Tag Archive | award winner

I’ll Give You The Sun- Jandy Nelson

This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom…Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cell of us, we were together, we came here together.

20820994That’s almost-fourteen-year-old Noah, one of the twins who narrates  Jandy Nelson’s remarkable YA novel I’ll Give You the Sun. Alternating between Noah and his sister, Jude, who tells her part of the story at age sixteen, the novel traces the siblings’ journey from innocence to experience.

Jude and Noah are artists who dream of getting into California School of the Arts (CSA).  Their parents, both professors, are going through something neither understands. Noah observes “Dad used to make Mom’s eyes shine; now he makes her grind her teeth. I don’t know why.” The summer they turn fourteen, though, their world is rocked by tragedy.

When Jude picks up the story, it is clear that whatever closeness the twins shared has leeched away, their “twin-telepathy long gone…because of all that’s happened, we avoid each other – worse, repel each other.”

Jude and Noah are both eccentric as heck. Jude channels the spirit of her dead Grandma Sweetwine. She’s a self-proclaimed bible thumping klutz who is boycotting all boys because of a traumatic experience she had with Zephyr, the three-years-older than her surf god who “made [her] feel faint every time he spoke to [her].” Noah has his own issues. For one, he paints in his head – elaborate pictures that he’s never told anyone about, not even Jude when they were speaking.  Then there’s Brian, the boy next door. And Noah’s strained relationship with his father who wants him to man up. When the unthinkable happens and Jude is accepted into CSA and Noah is not, the rift between the twins grows larger. It takes a long time before either realizes that the secrets they’d been keeping in an effort to protect each other were, in fact, part of the reason they were estranged.

I’ll Give You The Sun is one of those amazing (and rare) YA novels that actually treats its target audience like they are intelligent (which as a high school teacher, I can tell you with certainty, they are). Everything from the novel’s narrative structure, to its examination of art, love, grief, jealousy, personal happiness versus personal responsibility,  and family dynamics is designed to make you think and question.

Once you’ve settled into the twins’ strange world, you will fall in love with them. They are resilient, brilliant, and endlessly fascinating. They are also just barely hanging on on their own and when Jude finally lets her heart break “Noah is there, strong and sturdy, to catch me, to hold me through it, to make sure I’m safe.”

Jandy Nelson writes beautiful books (check out her first exceptional novel The Sky is Everywhere) peopled with flawed and  totally sympathetic characters. That says nothing of the beautiful prose – resplendent language that spills out of every page. I’ll Give You The Sun is deserving of its copious praise and numerous awards. Jude and Noah will certainly stay with me in the days ahead.

Highly recommended.

Everything I Never Told You -Celeste Ng

everythingLydia is dead.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a book.  I read the bulk of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, on my snow day (a gift for a teacher, even if it’s only because we get to catch up on  marking/yearbook/planning – and, yeah, reading). I don’t think I will ever  be able to adequately explain how I feel about this book or these characters.

Lydia is just sixteen when she is found at the bottom of the lake across the street from her home in small-town Ohio. It’s the 1970s, the decade in which I, too, was coming-of-age. On the morning she is discovered missing (and it is this “innocuous” fact that sets the story in motion) we see the Lee family dynamic.

As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.

Hannah, Lydia’s younger sister is “hunched[ed] moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one.” Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is sitting on the stairs trying to wake up. James, their father, has already left for his job as a professor at the local college.

Lydia is never late. She is never anything but compliant. She is a “yes” girl, the favoured daughter. It is only after her body is found that her story, and that of her family, begins to unravel. And yes, you will want to know what happened to Lydia, but trust me, it’s just one of the many things that will break your heart in this magnificent novel.

While every family has their own secrets and burdens, the Lee family is further set apart because Marilyn is white and James is Chinese. Their story is integral to Lydia’s story. Marilyn herself was a gifted student, earning a scholarship to Radcliff, and there – while she heads towards a degree in medicine – she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. She is ‘other’ because she is a woman studying in a field that is dominated by men; he is ‘other’ because he’s Chinese. All Marilyn knows is that “she wanted this man in her life. Something inside her said, He understands. What it’s like to be different.”

