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Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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