When an ARC of Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel found its way to my desk at work, I almost passed it on without reading it. When you work in children’s books, you get really picky about the general adult books you read because your reading time is a precious work-related commodity. For most people, the name Elizabeth Strout (and the fact that it is attached to the words “Pulitzer Prize winner”) is probably enough to make the book a priority, but I am not most readers.
The extra push that put The Burgess Boys in my “to read” pile? As usual for my reading choices it involved a local connection. Like Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge, The Burgess Boys is set in small-town Maine. Maine and Minnesota both have a large population of Somali refugees, and that sometimes results in some cultural misunderstandings–like the recent incident at Washburn High School in Minneapolis.
The incident that begins The Burgess Boys is only part of the story in the book. It is a family story about relationships and motivations. It was occasionally heavy handed in the don’t-assume-too-much-about-people theme, but not so much that it detracted from the intimate story of people trying to make sense of the world in which they live.
As a side note for those who know or work with teens, Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian addresses some of the same issues (Maine, Somali immigrants, tolerance) for a young adult audience. Also recommended.
Check out last month’s book pick: Just One Day by Gayle Forman
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In the summer of 2001, I was sitting in a computer lab on the UIUC campus with my fellow Web Design for Libraries & Organizations students when someone piped up with a question: “Do you know what a ‘blog’ is?”
The response was mixed.
Eleven years later, “blog” is obviously a household word. As is “social network,” which I’m not sure I knew in 2001–if it even existed then since Facebook wasn’t around until 2004.
Three years before Facebook, in the fall of 2001, Jennifer Egan published the novel Look at Me in which a fashion model who has had reconstructive surgery after a disfiguring accident is invited to participate in a very Facebook-like project. The book explores identity in a media saturated world in a way that feels more relevant now than it did in 2001. I found the book fascinating when I read it earlier this year. I wonder what I would have thought of her version of social media if I would have read it in 2001.
It seems that Jennifer Egan still has an interest in social media. Check out her latest short story written in tweets as part of the Twitter Fiction Festival. It might seem odd to tweet a story or try to put any kind of fiction into 140 characters, but people are doing some very interesting things with the medium. Plus, it’s participatory. You can join in with a hashtag. I love it. :)
You can listen to Jennifer Egan talk more about the project on MPR here. Tangentially, even if you’re not buying Twitter Fiction as a thing, consider what Egan said about empathy and judgment on Talking Volumes last year. Seems to fall right in with this lovely headline: Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’ study finds.
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I almost never listen to audio books, but I happened to listen to A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. It was assigned in my Young Adult Literature class as our example of adult fiction with teen interest, and in my book buying haste, I accidentally ordered the audio version.
I felt like I was “stuck” listening, but I was quickly engrossed in a story of family secrets and generational rifts to the point that I wasn’t stuck anymore. I was hooked.
I recently read A Grown-up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson, and I was struck by the similarities in the stories. Three generations of women telling their stories, keeping their secrets, and watching as their mistakes affect the people they love the most. Honestly, I think I’m a sucker for these kinds of stories. There’s something like a mystery buried in the bonds of family that keeps me reading as the stories switch from character to character, each revealing a bit more than the last. I can never really get into detective stories, but give me a family saga with secrets and intrigue at its core, and I am there.
Other books pictured that are also full of family secrets and multi-generational narratives: Learning to Lose by David Trueba, The Invisible Mountain by Carolina de Robertis, and The Favorites by Mary Yukari Waters
Want more reader’s advisory? Check out previous “If you like…” posts.
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Reviews have compared The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller to Dead Poets Society, Heathers, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin (which you might remember from this post). In the spirit of comparisons, I might add The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney to that list.
All that aside, Gadfly is a page-turner. Pick it up when you have some time. If your reading tastes are anything like mine, you won’t want to put it down.
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This morning I listened to Chuck Palahniuk talk with Kerri Miller on MPR’s Midmorning. His latest book, Damned, is written from the perspective of a dead girl, and the first excerpt he read from the book took on the afterlife and how it feels to be dead. Madison narrates the story from Hell, and it is interspersed with asides that start “Are You There, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” Sounds like Palahniuk’s usual subversive self is at work again, and I can’t wait to read it.
