Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

Read Full Post »

Yes, bookconscious readers, I finished a book! For fun!

Ana of California, which is “inspired*” by Anne of Green Gables is both familiar and fresh. Ana Cortez is an orphan from Boyle Heights in East L.A. She’s almost 16, the age when she can “emancipate” out of the foster system. In the meantime, she’s in trouble for telling off her latest foster mother. Her social worker suggests Garber Farm in northern California, owned by brother and sister Emmett and Abbie. Ana knows nothing about plants, and has never been out of Los Angeles, but she’s willing to go to avoid a group home.

What Ana learns on the farm goes beyond how to tell parsley from weeds, make compost, and pick beans. In the small rural town of Hadley, she finds it hard to explain the violence that has defined her life. But she connects with new friends and coworkers, and with Emmett and Abbie, over music and books, food, and art, and humor. There are enough nods to Anne to please fans of L.M. Montgomery’s heroine, but Ana is her own unique character, feisty and strong, vulnerable and big-hearted. Teran renders her setting richly, making Hadley, with its funky shops, redwood forests, harvest festival, and quirky inhabitants, a character in its own right. Her writing is evocative: “They drove toward town, sunshine machine-gunning through the pines. Ana closed her eyes and let the light ricochet off her forehead. ‘Gorgeous day,’ Abbie said. ‘I’ve lived in perfect weather all my life-doesn’t fool me for a second,’ Ana replied.” Ana of California isn’t just about surviving a terrible childhood, it’s about the ways people misunderstand each other, and how little it takes to overcome those deficits. 

Much to think about and to enjoy, in a book that carries readers back to pre-texting adolescence.

*Note that doesn’t say it’s an adaptation — some reviews I read were critical of perceived inaccuracies in the novel, but it isn’t supposed to be a remake.

Read Full Post »

Like the first two books in this series, The Magician’s Land had me hooked from page one. Quentin Coldwater, misunderstood misfit magician king, shows up at a bookstore in a strip mall in New Jersey on a rainy March night, because he received a letter inviting him to do so. From then on it’s  a – ahem – spell-binding ride as readers learn what happened to Quentin since the ram god Ember kicked him out of Fillory, and what he’ll do next. Will he recover from the disgraces he’s suffered in Fillory and on Earth? What secret does Plum, a former Brakebills student, have that might help her help Quentin? Can Quentin save Alice from spending the rest of eternity as a niffin? What are Eliot, Josh, Poppy, and Julia doing back in Fillory and why are things so strange there? What really happened to the Chatwin children, whose adventures in Fillory are memorialized in beloved story books?  Was there a dark side to the books’ author, Christopher Plover? Is there, indeed, a dark side to Fillory?

If you’re thinking you don’t like fantasy so this isn’t your cup of tea, think again. Grossman’s subject isn’t magic, or even purely good versus evil, although that is certainly important in his books. His subject is really humanity, in all its rich variety. And love. And truth. And growing up. And becoming who you’re meant to be. Everything that makes great fiction stick, in a fun, smart, thought-provoking, and yes, fantastic wrapping. I told friends over the weekend that The Magicians trilogy is a cross between Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, but with sex and drugs.

If you’re looking for stories to get lost in this winter, I highly recommend these well written, entertaining, and soulful books. Give me The Magicians over any “problem” novel or confessional memoir, any day. Grossman packs as much truth and love and pain and heartfelt conflict into his stories, with none of the guilt, over-sharing, or voyeurism. Plus, he writes about wicked cool magic. In a series that is very contemporary, which manages to reference traditional fantasy in a very charming way. The jacket flap says this is the series’ conclusion, but I fervently hope Grossman changes his mind about that.

Read Full Post »

It’s been a while since I read a book that made me want to stay up too late or get up early to read. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence did both.

The hero of Extence’s debut novel is Alex Woods, a seventeen year old from Lower Godley, a village near Glastonbury. When we meet him it’s the middle of the night, he’s just off a ferry from France, he’s had a partial seizure, and he’s being arrested for having a bagful of marijuana, a considerable amount of cash, and an urn full of ashes in the car. As he sits in police custody he reviews how he ended up in this situation.

We learn that he’s the child of a single mother who operates a witchcraft shop and does tarot readings, and who conceived him at Stonehenge with a man she never saw again. When he was ten, he was the victim of a freak accident:a meteorite streaked through the sky over his home, broke through the bathroom ceiling, and hit him squarely on the head. When he came to a couple of weeks later he had a scar that would prevent him from growing a normal head of hair ever again and a brain injury that caused his epilepsy.

By the time he began secondary school, Alex was firmly “different.” Besides having an unusual mother, he did well in school, was “poor” in the view of his peers (which meant “not having the right stuff,” he explains), had a shaved head, and liked to feed ducks, learn about space, read, and care for his regularly-pregnant cat Lucy — all “gay” behavior as far as the school bullies were concerned. One Saturday three of them chased him through the village. Alex crashed through a hedge, took shelter in a shed, and had a seizure. When he woke up the shed’s owner, Mr. Peterson, (an American, Vietnam vet, and widower) was pointing a gun at him. It turns out the thugs smashed some windows and left Alex to take the blame.

