Here are two more in the “books about books and readers” category.
In The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, 28-year-old Miranda is teaching history to middle schoolers in Philadelphia, having just moved in with her boyfriend Jay, the school’s soccer coach. Then she gets the news that her Uncle Billy has died. She hasn’t seen nor heard from him in 16 years, but she remembers him from her childhood as that glamorous uncle who always showed up with gifts from his travels (he was a seismologist). Billy also owned a bookstore in Silverlake (Los Angeles), and Miranda is surprised to discover that he has left her the bookstore. This despite the fact that Miranda’s parents live in Los Angeles, and his sister might have been the more logical beneficiary?
Thus begins her trek back into the past: What was the falling out between Billy and Miranda’s mom that caused him to abandon the family so long ago, and why has he reached out now, when it can’t make a difference, with hints and clues to tantalize Miranda? Her parents aren’t talking, so Miranda has no choice, if she wants to figure out the family dynamic, but to follow Billy’s clues. She also has to decide what to do about the bookstore…
The Bookshop of Yesterdays was a well plotted and skillfully written debut. I enjoyed the parts about the bookstore most of all. It made me, as always, want to have one of my own…even though the financial risk (as portrayed here) is daunting and undeniable. The author was clever with literary references, and with the portrayal of all the bookstore personalities, as well as the pasts and quirks of Miranda’s family.
The title of The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay, came up as “you might also like” in a search on Amazon, and it sounded appealing, so I bought it.
Madeline has been doing her due diligence in a law firm for several years, in competition with her former boyfriend for a partnership. When the news of the partnership doesn’t go her way, she uses her recent rather bewildering inheritance of a bookshop from her Aunt Maddie as a distraction from her derailed career. Although she initially intends to rid herself of the property, Aunt Maddie’s two remaining employees attempt to convince her otherwise…and a surprising romantic entanglement makes her consider other options as well.
As I read this book, various themes kept nagging at me, making me think I had read it before. Then I realized its similarities to The Bookshop of Yesterdays, which I read last year. In that one an uncle owns a bookstore, in this one it’s an aunt. In that one, the uncle has a falling-out with the parents when the protagonist is 12 years old. In this one, the protagonist is eight, and the supposed reason for the falling-out is bad financial advice from the protagonist’s father to his sister (the aunt), causing her to lose her savings. (None of the parents in either book will talk about the fight.) In both books, the bookshop owner dies and leaves the store to the niece in the will, hoping his or her legacy will be continued. And in both books, the back stories of the other people whose lives are tied up in the store prove to be the icing that holds the layers together and turns them into a tasty cake.
I think I liked this one a bit more, perhaps because I identified more closely with the back stories of the two women clerks, Claire and Janet, and also liked Aunt Maddie more than Uncle Billy, and Madeline more than Miranda!
If you like Jenny Colgan’s books about young women who realize their lives and careers are not “all that” and decide to make a radical change, you will like these. And of course there is the added enticement of being set in a bookstore. But in retrospect, I would probably just pick one, the stories being so similar.
Continuing this occasional feature…
Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:
Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.
The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.
I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.
Some of the symbolic meanings of peacock feathers are “awakening,” “vision,” and “protection.” When I finished The Peacock Emporium, by JoJo Moyes, I wondered if she had specifically chosen that as a surname for the main protagonist (even though a married name) to foreshadow the action.
The story revolves around Suzanna Peacock, a woman of 34, who returns, with her husband, Neil, to live in a house provided by her landowner family, near the small town of Dere. They are there because of financial troubles—Neil lost his job, and Suzanna ran up credit card debt—and Suzanna greatly resents the need to be obligated to her parents for providing them with shelter, when what she wants is to be as far from her troubled background as possible, preferably in London. Restless and at loose ends in the country but not willing to consider Neil’s solution of having a baby, Suzanna decides to open a small gift shop and coffee house on the main street of town. She calls it The Peacock Emporium, and Suzanna soon loses herself in collecting all the unique and wonderful items she wishes to sell in her hybrid shop.