Though to be honest, I guess I have a strange affection for books narrated from the afterlife. I hadn’t noticed before, but when I started listing books in my head I realized that off the top of my head I could think of several: The Lovely Bones, If I Stay, Sum (which I blogged about here), and Please Ignore Vera Dietz.
I mentioned Please Ignore Vera Dietz briefly in this post about teen fiction that addresses addiction, but I skipped the the fact that among the book’s several alternating narrators is Vera’s late friend Charlie, “the dead kid.” He describes the afterlife as such:
“You’re surprised? You had a different idea of the afterlife? This goes against your religion? Well, what did you really know anyway? No one living understands dying, and no matter what they dream up–from harps and heaven to pickles and Big Macs–they can’t prove a thing until they’re on this side.”
I guess that’s it. When we don’t know something, there’s plenty of room for making up stories about it. Those of you who read teen fiction may want to check out some of the titles on this list for various takes on what the fictional afterlife. Everyone else: listen to Chuck Palahniuk read from his new book. Tell me it doesn’t sound intriguing.
I actually left work a bit early to make sure I could to the library before it closed when I got the notice that When She Woke was waiting for me on the hold shelf. I’d been waiting for this book for what felt like forever. It had been described as The Scarlet Letter meets The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was very interested in what that story had to say.
The story takes us into a near future in which the line between religion and politics has been lost. It is a world where criminals are “chromed” and released to survive with their crime obvious to anyone who looks their way. Hannah was once part of a religious family and active in her church. Now she has been convicted of the murder of her unborn child. She is a Red.
I could hardly put the book down from the very first page. Some of the story is kind of expected. As the Washington Post review puts it, Hannah “has many adventures, of course, and learns to be a strong, independent person, instead of the compliant little church girl she was raised to be. ” But there is much to discuss (religion, politics, women’s rights) and compare (Hawthorne, Atwood, etc.) that will draw readers in despite some weaknesses. I was reminded, as I read, of a book that was set in a similar future from a different perspective. The Misconceiver by Lucy Feriss looks at what happens after Roe v. Wade is overturned in 2011 (yikes!) to a woman who performs abortions despite the dangerous nature of her work. One of the reasons these books are so suspenseful is that they don’t feel very far from the truth. No, we are not to the point of marking criminals’ misdeeds on their skin, but the Personhood Movement would have us move in the direction of these fictional futures.
In the midst of reading When She Woke, I happened to listen to a radio documentary on the role of religion in government: The Politics of Faith. It was a fascinating look at the struggle to draw the line between religion and government in various countries around the world, including parts of the world where they are transitioning to democracy. It is well worth listening to for those interested in exploring this complex issue.
For those of you who want to stick to fiction, here are some more dystopian novels you might enjoy.
See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.
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Speaking of mixed reviews, which I was last week when I posted about Steven Pinker’s new book, I’ve been meaning to post about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes for a while now. Everything I have read by Foer has immediately found a place on my favorite list, so when I heard he had a new book coming out, I put it on hold at the library right away. I didn’t know much about it except that he was doing something “unusual” with it, which was to be expected.
Tree of Codes is easily the most unusual of his books. The concept here is that Foer has taken one of his favorite books, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and created a whole new story from within it. As you might imagine, some people find this to be a brilliant way of showing rather than telling that the story is layered and there is much that we (readers & the characters in the book) don’t know. Other people find it annoying and pretentious. Here is a video about the concept:
It isn’t a completely new idea, though. A couple of years ago, I ran across Nets by Jen Bervin in which Shakespeare’s sonnets are put through much the same process at Schulz’ novel to produce new poems. I actually think it’s an interesting way to re-imagine the work. Read an excerpt of Nets in Conjunctions to see what I mean.
