The History of Us by Leah Stewart
Leah Stewart was one of my professors at the University of Cincinnati. I was thrilled to work with her because I’d recently read her novel The Myth of You and Me. It’s about two young women who were best friends through their formative years, but had a gigantic fight and, eventually, a reconciliation. At that time in my life, I’d recently lost a friendship I’d depended on and was still grieving and making sense of that loss, while trying feebly to replace her. Reading and writing and talking with Leah about female friendships and how strong and fragile they can be was exactly what I needed.
In this book, again, Leah speaks to issues that are close to my heart. The History of Us is about academia and long distance relationships, the balancing act of a relationship and a creative career that may send you anywhere, the sacrifices of parenting, the feeling of being stuck. One main conflict is between the stigma of never moving from a shabby hometown and deep roots to a place that feels like home. The History of Us is set in Cincinnati, the big city near the small river town where I grew up. It was kind of fun to see places that I knew from my time at UC popping up in a novel. I think Leah does a pretty good job of telling about the city and using it thematically, even if there are a few passages in the beginning that read like a tourist manual. She describes well the inferiority complex that the city has, and the dread most of its more educated children feel about staying there. Yet those same people also feel strong emotional ties and nostalgia for their childhood hometown (I know I do), and Leah captures that as well.
The main characters are Eloise, a history professor, and her nieces and nephew. After the sudden death of their parents, Eloise moved back to Cincinnati to raise her young relatives. Seventeen years later, Theo, a grad student, and Josh, a failed musician, are living back at home, while Claire, the youngest, is on her way to New York to dance in the ballet. The family starts fighting because Eloise wants to sell the house they’re living in, and the dependent, sentimental twenty-somethings don’t want her to. Each of the four has their own issues with relationships and their careers and the way those two things make each other difficult, if not impossible. The story is a little slow at first, but picks up tremendously after a surprise halfway through. The second half of the book is absolutely impossible to stop reading. Leah has written another thought-provoking book that asks hard questions and refuses to provide easy answers. I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting to, and that’s saying something.
Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer
In this sixth book in the Artemis Fowl series, Artemis has to save his mother from a deadly fairy illness called spelltropy by going back in time to save an extinct cure-bearing lemur from…himself. This time travel creates the paradox of the title, as Artemis meets his 10-year-old self.
This book features one of the most over-the-top villains I’ve ever read: Dr. Damon Kronski, the fat, New-Orleans-born leader of a group called the Extinctionists, determined to eradicate all animals that are not directly useful to human beings. Really, can you think of anything more stereotypically and gratuitously evil than setting out to make exotic species extinct? This character seems a good example of the cartoonish characters found in this series. He’s eventually revealed to be merely a minion of the arch-villain, Opal Koboi.
One surprise I found in this book was an exploration of sexual tension between Artemis and Holly. Their relationship is tested by lies and a kiss, and seems to emerge as strong as ever, but strictly platonic. It’s always interesting to see an author play with these possibilities and then draw back from them. That seems more rare and more deliberate, not to mention more realistic, than the idea that everyone who ever kisses in a book is destined to be together forever. (I was somewhat surprised that Minerva, a possible romantic interest introduced in the previous book, did not appear at all in this one.)
Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater
I read Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying years ago and was fascinated by its radical ambiguity. When I saw Slater’s motherhood memoir recommended by Meg from A Practical Wedding, my favorite wedding and marriage blog, I knew I had to read it. Meg was going through a hard pregnancy and she found the book very comforting. When she wrote about her new baby, Meg talked about the first two chapters of this book and how much she related to them. Slater makes a pro/con list about having a baby, and her con list is much, much longer, enumerating the things that I also fear and dread: loss of time and sleep and language, mountains of baby gear and disgusting child culture. I felt like I could have written this list myself. A single item lies on the pro side: learning a new kind of love, somehow outweighing all the rest.
As someone who’s in the middle of a physically easy pregnancy, but anxious about losing my identity and higher brain functions to child-rearing, I found it reassuring to read about a woman who’s even more wary of motherhood than I am. “Given the choice between writing a book and having a baby, I think I’d rather have the book,” Slater says. When I pushed back against the ideology of total motherhood, I met resistance from family members and internet trolls, in addition to my own complicated feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It made me feel good to see a woman take an even bolder stance than I would.
Slater struggles with some severe mental illnesses, and much of the conflict in the first half of the book is about whether or not she’ll take her meds during her pregnancy. She’s worried about the effect they’ll have on the developing baby, of course, since there is so little research on this topic. She goes off them and has some scary episodes of antenatal depression, and then decides with her doctors to re-stabilize herself by going back on her medications. This delicate balance between self-sacrifice and self-care seems to be a theme in pregnancy and new motherhood. Reading about the way Slater navigated this high-wire act helped me to feel ok about the compromises I’m preparing to make.
