Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet": A review of Elliott Holt's You Are One of Them

This is the story of two little girls, growing up in 1980's Washington DC: Sarah and Jennifer. Sarah's family is dysfunctional. The death of her little sister, Isabel at age 4. Her father, an Englishman leaves his family and returns to the UK, seemingly because of Sarah's mother's inability to cope with Isabel's death, and her obsessive behavior regarding the possibility of nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Sarah is a quiet, loner of a girl, until a new family moves in across the street. The Jones family is all American and seems perfect to Sarah, especially their daughter, Jennifer. Sarah and Jennifer becomes fast friends.

They two school girls share secrets and swimming, and spend lots of times together. For Sarah, the Jones family and their complete normalcy is a respite from her mother's somewhat paranoid antics. When Sarah announces to Jennifer she is writing a letter to Yuri Andropov, the current head of the USSR, and Jennifer also writes a letter. However, the outcome of what happens when one of those letter receives a response from Andropov himself.

Sarah is an unreliable narrator: a smart girl who underestimates her own intelligence and likableness throughout her life and the novel. While Sarah is quiet and studious, Jennifer is popular and confident. But Jennifer isn't as smart as Sarah, and she is capricious and disloyal. Sarah struggles with both her mother's problems and fears, and her own more rational apprehensions. She feels abandoned by both her dead sister and her dad, who has remarried and has another child. She uses Cold War terms to deal with the pain: sister and father are both "defectors." It was easy for me to identify with the reserved, intelligent and thoughtful Sarah.

I loved the way the plot is unfurled like an exotic carpet for the reader to carefully examine, close up for themselves. Sarah grows up, in the shadow of both her parent's failed marriage, with the disappointments of childhood still following and grieving her. I didn't know too much about the plot, except that one of the girls has a response to her letter and life changes dramatically forever for Sarah. Fast forward to her college years, and we learn more about Sarah's parents, as most young people gradually understand their parents as they grow older. Sarah's trip to Russia also reveals so many things the young Sarah might not have understood as unsavvy child.

I have to say, while there were points where I felt the plot was slightly weak, I truly enjoyed both the writing and the elegant way the author allows the story to unhurriedly unfold. Nothing in the story feels forced. No storybook endings here, but that is hardly the point of this book, which is about how well you think you know people: especially family and friends, those you are closest with in this world.

I grew up in the 1980s (I'm a little older than Sarah by 4 years), so this book naturally appealed to me. I remember worrying about the missiles the two greatest powers on the planet had pointed at one another. I was influenced by musicians like Sting and U2, and was watching "The Day After Tomorrow" the night it first aired. If any of these touch points ring a bell with you, this book might be for you.

Joanna Trollope's Sense & Sensibility (The Austen Project)

***SPOILER ALERT***:If you've read Sense and Sensibility before, no need for a spoiler warning here. But if not, you might just want to go into this one cold, and just try it. While I have problems with this kind of book, there are certainly worse books of this type around. Skip my review below though!

I am a big fan of Jane Austen. Generally, I am not a fan of sequels or prequels written by someone other than the original author This yea do I go in for fanfiction. I read Longbourn earlier this year (one of my favorite books of the year), and also one of my most highly anticipated reads of the year as well. I had heard about the Harper Collins Austen Project, and when I saw this on Vine, i decided to take a chance. I have never read anything else by Trollope, so I was taking a chance, since I don't think her fiction is in line with my normal reading habits.

I re-read an Austen every year, and coincidentally, Sense and Sensibility was this year's. So the original was fresh in my mind. The reluctance on Trollope's part to deviate from the original story was disconcerting. I read Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy last year, a riff on Jane Eyre, and while the story was most certainly reflective of Jane Eyre, Livesey manages to make it very much her own story, as well as Gemma's. Trollope sticks very closely to Austen's plot and characters, which for me, with the contemporary setting, was a problem for me.

The plot is identical to Austen's: the Dashwood family (mother and three daughters) are forced out of their comfortable home by Isabel's (te Dashwood girls mother) stepson and his wife. Isabel is not only as sensitive as her daughter Marianne, she is a full fledged, perimenopausal hippie, and she and Mr Dashwood were not actually legally married, making matters more precarious for her children. So we do see some more actual character development in her than we do in the original novel. Same situation with Margaret, she is a tad more developed than in the original novel. Marianne and Elinor are practically the same as in the original, which results in Elinor's martyrdom, and Marianne's ninnydom. Because the innocence and sweetness of the Austen characters doesn't carry over, and instead, Elinor seems long suffering and Marianne, with her romantic ideals and artistic sensibilities just translates as annoying and narcissistic, unfortunately.