I think that it works better as poetry than it does as a novel. For me, the “erasure” format put a distance between myself (the reader) and the story. It was hard to keep plot and characters straight, and I found myself wanting to wander through the book the way I would wander through a poem. The holes and spaces spoke as much as the words that were left, and I focused on the emotion and the language while the details of the story faded to the background.
That may read like a bad review, but it isn’t. What was left was beautiful & interesting, and it makes me endlessly curious about the work from which it came.
I must confess, I was fascinated by this work. Of course, Foer is a favorite of mine (as mentioned in this post), and I have also been long quasi-interested in cut-up poetry. Perhaps I was predisposed to some sort of affection for this book. Certainly that hasn’t been true for everyone.
I read Geek Love as a teenager, but it is not a book I generally recommend to teens. This story of a sideshow family confronts that dark fringes of the human experience and insists on a new definition of “normal” in a way that spoke to the teenage me very strongly. The book is a staple in Disability Studies courses, and it was a National Book Award Finalist in 1990.
Perhaps teens who aren’t quite ready for the quirky macabre of Geek Love might like Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando. This novel, set on Coney Island, also addresses life as a sideshow “freak” but from a more comfortable distance. Chasing Ray speaks highly of Dreamland Social Club in this post.
Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin proves that you don’t need a sideshow to address issues of pity and isolation. You just need a high school. This novel, published for adults, is narrated by a 16 year-old dwarf, who is a very talented singer enrolled at a performing arts high school. Judy’s first person narration reminded me a lot of Olympia’s in Geek Love. Both are witty observers of human nature and sardonic commentators on their shared stature. They both reveal the meat of their stories slowly, but they bring an extraordinary amount of emotion to what otherwise might read as a cliche.
I highly recommend Big Girl Small to readers (adults or mature teens) interested in exploring the vulnerability in being different.
I finished Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner on the bus to work this morning. As I read the last few pages, I was tearing up. Okay, crying. It was a mix of happy and sad, very similar to the feeling I had when I finished Extremely Loud and Incredible Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Some of the same themes are present as well (young protagonists, a search, emotional trauma). The Publisher’s Weekly review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close said this:
“Unafraid to show his traumatized characters’ constant groping for emotional catharsis, Foer demonstrates once again that he is one of the few contemporary writers willing to risk sentimentalism in order to address great questions of truth, love and beauty.”
This sentence is where the similarity lies. Vaclav and Lena takes risks to seek truth, love, and beauty. Sentiment and catharsis play a role, as they usually do. The result is lovely. Highly, highly recommended.
(Want more reader’s advisory? Previous “If you like…” installments: The Grapes of Wrath and Kurt Vonnegut. More to come!)
Sum by David Eagleman
I have always enjoyed a good “What if?”, so I was eager to read David Eagleman’s new book of short stories exploring the possibilities of what happens after death. I was not disappointed. What if god is a married couple and we live as their children after we die? What if… The stories are brief but fascinating.
Right around the time that I read Sum, I happened to be catching up on old episodes of This American Life, including the 2008 episode entitled Poultry Slam in which Shalom Auslander reads a story from his book Beware of God in which God is a chicken. What if you knew something that could make life easier for the people you love? Would you tell them? Would they believe you? Not everyone is comfortable with these kinds of “What if?” questions dealing with god or the afterlife. I remember a bit of controversy when Cynthia Rylant’s book of poetry about God exploring life on earth came out. I loved it, by the way. It was funny, insightful, and poignant. Even to believers willing to stretch their minds open a bit.
The Garden by Elsie Aidinoff
I don’t remember a controversy when The Garden by Elsie Aidinoff came out, but I can’t imagine it was without any. Quite frankly, I am surprised it was published as a teen novel considering the scene in which God encourages Adam to force himself upon Eve and a later sex scene involving the serpent. It is now out of print. Perhaps if it had been published as an adult novel, it would have reached an audience that would have appreciated or understood it. Who could say?
The way things happened and the way they’ll turn out remain subjective and fodder for fiction to flesh out (Apologies for the alliteration. I couldn’t resist.) for those who are willing.