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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Paris Lived in the Moment

I just finished a fun little book that I read in advance of publication. I want to be the first to praise Paris in Love by Eloisa James, set for release on April 3. This book was a pleasurable jaunt through a year in Paris with a delightful family of four. The two professor parents, their 14-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter and one very overweight dog gave up their suburban life outside New York City for a fourth story apartment in the 9th arrondissement of Paris for one year. The author has just lost her mother to cancer and survived her own bout with breast cancer. She consciously decided to live in the moment. This memoir is written in a series of very short blog-like posts (many originally Facebook posts) and essays, which chronicle the family’s adventures in the city of light. The author writes, “For the most part, I have retained the short form, the small explosion of experience, as it best gives the flavor of my days.”
Eloisa James is the pen name of Mary Bly, a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University with degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale. She is also the daughter of the revered American writers Robert and Carol Bly. She never directly says in this in her book, but you get the idea that she lives two very different writing lives. Mary Bly is a well-respected Shakespeare scholar and Eloisa James is a best selling romance novelist. I think Mary decided to become Eloisa for a year as she took a sabbatical and focused on the delicious pleasures of everyday life.
I got very interested in a voyeuristic way in Eloisa/Mary’s writing life. I loved reading about her procrastinating by buying lingerie and chocolates on the streets of Paris, and entertaining what seemed like an endless stream of visitors from home. Hearing about her children’s complaints and adjustments to life in Paris was reassuring (since I have my own querulous teenagers). It was enjoyable to read about her imperfect parenting and struggles to keep her children happy while letting them live through failures – both academic and social. Throughout all these distractions, Eloisa/Mary continued to write. She became my writing hero as she completed an academic article and a book despite the endless temptations she faced in her year in Paris. I don’t think I could buckle down and focus on not one but two writing projects with the temptations of Paris just outside my window. So, I give kudos to Eloisa James/Mary Bly for this enjoyable book brimming with an appreciation for life.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Book is Always Better Than the Movie

As the magic hour for The Hunger Games movie draws near, I want to reflect on the book The Hunger Games before the book gets lost in the media movie hype. Or has it already faded into the background? Tonight’s midnight premiere is already sold out in many markets and the social media is all atwitter constantly updating followers on the movie, soundtrack and merchandise (!?) promotions. I don’t want the book to be forgotten, but without even seeing the movie, I know it is infinitely better.

I read the book about a year and a half ago at the urging of my sixth grade creative writing students. They promised I would love the book. And, of course, I couldn’t put it down and quickly read the entire trilogy on my Kindle – the first time I’d used my Kindle to immediately download a sequel the second I’d finished its predecessor. So that says something for the usefulness of the Kindle and other electronic readers. But it also tells you just how gripping these books are. The first one, The Hunger Games, was by far the best. But I liked it for probably different reasons than my students. I was struck by the themes of poverty and loss as well as the evils of mindless television propaganda.

Most of the people I know think reality TV is bad, even though many of us are still occasionally watch accidentally like our heads turning toward a horrible car wreck. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is about extreme reality TV. It's about a dystopian future where reality TV literally kills children.

In this future society, the country that was once known as North America has been divided into twelve districts, each one charged with a specific role in society. Every year, each district draws from all the children’s names to choose two "tributes" - a girl and a boy - to "play" in the hunger games. This reality "survivor" show pits these chosen children against each other in a battle for their lives in a large outdoor arena controlled by the Capitol. Only one survives.

The main character is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (I'm not sure what’s up with the strange names in this book), as she takes her sister's place for the games from District 12, the most impoverished area of the country now called Panem. The story is told through her voice. Readers see her thoughts and her deepest feelings. I know the book is always better than the movie and this is why – the characters' motives are clearer when you read their thoughts and feelings. Katniss has suffered a lot in her life, but her memories of her younger life and her deceased father recall her happier moments. We are able to see Katniss' inner struggles as she is taken to the Capitol to prepare for the Games. A love triangle begins to develop in this first book as Katniss’ friendship with Gale Hawthorne, her best friend in her district, is challenged by her allegiance with Peeta Mellark, the other young person chosen from her district for the Games. From a wealthier family, Peeta has been a secret admirer of Katniss since they were young. Gale is from another impoverished family and he and Katniss became friends as they struggled to provide food for their families hunting in forbidden land in their district. The love interests and the action in this fast-paced book definitely held my interest and the unresolved issues in the first book spurred me to quickly read the next two books in the trilogy.

I recently read an interview with the author Suzanne Collins in the Observer, in which she stated what she wanted from her readers. "I want them to ask themselves questions about how elements of the book might be relevant in their own lives, such as, 'How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted when so many other people are starving? What's your relationship to reality TV versus your relationship to the news?”

