Book Review: So We Read On

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It EnduresSo We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Next year, I’ll be teaching The Great Gatsby again after a long hiatus, and while I’ve never stopped loving the book itself, I’ve been a little intimidated at the idea of getting back into the swing of it, especially since I’ll be teaching it with eleventh graders, alongside such heavyweights as Beloved and Hamlet.

Luckily, So We Read On came along at exactly the right time. Corrigan’s love for the book shines through on every page, but her witty sense of humor and keen intellectual curiosity make the book truly fascinating and a page-turner all at once. I found myself underlining key passages (on Gatsby‘s link to hard-boiled detective fiction, for example) and jotting down ideas in the margins (reading Keats, a favorite author of Fitzgerald’s, to better understand Daisy). Corrigan even travels back to her old high school in Astoria, Queens to find what I believe to be true as well; students still find different avenues into Gatsby’s world and uncover true insights there, into literature and themselves.

This was the first title on my personal summer reading list, and it’s set a great tone for the season of reading to come!

View all my reviews

Around the World Challenge Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan

While it fits well with my around the world reading challenge goals, In the Shadow of the Banyan is also one of the books I chose for myself as a Christmas book this winter; I don’t even remember how I found it, but I was attracted to the unfamiliar setting of Cambodia and a historical moment I know little about as well. I’m so glad I took a risk on this debut author’s moving narrative of loss and turmoil in a beautiful but devastated country.

The era of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in Cambodia is murky at best; we as a country have told ourselves many more narratives about our involvement in Vietnam than we have about our involvement in neighboring Cambodia, which endured years of civil war, extensive bombing by the US, and invasion by Vietnam all in conjunction with the Khmer Rouge’s version of Communism. Banyan tells the story of Raami, a child in a family evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began its campaign to turn Cambodians into “revolutionary peasants.” This formerly royal family begins a terrifying odyssey across the Cambodian countryside, facing starvation, forced labor, torture, death and enforced separation along the way. Vaddey Ratner, the author, experienced similar deprivation as a child escaping the advent of the Khmer Rouge, and this authenticity brings another emotional layer to the experience of reading the narrator’s struggles.

What I really loved about Banyan is how Ratner evokes the poetry and beauty of Cambodia’s culture and landscape, even while she is depicting the destruction of its people. Raami’s father is a well-known poet, and his poetry and thoughtful conversations with Raami are one of the many ways Ratner helps the reader see the power of language and storytelling, even in the harshest circumstances. Unfortunately, Cambodia is only one of many former European colonies that have suffered turmoil and despair in the following decades, but Banyan makes its story distinct in its tragic loveliness.

End-of-Summer Reading

I read these books as the summer was winding down and the school was gearing up–not quite summer books, but ones that lingered with me during a busy time of year.

The Invisible Woman : How do you write a biography of someone who left behind no letters, documents, or traces of her existence? More importantly, how do you reveal much about the life of a person determined to keep her true identity a secret, even during her lifetime? Claire Tomalin does a fascinating job at answering both of these questions when she undertakes a biography of Nelly Ternan, who was the secret mistress of Charles Dickens’ during the last thirteen years of his life. Ternan herself is intriguing, an actress from a theatrical family at a time in England when such a career was deemed scandalous, a woman who entered a clandestine relationship with a beloved national figure who stood for family values as strongly (and hypocritically) as any Republican politican. Tomalin uses mountains of scholarly research from the past century to detail for the reader the world Dickens and Ternan lived in, their relationship, and its impact on both. Such an impressive and engaging feat; I really felt like Dickens and his Nelly both become three-dimensional and sympathetic figures, though Tomalin is not sentimental about either one, for sure!

