Friday, November 21, 2014

"We Were Liars": Dark, Mysterious and Incredibly Addictive

I waited almost two months to get E. Lockhart's highly touted YA book "We Were Liars" from the library.  When I finally brought it home, and cracked open the cover, I couldn't get up until I finished. I closed the book after the shocking ending and still couldn't believe it.  When I picked my girls up from school that day, my thoughts about the book still churned around in my head and my older daughter got worried.  "Are you okay Mommy?" I replied, "I just can't believe how the book I just finished ended."  She asked me what happened, but I didn't want to tell her because it's a surprise and you never want to solve the mystery before someone else has the opportunity to discover it on her own.

"We Were Liars" revolves around the privileged, cashmere sweater, overly wealthy Sinclair family who own a private island called Beechwood off the coast of Massachusetts. Parallels abound between King Lear and the grandfather who rules the island wielding control over his three useless and ungrateful daughters who drink too much, can't hold onto love and can't hold down jobs.  They all fight to win their father's approval to secure their inheritance.  Stuck in the middle of the sister rivalries are the oldest grandchildren who are nicknamed the liars, Cadence (Cady), Mirren, Johnny and in summer 8 they are joined by a sorta step brother / step cousin, Gat who plays the role of Heathcliff from "Wuthering Heights", the dark, penetrating outsider who lacks the approval of the patriarch of the wealthy family.  Gat and Cady form an unbreakable and somewhat forbidden love connection.  The liars entertain themselves on the island while their moms bicker over money and what they are owed by the grandfather.

And then, in summer 15, things get a bit cray cray.  Cadence washes up on the beach in her underwear with a case of amnesia and wicked migraines.  The next summer, she is forbidden to return to Beechwood without reason since the doctors want her to remember the awful events of summer 15 on her own.  She struggles with depression and claims that her new boyfriend is percocet.  She fruitlessly reaches out to her fellow liars.  When she turns 17, she is allowed to return to Beechwood and she starts to remember what really happened summer 15.

Maybe some of you are groaning and eye rolling at the amnesia aspect of the book which seems a bit like a bad subplot in Days of Our Lives, but something about E. Lockhart's edgy style and deft writing works with Cadence's gradual memory recovery.

There is way more to love about this book than to not love.  Even with the time shifts to the past, and the watery characterization of the moms and the littles (the younger grandchildren who form an amorphous clump of people rather than contain their own distinct roles), the storyline makes you want to find out what happened and why so much has changed on the seemingly ideal Beechwood.

"We Were Liars" will make you guess, remember summer beach loves, think about being 15 while parents are busy drinking and talking about life, dream about feeling rebellious and ponder feeling lost and feeling even more lost when the truths about life are slowly revealed.  It's a book worth reading or giving to your favorite YA reader.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Cranford": A Dull Glimpse into Victorian Feminism Utopia

I did something I never thought I would do.  I registered on and joined a MeetUp Book Club called The Crystal Lake Bookworms.  When I discovered that the book for their November meeting was "Cranford" by Elizabeth Gaskell, I almost decided not to go through with the first meeting.  Victorian literature? For the past 15 years, I've always had a book club, and we've never touched Victorian era literature.  Why? Because . . . well, because it can be a bit British and a bit boring and a bit like Brit Lit in high school.  Don't get me wrong, I love Jane Austen, and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte was one of my favorite books in college.  I even taught Brit Lit for a few years, but book clubs were created to read anything but Victorian era literature, right?

I reluctantly picked up my copy of "Cranford" from the library.  When my daughter saw the cover she said, "Mommy, what are you reading? That looks so boring!" I then had to explain that Dame Judi Dench is pretty amazing, and that "Cranford" has been adapted into series on PBS.  I referred to my love of Downton Abbey mostly because I wanted to give the book and the MeetUp Book Club a fighting chance.  Serendipitously, my husband was on a business trip to London while I read "Cranford," so while he was reminding me about the British vernacular that I loved so much when I lived there and talking about afternoon mandatory tea breaks, I was plodding my way through Gaskell's book.

Many people believe that this vignette style book which gives a glimpse into what a utopian female centered Victorian society would be like and supposedly does this tongue in cheek, is charming and heart warming.  I found it dull, and slow, BUT I also see the charm in it and that it must have been revolutionary when Gaskell wrote it in 1851.  It follows the lives of two sisters, Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns who live in . . . you guessed it, Cranford.  Mary Smith, who visits them regularly, narrates their tales and gives a glimpse into what daily life was in the community of Cranford where all the women are in control of their lives and their meager fortunes.  This is not the Downton Abbey class of people.  The Cranford women are more of the proud, non-working townsfolk who take pride in what they have and their station in life.  They don't flaunt money (because they don't have much), but they have savings and tea times, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life and revel in fineries as well.