Suzanna has never come to terms with her background. Her mother, Athene Forster, first wife of her father, Douglas Fairly-Hulme, died in childbirth, and Douglas’s second wife, Vivi, is the only mother Suzanna has ever known; but the difficult relationship between Douglas and Athene, a self-absorbed, reckless glamor girl, has always overshadowed Suzanna’s complicated relationship with her parents, and has caused her to be withdrawn from the family dynamic. She can’t help but feel that everyone in her family views her through the lens of her mother’s doubtful character.
Putting together the Emporium is the first real accomplishment of Suzanna’s life, but although she takes great pride in the exacting way she has set up the shop, her introverted affect makes her less than ideal as a shopkeeper. What luck, then, when the irrepressibly upbeat Jessie shows up at her door, determined to befriend Suzanna despite herself, and equally committed to turning Suzanna’s showpiece into a neighborhood haunt. As the shop begins to take on the personality of both women, the community embraces it, and Suzanna’s perspectives slowly and subtly begin to change, until a disaster shows up all the cracks in her life that need mending—or rending.
I had a hard time getting into this book initially; the first 80 pages consist of three disparate timelines in different locations, and the story jumps from one to the next with no apparent connection. I hung in there because I have enjoyed this author’s other books, but if things hadn’t started making sense soon after that, I might have put the book down. Fortunately they did; we arrived at the present day with Suzanna and the shop, and subsequent events revealed the necessity for all the previously gleaned information.
This is a book with Moyes’s usual compelling cast of characters who engage you with their issues and quirks, although in this book there are a few that you positively dislike, or at least for whom you lack empathy. It’s also a book containing strong messages, including generational differences, changing cultures, and moral dilemmas. There is an underlying lack of trust amongst many of the characters, primarily due to a dearth of honest communication, but with all of that there are also moments of extraordinary generosity and love. It’s an odd, sometimes depressing, sometimes poignant, and ultimately joyful story that’s not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it.
There are three covers for this book, and none of them gets it right. The hardcover features a woman in a dress from no known era that is associated with this story; the paperback at least has women dressed as Debs from the 1960s (the era of Athene Forster’s debut); but the more recently released paperback features a girl on a bicycle, even though no character in this book ever rides one. I say again, as I have lamented before: Doesn’t anyone in the art department ever read the book? Or at least look at a synopsis? Ask for advice? Care about being true to the story? C’mon.
A few years back, I read the book The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. At the time, I didn’t have what you would call a significant reaction to the book; it was more along the lines of “charming, funny, and enjoyable relationship fiction.”
I did comment in my notes on Goodreads that the protagonist, Don, put me in mind of an adult version of Christopher Boone, the kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon—I could see him growing up to be Don: precise, literal, frustrating, yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.
Don Tillman, Australian genetics professor, is an odd duck. His lifelong difficulties with social rituals and situations have caused him to create an orderly, easily navigated life with a precise routine and little human contact. He does have a few friends, and one of them comments to him that he has many attributes that would make him a good husband. This sets Don, who has never gone on a second date, to thinking about how best he could find a partner for himself with the least amount of fuss. His conclusion is The Wife Project, a questionnaire he devises that he intends to submit widely (mostly via a dating site) to weed out the things he can’t abide and narrow his search to the perfect woman for him: no smokers, no vegetarians, no late people, no messy people…the list of what he doesn’t want far exceeds the list of what he does!
Rosie Jarman shows up at his door intending to ask for his assistance on a genetics project, but because she has been sent by his friend and mentor, Gene, Don thinks she is there in response to The Wife Project questionnaire, and asks her out. He is baffled when he discovers that she is a smoker, a drinker, perpetually tardy, and in no way his ideal woman. But when he questions Gene about her, Gene (with some suppressed mirth) says he threw her in as a “control,” and encourages Don to continue to see her. Don takes up the challenge of Rosie’s genetics project, and begins to learn that perhaps the ideal woman on paper isn’t the one for him.
Although it is obvious to other characters in the book that Don is “on the spectrum,” as it has become modish to say about degrees of autism, Don has not self-diagnosed as such. When he is asked by Gene to substitute for him at giving a lecture and the lecture turns out to be on Asperger’s Syndrome to an audience of children with Asperger’s and their parents, Gene’s wife, Claudia, a psychologist and also Don’s friend, asks him if, in preparing his notes, anything seemed familiar. Don seems baffled by her question and doesn’t arrive at the answer she is obviously implying.
