Friday, December 28, 2012

Historical Fiction: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is a historical fiction novel about the love affair between Martha "Mamah" Borthwick and the famous Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 20th century. The life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright is not something I am all that familiar with, but I was curious to get even a brief glimpse or snapshot into his life and maybe even how he worked.

The Situation: Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright met when Frank was designing her future home in the now famous Oak Park in Chicago. Frank had already designed a few of the houses in the area and would go on to design a few more. His artistry and genius were already well known before he and Mamah meet. And after realizing their attraction for one another, Frank and Mamah would take off on a tour of Europe before finally settling in Wisconsin. While Frank seems to be constantly thinking, designing, and building, Mamah indulges her own interests of writing and translating. She even takes classes while in Europe to learn Swedish so she can better translate for a well-known feminist writer. Frank and Mamah are undeniably in love with each other and are determined to attempt to build a life together.

The Problem: Both Frank and Mamah have already built separate lives with two other people that they are still married to, even after they take off to Europe together. The scandal makes front page Chicago news almost immediately, and no matter where the couple runs off to, the story follows them everywhere, as do the reporters. And while Frank and Mamah attempt to hide out everywhere but Chicago, the family that they have left behind, including their children, and Mamah's quiet, grounded, and somewhat guarded sister Lizzie, are left to deal with the scandal on their own. Mamah's two young children are left wondering where their mother is, and Frank's six children are left without their father. And while both Frank's wife and Mamah's husband are refusing to grant divorces, the scandalous couple are coming to the realization that what they abandoned their families for may not be what they thought it was. They each feel they have a right and claim to the true "free love," but what are they willing to sacrifice in order to have it?

Genre, Themes, History: As I already mentioned, Loving Frank is historical fiction. Frank Lloyd Wright really did have a love affair with Mamah Borthwick in the early 20th century, and while a lot of what Horan put down on paper is fiction, she does follow the major events of the couple's life, as well as their travels and their work. Even a few of the letters included in the novel come from real correspondence. And Horan claims that the newspaper articles included in the novel came from real articles that were published at the time. Themes include women's rights, family obligations, and the right to happiness. Even in Chicago, before she runs off with Frank, Mamah was heavily involved in women's rights and getting women the right to vote. While in Europe, she meets up with a well-known feminist writer and agrees to translate her works for her, even though there are some parts of her beliefs that she does not agree with. Also, all throughout the book Mamah struggles with her desire to be happy and be able to love who she wants, and the fact that she has basically abandoned her children in order to enjoy that right. It is a constant struggle, and it is one that Mamah has to constantly re-evaluate and reasses as she tries to make this new life work with Frank.

My Verdict: If Horan's goal was to make Mamah likable and relatable, then I am afraid she failed as far as I am concerned. It is a difficult thing to make someone who willingly abandons their children into a likable heroine, and I feel like Horan fell short. According to Horan's version of the story, Mamah does feel terrible about leaving her children behind while pursuing her relationship with Frank, and she constantly struggles with her decision and her desire to still be around her children. However, no matter how much she misses them and how bad she feels, she still refuses to return to Chicago, even though that is the only way she could be around them the majority of the time. Instead she hopes she can get more custody than her husband is ever willing to give, and she therefore ends up missing out on more and more of her children's lives. Instead of sacrificing so she can be with them, she decides the only way she can be with them is if she is able to keep the life she has been living at the same time. In other words, she is sorry her decision has taken her away from them, but not sorry enough to really do much about it. And even with all of Mamah's arguments about women deserving to be happy, even if that means they have to leave their husbands to do it, I just couldn't be on her side. And I couldn't relate to Frank either as he leaves his own wife and six kids, and is portrayed as a pompous genius who feels like people should feel privileged to have him work for them. Horan presented two main characters that I really didn't like, and that just ruined most of the book for me.

Favorite Moment: When Mamah realizes that the real Frank is very different from the man she left her family for. He is arrogant, selfish, self-serving, and cannot manage his money. It was basically the moment I had been waiting for during the entire book.

