30 April 2008

"But there was only one truth about forever that really mattered, and that was this: it was happening."

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (Speak, 2006)

My “D” author for the A~Z reading challenge is Sarah Dessen. While we have quite a number of her books in our young adult collection, I had to pick the one we didn’t own. In my defense, I would like to point out that This Lullaby, That Summer, Just Listen, and Keeping the Moon were all checked out. All of ‘em. Yes.

If The Truth About Forever is anything like her other novels, then I can see why they are in such demand. Dessen writes clearly and realistically about loss and love and yet the novel is never dry or preachy. Indeed, she writes with such a luminous style that some bits are practically poetic – surprisingly, she reminds me a bit of Alice Hoffman.

In a nutshell, The Truth About Forever is a novel about a girl, Macy Queen, who sees her father die and is never quite the same after that. Oh, she puts on a good front, but that’s all it is -- the pretense of perfection and control. Happily for her, no-one seems to want to look too deeply and she gets on by ... until, of course, she meets some rather interesting people (I must admit these secondary characters almost stole the show for me) and discovers that chaos isn’t such a bad thing.

I don’t want to give too many plot points away, so I’m going to cut this short and just say I think The Truth About Forever would make an excellent YA discussion book. Despite Macy’s father’s death looming over everything, this is not a dark and depressing novel. There’s just enough humor and romance to keep everything afloat, but also enough poignancy to cause the reader to pause and reflect not just on the novel, but also the roles we play and the masks we all wear.

27 April 2008

Completely Gutted

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell (Penguin, 2002)

I just finished Maggie O’ Farrell’s After You’d Gone in the wee small hours of Saturday morning and, oh my, did it slay me. I was so gutted by the end that I had to go have a little cry on The Husband’s shoulder. And I wasn’t ever sure why I was crying – the ending could have been a happy one, for all I knew. It was ambiguous enough, in that respect. But there had been so much pain, loss, grief, and betrayal leading up to it that the ending, no matter how ambiguous, lead to a cathartic release of emotion.

So, yes, After You’d Gone is not a happy novel.

Alice Raikes does not have a good time of it. When the novel opens, we know there is something wrong with her or with her life. She travels to see her family (seeking some kind of escape from her troubles, I guess), but sees something so terrible in the Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station Super Loo that she flees straight back to London. Later, she steps out into traffic...

Why? What did she see in the Super Loo? And who is the “you” alluded to in the title?

After You'd Gone is not just about Alice and her adventure in the Super Loo. It's about her parents, her sisters, and her grandmother. It's also about John (the “you” in the title) and his relationship with his dad. These stories all unravel slowly and beautifully, slipping easily (so easily, I sometimes I lost track of who was speaking) from one life to another, but always gaining momentum. Indeed, the ending came so completely and inevitably that it left me reeling. It was only after I uncramped my fingers and unkinked my neck that I realized how tense I’d been through the last third or so of the novel. So much had occurred which just required gritting teeth and carrying on in hope of better things to come. And then the end came and, despite rereading the last chapter, I am still not sure what happened (I guess it depends on whether I want to be an optimist or a pessimist).

Now, I’ve been trying not to write too specifically about the novel, because I don’t want to spoil it, but there are questions I need to ask. Therefore, please feel free to skip the rest of this entry in order to avoid spoilers (also skip if you have no interest in religious issues).

I guess all my questions come down to one big snarl I keep calling (in my head) “The Jewish Issue.” I understand interfaith relationships can be quite a bugger and families do sometimes break up because of them, but John’s relationship with his father (and subsequent break) seemed weirdly underwritten and it was hard to empathize with either John or Alice regarding the whole mess. Why did no-one consult a rabbi regarding John’s father? Why did Alice and John not have a relationship with the rest of John’s family (from the funeral scene, we know he had at least an uncle)? Why was there no talk of Alice converting (not that she seemed at all religious, but the suggestion of such might have made John’s dad more receptive). Also, why was John cremated? Wouldn’t his father, as a conservative Jew, have been opposed such a thing?

Anyway, aside from my religious quibbles, I really enjoyed this novel and am so happy to have picked Maggie O’Farrell as my “O” author for the A~Z reading challenge after having enjoyed The Vanishing of Esme Lennox so very much.

25 April 2008

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve been listening to Anne T. Flosnik read Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and, oh, it is just such a great read! It’s all about family secrets and madness and love and shame and those other good things the human animal likes to burden itself with.

It’s a story told in three voices -- Esme Lennox, who was committed to an asylum at sixteen and spends sixty years there; Kitty Lennox, her sister, who successfully spends her adulthood erasing Esme’s existence; and Iris, a contemporary business woman with a married lover and a complicated relationship with her “stepbrother,” who one day receives a letter in the mail informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric hospital (so aptly named “Coldstone”).

Iris is, quite probably, someone Esme could have become if she’d just been born a bit later or lived among people less socially/morally rigid. There’s a malice in Kitty (or in her Alzheimer fogged memories, anyway) which makes me want to howl. I haven’t reached the end yet, so I don’t know what will happen (I have my suspicions), but I don’t doubt some past actions will be revealed to have been the result of a complicated sororal malice masquerading as something far finer.

Anyway, Maggie O'Farrell wrote a moving (seriously, it’s a double-hanky sobfest) article in The Guardian back in 2006 about the many women who were incarcerated in asylums in the last century for social/moral reasons -- sane women left to go mad, because they violated some precious social convention or showed a bit of self will.

