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?