Marilyn’s career plans are pre-empted when she gets pregnant. She and James marry and move to Ohio.  Of course, their union wouldn’t be quite so problematic now (I’d like to think, but there are always some people….), but it’s the late 50s when they marry. Another world, another time. And life, fraught as it is, moves on. But why is it fraught? Because James grew up attending private school for free because his mother worked there as the cook and his father the janitor? Because he never fit in anywhere?  Because Marilyn didn’t want the life her mother had? Because of dreams deferred? And what happens when our parents’ lives are complicated and damaged by their own childhoods? Ah, we all know the answer to that question, right? It all trickles down.

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book. The horrible longing we feel to crack ourselves open, the desire for true communication and intimacy, is another part. There wasn’t a single character in this novel I didn’t want to hug – I loved them all. That they were so fabulously human and fragile is a testament to Ng’s talent.

Highly (times a billion) recommended.

The Grownup – Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn is best known for her smash hit Gone Girl , but her two other novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are also excellent. Flynn is a masterful writer and her protagonists are generally prickly women with dark pasts.

The Grownup is Flynn’s latest literary offering, a slender little story you could polish off over a cup of tea and a biscuit. (Literally – it’s 62 pages long.) She thanks George R.R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) for asking her to “write him a story.” This particular story actually won an Edgar, a prestigious award given by the Mystery Writers of America.grownup

“I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it,” says our narrator. Now she has painful carpal tunnel syndrome and needs to find another way to make money. She’s been a grifter her entire life, learning at her now-absent mother’s hem.

“I came to my occupation honestly,” she tells us. Raised by her mother “the laziest bitch I ever met”, the narrator now guarantees satisfaction at Spiritual Palms: tarot readings in the front, hand jobs in the back.

One day Spiritual Palms’ owner, Viveca asks the narrator if she’s clairvoyant and before she can say poltergeist, the narrator is giving readings to the public. That’s where she meets Susan Burke, a harried woman who proclaims “my life is falling apart.”

Wanting to help, imagining a life where she does, the narrator goes to Susan’s home, Carterhook Manor, and there things take a decidedly creepy turn.

I can’t say much more than that, really. After all, in the time it would take you to read this review, you could be half way through The Grownup. What are you waiting for? Go on.

 

Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín

colmbrooklynMy fabulous book club kicked off 2016 by discussing Colm Tóibín‘s award winning novel Brooklyn. After our Christmas hiatus, we all enjoy getting back together for some yummy food, wine and great conversation.

Tóibín‘s novel, the story of Eilis Lacey’s coming-of-age in 1950’s Ireland and Brooklyn, NY, was a lovely way to start our new reading year, even if we didn’t all agree about the book’s merits.

Eilis is (I think – it’s never explicitly stated) a young woman in her early twenties who lives with her widowed mother and thirty-year-old sister, Rose. Rose is glamorous and independent. Times are tough in Eilis’s little town and so when an old friend of the family, Father Flood, arrives home for a visit from America and suggests he could help Eilis find work there, and perhaps further opportunities to improve her life, it’s decided that she make the journey across the Atlantic to settle in Brooklyn. Eilis’s story is actually quite common for the time period; however, one has to venture a little further back to fully understand the Irish immigration to America.

At Time.com, “Irish-American historian and novelist Peter Quinn explains, “The country wasn’t in the Second World War, it had been kind of cut off from the rest of the world, and it wasn’t part of the Marshall Plan. So it was still a very rural country.” The economy was at a standstill, while the U.S. was booming. Some 50,000 immigrants left Ireland for America in the ’50s, about a quarter of them settling in New York.

Women played an important role in that immigration process. Quinn explains “during the 19th century, the wave of Irish was “the only immigration where there were a majority of women.” And, thanks to a culture that supported nuns and teachers, those women were often able to delay marriage and look for jobs. By the mid 20th century, many Irish women—who also benefited from the ability to speak English—were working in supermarkets, utility companies, restaurants and, like Eilis, department stores. The fact that Eilis finds her job through her priest is also typical. “[The Catholic Church] was an employment agency. It was the great transatlantic organization,” Quinn says. “If you came from Ireland, everything seemed different, but the church didn’t. It was a comfort that way, and it was a connection.””

