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.