In the article O'Farrell writes:

It is a book I have wanted to write for a long time. I tried to start it more than a decade ago but I ended up abandoning it to write what became my first novel, After You'd Gone. This was in the mid-90s, when the aftershocks of Thatcher's care in the community scheme were still being felt. The large Victorian-built asylums had been closed down and as many as 20,000 people were sent out into the "community".

Around this time there were stories circulating about some of these women - they tended to be female, more often than not - who had been put away in their youth for reasons of immorality. They had shown too much interest in boys, or not enough; they had had an affair or even got themselves pregnant.

Sometimes they had been put away for almost no reason at all. A friend told me about his grandmother's cousin who had just died, a month away from being discharged from an institution in the Midlands. She had been committed in the 1920s, at the age of 19, for planning to elope with a legal clerk. I spoke to someone whose aunt had been incarcerated in Colney Hatch, north London, for "taking long walks".

I could not forget this cousin, or the girl of the long walks. That there had been an era when a woman could be considered insane for such things was a horrifying thought. And so I began to delve deeper, to read books about the subject, to track down records, to talk to former patients and employees.

What I found begged the question of what would have happened to many of us had we been born into a different time. A time when a man could commit a wife or daughter to an asylum with just a signature from a GP. A time when it was considered a sign of insanity to refuse to cut your hair. Or to be found trying on your mother's clothes. Or to turn down offers of marriage. Or to show reluctance to sit on your relatives' knees. Or to not wash your kitchen floor for a week. Or to feel sad and weary after having given birth. These were all written in asylum records in the early half of the last century.

Oh, it makes me so angry -- and more than a bit depressed (judging from the above, I ought to be in an asylum by now or, at least, be the mad woman in the attic).

I think, if you like this book, you might also enjoy:

Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Affinity by Sarah Waters
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

(Of course, now that I’ve typed this, I discover that O’Farrell’s site has a reading guide which includes a list of suggested further reading ...)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (Blackstone Audio, 2007)

18 April 2008

342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Reading Challenge

342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Reading Challengebottle_of_sunshine has issued such a cool reading challenge that I can't resist participating. It's dead easy, too. Just post ten books you love. Then go look at other peoples' lists and choose three books to read between 1 May and 30 November. Read them. Write reviews.

And that's it.

Three books in six months? Oh, I think I can manage that.

Here are ten books I love to pieces and have re-read often enough I don't really re-read them so much as re-remember:

Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip
Anne's House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery
Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
Working Parts by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue
Archangel by Sharon Shinn
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

I guess my tastes run more toward popular fiction than Literature, which is amusing as I was Literature student and have read (and appreciated) many great works of the English Literary Canon. However, there is a great difference between appreciation and love -- while I appreciate Sons and Lovers and recognize its literary superiority over Stir-fry, my favorites (homely as they may be) are favorites because something in me went ahhhhh the first time I opened them (and continues to go ahhhhh even now).

What will my three selections be? I don't know! It feels like it should be easy to pick, considering I've already read so many of them, but it's still too hard. I'm thinking:

The Quilter's Apprentice by Jennifer Chiaverini
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

12 April 2008

Graphic Novel: Midnight Sun

Last year, I watched a documentary on Lord Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. This ... debacle ... fascinated me so much I went out and read just about all the nonfiction books I could find on the expedition. I even read up on scurvy (Stephen Bown’s Scurvy ) and food preserving (Sue Shephard’s Pickled, Potted, and Canned) so I could better understand the two and the probable role they both played in the fate of the expedition.

Knowing all this, you can easily imagine my extreme delight when I saw Ben Towle’s graphic novel, Midnight Sun, at the comic book shop last week. Another doomed polar expedition ... how delightful, I thought. And it was.

Oh, yes, it was too brief and played too fast and loose with the “true” history of the disaster, but it was still a ripping good yarn which left me with many perplexing questions (Did they eat Finn? What happened to the men in the balloon? How do altitude balls work?)

Towle recommends Wilbur Cross’s Disaster at the Pole: the Tragedy of the Airship Italia and the 1928 Nobile Expedition to the North Pole and Alexander McKee’s Ice Crash as good factual histories of the Italia disaster. My library doesn’t own either title, but does have Cross’s Ghost Ship of the Pole. I’ve interlibrary-loaned a copy of Disaster to see if they are the same book in different wrappers. I suspect they are the same book as Cross died in 1948 -- Disaster could not be as new as it claims to be unless it is a posthumous publication and, if so, why wait so long to print?


I might as well admit that at least half my pleasure in reading up on dirigibles and dirigible-related disasters comes from the fun of saying “dirigible.” So much more fun on the tongue than Zeppelin and, even better, not a generic trade mark or proprietary eponym such as Zeppelin is.

Dirigibledirigibledirigibledirigibledirigibledirigibledirigibledirigible ...

I am heartily embarrassed to admit I didn’t immediately realize that Wilbur Cross, author of Ghost Ship, was the Wilbur Cross of elementary school Connecticut history lesson fame – a personage I recall more for the high school and parkway named after him than that he was a governor or literary critic.
(Obviously, I was too busy daydreaming or sneak-reading Greenwitch to get a proper grasp of Connecticut history ... there was something about nutmegs and whales, I remember).