Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mare's War, by Tanita S. Davis

I just read an awesome book, one I pulled off the shelf at the library: "Featured." I get so many recommendations from friends that it's rare I'll just pick up a random book I've never heard of--but this one has a great cover, too, which always helps.

Two teenage sisters have to go on a roadtrip with their grandma, from California to Alabama for a family reunion.

The book is mostly the story of their trip--chapters alternated between "now" and "then": their grandma, Mare, telling stories of her days in the 6888th Battalion, the one colored battalion to serve overseas in the Women's Army Corps, or WAC, during World War II.

So it's historical fiction, but it's also the story of two teenage sisters trying to get along on a long car trip, and it's the story of granddaughters learning more about the life of their grandmother who Octavia (the sister narrating the "now" part of the story) describes as "scary... because I never know what she's going to do next."

Really, it's mostly learning about Mare. Mare's war, but also her life, and making some sense out of who she is and why.

I'm going to buy a copy for my classroom library. I want lots of people to read this book.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Winter's Tale

I finally finished Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. It's 748 pages long, and I was really into it for the first half, then I had to read some other stuff and try to figure out what I wanted to teach next year (Flight, by Sherman Alexie!), and when I came back to it, I wasn't as into it. The last two hundred pages were rough going--but it's hard to give up on a book when you've put that much time into it. Plus there continued to be a lot I loved. But the book spans a hundred years, and I liked a lot of the characters in the beginning, but wasn't as interested in or engaged in some of the later characters.

Also, the book is mostly set in NYC, and when the book opens, it is the NYC of the early 20th century--but the end of the book is set in what was the future when it was published in 1983, but I lived through the turn of the millennium, and there was so much hype (remember that, folks?), that while it was interesting to read Helprin's take on what it would be like (in this weird sort-of-NYC fantasy world he creates), I'm also really over it.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she said, "So it's fantasy?" Another friend, who'd also read it, said immediately, "Yeah. Not like unicorns and stuff, but it's fantasy." I said, "No it's not!" and the friend who'd also read it just looked at me. I said, "Okay, I guess it kind of is. I guess it mostly is. Yeah, okay, I guess it is."

Helprin's world, in its weirdness, just feels so real--maybe I'd suspended disbelief that thoroughly. But there's a small upstate town that most people haven't heard of and can't find. There are ice-boats used as a regular mode of transportation. There's a magic horse. There's a man who lives a hundred years and doesn't age.

This is a book that will stay with me. And I loved how NY it was--and how much it was about the city evolving. I loved this description of the hundred-year-old man wandering the Manhattan of the 90's: the end of May and in early June he began to walk the city, to see what he might remember, and to note the changes. It was almost all glass and steel. The buildings seemed to him more like coffins than buildings. The windows didn't open. Some of the buildings had no windows. And their graceless and exaggerated height made the streets into wispy little threads strung together in a dark labyrinth. Only at night did they redeem themselves, and only at a distance--when their secretiveness, their inaccessibility, and their arrogance disappeared, and they bathed the city in light and shone like stained-glass cathedrals turned inside out. Oppressed by the size and the power of the city's architecture, he found for himself a string of holy places (only one of which was a church) to which he could and did return time after time. He sensed there what seemed to him to be the remnants of the truth, and he returned to certain rooftops and alleys the way that lightning repeatedly strikes high steel towers in an argument between tenacity and speed.

I never thought about the city as a place of light, particularly. The New York City I know is that city of tall buildings. But of course it would have had so much more light before the skyscrapers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz

I don't understand why this novel just sunk and got no attention. I loved it. And I only found it because I went searching for something I could teach next year, ideally by a Chicano author. On someone's list, I ran across this title, and while I'm not going to teach it (not right now, anyway--though I think it would be so fun to teach! with the film tie-in... but yeah), I'm going to buy a copy for my classroom library, and I'm just so glad I read it. And glad it got written--glad someone wrote and published it. It's a strange little outside-the-box novel, several narrative threads tied together, set in Bakersfield, California in the late 1950s. One story is that of Janet Leigh, out with Alfred Hitchcock shooting scenes for Psycho. Another story is that of Arlene Watson, waitress at a local café, mother of Dan Watson, local heartthrob. Dan is dating Teresa, a local Chicana girl. Everything ties together and it's creepy enough that I'm reluctant to say more. But read it--a quick, fun, interesting read.

