Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Somewhere Else Entirely, Someone Has Done All These Things

Everyone has a book (or two) that could be said, in some ways, to define one's life. I have two. The first is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I keep a copy of the audiobook in my car and listen to it whenever our local NPR station is playing classical music or opera instead of, well, NPR. (Sadly, because I do love NPR, this is a lot.) The other is Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.

I have read Elsewhere aloud to almost every class I have taught since its publication in 2005. I love Elsewhere. Although I have read it somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 times now (about 30 of those times aloud to a total of about 900 students), I am always delighted to revisit Liz and Owen and Betty and Sadie and Lucy and Aldous and Curtis Jest and Thandi and Alvy, and, I suppose it must be said, even Emily. I wanted to name our dogs Lucy and Sadie, but my daughter overruled me and named them Fiona and Hermione. (I secretly named them Fiona Sadie and Hermione Lucinda and sometimes call them by their middle names, but don't tell my daughter that. Luckily she is a teenager and therefore finds me hopelessly boring, so therefore she never reads this.) Former students message me on Facebook to ask the name of "that great book" because they want to reread it. One of my only reviews on RateMyTeacher includes something to the effect of "We all love the voices she uses when she reads aloud!" I know that student is referring to Elsewhere because it is the only book I read with a special voice for each character. (Although Curtis Jest, regrettably, has an Irish accent, because I just can't seem to manage a good British accent no matter how much BBC America I watch.)

What is it about Elsewhere that I love so much? I don't know. I discover something new each time I read it. And I suppose I like the idea that after we die, we get to see the people we love (maybe) and spend more time together and make things right and maybe even fall in love, and then we get a do-over and the whole cycle starts from beginning, like a circle and a line...

But I didn't intend to focus on Elsewhere in this blog...although it's hard for me to stop once I get started. I just love that book. And of course I have read all of Gabrielle Zevin's other books, too, and I have liked them all in their own way. (My second favorite of all is Margarettown, and not just because my real name is Margaret, but I have only read that twice. Or maybe three times. My daughter's favorite book is Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and I have mostly forgiven her for that. Mostly.) Really, all that introduction was my way of telling you, dear reader, that I've just read Gabrielle Zevin's newest book, All These Things I've Done. (All that talk about one book when really I'm meant to be talking about another is sort of like asking someone to do the dishes, or practice parallel parking, when really you want to go on a date...oh...wait...I'm doing it again.)

All These Things I've Done is most certainly not Elsewhere. Not. At. All.

Anya Balanchine is the orphaned daughter of the head of an organized crime family whose specialty is chocolate, although they dabble in illegal coffee as well. And Win, the new kid, is also the son of the soon-to-be D.A., a man who clearly cannot allow his only son to fall in love with a girl who has so many ties to organized crime. Oh, did I mention that it is 2083, and chocolate and coffee are illegal? And Anya's older brother, Leo, was disabled and their mother was killed in a botched hit on their father when Anya was 6? It was years later when Anya's father was killed in their apartment as Anya and her little sister Natty watched from under his desk...Oh, and Central Park is barren and Little Egypt is a popular night club in a part of Manhattan known as the Museum Mile, though no one really remembers why...

There are no hints of Elsewhere in All These Things I've Done, and I had to wait a little while to write this while I worked on forgiving it for that. Oh sure, I picked it up and finished it in less than 24 hours, and I am still thinking about it even though I've already finished The Strange Case of Origami Yoda since then (which will get its own blog as soon as I'm done with the sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back). And it must be said that I like Anya, who (like me) is a (mostly) good Catholic girl, and I really like Leo, and I mostly like Win, even though he shares one of my weaknesses, which is being delusionally optimistic, and you know they say you can't like characters who showcase your own flaws...but...I did. Oh, I guess I have to admit it now: I really, really liked this book. And I will read it again, especially because it is the first book in a series, and although I wish the second book in the series would be released tomorrow, it won't, and I'll need to be reminded of who everyone is and how I feel about them before I read the next book...which I will read...probably the day it is released. If I can't get my hands on it sooner.

