Friday, June 27, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

There are two factors that brought Leslye Walton's The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender to my attention: one was, of course, Goodreads. At one point not too long ago that book was one of its "movers & shakers." But even though Goodreads brought the book to my attention, I probably would not have thought to click on the description had it not been for the way the title (which is also pretty fantastic) had been carefully placed on the incredible cover art. I try not to judge a book by its cover, really I do, but I sincerely hope they do the paperback as much justice as they have the hardback edition.

The Situation: There are currently three generations that live in the house at the end of the ominously named Pinnacle Lane. The oldest would be Emilienne, the grandmother, who had already survived both of her parents, as well as two sisters and a brother, before moving to Seattle, only to soon lose her husband as well. Her daughter, Viviane, hasn't left the house in 15 years, after she was left by the love of her life. She also forbids her two children, Henry and Ava, from leaving the house as well. If they were ordinary children with nothing special about them, she probably would not force her reclusive nature onto them. But Henry doesn't communicate well, and doesn't like to be touched. And Ava, while fairly normal in every other way, was born with the wings of a bird.

The Problem: While the neighborhood eventually moved past the whispers claiming that Emilienne was a witch, and now frequent her bakery without hesitation, Viviane remains a recluse, and for the most part, so do her children. Henry does occasionally venture out with Gabe, a man who took up residence in the house during the war, and has proved especially skilled at making detailed maps of the places they go. Even Ava ventures out with her best friend, but no one knows about it, except for a few kids from the school that Viviane doesn't let her daughter attend. Ava manages to come home safe every night, and what her mother doesn't know doesn't hurt her. But there is someone who does notice Ava's nightly escapes with her friend. And while the man believes Ava to be an angel, his fascination is one dangerous step from becoming an obsession, and Viviane's fear that the outside world isn't ready for a girl born with the wings of a bird may be prove to be warranted.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel with many elements of a fantasy, the most prominent of which being that Ava is born with wings...with feathers and everything. Also, her great-grandmother, Emilienne's mother, died by basically fading away into nothing, until eventually she was just a pile of ashes left on the kitchen floor. And Viviane's aunt, Emilienne's sister, managed to turn herself into a canary in order to get a local bird watcher to notice her (it didn't work). Also, the house where they all live on Pinnacle Lane has its own sordid history, and it is rumored to be haunted by the previous owner. No one even goes into the third floor, which Ava basically glosses over just by stating that no one goes up there anymore. And birds and feathers are everywhere. While there is more than enough story just surrounding Ava and her condition, the book gives an entire history of the family, beginning with Emilienne's immigration with her family to New York before the First World War. In fact, because Ava was born in 1944 and is the book's narrator, this could be categorized as historical fiction. In short, there is quite a bit going on in this book.

My Verdict: This is certainly not like any other book I have ever read. But even so, it isn't so out there and strange that it is hard to grasp or understand. It is creative, imaginative, profound, heartbreaking, and even hopeful. There are moments where the illusion was broken for me, mostly when there was a bad transition, or a less than believable back story given to a character as a reason for them to show up on the scene. But for the most part, the world that Walton has created is so complete and so enticing, despite some of the dangers that come with it, that it is very easy to get lost in it and not want to leave. And for me, the beauty of the cover art seemed to translate through the writer's descriptions of the scenery and events. And somehow, the idea of this taking place in a real place like Seattle doesn't take away from the fantasy, but actually adds to it. Not sure how she did that, but she did, and it's incredible.

Favorite Moment: When the main person who had been insistent on referring to Emilienne as a witch acknowledges the reason behind his prejudice. 

Favorite Character: For once, this is difficult for me not because there is no one to like, which is often the problem with modern fiction, but because there are so many people to like. All three of the Lavender women are remarkable in their own way, while still having flaws that they must work through. So I suppose I'll pick Rowe, the older brother of Ava's best friend, Cardigan. He works as the delivery boy for Emilienne's bakery before he goes off to college. He always sticks up for Ava and even protects her from his little sister's machinations to force her out into society. He's simply a sweet boy who doesn't just see Ava as a girl with wings.

