Saturday, April 30, 2005

I recently read Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson.

Stained is set in a small New England town in the seventies and deals indirectly with sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. The main character sometimes feels like an outsider because her father left when she was young and her mother raised her without religion. The local priest is telling her boyfriend that he should stop seeing her because she is a sinner and her neighbor/love interest has disappeared and was last seen leaving the church late at night.

Each chapter, the story switches back and forth between the past and the present, which can be a bit confusing and disrupts the flow of the narrative. Otherwise, it's a pretty compelling reading despite the religious overtones.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Recent Reads in Denver:

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson
Reading this on the flight from Philadelphia to Denver was a great experience. The book's setting is a working class neighborhood of Philly and Anderson did a great job of catching the Philly flavor (including the TastyCakes) in her novel.

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
How is it that the Schwa can be standing right in front of you, but you fail to see him? How does an old man can live in an apartment with 14 dogs named for all the sins and virtues? Isn't it strange that a blind girl, Lexie, can see better than anyone else, or can she? Who is a better cook, Antsy's mom, or Antsy's Dad?
Do we all feel invisible at times?

Naked by David Sedaris
I read this in preparation for seeing David Sedaris speak last night. I have loved the other books of his that I've read and listened to. This one was really good too. However, most of my friends who have read it thought it was his funniest ever, and I found myself crying through it. The descriptions of his OCD behaviors really got to me. David Sedaris live, on stage, is awesome. He got us laughing so hard that my roommate just about threw up and I couldn't even see for all the tears in my eyes. He is hysterical, but has so much heart. Wow!

Monday, April 18, 2005

I finished reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfield this weekend. It is about a girl named Lee Fiora who decides at the age of 13 to apply to boarding school. She gets in, and even gets an almost total financial aid package, which is good because her family in South Bend, Indiana, doesn't have a lot of dough. So Lee leaves for Ault, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts.

This story had the potential to be great. I am a big fan of coming of age, bildingsroman, roman a clef, whatever you want to call them. And I think like Lee, I was curious about the mystique of boarding schools. I used to drive by Phillips Exeter all the time when I lived in NH, and thought how beautiful the campus was, and how steeped in tradition it always seeemed to me - like fall in New England.

And I say the story had potential to be great because it started out really well. Lee feels inadequate compared to her classmates - the rich and the powerful, or at least, the children of the rich and the powerful. And she does an excellent job of becoming invisible. But the problem is, except for a few little surges of wanting to belong, she largely stays invisible, and not much happens in the book. And it sure is a long book for so little to happen. Some of the blurbs on the book jacket compare Lee's narrative to that of Holden Caufield, but I beg to differ. Holden was depressed, yes, went to a boarding school, yes, and examined his classmates with the same keen observation as Lee. But the really great thing about Holden is that even though he recognizes that he is surrounded by inauthentic "phonies," he has anger and does something about his repressed anger - he runs away. Lee just sits there, waiting for something to happen to her. I kept getting frustrated at her inertia, and unwillingness to grow as a person (and a character).

I think this story would have been better if it had been shorter. There were large passages I skipped over because after reading, oh, a hundred or so of them, realized that they didn't seem to contribute any relevance to the story. I think the editor could have done a better job.

I am not saying I hated this book, though, even if it seems I am being harsh. I think Sittenfield has potential to be a really interesting writer. I just wish that this behemoth of a book had been cut down a little to save me the trouble of skimming through most of it.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I haven't posted in awhile... I think I haven't read anything outstanding or maybe I am just in a funk.
Finished Prom today by Laurie Halse Anderson. I think there is an audience for this book that has been untapped... the "normal" kid who isn't college bound, has a kooky family (she seems to resent them more than they deserve), and has sex with her boyfriend without getting pregnant or dumped or cheated on. It was just a bit of a disappointment though since it is so different from Anderson's other books which may not be fair to her. Prom has it's funny, quirky, poignant moments but I did not find it as compelling as Speak or Catalyst. But for all those kids (and YA Librarians) who want a "soft" read this will nicely fit the bill. My favorite is still Fever 1793 ... before that I never really liked historical fiction. I think that book is brilliant. Will we see anything like that again I hope?
Other recent reads:
Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding
Thirsty by MT Anderson


Sarah Vowell will be in Boston this Wednesday. I wanted to read (or at least start) Assassination Vacation before (hopefully) seeing her but my library hadn't ordered it (for shame!) and the waiting list is long. I also just put myself on hold for Small Town Odds... see the blog does work :) A very compelling review.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

April, cool about Kelly DiPucchio!