Trollope uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cell phones, computers and cars liberally to bring her characters into the 21st century. Even Mr. Middleton's business is high tech and world wide. Yet that just seems heavy handed. I would have preferred Trollope had let the girls be old fashioned letter writers: keeping their same personalities and using these devices to "update" them seems forced and dull. This is where the story needs to deviate from the original, especially along the lines of the family's money problems, and the highly important talk of marrying for money. There's a name for people who marry for money, and I believe it translates on both sides of the pond: gold digger. And while these girls are not necessarily gold diggers, all the talk of money and marriage makes me cringe. It is just completely anachronistic. And while it is a major theme in Austen's books, that is because it is a fact of life of her time. Women had to worry about who they'd marry and how much cash they'd have, because women couldn't work. Yet here in the year 2013, women CAN work and do. Two able bodied women cannot work in this story. Granted, Marianne's constitution is delicate, but even that illness (asthma, which also killed their father?) seems anachronistic and bizarre in this day and age, with so many medicines to control these kind of conditions. It just didn't work for me.

This was not the worst thing I've read this year. I think anticipating what was going to happen next (and knowing exactly what that would be), made this book a bit of a slog for me, especially after reading it this summer and enjoying very much: I have two daughters who are close in age, and while they are both serious musicians, I think of them as very much an Elinor and a Marianne (although the older one is our Marianne!). I might be convinced to try another of these rewrites of Austen, but if I was making a suggestion for a friend who loves Austen, I'd tell them to read Longbourn by Jo Baker: the writing is far superior with original characters and plot blending in seamlessly with that of the Bennett family, as well as some re-imaginings of what really goes on behind closed doors there. It was brilliant while this book is just so-so.

For more info on this series of books, all rewrites of Austen books by contemporary writers, click here: The Austen Project

3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Little Review time: 4 quickie reviews!

There are a few books I read this year recently that have yet to be reviewed, so I'm going to do a quick little review of those books now!

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindall:  Gone Girl meets Gatsby? Not quite sure how to describe this little "thriller" set in Roaring 20s New York City.  Rose, plain, hard working orphan girl meets glamour girl, Odalie at the police department, where Rose works as a typist.  Odalie has a mysterious past, as well as an unusual present. Rose is intrigued, obsessed even, with the seductive woman.  Crazy read.  (I read this one because one of my bookish friends called me and asked me to, so we could discuss the crazy ending!)  4stars

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri:  I'm giving this one 4 stars because it IS Jhumpa Lahiri, and her writing is amazing. However, this one came up a bit short compared to The Namesake, or even Nell Freudenberger's The Newlyweds, which I adored.  Subhash and Udayan are two brothers, close in age, who grew up in Calcutta. But their paths diverge as the grow into young adults: Udayan becomes a radical and Subhash goes to Rhode Island, to go to college.  Tragedy strikes, changing the lives of the Mitra family in ways they could hardly imagine on both sides of the oceans that separate the brothers.

I just adore Lahiri's writing, and she does have a way with a story.  I just had a funny feeling that something was missing here. And my book group friends pretty much felt the same way. Definitely worth reading if you are a Lahiri fan.   4 stars

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam:
This was a book I selected to read and be the moderator for on an online (Facebook) book group. Initially, I was hesitant and a bit worried, since I was not sure if I would like this book, the premise sounded weird.  Do not fear, I was immediately sucked into this story.  It reads like an Amy Tan story (the close family ties, hopes and dreams of a Chinese family for their future and children), but is set in Vietnam during that terrible conflict.

Percival is a person with many faults, but his worse fault may also be most beneficial to his survival: he is in constant denial of the actual situations in front if him. Whether it is about his son, his father, his ex-wife, his new girlfriend, or the person he entrusts his family business to, he really never seems to be able to acknowledge what the truth is.  Percival's story is both painful and illuminating, and his experience as a Chinese national in Vietnam in the 1970's will have the reader nervous. Tons of symbolism and interesting statements for discussion here, this would truly be a great read for any book group. Historical fiction at its best!  5stars

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand:   Incredible story of a determined and strong American soldier, Louis Zamperini, during WW2 who overcomes the most insurmountable and horrific treatment as, first, he survives a plane crash on the open water for over a month, and then, spends 2 years as a Japanese prisoner of war, under a brutal and sadistic camp leader.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you know about this incredibly popular book, and the man it is about. This kind of story should be required reading for all American high school students: not just because it about the Greatest generation and one of its biggest heroes, but because Zamperini is NOT perfect. He is a flawed human being, with many emotions and hopes and dreams like any other person on this planet, and even after his odyssey in the Pacific, he still struggles. Very human. I had to stop reading this several times, due to the highly charged subject matter!

My only criticism of this book is that often, Hillenbrand's technique for trying to end chapters on a cliff hanger where there is none can be a little trying at times. No need to manufacture suspense here, truly. The story is so amazing, there is no way anyone can be bored by it.  4 stars

Next up: my top reads for 2013 coming in a few days.

Review" The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

     I love books about books, if you've ever read any of my other blog reviews, you know this.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by gabrielle Zevin, while short and sweet does not disappoint.  A.J.Fikry is a widowed book store owner. Life lost all meaning for him when he lost his beloved, funny wife to cancer.  Alone, he rebuffs almost all overtures of friendship. Until he meets Amelia Loman. And until someone leaves a sweet bundle in his store. Charming and bookish, funny and poignant, this book is grown up enough for, well, so called gown ups, and perfect for teens who are fans of Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore and John Green's books.  Definitely one to look for in 2014.