Recommended Reading: For this book, I will recommend Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Both books have created their own world within the history of this one. And they are both world's that are a little outside our version of reality, but not so much so that we can't relate to the characters and their struggles.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Orfeo by Richard Powers

Since I covered Generosity last week, I will cover Richard Powers' latest novel, Orfeo, for this week. In Generosity, Powers explores the idea of someone being unnaturally and inexplicably happy, and if it were possible to extract something from such a person in order to share it with the rest of us. In Orfeo, I found a story that dealt not only with music, but the idea that perhaps music can be written into DNA and actually played. Yeah, it was baffling stuff.

The Situation: Peter Els, now in his seventies, spends his days walking his faithful golden retriever, Fidelio, and running experiments in his lab. Peter has retired from teaching, and was once a composer in a previous life, having attained modest success with an opera he composed with a friend he hasn't spoken to in over a decade. Now he fights off both loneliness and senility by listening to music, taking care of Fidelio, and tampering with science. Growing up, music and chemistry were his two competing loves. He was good at both, and honestly liked both, even though chemistry was a major he chose because his stepfather wouldn't pay for him to get a degree in music. Both have shaped Peter's life, and even at 70 he hasn't given up on either.

The Problem: The lab that Peter runs his experiments in is at his home. He bought the equipment himself and set up his own microbiology lab where he messes with DNA. It's his hobby, just like music, and he sees no harm in it. It is very probable that no one would have ever known or found out about the homemade lab until Peter either died or moved, but he makes the mistake of calling 911 to report Fidelio's death, even though he was there when it happened and knows there was no foul play involved. When the police visit his house and find an illegal lab in his home where he is messing with DNA, Peter is told not to leave town for a few days as the officers report what they find. Soon, every piece of equipment in Peter's house is confiscated, and when he panics and runs off, the media turns him into the next bioterrorist threatening our country's safety. Peter knows he meant no harm, as do his friends and family. He was simply attempting to compose his greatest piece yet. But the authorities want to bring him in. And as Peter runs, the book tells the story of how Peter's life led up to this point.

Genre, Themes, History: I was tempted to place this book under the heading of science fiction, but I just stuck with contemporary instead. I also think this book could almost be placed under historical fiction since, while the reader is never given any actual years or dates as Peter's life story is being told, it does mark time by the wars and great tragedies that have occurred throughout history. Both music and chemistry play a massive part in Peter's formative years, but it is really music that he ends up devoting most of his time and energy to during his adult years, only to return to chemistry later in life. And much like the protagonist in Generosity, Peter is fairly insecure and ends up bending under more powerful personalities. And when it comes to women, Peter is even less sure of himself, although he does manage to get married and have a daughter. But it is music that would prove to be his true love, but even in that he can't seem to be sure of himself and confident of his own talent, no matter how much his friends and fellow musicians assure him of his brilliance. And even when Peter is on the brink of very real success, he is the one who sabotages it and ruins his chances for widespread fame. There are two stories in this book, as there is what is happening in present day, and also Peter's life story, but ultimately it is mostly about music. Musicians, especially composers, will probably understand it better than most any other kind of reader.

My Verdict: If I were more into music and knew more about it, I probably would have enjoyed this book more. But instead, I found myself bored through various long stretches of the story. Peter is just so into music that being just a music lover wouldn't be enough to keep the average reader from getting lost in everything that goes on in the story. Also, instead of Powers writing about what is going on with Peter in the present day in between telling his life story, I think I would have preferred if the book was either about Peter's present circumstances, or about his life growing up, not both. Whenever I was reading about one, I was wishing I could skip ahead to the other. With that being said, parts of the story are pretty solid and interesting, but it often felt like the author wanted to write about one thing, but decided there wasn't enough to make a book out of it, so he added other elements, therefore making it longer than it felt like it should be.

Favorite Moment: When Peter calls for Fidelio out of habit, forgetting she has passed away.

Favorite Character: Even though she isn't in most of the book, I think my favorite character is Peter's daughter, Sara, whom he refers to as his best work.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Richard Powers' previous novel, Generosity, which I actually liked a little better. To me, Generosity is a little more interesting and easier to relate to.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Science Fiction: Generosity by Richard Powers

As I added Richard Powers' newest novel, Orfeo, to my reading list, I went ahead and decided to check out his previous novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, in preparation. This is a new author for me so I wasn't sure what to expect, and hoped I hadn't just signed myself up to read two books by a writer whose style I didn't like.

