Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fiction | A Pushover's Revenge

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"There's no great dividing line between being a kid and an adult. We're not all Catapillar's turning into butterflies. You are what you are. When you grow up, you may be more careful than when you were a kid. You don't say what you think as much as you once did. You learn to play nice. But you're still the same person who did good things or rotten things when you were young. Whether you feel good about them or bad...whether you regret them. Well, that's a different thing. But it's not like they disappear forever."

In my last post, I mentioned my neglect of adult fiction during the school year, and around Thanksgiving, it really starts to get to me, despite the aforementioned reading plan. So when I found myself downtown wandering around our beautiful public library a couple weeks ago, even with my vow to save all adult reading for breaks, instinct took over and I hungrily scanned the NEW BOOKS section for something to take home.

I ended up with Matthew Dicks' The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, which I devoured in one day over Thanksgiving Break. The titular character, Caroline, has lived her 40(ish) years so far as a total pushover. She has her thoughts and opinions, like anyone else, but they are rarely voiced as she prefers the background to the foreground and avoids any form of confrontation.

So when during a PTO meeting, Caroline angrily hurls the four-letter word at the PTO President, it is very out of character. This one rash outburst ignites a flame of introspection that leads Caroline back to her own high school days and one particularly lasting incident. Inspired by her own outspokenness, Caroline decides to head back home, daughter in tow, with a plan to confront her former best friend, the one who ruined her life 25 years earlier.

This is one of those books that has fairly heavy issues masked behind a lighter, enjoyable story. There are familiar themes of friendship, bullying, guilt, and making peace with the past—concepts that have the potential to bring negative memories and recollections to light for many adults. Caroline is like many who find ourselves hung up on particular encounters or experiences that were instrumental in defining who we are. And like many, she looks back on her own monumental experience with regret at her own response (or lack thereof) and a big lingering question as to whether things could've ended up differently. Caroline's story is told with humor and hope for eventual redemption, even if things don't go according to plan.

I feel like this story will resonate with many adults—at least ones the ones like me who maintain a pretty deep connection with personal history! Through Caroline's story, the author addresses these essential questions that have no easy answer: Can (or should) we be blamed for the mistakes of our youth? Are we the same person now as we were then? It's likely that everyone will have a different response to these questions, but Dicks succeeds with this novel in entertaining us with one perspective and getting us thinking about our own answers.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fiction | Observations of Womanhood

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"There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up til now is their connection with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals."

While reading Alice Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women, I made a new vow regarding my reading habits: I'm going to have to save reading any adult books for fall break, winter break, spring break, and summer break! As a middle school librarian, I'm able to give better recommendations by having read more middle grade books...and that's about all I have an attention span for during the school year. It causes me to do a great injustice to the more complex literature I very much want to read; I can rarely read 10 pages before falling asleep, causing my time spent reading a particular title to be at least 3 times longer than normal. I definitely can't keep track off the nuance or appreciate the subtleties by reading in such short spurts.

This is my big offense to a Nobel Prize-winning author and her book that speaks in small and subtle observations of human lives and emotions.

The Lives of Girls and Women centers around a young narrator named Del Jordan living in a small Canadian town in the 1940s and 50s. The world is consumed by a global war, but you don't really feel the immediacy of it in this rural atmosphere. She spends most of her time with her mother. Though she has a father and younger brother, the men of Del's life are very much in the background; they spend more time at the family-owned fox farm, and Del is surrounded, for the most part, by the women of Jubilee. It feels very much like a novel composed of short stories. Each chapter essentially serves as some musing on a monumental experience of Del's--her exploration of religion, her discovery of boys, her academic aspirations, her sexual awakening.

Del is a product of a particular time, setting, and situation. Her mother is a modern woman who is forced to find her own intellectual stimulation in a small rural town. She has a job selling encyclopedias; she doesn't depend on her husband. And though she dismisses God and rallies around birth control, she doesn't go quite so far as to believing fulfillment to be possible as an independent, childless woman. Del is very much a product of her feminist mother but, as the same time, somewhat terrified to follow in her footsteps.

"Her concern about my life, which I needed and took for granted, I could not bear to have expressed. Also I felt that it was not so different from all the other advice handed out to women, to girls, advice that assumed being female made you damageable, that a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self-protection were called for, whereas men were supposed to be able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck off what they didn't want and come back proud. Without even thinking about it, I had decided to do the same."

