The New York Times recently published a great essay by Pamela Paul: “’A Wrinkle In Time’ and Its Sci-Fi Heroine.” I loved L’Engle’s series, a series I plowed right through in some of my early reading days, days when I dreamed alternately of becoming a writer and of living the amazing adventures the characters always found in the pages of my favorite books. (I had the copy Paul features in her article, the second one with the yellow border.) As Paul points out in her article, I was like many girls in that I identified with Meg Murray—and as a girl with glasses (that I actually kept losing, so didn’t always have on my face) and impossible hair and, eventually, braces, I always felt like (or hoped!) Meg would have been my friend. (Paul has a great description of Meg as “the awkward girl who suffered through flyaway hair, braces and glasses but who was also and to a much greater degree concerned with the extent of her own intelligence, the whereabouts of her missing scientist father, the looming threat of conformity and, ultimately, the fate of the universe.”) I was lucky enough to be reading L’Engle’s series when Many Waters (the fourth book in the series) came out. I got it in hardcover, and I reveled in the fact that I’d seen the twins grow up, giving me a chance to look back at young children who’d become teenagers, and teenagers who’d become adults, all before the ripe age of twelve. Great books bend time, and L’Engle knew that perhaps better than anyone, and thank goodness for me and her millions of other readers, she didn’t make us wait until adulthood for the complex—and wonderful—truths of the universe.
I finished two very different books this weekend. One was a heady, philosophical novel about time and memory. The other was a raucous YA filled with action and fourteen-year-olds running their own little world. One thing I will never tire of in my reading life is variety, and these two books certainly gave me that.
Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a masterfully crafted novel that meditates on youth and aging, while also revealing how much we construct our own versions of our lives, and the trouble that might come when we’re confronted with the lies we’ve told ourselves. I love the way Barnes pushed me to think about my own memories, and to question the truth of those memories. The novel peppers in some philosophy, and it asks questions about history—both personal and global. We all live a story, and we tell that story to ourselves, but how reliable is that version of the truth? The Sense of an Ending is a novel about a man forced to confront the gap in between the version of his life he’s told himself, and the one that really existed. The results for the protagonist are not always pleasant, but they make both him and the reader think. I love that in a book. Sometimes I’m not sure what more I could ask for. Plus there’s a surprise at the end, in a book where I wasn’t expecting a surprise.
I also love a book I can’t put down, even when I feel a little goofy about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about the whole concept of what constitutes “literary” fiction (I actually got in a big debate about it with my first-year MFA mentor), but I think it’s safe to say that most critics would call The Sense of an Ending literary, but Michael Grant’s Gone, not so much. But, as Michael Grant says on his website, his goal wasn’t a meditation on history and memory, but a book that a young reader could not put down, a book that would leave him or her craving the next chapter. Gone is definitely unputdownable. It’s a novel based on a big What If: What if all of a sudden everyone in a certain area over the age of fifteen disappears—or, in Gone lingo—poofs? It’s a world enclosed by a dome and run by fourteen-year-olds, some of whom happen to be mutating and acquiring amazing powers. It’s a world with bullies (some toting guns) and talking coyotes and Big Macs made with waffles or bagels instead of bread. Welcome to the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone). Gone is a big, giant book that a teen reader could plow right through, and now I totally get why I’ve seen it in the hands of so many middle-schoolers over the past few years. Michael Grant knows a good What If question when he sees one.
So, a bit of literary wandering into time and memory and a bit of running around the Fallout Alley Youth Zone…a gratifying, if unusual, combination of reading adventures.
I have been falling in love with Kate DiCamillo ever since I read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane a few years ago, but now, with my most recent read, she has firmly settled on my Favorite Authors Shelf. I just finished The Tiger Rising, which is just as amazing as its title, a novel that fully delivers on the wonder of its first line in only a bit over one hundred pages. And when that first sentence reads, “That morning, after he discovered the tiger, Rob went and stood under the Kentucky Star Motel sign and waited for the school bus just like it was any other day,” meeting that promise is no small feat. The Tiger Rising centers on two sixth graders: Rob, who’s filled with a sadness he keeps locked in a mental suitcase; and Sistine, who’s so full of anger she gets in fights nearly every day, tearing her pretty dresses (which she hates) to shreds. It’s got a motel maid (or, perhaps, a prophetess) named Willie May, a father with his own locked suitcase, and a tiger in a cage in the woods. Kate DiCamillo’s writing sings, but it’s never pretentious; her stories don’t hide away from the tragedies of life, but they embrace the moments of brightness and humor too. I read this book in one day, but it will make me smile for a long, long time.
(Also, if you’re interested, there’s a great little essay about writing on DiCamillo’s website here.)
I spent a good chunk of the weekend immersed in the dystopian awesomeness of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Divergent feels like the successor to The Hunger Games trilogy, the perfect book for those who are missing Katniss and Peeta and Gale. Like The Hunger Games, Divergent introduces readers to a futuristic world set right in the center of the present-day United States, and it follows a teenaged girl who moves into the position of hero, if sometimes reluctantly. One of the cool things about Roth’s novel is the set up of the society, a society confined to the city formerly known as Chicago. The society is divided into five factions, and each faction has a different strength, or value. There’s Candor, with the virtue of honesty, and Amity, whose people value peace above all else. The Erudite believe in intelligence; they devote their lives to learning and research. Dressed in black with tattoos and piercings, the Dauntless show their value of bravery by jumping from moving trains. And then there’s the faction Divergent’s protagonist, Tris, grew up in: Abnegation, those who value selflessness above all else.
When characters in this world turn sixteen, they get to choose to stay or leave the faction they were raised in. The teenagers take a test that indicates which faction is the best fit, but the final choice is up to the individual. Then again, in the world of Divergent, one can never quite be sure where a choice might lead, or if there are not as many choices as one might have thought. That’s certainly what Tris discovers, as she not only questions the faction she signed up for, but who she is and how her world works.
I love reading books that have a rip-roaring good story—and Divergent has that, it’s fast-paced and fun—but I also love books that make me think, and Roth does exactly that, posing the questions to her readers that she poses to her protagonist: Which faction would you choose? What are your greatest strengths?
Are they also your weaknesses? And while she starts to answer the questions in Divergent, she promises to keep us thinking, and wondering, in the next book of the trilogy due out in May. (You can read about it—and get excited!!—here.)