A few readers’ reactions to this novel have been negative, because they felt it mocked or made fun of autistic people, but the book’s author has noted that when he wrote it, he didn’t research Asperger’s, and in fact had based Don on “people I met in physics, information technology and doing a Ph.D.” He follows up by adding, “Experts in the field assure me that Don has Asperger’s and that community says the same thing. It was not my intention to make light of Asperger’s, and the Asperger’s community…regards Don as typical but not stereotypical. He’s seen as a good role model; readers generally love him, and that’s a good thing for the image of ASD.”
Remembering how I had enjoyed this somewhat light but entertaining and thoughtful read, I was pleased to see that while I wasn’t paying attention, Simsion had written two follow-up novels, continuing Don’s and Rosie’s story, and I snagged both sequels from the library’s e-book collection as soon as I could get them.
The Rosie Effect picks up fairly soon after the events of the first book; Don and Rosie are married (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but you kind of knew how it would end, right?) and living in New York City; they both have satisfying work, and everything seems to be going according to plan, which makes Don feel happy and secure. Then an unexpected pregnancy throws everyone for a loop. Don had always agreed, in the abstract, that he would enjoy having offspring, but as far as he knew, birth control was in place and nothing along those lines would happen without a lengthy discussion and negotiation. Rosie, observing their friend Sonia’s struggles to conceive, realizes she isn’t young any more in terms of optimum child-bearing years, believes it could take some time to become pregnant, and “decides” to forget to take her birth control pills, resulting in an almost immediate “success.”
Don does his best to cope with this news, but approaches it with his usual lack of emotion, choosing instead to make lists of tasks and goals that need to be accomplished before the baby is born and setting about them in typical Don fashion, which is to say he almost immediately finds himself in trouble on every front. Meanwhile Rosie, who was happy as Don’s wife, begins to question what kind of father he will be able to be for their child, and as Don seems increasingly incapable of understanding the emotional commitment she needs, Rosie withdraws. Don will have to rein in his various projects and focus instead on his relationship with his wife and child, or all his good intentions will be for nothing.
I had a little trouble with the evolution of Don’s and Rosie’s relationship as a result of the pregnancy. Don continued to be himself; but Rosie, confronted with parenthood, had an extreme reaction to everything about him that she had previously found charming (if maddening). Her reaction seemed over the top, even for someone whose instincts were telling her to place the welfare of her child over the viability of her marriage. For the first time in their interactions, you see Rosie have as little emotional understanding of Don as Don has of Rosie, and it’s unsettling. But it’s a strong story over all, and with the help of their friends they are both able to attain clarity.
There is a considerable hiatus in years between the ending of the second book and the beginning of The Rosie Result; Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is now 11 years old. The family has returned to Melbourne, where both Rosie and Don are working full-time in their professions. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of them will need to suspend a busy schedule to give time and attention to their son, who is having trouble fitting in at school and needs more parenting. Coincidentally, Don does something that is typical (and without agenda) for him but which his students find offensive, and concludes that putting some distance between himself and this problem is congruent with his goal of tutoring Hudson in how to get by in a world that thinks you’re weird. Don quickly realizes that the best thing he can do for Hudson is to “outsource” some of this instruction to people with better social instincts than his, and the following year becomes a good example of a “village” raising a child.
In this third book, Simsion openly confronts the topic of autism; while its effects in Don’s life were duly noted in the first two, it is Hudson’s difficulties in school that bring the topic into focus, and Simsion uses the interactions of the Tillman/Jarman family with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, other parents and students, and their unusual group of friends to highlight various sides of the issue. He shows the prejudices that confront people who don’t fit in with perceived social norms, and specifically discusses the pitfalls that lie in allowing a child to be “diagnosed” with something that will follow them for the rest of their school career and beyond. Labeling and identity, both specifically with regard to autism but also in a wider sense, are prevalent themes, and the book directly questions people’s assumptions about autism.