Be warned: the violence of The Hunger Games book is overwhelming at times. Children die and the conditions of life in some of the districts are harsh. But in this case, I think the violence is not gratuitous. I think it shows how people become immune to the horrors of death and violence on television. Collins says that today's youth are overexposed to overly managed “reality” on television. "Too much of people's lives are put on television and we're desensitized to actual tragedy unfolding before us." Regarding the combat violence and death in the books, the author observed: "You have to commit fully to writing violent or emotionally challenging scenes. You make that decision at the beginning and stick with it or you write another kind of book."

I’ll be seeing the movie in a few hours because I’m lucky enough to be invited to an exclusive advanced screening at 7 pm, hours before the midnight screenings. In many ways, I’m afraid to see the movie. I worry that the takeaway for most of the movie viewers will be the cute boys (are you a Gale or a Peeta lover?) and the destruction and death. Tomorrow everyone will be talking about the violence and the horror and the heartthrobs of The Hunger Games. That will be a shame because the book is about so much more – the real issues of hunger and poverty vs. greed and power. It’s also about the desensitizing of a nation of TV and movie viewers, who will sit slack jaw staring at a movie screen filled with violence and death and only remember the cute boys in the film.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Enlightenment for Readers

The publication booksellers turn to for news on the book industry is now publishing a version for book lovers. Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers is a FREE emailed newsletter with reviews on the 25 best books publishing each week along with author interviews, book excerpts, giveaways and more. Right now they’re running a contest for new subscribers. Check out the button on the right side of my blog from Shelf Awareness to sign up for the new publication and to be entered for a chance to win a great book.

The first giveaway is the new book by Anne Lamott, one of my writing mentors. I've never actually met Anne Lamott, but I feel like I know her. She is not afraid to show the cracks in her soul. Like Leonard Cohen wrote, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the sun gets in." Anne Lamott lets the sun shine in our lives through her honesty and human faith. Not only is she honest about her own life, but she's also candid about writing. Lamott's Bird by Bird is my number one favorite writing book. She talks about shitty first drafts and all the voices in your head discouraging you. I've used this book with college students and with middle school students to help take away their fear of writing and, mostly, their reluctance to expose themselves.

And of course, Anne Lamott loves books. She said, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

So if you want a chance to win a free copy of the new Anne Lamott book, Some Assembly Required, click on the Shelf Awareness button right here on my blog. Or go out and get the book at your local independent bookseller when it is released on March 20, 2012.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Mark Twain + Harper Lee = Coming of Age in Australia

Picking up from my last post, John Green said in a recent vlog that when he was in college he thought adult life would be a series of very interesting conversations about great books. That is what I want this blog to be about – a series of very interesting conversations about great books. So indulge me and please, please comment.

This week I want to share a book that you may not know about – Jasper Jones. It’s a brilliant book by a young Australian writer, Craig Silvey. The book was published in Australia in 2009 and was shortlisted for two of Australia’s biggest literary awards and won the Indie Book of the Year Award in Australia. In Australia and other parts of the world where it was published first, it is considered an adult literary masterpiece. But when the book was finally published here in the United States in April 2011, it was classified as a young adult novel and won the Michael L. Prinz award honor book for excellence in young adult literature. I really can’t tell you why the US publisher Knopf labeled it for young readers. I feel it reads like a classic – for all ages. This book reminds me of both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird in one delicious book. When I heard Jasper Jones called an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, I really didn’t believe it would be as good as my all-time favorite book. But it was.

The story is set in the summer of 1965 in a small mining town in Western Australia. The main character, Charlie Bucktin, is a serious book-loving boy of 13, who wants to be a writer when he grows up and calls Harper Lee and Mark Twain two of his favorite writers. His best friend, one of the most vivid characters in this book, is a Vietnamese refuge named Jeffrey Lu. He is absolutely devoted to cricket in spite of his small size.

The book starts with Jasper Jones, the town bad boy, summoning Charlie out of his bed in the middle of the night. Only a year older than Charlie, Jasper is much more worldly and basically on his own in life. Charlie barely knows Jasper, but he is sucked into a mystery involving Jasper and the daughter of the shire president, a very powerful man in their small town. The mystery surrounding the young girl’s death propels the reader through the book, but it’s also a romance, coming of age story and a moral tale of racism and adultery, and a story of a friendship. The characters are vivid and the story is gripping and intense, but also has its light moments. Get your hands on a copy of this book (I got mine in Australia, but you can find it online), read it and pass it on.