise that will probably inspire much Google searching—to entertain for an afternoon or two.

Disclaimer: Readers with a fear of flying should perhaps avoid this one.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fiction | The Many Pieces & Parts of Cameron Post

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I don't know where I found the suggestion to read The Miseducation of Cameron Post as the LGBT title for my Read Harder Challenge, but emily m. danforth's debut YA novel certainly surpassed any expectations I had of it. I guess I assumed it would be just a generic YA novel, but I found it to be so much more; it immediately became my favorite read of the whole year, in fact.

The story opens in 1989 when Cameron Post is a twelve-year-old living in rural Montana. It's summer, and she's spending it, as usual, with her best friend, Irene. They spend the long, broiling hot days swimming, riding bikes, and sleeping over at each others' houses. They are your typical middle school best friend duo, joined at the hip, where the line between each others' life is blurred.

All of this we learn from Cam's recollections as she paints the picture of her life as it was on the day her parents died in a car crash. Cam struggles with the death of her parents, as any preteen would, but mostly she's grateful that her parents will now never find out that she had been kissing Irene on the day of their death.

What follows is the next five years in Cameron Post's life as she deals with both devastating loss and confusion surrounding her own sexuality. To Cam, the two are inextricably linked, and though it's only by sheer coincidence, the perceived cause and effect quietly wreak havoc on her developing belief system and identity. We follow as Cam escapes one type of debilitating emotion by careening forward into another that is precariously uncertain. Life as she knew it with her undemanding, though old-fashioned, grandmother is thrown out of balance with the arrival of her over-involved conservative aunt Ruth. In an era devoid of today's prevalent LGBT movement, in a conservative town that lacks any diversity (social or otherwise), in a household run by a born-again Christian, Cam is trapped, unsure as to whether her feelings are right or wrong.

But this isn't a story about a girl who is torn apart with a lot of introspective debate on whether what she feels is enlightenment or shame. Cam just does. She test boundaries; she follows her instincts and desires. The greater her doubt and uncertainty weigh, the more reckless her behavior becomes until eventually, predictably, it all comes crashing down. At the behest of Aunt Ruth, and with no audible objection from grandma, Cam is sent to a Christian camp to "fix" her gay problem.

What astounded me about this book was its maturity of language. It never reads like standard YA-level stuff. Not only is the phrasing itself beautifully evocative, Cam's voice is written with a sort of detached sense of awareness and understanding. Though written in the first person, never does her voice become passionate one way or another—it's very matter of fact, as though she already understands the significance of her actions and feelings. This character's development is a compelling portrayal of action and consequence; the story's details are often brutal and frank, lending an honesty to Cam's experience that neither sensationalizes nor sugarcoats it. I love how we are taken through several years of Cam's life and can see how both external events and her own adolescent development play pivotal roles in the creation of Cameron Post as a person, as a woman. She is a character we want to see succeed, or prevail, or just figure it out. And though the book obviously can't continue on forever, we are shown enough to believe, at the end, that she will be okay. Despite its hot-button and potentially heavy-handed subject matter, The Miseducation of Cameron Post presents a viewpoint that leans neither one way nor the other; instead, it shares one girl's story with great candor and sincerity. It is a story very much worth experiencing that I hardly feel I am doing justice.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reading Roundup: More Middle Grade Graphica

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As I mentioned a couple posts ago, my middle schoolers love graphic novels, and truth be told, they got me wanting to read many of them! Once last school year ended, I had a list of titles I wanted to read on my own over break, and that's just what I did at the start of summer. Raina Telgemeier's books were on that list, as well as these three:

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson came out towards the end of last year, and I rarely saw it returned long enough to actually be shelved. In it, twelve-year-old Astrid Vasquez has hit that awkward point where you suddenly seem to no longer click with your life-long best friend. Astrid has done everything with Nicole since early elementary school, including suffering through Ms. Vasquez's Evenings of Cultural Enlightenment (ECEs for short, and a small detail of this story I absolutely love), the most recent of which was a roller derby match. Astrid becomes enchanted with this sport, and assumes Nicole will be right beside her at the roller derby camp Ms. Vasquez suggests attending, but now Nicole is more into ballet and is actually friendly with their one-time sworn enemy, Rachel.