There is a particularly effective scene in which Don and Rosie attend a panel discussion about autism, participated in by a mother who has taken every route—including intensive tutoring, medication, and behavior modification—to help her daughter conform to neurotypical norms, as well as an activist who maintains that autism is not a disease but an identity. Her example is that she doesn’t ‘have’ lesbianism, she is a lesbian; therefore, she doesn’t ‘have’ autism, she is autistic—it’s part of who she is, not something visited upon her that she needs to confront and conquer.
Far from turning the book into a polemic, I felt that this debate, fictionalized and exemplified by the relationships amongst the participants in the story, made it all the more compelling. It is particularly touching as Don, who is determined to make Hudson’s life better than his own by teaching him to cope with society’s expectations, comes to realize that perhaps his response isn’t the best one for Hudson, and that if Hudson can navigate his life by being himself, there may be more wiggle room in his experience than his father had assessed. While maintaining the gentle humor inherent in Don’s (and Hudson’s) misunderstandings of social norms that Simsion portrayed in the first two books, in this one the intensities of the relationships become truly heartfelt. The arc of this three-book story is completed with vastly more depth than one would expect from light, “relationship” fiction.
Because of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.
Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:
The Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.
Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White
While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)
The Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard
Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.
If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…
This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.
And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.
This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.
If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.
Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!
Although I included The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, in a previous list of “books about books,” I hadn’t actually had the pleasure of reading it.
I finally got around to it recently, and felt I had to follow up with a little more detail about this delightful story.
A certain generation of us were raised with a particular consciousness of England’s royal family, because the abdication of Edward VIII from the throne (in favor of marrying a divorceé, Wallis Simpson, which simply wasn’t “done” at the time) catapulted his brother, Albert, to the throne as George VI. The key ingredient to this story for girls, however, was that George VI had two daughters, Elizabeth (the next heir) and Margaret Rose, who were instantly in the limelight, and we were fascinated with their every move—their dress, their hobbies, their education, their pets….
Already predisposed towards the love of princesses,
I came to know about the real ones through a book my mother bought me, called The Little Princesses, by Marion Crawford. The initial events took place in the 1930s when “Lilibet” and Margaret were five and two years old, respectively (well before my time), but the book, written by the princesses’ long-time governess, “Crawfie” (as she was nicknamed by Elizabeth), was published in the 1950s, and it crossed my path when I was seven—able to read its grown-up text but probably not able to understand some of it until re-reads years later. I was nonetheless fascinated with the whole story, and particularly the photographs of the princesses and their governess, dogs, ponies, and so on that were included in the book, and over which I pored at length.
The book explores the inner life of the royal family from the girls’ childhood up through Elizabeth’s wedding and the birth of her son, Prince Charles. It does so lovingly and without a hint of scandal or any lack of respect, but Crawford was nonetheless banned from the family (and from her employment) for writing it, despite her claim of having been given permission to do so. The rumor is that the Queen Mother felt the intimacy of the narrative would detract from the mystique of the holder of the throne.
Cut to the recent past, when Queen Elizabeth’s early reign has been explored by the Netflix series “The Crown.” In it, Elizabeth is portrayed as deeply uncertain and vulnerable on the inside but formal, traditional, and almost staid in her mannerisms (particularly for a young woman) on the outside—ever conscious of her image and her duty to uphold a certain appearance. For those who had read the account by Crawford of her formative years, the portrayal was spot on, and continued a sense of exactly who Elizabeth II is in the world (even to the uncanny similarity of appearance between the actress, Claire Foy, and the young queen).
I preface my comments about The Uncommon Reader with all this simply to say that Alan Bennett also has an extraordinary grasp of both the woman and the office, and portrays her as a somewhat elderly woman who has pursued exactly the life Elizabeth II has lived, only to find that something has been missing that, upon its discovery, changes everything.
A short synopsis of the book: Queen Elizabeth, wandering outdoors in search of her beloved corgis, stumbles upon a bookmobile near the palace. She feels compelled by good manners to check out a book, which she struggles through, returns, and feels compelled to take out another. But this one she enjoys! This behavior is out of character for the Queen, who has previously allowed herself few hobbies or interests that express a preference for anything, and now here she is, preferring books, which habit begins to influence the person she is and how she reigns and interacts with her subjects. Not everyone approves, however; politicians and staff collaborate to steer her away from this selfish, isolating, alienating addiction!
