Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Reading Roundup: Youthful Nostalgia, Part 2

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As I started brainstorming for a title for this post, I was struck by a sneaking suspicion that I had already typed the words I found myself typing. Turns out, about a year ago I reviewed two graphic novels that fall very closely in line with the two I am about to share now. (Hence "Youthful Nostalgia, Part 2!") They are both stories told with the wisdom of adulthood as the authors recall prior experiences and share their memories with limited prose and through carefully crafted illustrations. You could say they're told with a sense of nostalgia, but they're mostly a reflection, on the author's part, of impactful youthful experiences.

In Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's This One Summer, Rose is spending the summer with her parents in the same rural beach town they've visited every year. It's the kind of setting where kids are left free to roam and have typical "kid" adventures, while the parents get a break to relax and maybe do some work away from their normal work environment. For Rose, life picks up where it left off the previous summer. She reunites with her summer best friend Windy, and they navigate adolescence in a sort of suspended existence; they are the ones that change year to year as the world around them stays the same.

The Tamakis tell this quiet story of two girls on the cusp of the teenage years, the ones where they start to notice all the "adult world" things that exist, and have always existed, around them. It's subtley beautiful and perfectly captures the in-between years...but it's by no means pleasant. I found Rose to be at that annoyingly, precociously negative phase where she's just insufferable and needs a good kick in the pants. But to her defense, she is bombarded with these very real, serious situations—like marital issues, miscarriages, unwanted pregnancies, and slut-shaming—that bog down any remaining childhood carefree naivety as she starts to understand what they all mean. I still can't completely decide if I really enjoyed the story, but at least I understand that maybe I wasn't supposed to. The art, though, is phenomenal.

I ordered this book for my middle school library after reading a lot of YA buzz about it, as I'm trying to find materials a little more mature for my younger-skewed collection. After reading, I decided it's definitely not going on my normal library shelves. (I made it a "back-shelf" book that I've given to a couple of mature 8th graders...and even they were a little thrown by the mature language and subject-matter.) Though the characters are middle schoolers, this story is more of a poignant remembrance on your first encounters with situations you know are way too old for you...and my students are not in that reflective stage yet. It's hard to remember life with a sheltered perspective once that shelter is gone. An older teen might "get it," but I also have to think of those sheltered 5th graders; and thinking about a 10-year-old picking this up and reading it with a parent makes me squirm.


I've said before that Lucy Knisley's graphic memoirs are ones I surprisingly really enjoy. Her most recent travelogue/journal, An Age of License, is no exception.

When Lucy is invited to speak at a comic convention in Norway, she decides to turn her hop across the pond into an adventure that takes her further afield to Sweden, Germany, and France. Having gone through a recent breakup, she grabs onto that mid-twenties bohemian moment where the "Why not?" commitment-free mindset leads to unexpected places and relationships. She once heard it called L'Age License, which basically means a "license to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do...whatever, before you're settled." The phrase may or may not actually exist, but Lucy's own Age of License leads her to a new romance in Sweden, a reunion with friends in Germany, and a country respite with family in France.

According to my own recent statements on memoirs, I don't enjoy memoirs that have no extraordinary experience to share. And to be honest, backpacking through Europe in your twenties is more like a right of passage at this point than an utterly unique experience. And also, the mid-twenties angst of uncertainty is mind-numbingly over-represented. What makes Knisley an exception to my rule, though, is the way in which she tells her stories—I adore her illustrations. Her drawings, to me, add so much to the experiences she's sharing. The details create an ambiance of blissful memory that make us feel like we're being included in a private, special moment of the author's. We all have memories like that, where the details are seared into our brain; they're what make our own experiences unique to us even if they're completely ordinary to someone else. I think that's why I care more with Knisley. She doesn't just tell a story; she shows us what made it special.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fiction | A Clever Life, Deconstructed

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Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley is one of those character books that goes into great length and detail on the unextraordinary. But that's not to say it's boring. With books like this, that's the beauty in their purpose—to focus so closely on one life and the little details that make it different from anyone else's. To help the reader understand that a life is more than a series of events; it's thoughts and emotions and relationships and the day-to-day mundane that are usually quickly forgotten.

The story opens with the description of one such life, that of 10-year-old Stella. She lives with her Mother; her father is supposedly dead, but she'd "found out years later" that he actually left. Thus with that language of recollection, the reader knows from the very beginning that this is going to be one girl's story as told by her future self. It's a remembrance, and everything we learn about Stella is going to be told as her older self reflects. So though we're hearing Stella's life story as a first-person narrative, it has this omniscient quality that guides us with a higher level of knowing and understanding.

