Wednesday, December 23, 2015

13 Little Blue Envelopes (by Maureen Johnson)

As mentioned in my last post, I picked up 13 Little Blue Envelopes after finishing Let It Snow and enjoying Maureen Johnson's story.  The book centers around a girl named Ginny; Ginny's aunt has died and left her 13 envelopes with instructions for taking a trip around the world and retracing her aunt's steps in the process.

I could nitpick some of the details of how this is set up, but mostly it's an excuse to send Ginny on an adventure, and on that level it's fun. I enjoyed vicariously visiting the cities along with Ginny, especially the ones I've been to before (Amsterdam, Rome). I would have liked more development of Ginny's character -- even though we spend the whole book with her, I didn't get a fully clear sense of her. I like how Johnson throws us into her adventure but a brief sense of who she was before, what and who she was leaving behind, would have been helpful.

Overall though, it was cute -- and I'll most likely read the sequel too!

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances (by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle)

This is a set of three interlocking young adult romances -- and I think maybe the only John Green I hadn't read before. They're all set on or around a blizzardy Christmas somewhere in the South, and all lightweight, but fun.

The first story is Maureen Johnson's, and it has an originality that made me want to read more by her. (Spoiler alert: I just finished 13 Little Blue Envelopes.)  I love the entire conceit of the Flobie Elf village, and the romance is cute. My favorite of the stories.

The second is John Green's, which is good too, with a couple of caveats. First, the three main characters are awfully close to Miles, Takumi, and Alaska from Looking for Alaska (smartass friend, Asian sidekick, non-girly smart girl) and thus felt a bit formulaic. Plus they throw around the r-word a few times, which hopefully we as a society have decided is a terrible idea. But the central romance is well-done.

Lauren Myracle's story was probably my least favorite of the three, but I still enjoyed it. I did like that she tried to do something different with it -- having it hinge on a personal epiphany rather than the more cliche setup of the first two stories. However, the epiphany didn't quite work for me as written. It's a very tell, don't show type of epiphany, and I didn't quite buy it. But I liked the concept, and the teacup pig subplot is adorable.

It's no The Fault in Our Stars (which is flawed, but I have now probably reread 10 times) but it is cute Christmasy fluffy YA.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming (by Jacqueline Woodson)

This is a book I'd heard a lot about, and I wanted to make an effort to read more works by women and writers of color this year, so I put it on my wishlist of books I would read in 2015. I haven't gotten through much of my list this year (I blame Don Quixote's enchanters) but I'm very glad I got through this one.

It's technically a middle-grade novel -- and the basic coming-of-age plot is very easy to understand. However, that does not make it in any way simple. It's told in free verse in short chapters, hiding complexity within simplicity, reminding me strongly of The House on Mango Street in that and many other ways.

It would be wonderful in the classroom, as it's both technically interesting and emotionally compelling without being depressing or feeling to students like a broccoli book. The sense of place -- South Carolina vs. Brooklyn -- is particularly vivid. I can imagine asking students at different levels to analyze the language, use it to help make an argument about social justice, or use it as a jumping off point for their own personal writing. It's wonderful.

My friend Melissa suggested picking up the audiobook, read by the author. I can imagine that would be powerful as well. I loved reading about Jacqueline's life, maybe particularly about her complex inner life. Her memories of her grandfather reminded me of my own much-beloved grandmother and brought me to tears.  It's not a broccoli book. Check it out.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Two Girls, Fat and Thin (by Mary Gaitskill)

A selection for the League of Unreliable Narrators, my long-distance book group with Chris and Wendy. And as I told them, "I didn't not like it." A rousing endorsement!

One of the focal points of the novel is a frankly hilarious satire of Ayn Rand. You all know how I feel about Rand. Having read The Fountainhead in particular, all the details made me laugh. But let me assure you this is not a ha ha funny book. There's a lot of background of childhood sexual abuse, for example. And honestly, probably too much childhood stuff in general -- I think the flashbacks comprise almost half of the novel, and are less compelling, after a point, than the present day.

The central story is of course about two women, one fat (Dorothy) and one thin (Justine). They meet when Justine interviews Dorothy about the work of "Anna Granite" (the perfect fake Rand name) and Dorothy's time as part of the Definitist movement. We then get about half a book's worth of flashback to their aforementioned abusive childhoods. We then get back to the present day, where Dorothy (my favorite) is pretty much continually eating or thinking about eating junk food in an unfortunately over-the-top way, and kind of obsessing over Justine (in a way that's not over-the-top enough). Justine is making bad choices regarding men.  The story of Dorothy and Anna Granite is told and ends abruptly, and then we get some explicit and semi-rapey sex.  Which Rand also loved, how meta.

On the sentence level, this book is stunning. I have a friend who is a big Gaitskill fan and I can see why. From the story of a subway ride: "As I waited my turn I scanned the magazines and papers, the horrific headlines and happy faces that help give form to our inchoate and vulnerable mass psyche." A few chapters later, Wendy and I both underlined "Her voice held a tea party in the garden while a child was murdered in the house."  There are many of these moments.  But ultimately I felt the novel to be a bit fragmented, a little less than the sum of its parts.

As I told the League, part of the issue for me was expectations. The novel opens with a Nabokov quote, Justine's last name is Shade, and Dorothy has this homoerotic fixation on Justine. It is too Pale Fire-ish to be a coincidence. (Justine Shade = John Shade, I mean come on.) In addition, Dorothy's parts are told in first-person and Justine's in third-person -- does this mean Dorothy is telling Justine's story? And how does Anna Granite fit in? Does she even exist?  Not to spoil too much, but the Pale Fire nods do not mean the book shares Pale Fire's structure. Although I really enjoyed the ending of Two Girls (particularly Dorothy's interaction with Bryan), I was kind of disappointed that Dorothy didn't wrap things up by declaring herself the king of Zembla.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

A Confederacy of Dunces (by John Kennedy Toole)

This is a book I'd been meaning to read for a long time, but I'm so glad I read it right when I did, for two reasons. One, I started reading this while on my very first trip to New Orleans, and so my new familiarity with the wonderful details of that city -- from the accents to the landmarks to the geography -- made the novel really pop.* Second, Ignatius J. Reilly is compared in many places, including this edition's preface, to Don Quixote. So having just finished Don Quixote and having just visited New Orleans made it come together for me perfectly.

(*I didn't realize it was set in New Orleans until Ian came back from a beignet run with a picture of J. Ignatius Reilly on his cell phone. There's a statue of Reilly standing in the spot where the novel begins, holding his shopping bag and wearing his green cap. Wonderful. I took one look at the picture and downloaded the book immediately.)

I also know this novel is polarizing, and I can see why. It's an over-the-top satirical farce, with ridiculous characters and situations. I can definitely trace a line from the more absurdist aspects of Don Quixote to Confederacy. However, while Don Quixote eventually morphs into tragedy, Confederacy of Dunces remains a comedy, and one that may not appeal to everyone. Reilly is far from sympathetic, after all.*

(*But if you don't love Jones, I don't know what to say to you.)

This book made me laugh out loud, shake my head, and smile in recognition. Pass the Dr. Nut, this one gets a thumbs up!

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