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Author emily danforth grew up in Miles City, Montana, which is also the setting for her first novel, a portrait of what it means to grow up gay or lesbian in an environment that does not recognize your life as valid or acceptable. After her parents’ tragic death, Cameron lives with her aunt and her grandmother and slowly realizes just why she’s so fascinated with movies like Friend Green Tomatoes and girls on her athletic teams. Once her aunt finds out (through a disappointing but not unfeasible turn of events), Cameron is sent to a conversion therapy school and has to figure out how to find her true identity amidst many hurdles. The fate of LGBTQ teenagers in religious families can often be horrifying, but danforth does a deft and skillful job of letting Cameron be a fully dimensional character, one that young-adult readers can identify with regardless of sexual orientation or whether they’ve ever seen the Bucking Horse Sale. I loved this book and am glad to have it on hand to pass on to students.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: Quite simply, one of the most beautifully written, intricately structured, moving and intelligent novels I’ve read in many years. Marra sets his story in war-ravaged Chechnya, and the setting is vivid and inextricable from the plot and characters, but in many ways, the depiction of the effects of chaos and instability on the hearts and minds of a people could tell the story of the Kurdish population in Iraq or any displaced group. The decade he shows us covers so much devastation in the tiny village of Eldar, but also in Chechnya itself, a place so ravaged that one character is stunned to see a map in the hands of a soldier; he’s never seen a map of his own country before. There’s humor and imagination woven throughout the narrative, and I can’t wait to see what Marra will do next after such a stunning debut.

My Summer Reading, Part Two

Summer reading, part two! 

We Were Liars: I ordered this for my daughter Sophie, who went through an Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew phase, and this is certainly a thriller with a complicated structure and surprising twist ending. There’s also a certain stylistic glossiness here, from the characters’ names (Cadence, Mirren) to the aura of wealth and privilege that pervades the setting and the dysfunctional family dynamics in the idyllic summer retreat off Cape Cod where the Sinclair family heads each year. Of course, nothing gold can stay, and while this is definitely aimed at a teen crowd, it was a great summer read for me too.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats: This was another recommendation from a friend, and another direct hit! There’s an element of mystery here, as a distinguished New York lawyer, father and husband suddenly vanishes, and his daughter sets out to explore Burma, his native country, in an effort to find where he went and ultimately, who he was. The exotic setting and unfolding love story are evocative and drawn with precision and restraint; you never feel overly flooded with detail or sentiment, but instead, entranced by the calm and charm of the different voices and perspectives. Great book club choice too.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Six years ago when it was released and won the Pulitzer Prize, this book was everywhere, and I’m sure I bought it once it appeared in paperback and somehow never quite finished it. I’m glad I waited, because I think I had a much richer reading experience with it after teaching my Latin American lit class a few times, and especially after teaching about the dictatorial Trujillo era, which is referenced repeatedly in Oscar Wao. Diaz cuts and mixes 20th century history and culture with ebullience, many footnotes, and a generous sense of the tragedy and illumination in the lives of his characters, spanning from the streets of Newark to the Dominican Republic and the shadows cast in each.  

The Signature of All Things: A Novel: What an amazing, feminist, vivid character Gilbert has created in Alma Whittaker, the intrepid, envious, brilliant botanist at the heart of this book. Alma is raised by a blustery and intimidating father and a stoic and intellectual mother on their enormous estate outside of Philadelphia. The Whittaker fortune is rooted in medicinal plants, sparking Alma’s botanical obsessions and providing opportunities to talk about great explorers/scientists from Captain Cook to Charles Darwin. While there are some indelible male characters in this book, the story belongs to Alma herself: her passions, her ambitions, her faults and her triumphs. Can’t wait to read more fiction from Gilbert.

My Summer Reading, Part One

As I slowly ease back into blogging after my summer hiatus, my one regret is that I haven’t been keeping track of what I’ve read this summer. That’s been a great habit for me in 2014, between this site and Goodreads, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of it now that I’m gearing back up for the new school year. As I look back, it’s reassuring to see that despite my hectic working pace this summer, I managed to squeeze in some wonderful reading.

And now, for some brief bulleted reviews of books I read this summer:

Fangirl: Rainbow Rowell does such a great job of writing for young adults and understanding what that means; this story of two sisters struggling to navigate the transition to college, establishing independent identities, and better understand their complicated relationships with each other and their parents, all such classic dilemmas of the young person learning what it means to be an adult. But Rowell resist the easy devices and makes her characters vivid, funny, modern and layered.My daughters and I enjoyed this one equally, and if you’ve ever read Harry Potter or fanfiction (especially if you’ve read both), I’d highly recommend this one.

