Confessions & Confusions

Unreliable narrators in fiction make for some fascinating reading, and what could be more unreliable than a confession? Strangely, I happened to read two such novels recently.

The first is a teen novel that I hadn’t had on my to-read list until it won a Printz Honor: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. I had heard the Printz buzz around this book, but it never sounded that appealing to me.  I mean, it is set in the 1200’s and is about religion/faith/miracles. The description just never grabbed me. But once I finally gave it a chance, I was engrossed from the very beginning. The book uses many voices to tell the story, but the primary storyteller is Botille, whose confession about what happened twenty-six years ago with regard to the heretic Dolssa is full of layers as she protects the people she cares about from the Inquisitors. What really happened and what is Botille’s invention for the Inquisitor is up for debate and that is only a part of what makes this book interesting.

The second is another historical novel—published for adults—set in the 1920’s: The Other Typist. I picked up this book because of my interest in the time period, especially women’s lives at that time. I really wasn’t expecting this strange (though not necessarily in a bad way) story that left me wondering what really happened even after I finished reading. The reader knows from almost the very beginning that things don’t end well for our main character, and the story isn’t suspenseful so much as it is filled with foreboding in a way that kept me reading despite knowing that bad things were bound to happen. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a while to get there. It is a confession after all, and it takes time to get to the juicy parts of any confession, as our narrator well knows from her employment as a typist at a police station where her job is to record and type confessions.  If you can stick with the story to the end, you’ll be left fitting the pieces of Rose’s story together to determine what you think really happened.

Both of these books were engrossing in a way that surprised me. They each ended up being yet another reminder to myself to be open in my reading choices. Hey Self: Even if a book isn’t what you were expecting or if it doesn’t seem immediately appealing, give it a chance. You might be surprised.

If You Like… Room by Emma Donoghue

A couple of years ago, Room was the book of the season–over a million copies sold, a handful of awards, several starred reviews, and long library waiting lists everywhere.  If you haven’t read it yet, now is a great time.  No waiting list at my library!

If you’ve already read this affecting novel about a kidnapping, imprisonment, and freedom, and you are interested in a similar story, try Asta in the Wings by Elizabeth Watson.  This comparatively quiet novel is narrated by Asta, who is seven.  She lives with her mother and brother completely isolated from the outside world until one day her mother doesn’t come home.  When the two kids set off to find her, they find a world very unlike the one their mother had warned them about.  It’s a fascinating story that is part fish-out-of-water, part survival, and part psychological suspense.

Also recommended: Adult Fiction with a Child Narrator and Fish-Out-of-Water Fiction for Teens

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Happily Ever After

In my undergraduate Victorian Era Literature class, we “wallowed in poetry” (the professor’s words, not mine) and skipped the usual “marriage plot” novels of the era (Austen, Eliot, and the Bronte sisters), which was fine with me as I’ve never been much into Austen or Bronte–at least not in the way that some women are.

Everybody loves a good marriage plot–that’s why romantic comedies are so popular.  But now that I have a young daughter, I have to admit I sometimes feel impatient with the ubiquity of the romantic element in most novels aimed at girls–especially teen fiction.  Not to mention all the princess movies that end with a wedding and the words “happily ever after.”    On one hand, I like those stories, but I also dislike them.

More importantly, I wonder about their relevance in a world where women are increasingly better educated than men.  Has “happily ever after” shifted from wedding to career (or something else) for women?  I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting idea.

I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot primarily on the basis of Middlesex, which I highly recommend, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started reading.  In it, I found the coming of age story that explores a new marriage plot that perhaps makes more sense in our modern world.  I recommend it for former English majors who may have wallowed in too many novels that ended with wedding bells or anyone who wants to explore “happily ever after” from a new angle.

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If you like… Willa Cather

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.  And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

–from My Antonia by Willa Cather

I fell in love with the prairie when I read My Antonia several years ago, and I quickly read several more of Willa Cather’s books in search of more.   Years later, I find myself still drawn to books that seem like they will capture the same depth and beauty that Cather portrayed in her books.  I read A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich only to find a story, less of the prairie, and more of a woman’s choice to give up everything for her family.  It wasn’t quite what I was looking for.  Later I read Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.  This was closer to what I wanted.  This coming-of-age novel follows a young girl as she determines what is important to her and gets to know her parents for who they are.  It was a good book, but not quite it either.

Then I found Giants in the Earth.  In this story, which feels like a saga but only covers about 4 or 5 years, several Norwegian families settle in an isolated area in the Dakotas.  The struggle of life on the prairie is particularly illustrated in one family in which the father/husband seems almost manic in his drive to success and the wife/mother falls deeper and deeper into depression due to loneliness.   It was quite powerful, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a story to explore the pioneer life further after reading Willa Cather.

If you want to put a visual to the quote above from My Antonia, you might take a look at Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen.  This picture book, illustrated by David Small (I blogged about his memoir here), follows a young girl adjust from city life to pioneer life.  Small’s illustrations really capture the movement and beauty of the prairie.  The book is perfect to share this particular time and place with elementary school age kids. (It was a bit long for my preschooler.)  Highly recommended.


You may also be interested in some previous If You like… posts.

FCC Disclaimer: All books mentioned were reviewed from library copies.  All book links are Amazon Affiliate links.