Favorite Character: I honestly didn't care for any of them. Frank and Mamah are at the forefront of the entire story and I was basically just waiting for their downfall. I did appreciate Mamah's sister Lizzie, who told Mamah upfront about how her decisions have affected all of them, and was probably the one who was able to get through to her sister the most.

Recommended Reading: If you're into historical fiction and like stories that also talk about the women's movement and women's freedoms in the early 20th century, then I would recommend Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone. I liked it much more than I did Loving Frank, as the characters are more relatable and the story is about more than just one couple.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

After reading the Future of Us, I decided to pick up Jay Asher's first novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. The premise alone - a young man learns more about the events that lead to a schoolmate's suicide through the prerecorded tapes she left behind - is enough to make most anyone want to know more. So I was curious to see how Asher was going to handle both this ambitious premise and the sensitive issue of teen suicide.

The Situation: Clay Jensen is your average teenage boy. Actually, according to pretty much everyone, Clay is better than your average teenage boy. No one seems to have anything bad to say about him. Hannah Baker was already pretty curious about Clay, and the lack of negative information about him only made her want to know more. Hannah and Clay have brief encounters either at school, or at the movie theater where they work, but unbeknownst to both of them, the other one desperately wants to have a deeper relationship. But on the day that Clay receives a mysterious package with no return address, that opportunity is already long gone with no hope of ever returning.

The Problem: The package is a set of seven tapes that Hannah recorded no more than a few days before she decided to take her own life. By the time Clay receives the tapes, Hannah has been dead a few weeks, and the school and community are still in mourning. But the tapes will bring a different sort of grief. Each side of the tape names a different person and event that Hannah blames for leading her to her ultimate decision. And the people that are receiving these tapes are the people she names on them, which apparently include nice guy Clay. And he will spend the next few hours, over the course of one night, starting from when he got him from school, listening to all seven tapes and finding out all 13 reasons why Hannah decided to take her own life.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a young adult fiction novel which, to me, the overarching theme of is that hindsight is 20/20. And maybe also that high school, and the people in it, ultimately suck. Many of the events that Hannah recounts Clay was a witness of, and there are many things he starts to wish he would have done differently. And while I was definitely not a fan of high school while I was in it (or now even), it does seem to me that Hannah had to deal with an insane amount of awful people. I get it...teenagers can be cruel, but Hannah's high school seemed to have more than its fair share. And the book also throws out the idea that even if we could go back, knowing what we know now, would we do anything differently? And maybe more importantly, would it really matter? Would the outcome change at all? And how much of the stuff that happens to us are we allowed to blame on other people? At what point do we take responsibility for our own fate?

My Verdict: And it is those last two questions from the previous section that cause me to take issue with this book. Well, maybe not take issue with the entire book, but at least with the character of Hannah. It seems to me that of the 13 reasons why she took her own life, only four of them are actually a really big deal...and  two of those didn't even happen to her personally. In fact, she sort of serves as an accomplice. And with a few of these people, her argument is that they didn't care enough about her or about anyone outside of themselves to help her. But my argument is that this is the great lesson of high kind of have to look out for yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you. And maybe that is the lesson of this book, that you can't really blame others the way Hannah does for stuff that happens to you. Because if the actual point is to say that Hannah is justified in wanting to haunt the people she blames for her decision to take her own life, then I take issue with that. But if it is something more along the lines of how everything we say and do to other people, and I mean everything, has an effect, positive or negative, then I could get behind that.

Aside from how I feel about how the book handled heavy issues such as bullying and teenage suicide, I also felt like there was more Asher could have done with this scenario. It is such a strong and interesting premise, and I feel like Asher just doesn't take it far enough. And for some reason, I don't believe Clay's emotional investment in Hannah's life. Some things just feel like they are missing here.

Favorite Moment: When Clay starts to realize that Hannah may be just as much to blame for her decisions as the people she names on the tapes. 

Favorite Character: All in all, Clay actually is a really nice guy. He's loyal, a good student, caring, makes sense why Hannah would gravitate towards him, especially considering her track record with other guys at her school.