In his tiny volume (shown here in my gargantuan hand just to convey size and scale), Bennett absolutely nails the personality, the inner thoughts, and the outer habits of the Queen, along with the judgments and expectations of those intimates of her court who are always on the lookout for aberrant behavior from their monarch, with the desire to neatly nip it in the bud. But Elizabeth isn’t going to be ruled by their expectations (after all, who is the queen here?) and quietly pursues her new hobby to an astonishing and humorous end. If you are a person who loves books about books, and you also have a sneaking fascination with England’s monarchy, don’t miss out reading this charming but also revelatory and even mildly subversive novella.
My reading time is, of necessity, taken up right now with the novels I am assigning to my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA’s MLIS program. Most of them are a re-read for me, many with a specific goal of evoking some quality of YA lit that will give my class a context for where it came from, the ways in which it has been and continues to be effective for teenagers, and where it is now.
Last week we had a far-roving and engaging discussion about two “classics” of YA—The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton, and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier—and two later books that continued the job of these seminal works—Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.
Previous to the 1960s, there were narrowly defined categories for this newly emerging fiction sector: adventure stories for boys, romance for girls. That was pretty much the extent of YA fiction. With the exception of some vocation-driven series like Sue Barton: Student Nurse and Nancy Drew, most of the books written for teenagers were, to quote historian and critic Michael Cart, “slick, patterned, rather inconsequential stories written to capitalize on a rapidly expanding market.”
Hinton’s book was the start of the writing revolution in teen literature. Here was a teenager, writing from personal observation and with thematic relevance about class warfare, rejecting “the inane junk lining the teen-age shelf of the library” (to quote the young author Hinton herself), and echoing the rejection of the status quo for which the 1960s were known. The year 1967 kicked off a positive flurry of books about such formerly verboten topics as gangs, drug use, underage sex, homosexuality, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Teen fiction went from sweet stories tied up with a bow to exemplars of determinism and naturalism. Robert Cormier, who wrote The Chocolate War in 1974, commented that “Adolescence is such a lacerating time that most of us carry the baggage of our adolescence with us all our lives.” Judging from the discussion we had about these first two books and the two that followed, many YA authors and the teens who read them agreed with him.
There are certainly issues with these books that make them problematic to recommend to today’s teens. The absence of a single non-white character, the blatant misogyny exhibited towards both the “bad” girls and the “good” in the society of the 1960s, and the rather blatant sentimentality with which the characters are treated in The Outsiders would seem to be stumbling blocks, and yet this book is still widely read and enjoyed. The dark atmosphere of The Chocolate War, depicting teens (and humans in general) as hapless victims of social and natural forces and holding out no happy ending, seems similarly discouraging, but the book continues to check out of the library.
Other popular books of that era, such as The Contender, by Robert Lipsyte, which took up the theme of becoming an individual and focused on self-transformation through the eyes of an African American protagonist, or Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, which explored heroin addiction in the first person of 12 distinct voices, continued and extended the reach of the admittedly rather gritty view of the teenage years. Author Richard Peck cited these works as books “about young people that parents thought their children didn’t know.” They fostered a writing revolution that has ebbed and flowed ever since, interrupted by the inane “problem novels” of the 1980s and revitalized in the 1990s, pushed off track by trendy fiction with the vampire craze and the fascination with all things paranormal and revitalized yet again in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and the current return to realism.
The two books we read from 1999, Speak and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, are also classic books about secrets, about guilt, and about the adolescent task of figuring out what responsibility you bear for your circumstances versus the degree to which you have been victimized by others and by life itself. The class discussion concluded that these books are necessary so that teens who are in similar situations can see themselves in their literature, realize that they’re not alone, and possibly find reason for hope.
This week we continued this theme in a way, but brought it up to date with our segment on “soft reads vs. edgy fiction.” There are obviously teens for whom the books full of personal human tragedy are not relevant or not desirable. Likewise, these teens’ parents are more comfortable with a literature that doesn’t expose their children to language, relationships, and frank talk beyond their level of emotional maturity. There is definitely a place in teen fiction for the equivalent in adult fiction of the “cozy,” the soft read, the book that tells an uplifting and nonthreatening tale with a positive message and a happy ending. Even those who appreciate gritty fiction sometimes enjoy taking a break from it!
