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Sunday, March 1, 2009

What I'm Reading: February 2009

Even though it was a short month, I still have five books I want to share.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout made it onto many best lists for 2008. After hearing Melissa Bank talk about how much she loved it on NPR, I put my name on the reserves list at BPL. Although I figured I would like this novel-in-stories after reading many reviews, it was Banks' personal reflection on her experience reading Strout's book that really drew me to it.

Olive Kitteridge is the story of the eponymous woman. She is a retired middle school teacher in a small town in coastal Maine. Olive has a husband and one distant son, she is crotchety and probably suffers from untreated depression. Sounds like fun, huh? It is though because what makes this story so engrossing, goes way beyond who Olive is. Strout's choice to reveal Olive through connected stories, all told from different points of view (including Olive's) gives the reader a unique experience. We learn about Olive, her family, and her town. We get intimate portraits of many of the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine. And although Olive is an abrasive woman, at the conclusion of the 13th story, the reader sees her finally moving toward an understanding of herself and what her behavior means to those around her.

Readers who enjoyed the "novel-in-stories" frame of Olive Kitteridge may also enjoy Joann Kobin's Woman Made of Sand which details the life of a husband and wife and their children through interconnected stories or Melissa Bank's own novel made of up interrelated stories showing one woman's path to independence, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

There are some readers who may enjoy the message of Olive Kitteridge but are turned off by the "novel-in-stories" format. For those readers, I would suggest The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen which recounts, in much more detail than Strout's work, a dysfunctional family struggling to have one last Christmas together.

Finally, some readers may want more information on stroke victims and/or depression after reading this novel, so I would suggest these two basic primers available easily in my library system: 100 Questions and Answers About Stroke by Kinan K. Hreib and The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams.

This month I also picked up the graphic novel, Castle Waiting by Linda Medley. This volume is a collection of comics which begins with a retelling of Sleeping Beauty and evolves into a modern fable about an abandoned castle and its eccentric inhabitants. Many reviews say that this work is a "feminist fairy tale." I don't know if I agree, but it does use the fairy tale format to tell the story of strong, independent women who do not need to be saved, instead saving themselves with the help of wonderful friends. I was completely engrossed by this graphic novel and could not put it down for the few hours it took me to read it.

I do have to warn readers though that although the ending resolves the major plot points, overall, the end has an very open feel. I still had many questions about the characters and situations that were evolving throughout the book. Some readers may be turned off by this. But on the plus side, this graphic novel is completely acceptable for adults and young adults.

Jane Yolen wrote a wonderful introduction in my edition of Castle Waiting, and I would highly suggest any of her novels to readers who enjoyed this graphic novel. Try Yolen's own unique retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a holocaust survivor's tale in Briar Rose. I also thought of Robin McKinley's numerous retold fairy tale novels as I was reading Medley's book. Try Rose Daughter, McKinley's retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I also really like Just Ella, an after-the-happily-ever-after retelling of Cinderella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Finally, don't forget about The Princess Bride either the movie or the novel by William Goldman.

In terms of other graphic novels which I would suggest to readers of Castle Waiting there is the popular Bone series by Jeff Smith beginning with Out From Boneville or Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham which according to NoveList, "(P)resents the back stories of storybook and nursery rhyme characters who live side-by-side with humans."

In keeping with the speculative fiction theme, I also read the highly acclaimed and award winning horror novel, Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. And, like Olive Kitteridge, Sharp Teeth has an interesting style; it is a novel-in-verse. Barlow's novel is an inventive mix of horror, traditional noir, and epic poetry, all rolled into one entertaining, but bloody novel. Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a werewolf story, so there is plenty of sex and gore, but it is still fine for Young Adults as none of it is too graphic. In fact, Sharp Teeth won a 2008 Alex Award for best adult fiction to suggest for teens.