I too have had an author communication recently, from someone who read a review I posted here in which I mentioned that I love Richard Russo's work. The someone, a first-time author named Jason Headley, told me that his novel Small Town Odds had been compared to Russo's novels and invited me to take a look.

I was engrossed in this book from the first chapter, all over it "like white on rice," to borrow a well-loved Southern phrase. The main character, Eric Mercer, is a 24-year-old West Virginian with a penchant for finding all the trouble that his small town has to offer, and making his own when supply lags demand. Fate (or rather, a drunken liaison with an "older" woman he had secretly admired since he was a boy) has left him playing a permanent gig in his hometown of Pinely with adorable five-year-old daughter Tess. Eric's plans with Jill Dupree, his high-school love, were eradicated, as was his ticket to Providence (both to attend Brown University and to take advantage of the divine intervention that would have allowed him to escape Pinely), and he can neither forget it nor escape it, though he tries mightily to do both. When Jill's father dies, she returns to Pinely for the funeral (at which, in his capacity as the town undertaker's assistant, he assists), and Eric has to face his demons.

I like this book because it has that certain je ne sais quoi that exists when the author completely knows his/her characters' hearts and minds. I don't mean the omniscient point of view; I mean when you could make up the craziest scenario imaginable, or even the most nondescript one, and the author's description has you nodding in total agreement. Like when Eric's daughter pitches a fit after George Dupree's funeral, wanting to ride "in the big car with George Dupree"; as Eric tries to calm her, Jill tells him that "I wouldn't mind riding with you and George Dupree, myself." I laughed and said to myself, "Of course you would say that, Jill!" Or the wry sardonicism Eric displays when his dad tells him that the star that he has wished on all of his life is actually the planet Mars; Eric "shook his head in disbelief that his carefully planned, intricate network of dreams had been, in all likelihood, negated on an astral technicality." Or the author's recounting of Eric and Jill's first sexual experience together; it's the best account of adolescent sex I've read in a long time, awkward and funny and honest. But I don't want to spoil the book by recounting too much more of it; unlike the trailer for a bad movie, there are many more funny and interesting parts in the book than are shown up front. Read it and you'll see what I mean.

Over the weekend I read a really interesting grown-up book. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell is not your typical history lesson. Vowell, who writes for McSweeney's and is a contributing editor the NPR's This American Life is obsessed with death. In this book, she focuses particularly on the three presidents assassinated before Kennedy. Can you name them all? Well, there's Lincoln....yeah, that's what I said too. (Just to make you sound smart, the other two are Garfield in 1881 and McKinley in 1901.) So why, you ask, would anyone want to read about two presidents that are for the most part, forgotten? Because Vowell makes them interesting. Vowell's book reads like a travel diary as she visits the historical sites that are linked to each of these assassinations. And as she visits each place she gives fascinating information about not just each president, but also the conspirators and assassins. She goes as far as the Dry Tortugas (sixty miles off the coast of Key West) to visit the prison where most of the Lincoln conspirators were imprisoned. The book is witty, smart, and relevant, as it draws startling comparisons between the McKinley administration and the present one. It's not too long either, so you can read it and feed your brain while tricking it with Vowell's fun writing. (And a completely unrelated aside - Vowell is the voice of Violet Parr in the movie the Incredibles. Cool, huh?)