This week’s exemplar of a soft read was Joan Bauer’s Hope Was Here, which would seem with its very title to express a different message than those other books we had been reading. Bauer is among the many authors who has written a baker’s dozen of books (between 1995 and 2016) about perky, approachable protagonists with a sprightly, can-do attitude and a feel-good mood. Authors for slightly older teens who want soft reads include Maureen Johnson, Melissa Kantor, Ally Carter, and Sarah Dessen.
While most of these books are aimed at a female audience, their equivalent in gentle reads for boys include adventure, science fiction, and fantasy genre fiction that the girls likewise appreciate. Some of the more popular series that serve this purpose of transitioning children from age 11 or so to about age 14 are the Pendragon series by D. J. MacHale; the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz; the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer; and Michael Scott’s books beginning with The Alchemyst.
The flip side, the polar opposite of these books are those that place a high premium on being real—the realer the better—and if that means drinking and smoking, profanity, sex, and violence, then bring it on. This edgy fiction pushes all the boundaries beloved of teens and shocking to parents, and gives teens the ability to encounter those they may not ever know in real life, through the pages of books.
The ones we read this week included:
Tyrell, by Coe Booth: Tyrell is 14 years old. He’s grown up in the projects, with his dad, his moms, and his little bro Troy, but his dad’s just gone to prison, his moms is a hot mess incapable of caring for herself or her children, and the weight of it all is resting heavily on Tyrell’s shoulders. He loves his girlfriend but she won’t put out, he’s tempted by an overly friendly new girl he meets at the roach-filled motel where social services has parked them, and he’s angry and confused about the role into which his mother is trying to force him, which is as the wage earner in the absence of his father.
If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch: When she was five years old, Carey’s mother stole her away from her father and took her to live in a trailer in the middle of a national forest. Her mother, bipolar and a meth addict, subsequently gave birth to a second daughter, whom Carey took care of during her mother’s frequent absences. Carey’s mother did whatever she had to do, including exploiting her daughter, in order to get a drug fix or a new winter coat, while the girls lived on cans of beans and Chef Boyardee and the squirrels and rabbits Carey shot in the forest. One day, after their mother has been missing long enough for the store of beans to be looking worryingly small, a man and a woman show up calling their names, and Carey and Jenessa are whisked off to the real world to live with Carey’s father, stepmother, and stepsister, with all the adjustments this involves. But Carey can’t help thinking about the crime she committed during a moment of desperation back in the forest, and worrying that its revelation will separate her from her sister, the only person in the world she really loves.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick: Leonard is the epitome of the sad loner at every high school, and like that guy, he’s about to indulge in some stereotypical behavior: His plan is to take a gun to school, shoot his former best friend, and then off himself after. But first, he wants to make a final connection with the few people in his life who have been kind to him by giving them each a gift. The book is the story of the last couple of days of Leonard’s sorry life…although some letters to Leonard from the future hold out a ray of hope.
Parents, teachers, and random adults have asked me, during my tenure as a teen librarian, “Of what value are these books for teens? Why are all of your book lists so irredeemably bleak?” My answer has always been, it’s what the teens want, and in many cases it’s what the teens need. Protecting a privileged notion of what constitutes teen literature can easily deprive teens of reading books that let them identify and understand their sadness, their loneliness, and their anger, and also equip them to fight the real monsters in their lives, whether those are other teens, the adults who control them, the world at large, or simply their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
The paradox of much of edgy fiction is that although the circumstances in which the characters exist are ugly, the characters themselves are beautiful in their vulnerability, and the literature itself can be lyrical even in its truthfulness. And in my discussion with my class, some of whom were put off or even horrified by the selection of edgy fiction we read, we ironically came to the conclusion that the soft reads are often identical in their effect to the edgy ones, and the adults who laud them as more appropriate aren’t seeing the spectrum on which they appear.
The book we read, Hope Was Here, has a protagonist whose mother deserted her, and she was raised by her aunt. She had to move repeatedly during her 16 years because of financial hardship. Her only constant is being a good waitress at the serial diners at which she has worked. Her new boss, of whom she has become fond, is dying of cancer. The town is run by a crooked politician who is exploiting the townsfolk. Reading that synopsis, would you guess it was a soft read? The fact that the heroine, Hope, takes a relentlessly positive attitude toward the obstacles in her life doesn’t negate the fact that she’s been dealt a tough hand.
