Friday, February 28, 2014

Book of the Month--February

Let's face it: we're all busy people.  Who has time these days to slog through line after line of single spaced, philosophical, unapproachable or even plotless novels?  Especially as February winds down and I'm ridiculously impatient for spring, I crave a can't-put-down-er.  But nothing I have to think about too hard--no crime novel thrillers, please.  I want characters I can love, writing I can get into and a book that'll keep me wanting to read when it's below freezing outside and my bed awaits.  Which brings me to February's Book of the Month--Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  Now, I know Fangirl is old hat to the teen blogging circuit.  What can I say?  I knew about it and wanted to read it, but put off searching for a copy--see earlier sentence about busy (or maybe just lazy) people.  So, if you're like me--read about Fangirl but never took the time to read the book itself (or just in the market for a good read)--consider this post your wakeup call.  Fangirl is worth the library trip.
The plot centers around anxiety-riddled college freshman Cath (don't call her Cather) and her obsession with the Simon Snow franchise (think Harry Potter with a vampire nemesis instead of just a pale one)--mostly, her obsession with writing fan-fiction about the two main characters.  At first, Cath isn't having a great time at college--she's anti-social, she has no friends and she hasn't spoken to her cooler twin, who's out partying every night, or her single dad, who's descending into mania without his daughters around to keep him grounded, in weeks.  But by being herself, Cath finds new friends and even new love at college, strengthening and building family relationships along the way.
Well, writing that plot paragraph kind of made me want to puke.  The plot of Fangirl, outlined simply, invites cliches with open arms.  In fact, as I read it, I kept bracing myself for them.  It's literally about an antisocial teenager discovering a beautiful new community of friends--I think my fears were justified.  But the cliches never came.  Maybe it was because of the updated element the fan-fiction plot lended to this classic Cinderella storyline.  But it was also Rowell's incredibly approachable writing style.  Rowell had a way of commanding Cath's narrative so that she sounded like someone I could be friends with.  Cath had every human insecurity possible--but not to the point of annoyance.  She had friends who were really great characters, who I wanted to hang with--but not the the point of unbelievability.  Cath was kind of perfect--except that she had so many imperfections.  Rowell's writing mimicked life so well, it was like a transcript of someone's thoughts--with the wrinkles ironed out and a book cover slapped on.
To be honest, I was grateful to Fangirl.  It feels so good to be reading--really reading--to be the annoying friend reading at lunch, to read on the subway rather than staring into space, to be able to pick up a book and not have to worry about not understanding it or being scared.  I loved being caught up in the realism and love that abounded within Fangirl, loved reading something inviting, entertaining and satisfying.  We're tired and it's cold out--let's give ourselves a break.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

How many of you caught the Vermeer exhibition at the Frick Museum in NYC?  Open from October to January, and also featuring other Dutch painters (including Rembrant and Hals), the show was a beautiful compilation of paintings, many of which showed astounding realism and detail (a painting of apricots where the fruits seemed luscious enough to pluck off the canvas comes to mind).  Despite the beauty of the other works, the undoubtable hallmark of the exhibition--and what had even the most line-reviling New Yorkers (myself clearly counted in this category) waiting with the tourists to get into the Frick--was Vermeer's famous painting of a young girl who stares captivatingly at the viewer, titled Girl with a Pearl Earring.    
The painting is as beautiful and detailed as it is spare--one has not even contextual clues such as a piano or a pen to obtain knowledge of the young girl pictured.  The girl herself is a mystery.  Who can blame us for wanting to know the secrets behind the delicate, tantalizing image?  Tracy Chevalier provides a story with her book Girl with a Pearl Earring. 
Though clearly fictional, Chevalier's account of the life of "the girl" herself uses every historical clue we have, including utilizing our knowledge of the Vermeer family and the daily workings of the 17th century town in which they lived.  This is good, old fashioned historical fiction--taking what we do know and spinning it into an engaging tale of love and duty.
The plot in a nutshell: sixteen year old Griet has been engaged to work as a servant in the Vermeer household.  She is smart and perceptive, but most importantly, she has an eye for the aesthetic that will tie her to Vermeer and his paintings as she first cleans his studio, then assists him with his paints and paintings, then, finally, sits for the now famous painting and watches as her relationship with the married and father of six painter escalates into an explosion of a scandal.
This is the book for anyone who loves Vermeer, or Dutch painting, or painting at all.  The account may not be true, but the historical details provide insight into Vermeer's life and times that are very satisfying.  This book offers a story to accompany the nameless, mesmerizing girl with the pearl earring--and don't we all deserve a story?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Authors to Fall In Love With: Laurie Halse Anderson