So here is Eilis, alone in the big city. Whether you like her or not (I’m sort of in the “indifferent” camp), Eilis’s story is certainly compelling. She begins a job at Bartocci’s, a department story run by Italians. Her goal is to make her way through the ranks and end up, hopefully, as a bookkeeper in the office, rather than a shop girl. Father Flood arranges for her to take a bookkeeping course at Brooklyn College. She’s a diligent and conscientious worker.

She lives in a boarding house run by an Irish lady called Mrs. Kehoe. She shares living space with a variety of other young women, some Irish, some American. We learn very little about any of them; Eilis tends to keep to herself.

And there you have it – Eilis in Brooklyn. Oh…then she meets Tony.

Eilis slowly became aware of a young man looking at her. He was smiling warmly, amused at her efforts to learn the dance steps. He was not much taller than she was, but looked strong, with blonde hair and clear blue eyes. He seemed to think there was something funny happening as he swayed to the music.

It’s almost impossible not to like Tony and his family. He courts her and they fall in love, but then personal tragedy strikes and Eilis has to return to Ireland.

Brooklyn does have something to say about the choices we make in life and why we make them – sometimes, it seems, we aren’t really sure; we’re just swept along by the tide. Some readers might be put off with the way ideas/characters/themes are introduced and then dropped without resolution. While it’s true that life often happens in this manner, I might have enjoyed just a teensy more follow-through.

Tóibín‘s prose is straight-forward, unembellished and allows his reader to fill in the gaps. Many readers will likely take issue with the novel’s conclusion, but I liked it – even if I didn’t particularly like Eilis.

 

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

between-shades-of-grayWe all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but until I decided to read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine class I knew nothing (shamefully) about what happened in Lithuania during the same time period. During that time Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They rounded up doctors, teachers, musicians, artists and government officials and their families – anyone whom they considered a threat – and shipped them off to work camps. Sepetys’ father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. He and his family managed to escape to a German refugee camp (the irony is not lost on me). It is the author’s personal connection to this devastating blot on human history that inspired her to tackle telling the story. And what a story it is!

Lina is just fifteen when the NKVD (Russian Secret Police) burst into her home and demand that she, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and their mother, pack a suitcase and come with them. It is June 14, 1941 and the world Lina has known – one of art and intellect, of safety and family – is forever shattered. Their father is not home.

The first question I asked my students when we started the book was what they would take if they only had twenty minutes to decide. Lina was getting ready for bed and she remarks “They took me in my nightgown.” What is important when you have no time to think?

I put on my sandals and grabbed two books, hair ribbons and my hairbrush. Where was my sketchbook? I took the writing tablet, the case of pens and pencils and the bundle of rubles off my desk and placed them amongst the heap of items we had thrown into my case.

From the minute Between Shades of Gray starts until the final pages, the reader is living in a world that is almost impossible to comprehend. My students have no frame of reference. Even those who do not live privileged lives have never had to face this kind of terror. As I read the book out loud to my rapt students, I often found myself on the verge of tears imagining the fear, pain and plight of these people who were forced from their homes for no reason. What would I be capable of if I had to protect my family?

Lina’s mother, Elena, is a remarkable character. She is an educated woman who speaks Russian, a handy skill in these circumstances. She does whatever she has to do in an effort to keep her family together, trading items she has sewn into her coat in advance (foreshadowing  the events to come) for food, favour and, in one particularly poignant trade, for the life of her son. Her strength of character, her resiliency (which is mirrored in her children) sustains them all through the long, hard days ahead.

Eventually Lina and her family find themselves at a labour camp in Siberia. I can remember joking about Siberian labour camps as a kid. I didn’t know anything about them; I would have just made a throwaway comment about sending someone to Siberia. Sheer ignorance on my part because the conditions are unimaginable.