It's a simple book with some mishaps (all the men have a terrible habit of either dying or disappearing).  There is almost a love story, but that fizzles when the man who could have been Miss Matty's love interest dies shortly after a visit to Paris.

The most memorable aspect of the book for me is the fact that the women control the fictional town of Cranford, a small town in Northern England.  The first line of the book sums it up, "In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons."  Cool, right? I wish the rest of the book could have lived up to the excitement alluded to from this first line, but the stories of life in the Amazonian controlled Cranford are more simple - how Captain Brown came to be respected (because he died saving a child's life), why Peter Jenkyns ran away and how he returned, how Miss Matty lost her money and how the Cranford women rallied to help her, how Betty Barker reacted to her beloved cow falling into a lime pit and losing all of its hair, how the women enjoyed the new spring fashions, how the town reacts to Lady Glenmire marrying a lowly doctor.  None of it was riveting, but I read the whole thing and wasn't taxed too much by doing so.

When I finished the book, I wanted a cup of tea (which to me is a good sign that the book at least put me in the mood for a British custom).  I got out the East India Tea Company set my husband brought back from his business trip to London, and steeped a hearty cup of English breakfast tea after I closed the book.  I did a silent cheers to Dame Judi Dench, smiled warmly, and vowed not to read Victorian literature for quite some time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: : A book for book people

I love books more than I should.  I love the way they smell. I love the way they feel.  I love when I get to a point in a book where I don't want to stop reading, and I don't even remember turning the pages until I am at the very last page.  I love when I meet characters who speak my world and my truth.  I love reading real stories of real people who have overcome incredible hurdles.  And, of course, I love bookstores.  I mourned the day that Borders closed in York, Pa, even though my favorite bookstores are the small ones run by independent store owners who just love books.  When e-readers became the rave, I held fast to my tangible books with pages and covers.  There is something about the weight of a real book in my hands - the weight of it, the protection of it, that makes me feel more alive. When I lived in London, I got into the habit of always having a book tucked under my arm no matter where I went, that way I would never feel alone.  Reading books helps me feel more connected - way more than Facebook, or any type of social media ever could.

I am not alone in my passion for books, and when I find a book that is really written for book people but in an unpretentious, unassuming way, I want to rave about it. I passed by "The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin in the Hot Picks section of the Crystal Lake library several times before picking it up and reading the book jacket which said, "an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love." Yes, please.  I want to read a book that has all of that wonderful-ness inside of it.

The story starts with A.J. Fikry, a contentious, recent, young widower who own Island Book Store on the tiny Massachusetts, Alice Island.  After his wife dies in a tragic car accident when she is two months pregnant, Fikry spirals into a depression, drinking himself into isolation and rage.  He pushes away his sister in law, Ismay, who wants to pick him up and set him straight, and the very friendly Chief Lambiase who seems genuinely concerned for Fikry's well-being.  He is rude to everyone including his customers, employees, and even the very hopeful and persistent Knightley Press sales rep, Amelia Loman.  Everything changes when shortly after losing his prized possession, Tamerlane (a rare and valuable collection of Edgar Allen Poe poems), he gets a special package delivered to his store and he decides to keep it (or should I say to keep her).  Fikry's icy exterior melts the day baby Maya comes into his world and he decides to raise her as his own and eventually adopt her.

The short novel weaves its magic through the power of book people coming together in a decade long span of love, loss and redemption, not to mention some powerful statements about the beauty of reading and the meaning of our lives. By the end of the novel these statements increase as Fikry tries to articulate what he is not able to for Maya.  He says, "We read to know we're not alone.  We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone."  Fikry finds love, but he finds more than that, he finds a family and a new revitalization of his book store.  He comes to the realization, "We aren't the things we collect, acquire, read.  We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved.  The people we loved.  And these, I think really do live on."

Zevin, a seasoned YA writer,  presents a few twists and turns in her first adult fiction book, but each rings with believability. She paces the book brilliantly and even though it spans a decade, it feels like life - it's over before you know it.  For the book people out there, who just like Lambiase discovers and Zevin believes (as she stated in an interview with NPR) - everyone is a book person, you just need to find the right book, who like paper and how books feel in their back pockets, too, this is a book for you.