The rest of the story is told through chapters that serve as vignettes of Stella's life at different points. At the beginning, her cousin has just died from a tragic accident, and Aunt Andy has come to live with Stella and her mother. To 10-year-old Stella, this is life, this interruption from what was normal at home and how it touches every other part of her life. We travel through adolescence as Stella tests boundaries, particularly physical ones as she explores the space around her and discovers what it means to be a part of the world outside her home. She gains a stepfather, finds a boyfriend, has a baby, becomes a maid. She gets political and artistic. She has another baby. Stella's choices keep her on the move, finding new homes and new relationships.

It takes a clever person to adjust to such shifts in life, to forge these kinds of moves. But we get the sense that, much of the time, Stella has never been completely sure of herself. She's smart and adaptable, but her decisions are uninspired, following, instead, the easy or reactionary path. From the narration, though, through its reflective manner, we do get the sense that Stella eventually finds her own raison d'etre, and makes a sort of peace with her past.

I was thirty at the beginning of my first year, the oldest in my cohort. This age different didn't matter, in fact it was a kind of convenience, because it set me apart from the other students' chaos of self-discovery, their hungry interest in one another. Compared to them, I felt my motivations purely: for all the three years of my degree, I seemed to see myself clearly as if from a distance, through a thick lens. It was such a relief to be clever at last. For years I had had to keep my cleverness cramped and concealed--not because it was dangerous and forbidden, but because it had no useful function in my daily life. In the wrong contexts, cleverness is just an inhibiting clumsiness.

Clever Girl follows the same vein as Emily Perkins' The Forrests or Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. This is another one of those books that I think needs a particular type of reader, one that is comfortable with the slow progression of character development. It's not the event happening that matters, rather how it affects the story's protagonist—how this character evolved because of the same ordinary events that are exceptionally common in everyday lives.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Reading Roundup: Nonfiction Picks

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In an effort to get through my lengthy backlog of books to share, here are a few varied nonfiction selections I've read as of late...(Sidenote: I started a draft of this post over a month ago. Whoops?)

Beginning with a memoir, Girl Walks Into a Bar... by former-SNL funny-woman Rachel Dratch answers the question she presumes has been on everyone's mind, which is, "Where has Rachel Dratch been since SNL?" To sum it up for you, she had a baby. It was unplanned. But it is great.

Dratch's memoir was probably published in the same vein as recent comedic releases by Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler. However, it completely lacked the universal comedic appeal that the two mentioned authors bring to their essay collections, which, though often containing personal anecdotes, tell them in a way that is just generally entertaining to read. This book did include some interesting tidbits and background info about her life and entry into show-business, but mostly it was a personal update that felt more worthy of a blog post. I enjoy Dratch immensely, but I just don't think she had enough to say to warrant a 240-page book.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley is another book that had been on my to-read shelf since about 2009 but that I quickly realized is not the type of book I dig. Essays like these feel little more than extended versions of social media posts or emails to friends, and I constantly wonder how and why some editor deemed them worthy of an entire book that should be shared to the masses. It seems such a formulaic trend at this point—write about your quirky upbringing, or your weird transition to college, or random drug experimentation, or the terrible jobs you held. Do that all with a comedic flair and VOILA, book deal. I don't have a thing against memoirs, but I have a thing against the ones that don't share a unique or interesting life experience. And that's how I felt with this one. Some parts of her writing made me chuckle, but overall I just didn't really care about Crosley's unexceptional experiences.

Maybe I'm being too harsh, because I did really like a similar style book by Jane Borden a couple years back. Maybe that's what these editors count on—one random person somewhere in the world that is going to totally connect with a book and say, "OMG, YES," on every other page. For this book, I wasn't that person. But I guess who cares—to hell with all I've already said! Write on, Sloane Crosley! Write on!

Now, talking about life experiences... Rick Antonson' Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America's Main Street is one I need to have—and until then will have to settle for just reading about! What happens is these two guys, Rick and Peter, decide to have the quintessential American roadtrip by following Route 66 from Chicago to LA. No interstates allowed; they have to follow the original route—in its entirety—as best they can. And they learn that task is much easier said than done.

The original Route 66 is tricky to follow. Stretches have been re-named, re-routed, abandoned. Guides and maps have evolved over the decades in such a manner to make it incredibly difficult to figure out what's new, what's old, and what's original. Rick and Peter have an entertaining dynamic—one is go-with-the-flow, one is a planner. Their own interactions are about as entertaining as their ones with the many varied people they meet along the way. What I really enjoyed about this book was the huge amount of history and culture included in the narrative. Rick's personal account is peppered with stories of local legend and famous figures that contribute to the route's lore in American culture. I read this as an eBook and marked several pages with interesting tidbits and beautifully-phrased, poignant passages. Unfortunately, my library copy expired before I exported my notes (my own fault), so I can't share any with you now...but trust they are there; it's your turn to find them!