Attachments: This is Rowell’s first novel, and it’s ultimately my favorite of hers to date–a novel that does a better job with romantic comedy than any movie I’ve seen recently, one so seemingly suited for the screen I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie already. Beth and Jennifer are best friends and office buddies who trade their chattiest updates and innermost thoughts via email during the workday, never suspecting that Lincoln sits a few floors below, lonely and slowly falling in love with what he reads. If you like romantic comedies that manage to be touching and sweet as well as funny, this is a great pick. Note: it’s billed as “adult” rather than “young adult,” but bot hof my 12-year-old girls read it and loved it–nothing inappropriate, in my opinion.

The End of Eve: A Memoir: I’ve read almost all of Ariel Gore’s books, and this newest memoir is a sterling example of why I love her writing much: her lyrical style and evocative imagery are captivating, but it’s her commitment to emotional honesty and self-reflection that keep me coming back. She manages to maintain her journalistic eye in the midst of traumatic personal situations, such as the period she spent caring for her abusive and terminally ill mother, which happened to coincide with Gore’s realization that her girlfriend and co-parent was falling back in love with an old flame. Read it, read it, read it.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel: I read this after a colleague raved about it on Facebook, and I’m so glad I did! This novel is as intricate, beautiful, and carefully wrought as the scale model of a Paris neighborhood built by a father for his blind daughter, Marie-Laure, to help her navigate the outside world. World War Two is looming on the horizon, and the family eventually evacuates to a walled city on the southern coast of France, where Marie-Laure must learn a new geography amongst various forms of chaos and upheaval. While she is growing up, an orphaned boy named Werner is growing up in an orphanage in Germany, developing his fascination with radios and technology, which eventually lands him in the Nazi military, tracking the French resistance and bringing him directly into Marie-Laure’s path. Again, an immersive reading experience that lingered with me for days.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Aside from creating one of the bestselling series of books, ever, that millions have enjoyed around the world, J.K. Rowling is also to be commended for her…..pluck? Gumption? Whatever you would call the quality that has led her to keep pumping out the novels she wants to write, even as the world clamors for more in the series she has vowed is finished.

Her first post-HP novel, The Casual Vacancy, was not a huge hit with the critics, or with her most diehard HP fans. Although I found a fair amount of value and substance in reading the book, it was definitely bleak–an entire novel set in the world of the Dursleys, with casually vacant denizens of the kind of town that gives towns/suburbs (people) a bad name. Definitely a bold career move for someone who made her mark in such a magical way.

Perhaps as a result of the backlash to her first effort, or just to escape some of the ridiculous effects of being who she is, Rowling published her next novel under a nom de plume, and The Cuckoo’s Calling received excellent reviews but did not garner many sales–until her mask was revealed, against her will, and booksellers raced to put a “written by J.K. Rowling” sticker on the cover.

Cuckoo is a detective novel, clearly the first in a series, about Cormoran Strike, an ex-military down-on-his-luck private investigator who stumbles into a mystery surrounding a glamorous fashion model’s controversial death. Aided by Robin, an extremely competent temporary secretary who clearly will be sticking around for the next book, Strike manages to solve the case, but not win back his volatile fiancee. Formulaic? Maybe, if you’re a connoisseur of the genre (which I am not). Beach book? I would say certainly so, entertaining and absorbing without being too bleak. Rowling-esque? Absolutely, if you consider the tightly knit intricate plotting of the Potter series, which also featured puzzles nested inside mysteries. I don’t think I would have picked it up without the Rowling name on it, but I’m glad I did, and look forward to the next book in the series–as long as Robin gets to develop into the wonderful investigator she obviously could be.

Review: The Monuments Men

As much as I’ve read and watched about World War II, there seems to still be so many stories I haven’t heard, dark corners of the battles yet to be illuminated. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the book upon which the recent film is based, tells the saga of preserving artwork and architecture in the midst of the bloodiest war the world had ever known.

We travel from Normandy to Hitler’s bunker, great underground salt mines stacked with Renaissance masterworks to Eisenhower’s office at Versailles, following the Monument Men themselves as they struggle to identify landmark buildings and important paintings and save them from destruction by either side. I really enjoyed this book and the guiding principle that this cultural and artistic legacy embodied the very civilizations the soldiers were fighting to protect. If you know a dad who’s a WWII buff, this would be a great Father’s Day gift!