The truth about young adult literature is, no matter what its guise—soft read, edgy fiction, paranormal or dystopia—the really good stuff is designed to invoke one important quality from the teens who read it: Empathy. The greatest gift we as librarians (or teachers or parents or friends) can give our teens is how to experience empathy; and one of the best ways to teach them that is through reading.
As has been previously noted, I’m a sucker for books about books—a book featuring a bookstore, a library, a bookmobile, a librarian, a writer, a reader—if it’s book-centered, I usually end up reading it. After my post about a variety of these a few days ago, I decided to track down some more, but before I could do so, two serendipitously popped up, one of them a bargain book for my Kindle and the other “trending” on my Goodreads feed.
The first one I read was By the Book, by Julia Sonneborn, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I should have taken the title literally, because this book is written “by the book” without necessarily being “about” books. Let me clarify.
It’s supposedly a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (so, yet another author for Jane Austen’s lawyer to sue in the afterlife), and while the basic elements are there—the woman and her former suitor, working their way gradually back into a relationship—there were so many other things to distract that the original material didn’t resonate for me as I read the story.
Anne Corey is teaching English at a small liberal arts college in the foothills outside San Bernardino. She’s quite happy in her work, but trouble looms: In order to gain tenure (and avoid being fired!), she has to get a book deal for her literary tome on women writers. She goes into the new fall semester thinking this will be her biggest challenge, but then discovers, somewhat to her dismay, that the newly hired president of her college is none other than her first love and former fiancé, Adam Martinez, the man she jilted in favor of college and career.
The “publish or perish” push to get tenure was an interesting story element; but some of the others (Anne’s gay friend Larry’s obsession with a closeted actor, Anne’s own romance with a questionable Lothario, and dealing with the needs of her aging father) seemed to distract from the main thesis quite a bit.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the book; I did. But it reads as much more of a light, “cozy” romance than it does as a book that is engaged with books and literature. We hear a lot about the writing of books without getting many details of what is written; and the rest is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory human relationships, including the secondary love interest, who turns out to be something of a caricature.
I also felt that the author let the source material down by improperly characterizing “Captain Wentworth.” In Persuasion, Wentworth is dead set against Anne at the beginning, and a lot of the book is about how he gradually changes his mind and returns to his original feelings for her. But in By the Book, despite some red herring relationships for him, it’s pretty clear that Adam Martinez is still carrying the torch, which made the tension between them feel too flimsy to carry the story. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t think it will go into my “canon” of bibliophilia-related reading.
The second book I read, the one that kept popping up on Goodreads, was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan, and it was a lot closer to being what I have in mind when I want a book about books.
First of all, I loved the description and provenance of the bookstore; it’s in a previously dodgy but now up-and-coming neighborhood, built into a former lightbulb factory, which is what contributed the name and logo (a lit-up bulb) for the store. While being a smart emporium for new books, it employs a variety of quirky book people, nicely described, and also serves as a haven for a group of book-loving ne’er-do-wells, from the homeless to the merely eccentric, with whom the main character, Lydia, is involved, due both to her empathetic nature and to her desire to share her love of books with all and sundry.
The gist of the story, however, is a mystery based on tragedy, both present-day and in the past, and both connected to Lydia. In the present, it’s the suicide of a boy who frequents the store (one of the customers the clerks call “Book Frogs”). This event contains an unexpected element that carries Lydia (and the reader) back to a traumatic incident in her childhood, and brings her into contact with people and incidents she had banished to her subconscious for a couple of decades. The suicide, a boy named Joey, leaves her ingenious clues contained within books he stole from the bookstore, and in piecing them together Lydia discovers connections about which she never dreamed.
I didn’t expect the book to be so dark or so mystery-oriented, but I loved the writing, the set-up of the atmosphere surrounding the events, and the protagonist’s gentle yet inexorable qualities. (I also loved the cover!)
I would definitely read something else by this author, and will probably read this one again someday.