The Situation: Russell Stone is a new teacher and former writer. The only reason he is now a "former" writer is because of his inability to write anything truly imaginative and creative due to his fear of taking risks. While he enjoyed modest success during his short writing career, he became paralyzed creatively by the little criticism he received and one unfortunate event that involved the subject of one of his stories. But Russell is ready to try teaching, and ends up coming across a woman of Algerian descent who is inexplicably, and undeniably, happy. Russell isn't the only one who notices this. Anyone who meets Thassa or has any contact with her simply cannot deny that she has a joy like they have never seen. Thassa's joy and happiness is not only refreshing, but it's contagious. And for Russell, it starts to become troubling. He simply doesn't believe that anyone could truly be that happy. Especially someone who has witnessed the atrocities of war like she has. But despite Russell's disbelief, Thassa continues to infect those around her while insisting she is nothing special.

The Problem: While Russell would love nothing more than to keep Thassa's joy all to himself and the small circle of friends she has at school, an incident on campus causes the greater Chicago area to learn about the person who seems to be quite a bit happier than the rest of us. Soon, Russell is able to search the Internet for information on the world's happiest person and finds that everyone is slowly learning about Thassa and wants to know her secret. Inevitably, scientists are wanting to have Thassa tested, while journalists want to interview her. Other people are emailing Thassa wanting her for a range of reasons: some simply want to know her secret, others want her to go as far as to pray for them, with a range of other requests in between. Russell may have initially believed that Thassa was dangerously happy, but now he sees that happiness in danger of being smothered and never breaking the surface again. Unfortunately, he has neither the strength nor the courage to be her hero, and the fact of the matter is, if there is anyone who would be a hero, it would be Thassa.

Genre, Themes, History: I have placed this under the heading of science fiction simply because that is the category under which it is most commonly placed on Goodreads, and the book deals with scientific discoveries that have not yet been made in the present day. Plus, a good amount of the book deals with the question of whether happiness, much like depression for some people, can be genetic. Is there in fact a happiness gene? And if there was a way to bottle up whatever Thassa has and sell it to the public, how much would the public pay for it? The book also deals with the idea of being able to screen out certain diseases in an unborn baby, and how that possibility could easily lead to parents simply picking and choosing what color eyes to give their child, as well as hair, skin tone, height, etc. While part of the book follows Russell and his bumbling attempts at teaching a class, getting his creativity back, and generally just living like a normal human being amongst other human beings without coming off as too awkward, it also deals with the ethics behind the type of science that would try to discover the happiness gene and replicate it for future generations. And while the narrator is clearly third-person, I wouldn't say they are quite omniscient as it seems he (or even she) occasionally has the characters get away from him, but he also seems able to easily reign them in and have them do what he pleases.

My Verdict: This was at least the sort of science fiction I was able to easily grasp and wasn't too confused or intimidated by. I found Thassa's incessantly cheery disposition incredibly intriguing, but I didn't quite believe that people would really be so interested in her as they were. Sure, we would all love to know the secret to happiness, but I had a hard time really understanding just how magnetic Thassa was, and I don't believe that people would really act so desperately in order to have what she has. But maybe that is me being naive. What I do believe is how utterly helpless and useless Russell appeared to be. He shares a good amount of the blame for letting the general public know about Thassa and is absolutely useless in doing any type of damage control. In fact, given the opportunity, he would make things much worse. With all of that said, I am still looking forward to reading Orfeo for next week. And Generosity is short enough to where even if it isn't the best book you've read all year, it is still worth picking up.

Favorite Moment: When Thassa is given the entire world as an audience and ends up not giving them what they want.

