Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Turn of Mind - Alice LaPlante

This is exactly the kind of book I like best. It gives me insider information about something I previously knew nothing about. It is psychological, and there is crisis. There are minute examinations of familial relationships. And it’s even a mystery, complete with some good, old-fashioned twists at the end. When a novel with all of these qualities is also well-written (and by a woman, to boot! Another plus!), I find that it’s basically a formula for me to love it - which I did.  (An aside, about that: Can you identify specific crossover traits among the books you love most? Or is it all over the map, for you?)

Novels like this are, in a way, the most economical way to travel. Honestly, I think that reading fiction taught me any history, geography, and science that I know today. Almost regardless of subject matter, I love a book that teaches me things almost “on the sly,” simply because the narrative is so attention-grabbing. I’m always inspired by the craftsmanship involved with an undertaking of this kind, at the amount of research that must go into this kind of a novel in the beginning stages; and then later, at the author’s ability to think up an engrossing plot through which to impart the information. Authors like this are actually doing two jobs, it seems.

In the case of Turn of Mind, LaPlante provides a close-up view into the life of an Alzheimer’s patient. Dr. Jennifer White tells her story while simultaneously slipping farther into the clutches of the disease. Though that sounds really depressing (and on the one hand, it is a depressing read – which almost never deters me, incidentally, much to my husband’s chagrin regarding our Netflix queue*), this book is a journey inside a disintegrating mind. To depict Jennifer’s ongoing intellectual collapse, the writing style changes gradually as the story progresses. The process of reading thus shifts accordingly: by the end, I had to pay much sharper attention to the narrative so that I could piece together the clues to the mystery. Along these same lines, though there is a lot of dialogue in the book, LaPlante uses no quotation marks. This technique provides a sense of remove, for the reader, which is exactly how the protagonist feels – distanced from her own life. All in all, it was a terrifically smart and effective way to impart tone.

In closing, I think you should read this one. Put it on your list!

*In the last two weeks I’ve made him watch City of Life and Death, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, and Rabbit Hole. I rest my case.

Friday, December 2, 2011

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - E. L. Konigsburg

I picked up From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler hoping to revisit it as an adult since it was a book I enjoyed as a child. This is not something I normally do – even during my stint as a middle school English teacher I balked at reading YA lit, because I really want the stuff I read to have, like, uh…sex. And also cursing. And oh yeah, literary complexity, too.

Anyhoo, I remembered loving this book and have recommended it to everyone, for as long as I can recall. (Do you do that? Read something, love it, and suggest it over and over again – until you get to the point that you no longer even remember what it’s about or why you’re recommending it? I do, and this has backfired mightily – Pat Conroy’s Beach Music, for example. Yikes.) But I guess everyone loved it; Mixed-Up Files was published in 1967, won the Newbery Medal in 1968, and remains a classic today.

But oh, I am so very glad I read this one again. Almost every other page, I would have to put the book down and exclaim to my husband, “LISTEN! Listen to how great this is!” and then proceed, ecstatically, to read him an out-of-context passage meaningful only to me, to which he would listen patiently and reply, “That’s really neat, honey,” and then return, glazed expression intact, to whatever he was doing on his computer…AND THIS IS WHY I NEED A BLOG. But really, the book is beautiful, and I loved revisiting it and remembering why it was originally so meaningful to me.

(An aside about my beloved husband, Mike. While he is wonderful and supportive and amazing, he is definitely NOT a reader. Mike is brilliant, and an intellectual, but he does not read actual books. He reads technical manuals, and then he fiddles with his computer, and then he builds things. Like, out of wood, with tools that are very loud. Just so you’ll know what I’m dealing with, on the home front.)

So here’s why I love Mixed-Up Files. First of all, I don’t think that there is a cooler premise in all of literature, really – two suburban kids decide to run away in search of adventure and choose to live in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (IS THAT NOT THE BEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?!?) They hide out in the stalls at closing time, bathe in the fountain, and eventually involve themselves in solving a mystery (complete with a treasure hunt at the end! Oh, the joy! The rapture!), which is where the elusive Mrs. Frankweiler comes into play. But what is important to me personally about the book is this: I think that Mixed-Up Files was the first book I ever read that inspired me to really travel, as a child – something that remains a passion in my life today. It made me realize, Hey. I could go to New York too. I could go anywhere. And though I didn’t get there until adulthood (NYC being a bit of a trek from rural Oklahoma; also I had two younger brothers who consistently won the summer vacation-destination vote with the obligatory interminable station wagon road-trip/amusement park/pro-sports game combo), this book ignited my imagination and made far-off places possible and real. Actual. And somehow, mine.