Friday, April 08, 2005

Last night I finished So B. It by Sarah Weeks. It is the story of Heidi, a 12-year-old who lives with her mother (who has a "bum brain") and Bernadette (Bernie, a woman with agoraphobia who took in Heidi and her Mom when Heidi was about a week old). Heidi leads a very isolated life - she does not go to school, and has no real friends her own age. But she also has a great lucky streak - when the small family is short on money, Heidi can sneak up to a slot machine and instantly win (every time) enough to get them through.

But Heidi is also unlucky in that she feels like there are pieces missing from her life. Since her mother is developmentally disabled (she has a vocabulary of just 23 words) Heidi has no idea where she came from, who her father is, or how it came to be that she and her mother showed up on Bernie's doorstep when she was about a week old. But clues emerge when Heidi finds an old camera that had a roll of undeveloped film inside. From the pictures, Heidi learns that there may be answers at the Hilltop Home in Liberty, New York. But when phone calls and letters result in zero answers, Heidi decides she is going to take a bus from Reno, NV to Liberty, NY - all alone, and much to Bernie's disapproval and dismay. (What can she do? Heidi was going no matter what, and Bernie couldn't exactly run out to stop her.)

I found this to be an engaging story. I was just as curious about Heidi's mysterious past as she was. While Heidi's lucky streak was a tiny bit far-fetched, I thought the rest was believable - especially her fears on the bus trip. I could imagine being twelve and how terrifying it would be to be on a bus full of strangers and going all the way across the country. The story is warm, heartbreaking, and full of revelations about why people lie and what truth really is.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

For those teens who like memoirs and diaries such as Go Ask Alice, A Child Called "It" and Stick Figure, I highly recommend The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon. In the 1980s, Brent was a severely depressed eighth grader who attempted suicide many times. His final attempt at killing himself by lighting himself on fire was not successful, but it did burn 85% of his body. He spent months in hospitals for surgeries and skin grafts and to be fitted for garments that would help his damaged skin to heal as normally as possible. He spent even more time in physical therapy and with psychologists to heal his mind and his body. His journey from the actual event of lighting himself on fire with a can of gasoline, a bathrobe and some matches, to the day he was finally able to return to high school is a long and emotional one. And it is heartbreaking to read as he realizes how much his suicide attempt has affected his whole family, especially his older brother.

Monday, April 04, 2005

I just finished listening to The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, which has been on my mental "to read" list since it was published. I love the audio version and can easily see myself restricting my listening to British novels since I am in love with the accents (one strong perk of listening to Bindi Babes on audio which was fun). In this story (which continues with at least 2 sequels I am looking forward to reading-since they are not available on audio!) the orphaned Widge finds himself stuck between gaining and keeping a real family of friends and trying not to get murdered by his master’s henchman, Falconer. I love this story for it’s historical elements as well as the intrigue and adventure. Widge is a great character, actually everyone in the book is well developed and interesting, but you just really fall in love with Widge who has had such a dismal life and is finally learning what friendship and honor are all about.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Beacon Street Girls series has become wildly popular in my library, and I guess in my area as well, there was a recent article about the series and the author, Annie Bryant, in the Globe. I admit to being a little skeptical at first since we all know how some series lack quality where they are strong on quantity. I had also read the article and perused the website www.beaconstreetgirls.com and felt that the marketing seemed more important than the story. I felt a bit like I was wandering down the path of those Limited Too "books". The Beacon Street Girls are written for a specific audience...that is tween girls. I tend to like books that are written out of an author's artistic mindset...a creative outpouring....the need and desire to tell a story without forethought as to who will be reading it.
All that said, the first in the series, Worst Enemies/Best Friends is not a bad book. I like all the characters, especially Charlotte who's a displaced and lonely girl starting seventh grade in Brookline MA. It's neat to read about places I know, and I bet kids like that too. This aspect makes it very original. There's a lot of humor here, identity discovery, themes of friendship and a little bit of intrigue. Definitely predictable but never dull. If I had to sum it up in one word I'd say "cute" and that's always a compliment from me. This series will definitely fit a niche and it won't need any help from me to sell itself but I can see myself recommending it to the few girls who haven't heard of it on their own.