It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but polar tundra and the Laptev Sea. The wind whipped. Sand blew into my mouth and stung my eyes.

Worse – they have nowhere to live. The only two buildings are for the Soviets. It’s cold and soon it will be dark 24 hours a day.

I can say this about the book: my students loved it. Although I had promised to read it out loud to them, many read on their own, racing to finish. That’s high praise, especially since many of students would identify themselves as reluctant readers. I had several boys finish way before we did.

Sepetys talks about her novel here and it’s worth watching the video before you read the book. Sepetys talked to survivors and some of their stories find their way into this novel. I wish that the ending hadn’t seemed quite so rushed, but that’s a small niggle and may have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to say good bye to these remarkable characters. Overall, Between Shades of Gray is a miracle of a book, a life-affirming novel of resiliency and love and a sober reminder of the terrible things we do to each other.

Highly recommended.

Off the shelf – Books with buzz

Listen here.

There are always books which are hotly anticipated by the reading public. Avid readers know, for example, when their favourite authors will be releasing their next book. Publishers generate a lot of pre-publishing buzz and of course books that win major literary awards also garner extra attention. I think book buying has changed a lot in the forty years I’ve been buying books with my own money. I remember when the Scholastic book flyer was my only real opportunity to purchase books – and then all you had was this teensy picture of the cover and the equivalent of a tweet’s worth of description. When you could actually go into a book store and hold the books, well, that was heaven. I have books on my shelf that literally cost 60 cents. Can you believe that? Social media wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye – so word of mouth or checking out top ten lists was really the only ways to hear which books were hot and which books were not.

goldfinchThen you have to wonder if all books with buzz are created equal. Even books that have won big prizes are often mired in controversy. A huge portion of my summer reading time was taken up with reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus The Goldfinch. That book is close to 800 pages long and, for me at least, was thrilling and infuriating in equal measure. Not everyone agreed that it should have won the Pulitzer. In fact, The Washington Post called it “the disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer”  Lady Vowell Smith, a professor of literature and book blogger, wondered about the book’s merits in her post “Did the Goldfinch Deserve the Pulitzer?” The UK’s Sunday Times said “”no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey”. Newsweek’s review said that “The Goldfinch neither sings nor flies.”  Ouch.

I am not much of a follower when it comes to reading, but I have read both of Tartt’s previous novels: The Secret History, which is my favourite and The Little Friend. Plus, my son, Con, read this book and really liked it – so I had to give it a go.

Okay – so what’s this book about?

Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother in New York City. They are on their way to a meeting at Theo’s school when they duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a look at an exhibit of Dutch paintings, including that of The Goldfinch. Theo’s mom wanders off to the gift shop; Theo is entranced by a girl of about the same age, who is in the museum with her grandfather…and then there’s an explosion and Theo’s life is irrevocably altered. The old man, as he’s dying, encourages – insists – that Theo make off with the painting of the goldfinch and that’s certainly central to the book’s story – but that’s really only a part of it. Tartt wrestles with a lot of themes here: family – both biological and the family you choose, art, beauty, addiction. Theo isn’t necessarily the most likable character, even though lots of bad things happen to him he also makes a lot of poor decisions. This book is chock-a-block with characters – Boris, the friend Theo meets while living in Vegas; Hobie, a furniture restorer, the Barbours, family friends who care for Theo when his mom first dies. A lot of people, lots of stuff happens and it’s up to the reader to decide whether any of it matters. Does it add up to something worthy of praise in the form of the Pulitzer – that is if you think prizes matter at all. It probably mattered to Tartt to the tune of $100,000.

Another book that everyone is talking about is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. When this manuscript was “discovered” it Watchmanexploded the publishing world – but really: discovered? Everyone knows Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than Mockingbird she is best known for helping Truman Capote (her childhood friend) with research for his book In Cold Blood. She published a handful of essays – but that’s it. She’s notoriously private and always maintained she’d never publish another book. So, it’s  kinda suspicious that this one turned up after all these years. It’s essentially an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee is 89, lives in assisted care and I think the publication of this book has something to do with the fact that her sister, Alice, sort of her gatekeeper, passed away. There’s an awesome series of articles about the discovery of Watchman and a look back at Mockingbird in The New Republic. The first article, “The Suspicious Story Behind Go Set a Watchman” is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to read the whole story behind the birth of Watchman.