Favorite Character: My favorite character is easily Thassa, and it is interesting that her incessant happiness would cause her so much trouble, mostly because people just don't seem to understand how someone, anyone, could be filled with such joy.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Humans by Matt Haig. It involves an alien coming down to Earth simply to kill off the few human beings who have become aware of a mathematical discovery that would advance the human race tremendously, but ultimately cause them to be a danger to the rest of the galaxy. I recommend it because it is another book that seeks to understand why human beings act the way they do. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Nonfiction: This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl

As fans of young adult fiction writer John Green are aware, the movie based on his best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, hits movie theaters today. I blogged about his book the year it came out, as I had become a John Green fan after reading Paper Towns the year before. I decided that today would be the perfect day for me to post an entry on This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl. While Green's The Fault in Our Stars is not about Esther Earl, it is dedicated to her as Green met her and corresponded with her on many occasions. And like Green's main character in his book, Esther was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a young age.

The Situation: Esther Earl was the middle child in a family of five kids, all being raised by their mom and dad, Lori and Wayne. When Esther was 12 she and her family lived in France where she attended school, played with her friends, and siblings, studied French, and generally just enjoyed being a kid. It was when she was playing or simply walking that she would have a hard time breathing, and it would take her longer than normal to catch her breath once they were done. Her parents had originally thought it was nothing more than a sore muscle, but an x-ray would reveal fluid in her lungs which was causing her breathing difficulties. Since it was clearly not a sore muscle, the next most-likely options were pneumonia or tuberculosis.

The Problem: In 2006, at 12 years old, Esther was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The cancer had already spread, causing tumors in her lungs, making it hard for her to breath...something she would deal with for the remainder of her life. Because of Esther's diagnosis, her family would move back to the US so she could be taken care of in a hospital that could better treat her condition. The next three years would involve weekly hospital visits (many times more than once a week); occasional hospital stays when Esther's condition would worsen and she couldn't be taken care of at home; oxygen tanks that she would have to have with her at all times as her lungs could not function on their own; various treatments of both radiation and chemotherapy; various pain medicines in order to manage the symptoms that came along with having cancer and being treated for it; plus many more difficulties that come from being a young girl with a serious illness. Despite of all it, Esther remained the same bright, funny, creative, hopeful, faithful, loving, and caring girl she always was.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that focuses mostly on the life and writing of Esther between November 2006 when she is first diagnosed with cancer, and August 2010 when she passes away due to complications of the disease. There is also a good amount of letters and stories in the book following the details of her death, mostly from her parents, but also from friends and family members, and even some from Esther herself. The family decided to include some of Esther's fiction writing at the end of the book. None of it is finished, but it is stuff she was working on at one point or another, and all of if simply showcases her creativity and how much she liked to just create. John Green would meet Esther at LeakyCon 2009, a conference that celebrates all things related to Harry Potter, in Boston, and decided to continue to keep tabs on her, leading him to actually end up being part of wish for Make-A-Wish, where he would spend a day with her and her friends at his own personal expense. The book not only contains journal entries from Esther, but also letters that she wrote to others, mostly her parents; entries that her parents made to a website in order to keep everyone updated on her condition; chat transcripts from the small but intimate group of friends she made over the Internet; a few entries from doctors and other people who came in contact with her at one time or another; and even some letters from her siblings written to Esther years after her death. It isn't just a book about a girl with cancer. Esther was a fighter, with an incredibly unwavering faith in God, and it is easy to see why the organization that was created in her honor chose the name "This Star Won't Go Out."

My Verdict: Even after finishing the book and putting it away, it is hard to even just write how I felt about it without potentially losing it and surrendering to the lump that continues to rise in my throat. Green says it best in the introduction when he calls it a great injustice that someone so amazing could be taken so young by something like cancer. I would feel weird to say that everyone should read this book, because I know that there are some who are in a place where they just aren't ready for something like this. It isn't really a sad book. In fact, if anything, it is a celebration of Esther's short life and those she touched despite her incredibly difficult circumstances. Even so, there is a point in the book where her death is retold, and to take it out of her story or gloss over it would have been a different sort of injustice. Wayne said in his eulogy at Esther's funeral that she loved. That was what she did. Esther just loved. And maybe that is what we can take away from this book. Because, let's face it, for most of us, even on our best days, loving is just not something we're all that good at. 

Favorite Moment: When Esther's friends and family find a way to sneak her cat into her hospital room.

Recommended Reading: The obvious choice is of course The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Again, the book isn't about her, but it is dedicated to her, and she shares many similarities with the main character, Hazel.