In his awesome bio on his website, Muñoz says he grew up in California's Central Valley, in a family that worked in the fields, and he was a bookworm who treasured library books; "I now see why I was so fascinated by two books in particular when I was young: L. Frank Baum's terrifically illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in grade school and, in high school, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Both opened with departures."

I'm going to figure out a way to teach Muñoz's books somewhere down the line. In the meantime, I'm going to read the three he's written so far, and wait eagerly for the next novel.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell

I am slowly making my way through The Good Men Project's list(s) of "The best LGBT books of all time." Well, those lists and a million others. It sounds like I'm doggedly reading my way through all the gay books. There are so many books. Rather, I'm reading the books on this list that interest me... like this one.

I was most curious, first curious, about The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I've read and loved many of his short stories, and I love his short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow--but a gay novel?

William Maxwell was married, and had two children. I don't know anything beyond that about his sexual preferences. The obit from the Times is fabulous, although (because?) it does not address the issue--highly recommended if you want to know more about this guy. The Paris Review interview from 1983 is also awesome.

There is much on the internet about how this is or is not a gay novel, and about its "gay subtext." I'm not sure there is a gay subtext. It is certainly a novel about a young man who feels very strongly about his friend. Perhaps who is "passionately in love with" his friend but maybe there is something else going on there. There is something that isn't romantic love--and lust is often, but not necessarily a component--but is more than friendship in the sense that we usually think of friendship. Many of us have had these kinds of friendships: essential, perhaps more essential than many of the romantic relationships we've had. That kind of soul-fusing, heart-melding stuff they talk about in Victorian novels and R&B songs of the 50's and 60's. The novel was published in 1948, and the physicality between these boys is so different from physicality between boys today: for example, in their rooming house when they go away to college, they share a bed. Mores were different, accepted behavior was different, things are questioned now that wouldn't've been questioned then.

It is a novel about the nerdy guy who's close friends with the jock, and this friendship survives the pair going to college, the jock joining a fraternity, the jock dating a girl who is of course good friends with the nerdy guy. The three of them spend some good times hanging out, even on the girl's family porch swing. Eventually, the jock is threatened by the nerdy guy's friendship with the girl, and the good times come to an end. One of the most perfect moments is when Lymie (the nerd) is at Spud's house (Spud is the jock, of course) and Spud assumes that Lymie will sleep over as he has so many times before: "The bed's big enough," Spud says, when his mom says it's time for Lymie to go home. "We've slept together in it lots of times." But Lymie gets his stuff together to go, and
On the way down the stairs he remembered the feeling he had had the first afternoon that he came home with Spud. It was a kind of premonition, he realized. Everything he had thought would happen then was happening now. He had been wrong only about the time.
The feeling he'd had was that Spud's family wouldn't want him there, and he'd be infringing. Instead, they take him in and he spends a lot of his time there through high school and into college. Lymie's mom died when he was ten, and he and his father live in a series of furnished apartments, and take their meals in restaurants. Lymie is some kind of in love with Spud, but he's also some kind of in love with Spud's mom, Mrs. Latham, and his whole family, and Spud's home:
He had thought he remembered what it used to be like but he hadn't at all. . . . He had totally forgotten how different furniture was that people owned themselves from the kind that came with a furnished apartment; and that tables and chairs could tell you, when you walked into a place, what kind of people lived there.
Maxwell does such a beautiful job laying out the details as Lymie would notice them. So much of what I love about So Long, See You Tomorrow is the way it describes and evokes boyhood, childhood, growing up. That's so much of what I love about this one, too.

But the beginning of the end--or maybe the end of the end--is when Lymie buys Sally--his friend, Spud's steady--violets, and Spud gets so jealous.
Lymie, who from long habit should have been sensitive to the changes in Spud's mood, had no idea that anything was wrong. The person who is both intelligent and observing cannot at the same time be innocent. He can only pretend to be; to others sometimes, sometimes to himself. Since Lymie didn't notice that anything was wrong with Spud, one is forced to conclude that he didn't wish to notice it.
Of course, Spud doesn't have to be jealous of Lymie and Sally. In some sense, whether romantic or not, they are both madly in love with him. And whether Lymie is gay or not, whether he goes on to marry a woman and live a "normal" life, in some way, Spud is and will always be his first love.

I liked this book so much. It took me a while to get into it, and then I couldn't stop.