Personally, I’ve resisted buying the book. I love Mockingbird. I’ve read it multiple times. Since I believe I know the story of how Watchman came to be, I’m reluctant to hand over my $30 for a book which has pretty much been panned. And of course it has – it’s unedited because Lee is blind and deaf and perhaps even the teensiest bit senile. The book’s a cash grab. I hate that.

In any case – if you are looking for something to read, something that will guarantee you something to talk about at the water cooler or dinner or with your book club, it’s easy to find those books.

If you are interested in  books that generated buzz, check out some of these titles.

girlontrain

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

This is this year’s Gone Girl. It’s on my tbr shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m probably just about the last person who hasn’t.

purity

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Famous for dissing Oprah, there’s no arguing with Franzen’s talent. His newest book hits the shelves Sept. 15.

Euphoria

Euphoria – Lily King

Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead and almost universally praised.

troop

The Troop – Nick Cutter

Unless you love horror novels, you might not have heard of this one…but trust me, everyone was talking about it.

spider

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Stieg Larsson, the creator of the Millennium series, died of a heart attack in 2004, but that apparently won’t stop Lisbeth Salander, the series’ prickly computer genius. Hotly anticipated and hitting the shelves Sept 1st.

Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

ruinsBeautiful Ruins was our last book club read before our summer hiatus. It was also the winner of ‘Best book’ or, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when we vote, ‘book we enjoyed reading most.’ (Thus, ‘worst’ book becomes ‘book we enjoyed reading least.’) It was a close race between Beautiful Ruins and The Children Act, but Walter’s fantastic novel won out in the end.

I think I am going to have a hard time articulating how I feel about this book because it hit a lot of my sweet spots. First of all, part of the novel is set in Italy and anyone who knows me knows that Italy is my dream place. I’ve been twice and often say that some day I will live there…even if it’s just for a few months. The other part of the novel takes place in Hollywood and, okay, I admit it – I love the movie stars. Just ask anyone who was around during the David Boreanaz days…or go further back…the Robby Benson days. Ask my students how often I work Ryan Gosling into the conversation.

Beautiful Ruins follows the fortunes of Pasquale Tursi in Porto Vergogna, a tiny village near the Cinque Terre region of Italy only “it was smaller, more remote and not as picturesque.”

Port Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of a sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.

Pasquale has come back to Porto Vergogna to care for his dying mother and the Hotel Adequate View, and it is there he meets actress Dee Moray, who has come, by mistake, to the Adequate View to rest. She is in Italy to make Cleopatra, the notoriously bad film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

richard and elizabeth

The title’s phony – her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. She tends Michael’s whims. Answers his calls and e-mails, goes for his sandwiches and coffee.

It is not the life she dreamed of when she gave up her doctoral film studies program to make movies. Now she is on the cusp of leaving her job and going to work as a curator for a private film museum.

If you’re wondering how Walter is going to dovetail these two eras, all I can say is “masterfully.” We flip back to 1960’s Italy and recent-day Hollywood and neither story (or character) gets short-shrift. In fact Claire and Pasquale aren’t the only characters who populate this story – even minor characters are fully realized including Pasquale’s elderly aunt Valeria (who provides comic relief), Shane (a screenwriter who comes to Hollywood to pitch the story of cowboy cannibals), Alvis (the failed American writer who comes to Porto Vergogna once a year to work on his novel) and even Daryl, Claire’s hunky porn-addicted boyfriend. Even Michael Deane, slimy as he is, is fun to spend time with.

And what are these Beautiful Ruins? Well, I think that’s probably the reason everyone and their dog was praising this book when it came out in 2012. This is a great story – funny and heartbreaking in equal measure – about big ideas. The people that you meet and the choices that you make are at the very center of this book. But as Alvis says to Dee, “No one gets to tell you what your life means.”

I loved this book so much.

Highly recommended.