Review: Fin & Lady

In a recent Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish, the topic was Books To Read If You Like These TV shows, movies, plays etc. What a intriguing challenge, right? But I couldn’t come up with anything, so I didn’t participate. Then, my copy of Fin & Lady arrived, a book I’d ordered after a glowing recommendation from my sister-in-law. “I loved it so much,” she said, “it really reminded me of books like A Separate Peace or The Catcher in the Rye.” On that basis, I couldn’t resist!

Once I’d finished it, Fin & Lady really reminded me of two other books: Beautiful Ruins, which I read and reviewed in January and Breakfast at Tiffany’s , which takes place in the same time and setting, with a girl-about-town central character. There’s certainly a coming-of-age aspect with Fin, who begins as a child and progresses through adulthood as the book progresses, and it’s really his story that is being told to the narrator. Just as with Beautiful Ruins, I wish I had read this book a month or so from now, because I think it would read very well on a sunny beach or poolside somewhere, partly because at one point, we travel to the Mediterranean, but also the book never gets quite deep enough to mar a lovely sunny day. I don’t feel like I ever really got inside of Lady’s head, but then again, no one in the book seems to either. As much as she and Fin are tied together, even in the title, everyone in the narrative is really revolving around Lady, who spins erratically on her own axis.

Book Blogger Confessions

inspired by Let Your Voice Be Nerd

Which book, most recently, did you not finish?

I gave up on The Luminaries recently; there’s some beautiful writing in there, but it just got so…..tedious? I got a hardback copy from a bookish friend who quit it after 100 pages, and I’ve since heard from two other bookish friends that they also gave up, so I feel more vindicated in quitting forever.

Which book is your guilty pleasure?

I don’t subscribe to this idea necessarily today, but I will say that during the same period of my life when I was acing standardized tests and writing about Jane Eyre and Man and Superman , I had also read all of the books in the VC Andrews series that started with the epic Flowers in the Attic .

Which book do you love to hate?

This will probably be one of my more controversial answers, but I absolutely can’t stand The Road and I enjoy advertising my dislike of it.

Which book have you read the most?

I’m sure one of the ten books that stuck would be the answer here, and my hunch would be something written by Stephen King or L.M. Montgomery.

Which book would you hate to receive as a present?

Honestly, I often feel awkward when people give me books they love or expect me to like, because then I feel a lot of pressure to love the book the way they did, or live up to whatever they thought I would enjoy about it. I know, this is a weirdo answer. Real talk.

Which book made you the angriest?

Handle with Care: A Novel: this book is notorious in my house because the horrible, stupid, terrible ending made me so angry I had to hide the book in the basement before getting rid of it for good. Don’t ever read this book.

Which book made you cry the most?

Toss-up between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Which book cover do you hate most?

I don’t necessarily have strong feelings about genres of covers, but I do have definite attachments to the covers I remember reading for the first time, and I hate when books get re-packaged with garish covers just to tie in with movie adaptations.

Review: Orphan Train

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For seventy-five years, groups like the Children’s Aid Society rounded up impoverished urban children, many immigrants, and put them on trains out to the Midwest, where families could adopt them and most often, immediately put them to work as indentured farm/house labor. This began in 1853 and lasted until around 1929, and Christina Baker Kline has chosen this fascinating experiment as the historical context for Orphan Train,
her novel about Vivian, a former orphan train child now 91 years old, and Molly, a teenager in foster care struggling to navigate the difficulties of her life.

Kline clearly did her research, and pairing Molly and Vivian together is a neat device for crossing the generations, each character giving the other inspiration and perspective. Molly is half-Penobscot Indian, a welcome inflection of diversity for young adult literature. However, only in the flashbacks of Vivian’s childhood and adolescence do we get anything approaching a three-dimensional character, and even then, there are some plot twists along the way that are hard to find credible. Molly is a great protagonist for teen girls, but her boyfriend, Jack, and Jack’s mother, Terry, are fairly cardboard, and Molly’s foster parents are mere caricatures. Maybe eliminating some of the minor characters would have allowed Kline to focus more on deepening the major ones.

Kline includes some photos at the end of the book culled from her research into the orphan train children, and they are absolutely haunting; there are certainly many more stories that could come from this era, and perhaps on those pages, these children will finally be heard in a compelling and powerful way.

If you’re looking for historical fiction with a young female protagonist, may I recommend Code Name Verity, which I’ve also reviewed?

View all my reviews