There are good authors.  There are great authors.  And there are authors you fall in love with.  For me, Laurie Halse Anderson is of the third category.  I've read six of her books, and every one was an eye-opening, thought-provoking experience.  Anderson has written many pre-teen books and a handful of picture books, but her tough teen fiction novels are what I love to read.  She probes deeply into even the most frightening, most unexplored teen issues, and encourages the reader to think about topics that we may sometimes prefer not to think about, because they can be sad and scary.  It's so good to read teen fiction that is completely opposite to the cliched, boy-meets-girl or character-discovers-self variety.  Anderson does romance, self-discovery, and the other myriad themes she deals with, in a completely nuanced, exciting way.
Here are a few books to get your Laurie Halse Anderson lovefest going:
1. Speak: Arguably Anderson's most famous book, Speak tells the story of Melinda's rape and how it shatters her life. As a ninth grader, Melinda is outcasted at her high school, with fail grades and no friends.  Her only respite is art class, but even that is a small comfort.  She doesn't want to tell anyone what happened to her the previous summer, but when she does, the truth is what finally sets her free.  The wonderfully poetic style of Speak alone would have made it a good read, but the clincher is the beautiful metaphor and imagery sprinkled just so in Melinda's narration.
2. Wintergirls: I'm not going to lie:  Wintergirls was terrifying.  But isn't that the point of difficult reads?  This book turned my perception of eating disorders upside down.  Lia, who is anorexic, and her best friend Cassie, who is bulimic, are descending into the deathly territory of eating disorders.  When Cassie dies, Lia begins to make a slow and painful recovery--all while being relentlessly haunted by Cassie's spirit.  There were moment during my reading of Wintergirls where I was very scared, but I have all the more respect for an author that can tackle the issue of eating disorders without being judgmental or avoiding the tough stuff.
3. Catalyst: Main character Kate is a high school senior and overachiever for whom things don't seem to be going right.  Her nemesis is living in her house, she has her heart set on MIT, the only college she applied to, but has yet to hear back, and more and more it feels like Kate's obsessive managing of her life isn't working.  Catalyst was interesting because it showed me that every person's life has more to it than you might assume-- or, in other words, there's no such thing as perfection.
4. Prom: Compared to her other books, I first thought that Prom seemed pretty lighthearted, and even a little cliched.  No such thing--it was a hilarious book filled with lovable characters that had a few tough topics mixed in, including the scary thought of life after high school for so-called "average kid" Ash, who knows she isn't going to college, and the perseverance of community through even the toughest setbacks.

Further reading:
Twisted, a more adult novel about suicide
The three books in the Seeds of America historical fiction series, including the amazing Chains
The Impossible Knife of Memory (her newest book, which I have yet to read but looks amazing)

Have you read Laurie Halse Anderson?  What did you think?  Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Romance for Valentines Day

Happy Valentines Day, everyone!  I can't think of a single holiday that is so simultaneously loved and hated.  So, whether you're feeling the love or not so much, here are some books to get you into your own holiday spirit.
1.  Zipped by Laura and Tom McNeal
This book has subplots to end all subplots.  If fifteen-year-old Mick Nichols' discovery of, and subsequent obsession with his beloved stepmother's seeming affair wasn't complicated enough, he's dealing with a few other problems--problems ranging from the teenager-y love type to the dark and scary.  He crushes on a Mormon field hockey heartthrob and begins a surprising friendship with a beautiful college freshman who's hiding a deep secret.  All the while, strange things are happening at the Village Greens, where he works.  I loved the way Zipped was narrated--perspectives switched and switched, carefully giving information while leaving a tantalizing amount up for speculation.  Zipped has "right love" and it has "wrong love", and the ultimate message is that when there's love, things will turn out okay.  
2.  Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (illustrated by Maira Kalman)
This was not an easy book.  Why We Broke Up was sad and real, but I was glad that I read it, because the writing format and style was, in my mind, amazing.  Min, a high school junior and film geek, and Ed, a popular senior and captain of the basketball team, have broken up.  Min is writing Ed a letter and she's giving him a box with every object she associates with their relationship.  Min is witty, philosophical, sad and ultimately truthful.  As she details why each object makes an appearance, you learn about who they both are beneath the surface and, of course, why, ultimately, they were never going to work out.
3.  An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green
I am a very vocal John Green fan (perhaps a post on that to come).  This book is a perfect example of why I love him--it's just a damn good story, and I don't think there's enough of that in YA lit right now.  Colin has dated 19 girls named Katherine, and all 19 have dumped him.  But that's not all--Colin's a child prodigy on the end of his run (18 years old) and he's having a "Where do I go from here?"type crisis.  So he does what anyone in his situation would do--take to the road with his best friend and head to Kentucky, where he gets some new friends and a summer job, and begins to write The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability.  The Theorem is going to avenge his type, the Dumped, by predicting how any given relationship will end.  It will bring him fame and fortune--if only he could get it to work.  And wait--there may be a girl for him along the way.  Don't be afraid--this is not a math book.  This is a smart, romantic commentary on the nature of dating and fame and genius.
So, whatever your mood this Friday, there's no better time to read a romantic favorite.
Did I neglect to mention your favorite romantic read?  Let me know in the comments!