Del lives an adolescence atypical of women in her time and place; she follows an academic route and experiences a certain amount of exclusion from peers based more on experiences than feelings. We get the sense Del is somewhat of an outsider in Jubilee based on her intellect and interests, but she never begrudges the town or its people as lacking. In fact, she discovers that Jubilee is very much a part of her, as much as it is to any of its other residents. The experiences it gave created Del as a person, no better or worse or different than any one else--just entirely individual. They led her toward the truth and understanding of what it means to be human and, essentially, to just be.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fiction | A Vision Quest Through Time

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When I saw the Read Harder challenge required a book "that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture," I knew immediately that I'd be picking a Sherman Alexie book. American Indian history, culture, & society is one of my favorite nonfiction topics, but I don't often read the fiction that represents this group. My only other encounters with Alexie have been either YA (The Absolutely True Diary...) or short stories (The Lone Ranger and Tonto...), so I decided to experience just some general fiction through one of his more recent titles, Flight.

Flight is a small little book that packs some wallop quite quickly. Chapter One, sentence one introduces us to Zits, a half-Irish, half-Indian 15-year-old boy whose nickname, unfortunately, comes from the state of his face. His dad left before he can even remember. His mom died of cancer when he was six. He's been living in foster homes ever since, usually with people who care more about the welfare check he brings than providing a stable, loving home. Zits often gets in trouble with the law, but things get worse once he meets a white kid called Justice who inspires all sorts of query and rebellion, including a particularly hostile act of open fire in a bank that leaves several dead, including Zits.

It's not the end of Zits, though. When he wakes up, he finds himself in the body of a racist FBI agent in the 1970s in Red River, Idaho, the epicenter of the Indigenous Rights Now! movement and ensuing conflict.

And then it's another day, another new world—this time as a young boy living on an actual Indian settlement on the cusp of obliteration by US Calvary forces at Little Bighorn. And next time, on the opposite side of battle, as an old man tasked with wiping out the Indians.

Zits continues through a journey into the past, seeing different sides to history and the varying perspectives of its people. It's an easy story, though one that's actually pretty layered with theme and deep in allegory. It doesn't take much analysis or heavy thinking, but it still feels substantial. It's commendable to the author that though the story flows through time and into different people, the voice remains the same. It's Zits that guides us through the story, and we never lose our grip on him.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Revisiting Potter, Part 7: The Deathly Hallows

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Well, I finally finished my re-read of the Harry Potter. Yes, that one I started over two years ago and intended to complete in just a couple of months. Somehow, time has dragged while also slipping through my fingers. It's annoying how that works.

Anyway, I was so excited to finally finish reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because Colin and I had also been doing a simultaneous movie re-watch. I wouldn't allow the movie version to be viewed again before I had finished the book, so you can probably understand, knowing how long ago I read the 6th book, my husband's impatience. This final installment was particularly fun to get into, because I distinctly remember my life exactly when this book came out in 2007. Unlike the earlier books that are relegated in my mind to generic high school memories, I remember devouring this book while spending a month babysitting in Maine--after the kids had finished it, of course. But despite remembering the minute details of my life at this point, I still would not have been able to give you a plot synopsis of Harry Potter's final chapter.

After this time around, I hope to remember it better.

When book 7 opens, Harry is lost. He's uncertain of his next move. He's grasping for a solution without the guidance of his brilliant, fearless leader. The confidence he's had for the past 6 years is gone; essentially, his whole world is rocked.

But the reason Harry Potter is a great character, a great hero, is that he forges on. He is tasked with the impossible--conquering the most powerful, dangerous wizard in history. It's a task that may not end well (remember, "neither can live while the other survives"), but Harry is a noble leader--it is his duty to see this fight to the end.

The tale of the Deathly Hallows provides a new twist to Harry Potter's seemingly endless quest. There are three infamous, rumored artifacts that have the power to conquer death, and Harry figures Voldemort is after them. Much of the story follows Harry, Hermione, and Ron on their quest around the world for the Elder Wand and Resurrection Stone, avoiding the Death Eaters that are anxious to find them. The pressure to find answers and avoid capture exacerbates the tension that is felt by our main characters, even amongst these three that are closer than most. In this highly anxious environment, the reader is reminded that these characters are human, with scattered emotions and potentially volatile behaviors. I think, during these moments, Rowling shows us some of the truest, realest characterizations, and we love them even more for their arguments and outbursts.

Essentially, this book ties up all the many loose ends that have been lingering throughout the previous six books. And though Deathly Hallows gives us a new piece to the puzzle, those pieces are finally fitting together as Harry Potter's world is explained. Naturally, it must end with a battle, and that battle is the penultimate culminating scene; textbooks can point to the Battle of Hogwarts as the very definition of climax.

When the smoke has cleared and it's all over and done with, we're left with a reassured sense of satisfaction, as if we can finally exhale with the trust that all is well.

There are few stories with as much renown as Harry Potter, few with such heart. I truly believe there is nothing else like it. I'm lucky to have been around to experience firsthand as the story unfolded, and I'm thankful that these stories exist to inspire, intrigue, and invigorate readers as generations pass.