But back to Konigsburg. Mixed-Up Files is about growing up – a coming-of-age story, in keeping with the journey-book genre. Claudia (the older of the two siblings) is obsessed with the idea of coming home from the adventure “different” than when she left. By the end, she begins to realize that what she craves are life experiences that will shape her as she grows. One of my favorite quotes reads:

The adventure is over. Everything gets over, and nothing is ever enough. Except the part you carry with you. It’s the same as going on a vacation. Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. They don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.

When I look back through my life I realize that at many of my most pivotal moments – like when I traveled overseas for the first time alone, or when that pregnancy test showed two lines, or even when my mother died – I have no visual record, no pictures. What is left in the wake of these things, both the good and the bad, are core changes to my character and my point of view. What is heroic about Claudia is that she realizes that she craves this kind of depth and goes out in search of it. Ultimately, this is why From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is valuable and lasting, and why I think everyone, especially kids, should read it – because it empowers the reader to explore, to look beyond day-to-day life and reach for something else. Really, could a book do anything more important?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

I don’t remember how I ended up with this book on my shelf. I must have read a review somewhere about it and put it on my library list and promptly forgotten anything I’d heard about it. (I do that a lot. I have three young children, and my memory is failing me, another reason writing this blog is good for me. It helps me to read intentionally. Also helps to keep my rapidly fading wits about me, for as long as possible.) It is short, a quick read, overall – more of a novella than a novel, really. William Maxwell is highly decorated in the literary world, and So Long, See You Tomorrow is a past winner of the American Book Award. Here’s what I loved about it.

First of all, it’s a very masculine book in terms of characters, but quite feminist in terms of action. Here’s what I mean. It is a novel about a male friendship and subsequent betrayal. All major characters but one (Fern) are male: the narrator, Cletus, Clarence, Lloyd; most of the women are either absent or dead. Fern is possibly (though not definitely; Maxwell is a bit ambiguous on this count) a victim of domestic abuse. But here’s the interesting part. Much of the action of the story is caused by the few women who do populate it: Fern, the adulteress, who participates in and perpetuates the affair; and Lloyd’s wife, who prevents their divorce in order to block his marriage to Fern, and instead simply moves out, leaving him completely helpless. It is an unexpected distribution of power for a novel set in the early twentieth-century in rural America.

Also, So Long is textbook-perfect in terms of what I’ll call “balance,” for lack of a better term. Particularly the very short first chapter, entitled “A Pistol Shot,” that spans only three pages. What is so striking about this chapter (and the entire book, really) is its spareness. Not a word is wasted or superfluous; like a poet, Maxwell chooses each phrase for maximum effect. In just three pages, he introduces the major characters, the setting, the main event or climax of the overall narrative, and, most notably and poignantly, in terms of atmosphere – the outlying community. Then, he ends the chapter with one of the best “hooks” I’ve ever read:

What distinguished the murder of Lloyd Wilson from all the others was a fact so shocking that the Lincoln Courier-Herald hesitated several days before printing it: The murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear with a razor and carried it away with him. In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered.

Don’t you LOVE it? I think I re-read these two gorgeous sentences about ten times, just for the perfection of them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”

My feelings about this book are complicated. First of all, Shadow is an amazing work of art. Descriptors like “brilliant,” “sweeping,” “gorgeous,” and “epic” are used in every review I’ve read, and they are all accurate. Zafón himself is compared to such literary icons as Gabriel García Márquez, Umberto Eco, and Charles Dickens. The turns of phrase (even in translation from the native Spanish) are visually stunning – the setting of Barcelona vibrates on every page. It hails reading (not only writing, which is usual in a book like this, though writing as well) as an art form in and of itself, and views readers as a critically important piece of the art form, which I completely adore. Shadow is a book about books, set in libraries and bookshops, and laden with manuscripts and drafts. It’s a book that I should have loved.

Also, I was prepared to love it. My friend Kristine loaned it to me with a glowing recommendation and upon perusal of the back cover, it seemed to cover everything I love in literature: darkness, Gothic suspense, love, and a mystery waiting to be unraveled. Kristine’s description immediately reminded me of Diane Setterfield’s brilliant Thirteenth Tale – another “book about books” and one of my all-time favorites. (Have you read Setterfield’s book? If not, stop reading this immediately and GO GET IT. But that’s another blog post.) However, while I liked Shadow, I honestly didn’t love it right away. And initially, I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly. I mean – how could I not love a book described by critics as “a love letter to literature”? Really.