In the meantime, have you seen my copy of Elsewhere?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Blood, Shadow, and Impatience

I was lucky to read a galley of Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow, but I don't think I'm supposed to really say much about it until closer to its publication date (which is January 2012). So here is my very generic review:

If you are intelligent, read  this book.
If you enjoy conspiracy theories (which may or may not turn out to be just theories), read this book.
If you enjoy plot twists and suspense, read this book.
If you want to learn from what you read, read this book.
If you are in the mood for a book that keeps you on your toes, read this book.
If you want to be intrigued, read this book.
If you are fascinated by science, read this book.
If you like cracking codes, read this book.
If you loved The DaVinci Code, read this book.
If you liked The DaVinci Code but wished it was just a should definitely read this book.

If you are looking for another sappy paranormal romance, do not read this book.
If you don't want to think too much about what you're reading, do not read this book.
If you loved the Twilight series, you might not want to read this book.
If you loved the Twilight series but never got into Harry Potter because "it's just too confusing" should definitely not read this book.

That about sums it up. 5 of 5 stars, even with the typos that always exist in galleys. ;-)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Practical Approach to Friendship

Perhaps it is important for everyone reading this to know that my family--spurred by my younger sister, but indeed shared by my whole family-- my family had a strange penchant for the movie Serial Mom. We had it on VHS. We watched it together. More than once. Hey, it was a good movie. And perhaps there was something vaguely familiar about the idea that a mother would kill people who she perceived hurt her children. Not that my mother (who was also our girl scout leader; who was involved in the creation of the Children's Board; who later became the school's Booster club president; who attended every concert, game, and performance faithfully and with a smile on her face)...NOT that my mother would ever kill anyone who hurt her family. But would she consider it, if we were well and truly hurt? Well, suffice it to say that our family loved Serial Mom.

I was reminded of this long-forgotten family favorite as I read Trevor Cole's brilliant Practical Jean. Jean, who may or may not have been practical, has recently been the devoted and full-time caretaker of her dying mother. The novel begins soon after the slow and agonizing death of Jean's mother. And Jean comes to the (practical) realization that a good friend would never allow her dearest friends to live a life that ends in that type of awful suffering. And so she does what any good friend would do. She becomes a serial killer. Hilarity ensues. (For the reader, that is...certainly not for Jean's ill-fated friends.)

While the book is never bogged down by heavy-handed prose or overly serious ruminations on the human condition, it certainly raises some interesting questions. When my 87-year-old grandmother (may she rest in peace) was a month into complications (and suffering) from an ultimately fatal prolapsed intestine, she bemoaned, "They give sodium pentathol to dogs! Why don't I deserve that mercy?" If, in those moments at the end of her life, she had been able to write a book...well, my grandmother didn't have Trevor Cole's cutting humor. But I can't help but imagine she would have appreciated it, as did I.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How to Save a Life

I feel like I need to start out saying that Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is far and away one of the most popular books in my classroom library. One girl reads it at the beginning of the school year, and it passes from student to student and doesn't return to the shelf until I beg for it in June. So I hoped that perhaps How to Save a Life would measure up, because although I keep them reading when they come to me after reading Story of a Girl and ask, "Do you have any other books like that?"--I know that there is nothing that I give them that they will love as much. I know that because I loved Story of a Girl that way, too.

And I am happy to say that How to Save a Life measures up. In fact, (although Story of a Girl was signed out last week so I will not see it again for a while) I am looking forward to re-reading Story of a Girl because I might...MIGHT...just like How to Save a Life even more.

So the story...Mandy is pregnant, and Jill's mother wants to adopt her baby as a way of coping with the unexpected death of her husband. Jill is not happy about her mother's plan. That's how it begins. Mandy and Jill take turns narrating the chapters, and I loved getting to know each of them--and by the end of the book, I loved each of them despite all their flaws. What I love most about this book is that Mandy comes from a terrible family situation, and Jill (up to her father's death) comes from a wonderful family situation, they are both equally broken. The beauty of the book is that we get to see them both become whole.

I also read Small Persons with Wings (they hate to be called fairies) by Ellen Booraem. This wonderful book for younger readers combined every story I remember from my childhood, as well as my imaginary friend Ugly Dugly. (OK, it didn't actually include MY Ugly Dugly, but it did remind me of him...although after he disappeared, I was left with a little rubber doll of his likeness, not a china figurine.) My grandmother's stories of pixies, who made mischief while we weren't looking, and of brownies, who cleaned our messes while we slept, came vividly back to me in the pages of this book, although there were no pixies or brownies (specifically) within the story.  I don't read many books for younger readers, but this one came highly recommended, and I am so glad I picked it up.