Alex’s mother made him agree to do chores at Mr. Peterson’s house to make amends. His first task was to type Amnesty International letters. As he got to know Mr. Peterson he began to borrow his Kurt Vonnegut novels. And they became friends — one review suggests Mr. Peterson is a father figure, but I’d argue that’s not the case. As Alex tells it, Mr. Peterson treated him as an equal, not a child.

Other adults also factored into Alex’s strange upbringing. From his neurologist, Dr. Enderby, he learned meditation, which tames his epilepsy even better than medication does. From Dr. Weir, the astrophysicist who saved the meteorite from trophy hunters while he was hospitalized, he discovered his affinity for science. From the librarians at Glastonbury Library and other members of Alex’s Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, which he advertised as “a book club for people interested in all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extraterrestial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humor, et cetera) he learned that his interests and views were valid and valued.

So why is he sitting in a police interrogation room? He’s had to make life-altering decisions. Not about university education. Not about his strange relationship with Ellie, a classmate who works for his mother. Alex is unlike other teens, and the challenge he faced turns out to be unusual as well: Mr. Peterson needed help with two things that were perhaps ethically and morally right based on his circumstances, but illegal, at least in England. If I say any more I’ll give away too much of the plot.

So what was simply a quirky, funny, perceptive coming-of-age story is suddenly entangled with moral conundrums. I could not wait to learn the outcome.This much I can say: Alex, who was a bit of a twit to his mother and a bit too attached to his own precocious loner status, proves himself to be a deeply thoughtful and compassionate young man who copes with what happens with grace and love.

Read Full Post »

The 1980’s references in Carol Rifka Brunt‘s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, are thick and resonant. A Holly Hobby wallpaper border. Gunne Sax dresses. “99 Luftballoons,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the diner jukebox. Suzanne Vega on Saturday Night Live.Those skinny black rubber bracelets we wore by the dozens. Ryan White. Reagan’s speech on AIDS. Kids playing D&D after school.

I was nineteen in late 1986 when this book opens. The teenaged sisters at the center of the story, June and Greta, are a little younger, but their world felt oh-so-familiar to me. Even the woods June hangs out in behind her school were similar to woods I went to behind my own neighborhood school.

But if this setting isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry. Rifka Brunt gives readers meaty details on every page. The smell of the stew in the crock pot, the scent of June’s uncle on his wool coat and of Greta’s Jean Nate, the howling June hears in the woods, a jar of guitar picks, a neon orange lighter, Greta singing, Toby’s hacking cough and his “thick and gurgly” breathing.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home evokes these specific kids of sights and smells and sounds, making it possible to enter the story sensually. But it also evokes such primal and universal feelings and experiences that I couldn’t help also being very emotionally drawn in. Siblings changing as teens and and not really understanding what’s happening. Trying to figure out one’s place in both the miniature world of one’s family and the larger world. Experiencing a death in the family for the first time. Learning about your parents as people, and as younger versions of themselves.

Without giving too much away, here’s the gist of the story. June is a quirky kid, into medieval history, mad about Mozart’s Requiem, feeling like a misfit as her childhood world gives way and her old friends, including Greta, seem to grow up and away from her. She has a rich inner life, imagining herself in other times and places. Her Uncle Finn is the only person she feels really understands her.

When the novel opens Finn is dying of AIDS. He’s also painting a portrait of June and Greta. Not long after he dies June finds out Finn has had a partner, living in the apartment she visited every week, for nine years and she never knew anything about him. This man, Toby, contacts her and begins to share things he says Finn wanted her to have. Among them, a note asking her to look after Toby.

As June starts to unravel the things her family has hidden from her, she’s also negotiating her tricky relationship with her sister, who is at turns cruel and tender. Rifka Brunt really nails that adolescent weirdness of sometimes forgetting yourself with your siblings and parents, allowing yourself to be the kid you often still feel like, and then catching that happening and trying to be the separate young adult you also often feel like.

June is a fantastic character who manages to be a unique and fully drawn person and also a symbol of adolescence in all its glorious mess. Greta, Finn, and Toby are fully themselves even though they are the satellites to June’s star, and even Ben, a minor but occasionally important character, makes an impression as a full person. I thought June and Greta’s parents — especially their mother, whose role in June’s new understanding of family dynamics is key — were somewhat less fully formed.

But overall I found Tell the Wolves I’m Home to be a very satisfying and enjoyable read. If you like your novels character-driven and full of redemption and growth, this is for you. It’s beautifully evocative, the dialogue felt true, and the writing is real, for lack of a better word. This is the second book I’ve read lately with a very interesting, strong teen girl setting the quarrelsome or misguided adults straight —Where’d You Go, Bernadette being the other. If this is a trend, I like it.

Read Full Post »