Recommended Reading: I have to recommend Asher's book The Future of Us, which he wrote with Carolyn Mackler. With the use of Facebook, this book looks at what teenagers will do when given access to what their futures will look like as well as the ability to possibly alter it.   

Friday, December 14, 2012

Science Fiction: Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

My selection for this week is yet another nominee for the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards. Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker was nominated for the category of Best Science Fiction, but was beat out by Terri Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth. Even so, after reading the synopsis and the reviews, my interest was sufficiently piqued.

The Situation: Joe Spork is a clockworker attempting to live a quiet life in Britain, repairing clocks in his failing business and trying unsuccessfully to carry through assassination attempts on a local menacing cat. I say that Joe is "attempting" to live the quiet life, because his father was a well-known and notorious gangster. And a gangsters life is exactly the kind of life Joe wishes to avoid. He wishes to follow more closely in the footsteps of his grandfather rather than his father. It is his grandfather who taught him about clockworking, and he shares his grandfather's view concerning his father's life, and wants nothing to do with it.

The Problem: Another reason why I say that Joe is "attemtping" to live the quiet life is because it is his very trade of clockworking that gets him into trouble. One particular machine that a client has entrusted him with turns out to be a very important piece to a doomsday device. Joe eventually figures this out, but unfortunately, some other very interested parties, that are also very dangerous, have figured this out as well. Soon it appears Joe's father's way of life has found him after all, and only by embracing his family's history will he be able to save the world as we know it.

Genre, Themes, History: Angelmaker is science fiction with a fabulous amount of dry British humor. There is just the right amount of the absolutely ridiculous to make it funny without causing it to lean too much outside of the realm of believability. This book also approaches the idea of an apocalypse in a new and originial least to me. The doomsday device that is supposed to bring humanity to its knees is like nothing I would ever have imagined, causing me to see Harkaway as an incredibly creative and inventive writer. Also, there are zombies at one point. They may not be the focus and only have a brief appearance, but they are there. Another theme that comes up is something that always makes an excellent, but also incredibly tiresome, supervillain: the desire to want to be equal to God, and to also live forever. These two desires in an inheritantly evil person never manifest themselves for the goodwill of mankind. And these villains are also the hardest to kill because they will literally do anything to make their dream com true, despite the fact that it is impossible.

My Verdict: I am always pretty wary of science fiction, but this was absolutely delightful. It was refreshing and not too confusing (there were a few paragraphs I had to reread because I would realize a few pages avterwards that I clearly missed something very important), and as I mentioned before, pretty funny. And the story has a little bit of everything: there are spies, gangsters, complicated doomsday devices, a complicated family history unveiled in a wonderfully creative way, scary monks, zombies, a heinous supervillain, a viscous but still incredibly loveable pug, and bees. Yep, bees. There isn't as much science as I was expecting for a science fiction novel, but I still think science fiction lovers will enjoy it.

Favorite Moment: When all of the pieces of Joe's family history, and the truth about his grandparents, all comes together for him. The way Harkaway reveals it all just blew me away.

Favorite Character: I really want to pick Joe. He is a bit boring in the beginning, but steadily picks up steam and becomes a serious force by the end of the book. But I also appreciate Polly, the sister to Joe's ganster lawyer friend, Mercer. She may be a pretty face, but she isn't one to be messed with either.

Recommended Reading: Due to my limited knowledge and exposure to science fiction, I don't feel like I can adequately recommend another science fiction novel, but I would like to recommend George Orwell's 1984. Certain parts of Joe's interactions with the creepy monks remind me of Orwell's thought police and their methods of torture. I know...creepy.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Nonfiction: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the winner for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Memoir & Autobiography. I only recently learned about people who will hike along the Pacific Coast for varying amounts of time and for varying distances, and the idea absolutely fascinates me, mostly because it seems so impossible, and yet people do it all of the time. Strayed decided to do this exact thing, and Wild is her account of what lead her to do it, how the experience went, and how it changed her.