Here is what I’ve deduced to be the problem, though, after much deliberation. I’ve been on an ill-advised television tear, which is unusual for me. I simply cannot be trusted with TV, and therefore I almost never watch it, which is why I’m painfully ignorant of popular culture, overall. To illustrate: When in the throes of a television series, I don’t sleep, my family is neglected, and I become a shade of my usual self, especially in terms of any possible intellect I might have. It’s a miracle I can even string a sentence together after a month of frantically watching Friday Night Lights at every possible opportunity, for the love. (There, I said it. It’s out there. Go ahead, laugh. FINE!) While FNL is a smart show (which, OMG, this is so embarrassing to admit, but it IS!, and that is a whole other blog post), it’s not literature. It’s not reading. To say the least. The brain work required to get through and make sense of a novel is simply not necessary for FNL, and I’ve atrophied. So, since my brain hasn’t had to decode anything more involved than the curve of Tim Riggins’ ass for the last thirty days (and granted, it is SPECTACULAR), moving straight from that show to Zafón was a little tough to take. In Shadow, there’s innuendo! Parallelism! Symbolism and intrigue! Really, it was just too much for me to process.

But in reading over the paragraph I just wrote, I realize something. All of this is to Zafón’s point and central theme – that readers and reading are crucial. In Shadow, Zafón creates a character who systematically tracks down every copy of a specific author’s books in order to destroy them. (This doesn’t give anything about the plot away, so don’t worry about spoilers. I never tell the ending, much to my husband’s annoyance.) Keep in mind, this is 1945, and there is no internet, no Kindle, no electronic database of uploaded texts. Books are finite. A manuscript is vulnerable – uninsured and unprotected, completely fragile. A warehouse fire or a lost manuscript can end a book, altogether. So, as someone who is in my thirties and who is a product of the electronic age, I’m not accustomed to thinking about books or information in this way. I’ve become desensitized to information loss, because our generation stands on the opposite end of this spectrum – information overload. Zafón’s book, on the other hand, forced me to think about the loss of intellectual product as a type of mortality, so Shadow became funereal – like an elegy to books. What has been lost? Which thinkers and which works are gone, forever? Zafón’s antagonist is completely ruthless in his destruction – murderous, in fact – and I began to comprehend the utter violence in his annihilations of art, of thoughts themselves. So this brings us back to the theme – ideas are alive. Books do work. Reading and readers matter, as much as life itself does. Hmmm. Maybe I liked this book better than I thought.

Not that there isn’t still a special place in my heart for Tim Riggins, and his ass.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Since I was very young, I was a reader.

I’ve always loved books. I love the quiet of them, the feel of the pages, the smell. I love the escape of books – how the world around me always falls away as I start a story. I love the history of how each one is handed around from friend to friend. And I really love the conversations that books (both good books and terrible ones) begin.

My idea for this blog is that it will offer a thought-provoking and, well, fun guide to the books you should read (and to the ones you should go to all lengths to avoid). Reading is such a solitary and time-consuming pursuit that sometimes I wonder at its real value outside my own mind. I know that it enriches my inner life hugely; I’m always happier when “into” a book or, better yet, into a productive author – but my reading does no real work unless I'm sharing something about what I read. Besides, I’ve always loved giving book “prescriptions” based on someone’s reading preferences. I’m bossy helpful like that, but it does make me honestly happy when someone really loves something I’ve given them to read.

Also, I read a lot of everything. Don’t expect me to go into raptures over Homer or Joyce here (at least, not regularly). I read some hot mess TRASH. And I read a lot of really smart stuff too. Prepare yourself for chick lit (some of it is great! I promise), as well as mysteries (lots!), creative non-fiction, and yes, some classics. But what I really don’t want is for this space to become a collection of book reports, because NOTHING is more mind-numbing than the dreaded book report (the horror). My hope is that this blog will grow into an intellectual zone for discussion among readers about all sorts of books and how they relate to our lives, how they make us think in new ways.

Here’s the problem: This scares the shit out of me. Writing something completely creative (other than a facebook status update) is out of my comfort zone. Like, way out. I am VERY critical of what I read, so I expect that you are too – of this. That means that I’m terrified not only of the blank page, but of the audience (you! You scare me!) who will be judging my opinions. Plus, I fear the commitment this will entail, and I worry that my writing time will consume my reading time, which is why I’ve never really been a writer, not even of a diary. So I’m basically terrified of all of it, of the entire blogging process. (I am woman; hear me, uh, stammer?) But as a SAHM of three small children and a thinking person, I need this. I need something I’ve created, just for myself.

I’m Sarah and this is my blog. I hope to hear from you!