The story goes that in the seedy underbelly of LA there are three competing packs of werewolves fighting for supremacy and seeking revenge for past injustices. Connecting the packs and their separate, yet converging story lines, is Detective Peabody, who is investigating some suspicious murders which are somehow connected to dogs. The free verse is unsettling at first, but ultimately it enhances the chaos of the plot. As someone who reads and writes about a lot of horror, I appreciated this novel's originality.

There are many werewolf stories, but two that are the most like Sharp Teeth in having a darker, less romantic tone, are Ravenous by Ray Garton, which also takes place in California and puts a modern spin on the legend of the werewolf or Fool Moon by Jim Butcher which takes place in Chicago and has both werewolves and investigative elements. Also, those who enjoy this type of "neo-horror" which spins a new urban riff on the old horror legends, you cannot miss Christopher Moore. Try You Suck, which is a modern vampire tale.

Sharp Teeth is as much about forlorn and seedy L.A. is as it is about werewolves; so I would also suggest the Harry Bosch mystery novels of Michael Connelly (The first is The Black Echo). Connelly's LA is a forlorn city where people go in search of their dreams, only to have them violently squashed.

For those who like their supernatural beings a little more docile, I also listened to Laura Goff's Gothic novel The Monsters of Templeton. Willie Upton returns to her home town of Templeton to recover from a disastrous relationship with her graduate professor. Willie, is a direct descendant (on both sides!?!) of the town's founder. Here Templeton is a stand-in for Cooperstown, NY complete with a James Fenimore Cooper stand-in and a "baseball history museum." But Templeton has something the real Cooperstown does not, a sea-monster, long a part of town folklore, rising to the surface of the lake, dead, in the opening pages of the novel. What follows is a complex novel in which Willie searches through the town's historical documents for the identity of her father. Goff has the dead speak, giving them entire chapters of monologue, and she incorporates some of Cooper's more famous characters into the story.

The Monsters of Templeton is a modern take on an old fashioned Gothic novel. There are ghosts, monsters, and dark family secrets, but this is not a horror novel, as the publisher has tried to market it. This is literary fiction with speculative elements. The "monsters" are there to enhance the story, they are never threatening.

Readers of this novel may want to read some of Cooper's novels and/or histories of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But in terms of readalikes matched by the overall appeal of The Monsters of Templeton, I would suggest 3 novels: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield which is a Gothic novel that also recounts a twisted family history (click here to see my take on this novel); Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl in which a Yale Freshman (with a narrative voice eerily similar to Willie's) recounts her life history as if it were a class in Western Literature including her interesting family history and the death of a high school teacher (again, click here to see my take); and The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue which is a magical tale of a 7 year-old who is kidnapped by a pack hobgoblins to be replaced by one of them. It is the story of the two boys' experiences and their concurrent struggle to find where they came from.

Finally, I also listened to Jonathan Tropper's How to Talk to a Widower this month. This is the story of 29 year-old Doug, whose life has stood still in the two years since his wife died in a plane crash. The novel concerns how Doug finally begins to rejoin the world as a fully functioning human being, but it is not easy. This book is humorous and serious. Doug must deal with the anger and disappointment of his dead wife's teenager son, his sister's marriage to a guy she met at his wife's funeral, his stroke victim dad, and wacky twin sister. He has to accept a future in which his happiness could someday become a direct result of his wife's death.

Tropper's novel is most similar to anything by Jennifer Weiner, especially Certain Girls (which I read in April 2008). Weiner deals with many of the same issues using a combination of humor and seriousness. Even though Tropper's tone and storyline is reminiscent of Weiner's, many male readers may be turned off by her novel's pastel colored covers. For these readers I would suggest Tony Parson's trilogy of novels beginning with Man and Boy. Here after the protagonist has a one-night stand, his wife leaves him and their four-year-old son for a new job in Japan. Like Doug, the protagonist here is alternately wry and sad, as he moves forward with his life.

Finally, for those that were interested in a novel that looks at the grieving process of a young widow with humor and seriousness there is Lolly Winston's Good Grief, as well as this extensive list of nonfiction for those left widowed at a young age.

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