The Situation: Cheryl Strayed is a newly single 26 year-old woman trying to navigate life without her husband, her mother, her siblings, her stepfather, and any real stability in the form of a job or education. She bounces around from one waitressing job to another, just as she bounces around from one city to the next. This spiral began with the death of her mother a few years before due to cancer. Strayed's mother was the strong and solid anchor in her life, and now that she was gone, Strayed seems to have lost all of her focus, as well as everyone around her that she was close to.

The Problem: If all of that wasn't bad enough, Strayed has recently become attached to exactly the wrong kind of man. After happening to pick up the Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California while waiting in line at an outdoor store, Strayed is almost inexplicably compelled to come back to the book, purchase it, and read it cover to cover. Eventually, the curiosity that lead her back to the book would lead her to save up her money, purchase hiking tools and gear slowly over the course of a few months, and then, finally, she would do the almost unthinkable (at least to a city girl like me) and decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in the Mojave Desert, and ending at the Oregon-Washington border at what is called The Bridge of the Gods. She would do it alone. She would do it without ever having done any major hiking in her life. Needless to say, instead of getting rid of her current problems, the PCT was really only going to present her with a set of new ones.

Genre, Themes, History: Wild is a memoir that takes place in a very specific amount of time during Strayed's life. Actually, I would say the book is almost evenly split between how much she talks about the hike, and how much she talks about her past life leading up to the adventure on the PCT. The main driving force behind the entire experience seems to be the death of her mother. Strayed paints a picture of what the grieving process looked like for her, and how it took over every aspect of her own life, and then seemed to reach out and effect those around her. Strayed also showed what the grieving process looked like for her brother, her sister, her husband, and her stepfather, and how ultimately, these differences in methods lead to the separation between themselves.

Of course, it is nothing new for people to hike the PCT for long distances. The trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968, even though it wasn't officially completed until 1993. So while Strayed wasn't exactly doing something original, she was doing something fairly rare being a single woman hiking the trail alone...and being completely inexperienced in the area. She meets plenty of people along the way, both hikers and non-hikers, that help shape her experience. And while there a short spurts where she hikes with others, for the most part, she tackles the trail alone. She insists on it.

My Verdict: I was being generous on Goodreads when I gave this book three stars. The only reason I held off on only giving it two stars was because of that one thing I always value in nonfiction, and this is honesty. Strayed is upfront about several things that put her in a less than favorable light. Sure, she ultimately accomplished this amazing thing that most of us would never even think of, but she admits to being incredibly broken, unprepared (and yet strangely over prepared in some areas), naive, lonely, desperate, and dead flat broke during the majority of this experience. Even so, that admirable honesty was not enough for me to want to put this with my most favorite of books. Sometimes her lack of preparation would get on my nerves, as would her surprise when something would inevitably go wrong, or at least not go the way she though it would. And her constant need to almost cling to every other male figure that crosses her path was beyond annoying. Ultimately, it felt like one of those stories of someone going on this insane adventure to "find themselves," when really they only want to escape their problems. However, if I ever met Strayed, I would want to give her a high five and have her tell me more about it.

Favorite Moment: When Albert, one of the many other hikers Strayed meets on the PCT, helps her purge her almost comically overstuffed pack. One of the many items he point blank asks her if she needs is a roll of condoms.

Recommended Reading: Strayed starts her journey with certain books , and slowly gets rid of those book as she reads them, while acquiring others with every package of supplies she receives at stops along the way. One of the many books she reads is The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor, a personal favorite of mine (and hers apparently). While Flannery O'Connor's short stories have little (or nothing, really) to do with hiking, I figured I would go ahead and recommend it...mostly because I have absolutely no clue what else I could recommend. But the stories are so good that I feel comfortable in my recommendation anyway. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Winners for the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards

Whoo-Hoo! Congratulations to John Green for winning Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards with The Fault In Our Stars

I also am super excited to congratulate Susan Cain for Quiet winning Best Nonfiction. I adored this book so I am glad to see many others did too.

I would like to extend congratulations to every winner. After over one million votes, every winner should be honored to receive this recognition in the only book award that lets the people decide. There was some really stiff competition, but the people have spoken,

You can see all winners here Even if your favorite didn't win, I know you can at least get some ideas on some other fabulous books to put on your reading list.