Once the baby arrives, Slater is surprised at how good she feels. I can’t help but feel envious, even a bit resentful, of her privilege: she can afford a full-time live-in nanny, no wonder having a newborn is easy for her. The other reason it’s relatively easy is because she had already processed her angst about motherhood during her difficult pregnancy. There’s definitely something to be said for front-loading emotional work this way, and I’m trying to do the same myself. I’d recommend this book to any pregnant woman, especially those who are particularly ambivalent, career-focused, or who struggle with mental illness or other health problems.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This book tells about World War II and the Holocaust from an unusual perspective: that of ordinary German citizens. The narrator is Death, a fairly flamboyant personality who tells the story of Liesl Meminger. Liesl grows up just outside Munich, learning to read from her painter/accordion player foster father, playing soccer and terrorizing the neighborhood with her friend Rudy Steiner, and stealing books for fun. Getting inside the life of a normal family like Liesl’s shows how the Nazis were able to persuade thousands to assent to mass murder: fear and control. Once they were in power, it was impossible to speak up against the atrocities without endangering one’s entire family. Liesl’s family resists by hiding a Jewish man in their basement for a couple years. The most affecting scenes to me were the ones of trainloads of Jews being marched through Liesl’s neighborhood on their way to Dachau.
The book’s style is unusual. There are long and detailed chapter titles, occasional bolded notes, and a lot of page breaks. There are also some illustrations for two books-within-the-book, fairy tales written by the characters. The effect is fragmented and poetic, but also presentational, as if the narrator, Death, is putting on a show for you. He describes taking up souls by the thousands, from Russian battlefields, from gas chambers, from bombed-out streets.
This is one of those books that builds a vibrant world around you and makes you love the characters for the funny way they hide deep emotion under a gruff, joking exterior, using Saukerl (pig) as a term of endearment, then takes it all away through a tragedy that’s horrifying, melancholy, and inevitable. The story’s focus on learning and literacy isn’t just gratifying and affirming for an English teacher/book blogger, although that may be one of many reasons I like the book so much. Liesl’s addiction to books is about a drive to make meaning of the insanity of life in Nazi Germany, the urge to escape and transcend. Reading and writing literally save Liesl’s life, allowing Zusak to pull a bearable ending out of the overwhelming loss.
* * * A SMALL SUGGESTION * * *
Read this book.
Finale by Becca Fitzpatrick
Finale is the end of the Hush, Hush saga, a love story concerning fallen angels and their human descendents/vassals, the Nephilim. Nora, normal teen girl, and Patch, bad boy fallen angel, fell in love in the first book even though he was kind of bound to kill her. In this final installment, Nora has become Nephilim and is supposed to lead an army of Nephilim against the fallen angels. But she’s also promised the archangels not to start a war. So she has to balance these competing interests, while also hiding her relationship with Patch because it makes the Nephilim question her leadership. There’s also a mystery to solve, an addiction subplot, blackmail, betrayal, cheating, and lots of steamy kisses.
This series is superior to Twilight because Nora is a power player in the unfolding drama, rather than a pawn or a helpless girl who needs protection. Both alone and together with Patch, and sometimes behind his back, she makes and breaks alliances, plans ambushes, escapes attackers, and fights in a battle. She still makes extreme teen girl statements about how she’ll die without Patch and that kind of thing. She’s a drama queen prone to starting fights with Patch over nothing. In the beginning of the book her language and tone was annoying, but that got mitigated as the book’s action became more urgent. I have some of the same concerns with this series that I had with the Fallen series, which was also about fallen angels. This book doesn’t get as deep into theology as Passion did–God never appears in person–but the odd religous and ontological implications are still there. Similar to Luce in the Fallen series, Nora achieves her most significant victories through self-annhiliation, through suicidal gestures that redeem her. This series is about half a step above Fallen because the language is a bit less cliched, the religous stuff is not as weird, and the heroine has more power sooner. But there are tons of YA romances I’d recommend over both of these.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Can’t you just tell from the title that this children’s book is an absolute delight? Valente takes a familiar structure, the child who travels to a fantasy world, and makes it feel fresh with bizarre images, clever language and little genre-savvy . Some of my favorite moments in the book were the metafictional ones, where the characters showed that they were aware of themselves as part of a narrative:
“if we act like the kind of folk who would find a Fairy city whilst on various adventures involving tricksters, magical shoes, and hooliganism, it will come to us.”
at least, she had thought, she had not eaten Fairy food! At least, she had managed better than most little girls in stories who are repeatedly told not to eat the food but do it anyway, being extravagantly silly and stupid!
As you can see, this is a great book to read aloud to a child. The brave protagonist September is an admirable girl who overcomes self-doubt and fear, as well as a perfect reader’s avatar. The technicolor visual images and the slightly unsettling mood reminded me of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth. Valente creates a light, whimsical tone that is tinged throughout with melancholy and puzzlement, with some wordplay that reminded me a little of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth. Here’s a sentence that I think encapsulates the book’s style:
Those were all big words, to be sure, but as has been said, September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.
There was a truly great twist at the end that reminded me of The Magician King, one of my favorite books of last year. In a way I can see this book as a children’s version of that one, or as something a child might read so that someday he’ll be ready to read The Magician King. I’m making all these comparisons because I think this book deserves a place on the shelf next to the other great children’s fantasy books. I’m just thrilled that there’s a sequel.
An essay I wrote is posted on my favorite wedding blog, A Practical Wedding, this morning! I am super excited to participate in this amazing site’s ongoing conversation about marriage and love. My essay is helping to kick off this month’s theme: Not a Rom-Com. Here‘s a permanent link.
This essay is dedicated to my wonderful husband, David, who gave me the idea to start this blog. This month we celebrate 9 years together (2 1/2 of them married).