Astrid masks her hurt with a little bit of anger and extra determination, attending the camp on her own. It's hard, and she fails miserably at first, but Astrid is the kind of girl that is fueled by those failures; she's no quitter. She's realistically bratty but is also tough and resilient, which are good character traits I don't find as often in realistic middle grade fiction. This is a great story that touches on a very common part of adolescence and adolescent friendships—that people and relationships often change, and that a great deal can be learned by leaving our comfort zones.

The Jellaby series by Kean Soo has absolutely the most adorable artwork of all the graphic novels on my shelves. In the self-titled series opener, Portia has just moved into a new neighborhood and school where she doesn't really fit in. She's quiet and keeps to herself; no one makes an effort to befriend her. And at home, her father is suddenly absent, and she's adjusting to life without him. One late night, she takes a walk in the nearby woods and is followed home by a shy, gentle purple monster she names Jellaby. Life becomes much more exciting, knowing she is the sole keeper of this great secret. She also unintentionally befriends another equally shy boy named Jason, and together they begin a quest to find out where Jellaby belongs.

The story continues with Jellaby: Monster in the City, when the quest to find Jellaby's home takes the three on the train into the city. As they follow the clues, it starts to appear as though there's a rather sinister background to Jellaby's story...and somehow, Portia's dad may be involved!

These stories fall a bit into the magical realism realm. There are no identifying places or references to really ground them in a particular time or place; they exist in an entirely generic world. And truthfully, as an adult, I think they may depend on a greater degree of childhood imagination/suspension-of-belief than I possess. Each book contains such a SNIPPET of story that it's going to take several more volumes before it actually feels complete and satisfying (my same complaint with the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series). Though I loved the artwork, the story itself left me a bit clueless as to the point or where it is going.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fiction | Lost in Love, Lost in Time

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Last spring, I was giving a historical fiction-loving friend the hard sell for Rosamunde Pilcher books when she recommended I try Diana Gabaldon's infamous Outlander series. Somewhere in the discussion we discerned that while Pilcher books look romance-y and are not, Outlander looks more historical but is very romance-y. If that makes any kind of sense.

Regardless, a chunkster time travel historical fiction romance-or-not saga seemed promising. And after, no joke, a year-long wait on the library's eBook hold list, I finally read it earlier this summer.

Outlander is old news at this point, thanks to both its recent TV adaptation and the fact that it's actually over two decades old. In the story, it's 1945 in England, and the war has just ended. Claire was a combat nurse during the way and has just been reunited with her husband Frank, a history professor. They are taking a sort of second honeymoon up in the Highlands—a spot to relax and research family history—when Claire unwittingly strolls through a circle of ancient standing stones and wakes up in the 18th century.

Thrown into the past for reasons she can't understand, Claire is met (naturally) with suspicion in an environment already plagued with conflict and deceit; the Highlands are on the cusp of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, when "Bonnie Prince Charles" tried to regain the British throne after the Stuarts' exile during the Glorious Revolution. (Whew, that took a lot of Googling to refresh my memories from AP European History.) Claire immediately encounters the story's "bad guys"—which unfortunately happen to be her present-day husband's ancestors—and is soon saved by the "good guys," a clan of proud Scottish warriors. In particular, there's the young and handsome Jamie Fraser, who is of course going to be an inconvenient love interest. (What about Frank??)

So this is the setup for a nearly-900 page saga of both historical and romantic conflict. My thoughts are going to be as brief as my summary because this book is so well-known, I don't feel it warrants an in-depth synopsis nor complicated opinions. I felt that a lot of the drama just kept repeating...many many times. There's an issue, there's some action, it gets resolved; wash, rinse, repeat.

And what my friend about its romance status is true—hellooooo steamy/explicit love scenes! I also can't really say it's the good kind, because it's pretty far in the direction of "powerless woman, conquering man" at times.

While I enjoyed the details of history, and especially the time travel component, I didn't love it. While it was an action-filled easy read, I haven't been super motivated to continue on in the series.

And also, I may or may not have Googled summaries of the sequels to save myself 8000 more pages. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