Category Archives: Fiction

Sarah’s Key

If you want to read a bestseller, just wait a few years after its hay day until it finds its way into Goodwills and used book stores. The book you are looking for is guaranteed to pop up, because it will be bought as gifts and recycled through office Christmas parties. If it’s sad? Even better, because people don’t tend to hang on to books that make them uncomfortable unless it also dramatically changed their world view. That’s why after I write this review, I’ll be doing the same and sending Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key to its next life by donating.

I picked up Sarah’s Key at a fancy Goodwill that printed labels for each item. I was drawn to the story because it reminded me of the books I used to be obsessed with in middle school–the stories of Jewish young women trying desperately to escape the fate of the Nazis. From Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars to The Diary of Anne Frank, even not too long ago I had dove into Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief–all of these works had been compelling for their glimpse into trauma and tragedy from the point of view of a child. With so much acclaim, Sarah’s Key seemed like the natural progression to reading more into the Holocaust genre of literature.

In One Sentence: A journalist must research the historic (and near undocumented) Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, in which French police arrested thousands of Jews to send to concentration camps, and ends up connecting to the story of a young girl who tried to escape to save her family.

Favorite Line: “What was wrong with being a Jew? Why did some people hate Jews? Her father scratched his head, had looked down at her with a quizzical smile. He had said, hesitatingly, ‘Because they think we are different. So they are frightened of us.’ But what was different? thought the girl. What was so different?” – p. 88

Review: Sarah’s Key has two parallel story lines: young Sarah as she escapes a camp outside of Paris to reunite with her brother who she has locked in the closet and Julia, a married woman who in discovering the story of Sarah also deals with a crumbling marriage. It’s an interesting structure to play with how the past can change us in unexpected ways. I loved every passage dedicated to Sarah’s story, and while the moments it spilled into Julia’s worked well–I never quite felt as captured by Julia’s journey. By the second half of the novel, it’s really all about Julia. In a way, I understand why. In many ways, Julia directly connects with the reader as she learns of Sarah’s story at the same time and her response helps the reader reflect on their own. On the other hand, it’s also like having a built in commentator. Julia’s perspective shapes how we understand Sarah’s. I completely understand why this book has so much praise, but I wouldn’t recommend this book against others in the genre that made me feel more connected to the protagonists.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: either Julia had taken another assignment or Sarah let her brother be captured.

More on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup:

Entrance to the Vel’ d’Hiv (The Winter Stadium) where Jews were detained en mass before being deported

NY Times: France Reflects on Its Role in Wartime Fate of Jews  (2012)

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Image result for the diary of a teenage girl book

I was in a used book store in Berkeley, CA and looking for a graphic novel. The store, though expansive, strangely did not have Art Speigelman’s Maus, which is on my reading bucket list. As I searched through the spines, I decided to look for what else was out there. Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl stood out. It was a piece promising the best in multi-genre: hybrid fiction and graphic memoir. 

I had just finished the amazing Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and while it was clear this book would be very different–there is something intriguing about the childhood of an aspiring female cartoonist growing up in a man’s world. Admittedly, though I was at a used book store, the pricing was still a bit steep since the book was in good condition (retail: $18.95, used book store: $14.97). But it was a book in a unique genre about a girl growing up in San Francisco Bay Area–so in a way I was really celebrating this trip to Berkeley, wasn’t I?

Image result for shut up and take my money

In One Sentence: A teenage girl grows up in San Francisco in the 1970s during a time of a lot of sex and drugs.

Favorite Line: “I love Monroe. Sometimes I watch him as he sleeps, and I feel so much love for him that my heart feels like it might burst. I wish that the minute he comes of the plane I could run up to him and hug him tight. But I can’t, darnit, because my mother will be there. It’s just not right that we have to hide our affection. Do you think it’s right? Or do you think that Monroe is just some old lecher who is taking advantage of me? And if he’s not taking advantage of me, do you think it’s a horrible sin all the same? I wish Monroe had a diary so you could read both sides of the situation and tell me what’s what.” – p. 142 – 144

Review: This is similar to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in that both are roughly based on the real life story of the authors. Phoebe Gloeckner shares exerts of her real teenage diary at the end of the book, and it’s clear that the line between the protagonist Minnie and Phoebe is pretty thin. So while there isn’t a lot of movement in the story (but there is a lot of sex. A LOT OF SEX. If that’s what you’re into.), the reader gets a close meditation on what growing up means to this young woman. As Minnie spirals into sexual relationships with multiple partners, abuses drugs and alcohol to fix her depression, and generally makes other unhealthy and unsafe decisions–her voice is so intelligent and strong, you can’t help but know that if she survives adolescence, she can survive anything. I loved how the images and comics enhanced the story and overall the ending pulls off something resembling closure. For those looking for strong feminine voices, this is the book for you. However, don’t expect any catharsis. Does anyone get that while they are in high school?

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: there was never an affair between Minnie and Minnie’s mother’s boyfriend, Monroe.

Dramatic Adaptations:

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The original cast of The Diary of a Teenage Girl: The Play

Before the book was made into a movie, it was first adapted into a play! Writer/ director of the 2015 film adaptation Marielle Heller created the off-Broadway play in 2010 in which she also starred as Minnie Goetz. I love this interview with Indiewire in which Heller explains her decision to turn the novel into theater and later into film:

INDIEWIRE: How did you come to write the play?

HELLER: I wanted to play the part. I felt connected, felt she was in my bones. I was connected to the theater, it was my first love, where my career was focused, on interesting ways to tell stories. I had no plans to do it as a film. It wasn’t until I ended the play and let it die–they end and vanish–that I realized I wasn’t finished with it and thought of doing it as a film. It was not my original plan.

 

 

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The End of the Affair

Image result for the end of the affair graham greene

Sometimes, I find a book in a place unexpected. On a hot Saturday earlier this summer, I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is essentially a collection of objects donated by people across the US. Each object represents a relationship since passed–whether romantic, platonic, or even with the self. Walking through the space, reading the stories of so many painful memories, it just made me want more.

The museum’s gift shop had quirky magnets and tote bags, but of course I was drawn to the book section. Between summer reads and hard-core classics, I chose the classic The End of the Affair by Graham Greene for two reasons: 1) it wasn’t very long and 2) John Updike and William Golding had recommendations on the back cover.  

In One Sentence: A writer pines for a lost relationship.

Favorite Line: “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too? Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” – p. 89

Review: The End of the Affair is a well-crafted and introspective piece of fiction. With some autobiographical nods (Graham Greene wrote this after the end of his own illicit affair and even vaguely dedicates the book to who might be his former lover), there is a feeling of emotional truth to the main character’s struggle to work on his next novel through the turmoil. The novel takes place two years after the affair between Maurice and Sarah has ended. The characters are sad and bitter, and while this can easily fall into gloomsday reading, there is always an undercurrent of hope that the pain will go away. In the end, this book turns out more to be about a broken relationship with society and God, which ultimately makes this work timeless. For readers that sunk their teeth into Maugham and Fitzgerald, Greene is the writer for you.

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: Sarah was less superstitious and listened to a medical doctor.

More on the Museum of Broken Relationships: 

Article from NPR in 2016: “Art of Breakups: Museum Enshrines Relics of Relationships Past” 

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The_Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde

Technically, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is public domain. So the fact that I paid any money for it (even if it was just $1.50) should perhaps not be considered a “bargain.” But, hey, it covers the printing cost, right?

I picked up this book in a normal college book store in the “thrift” section where all the public domain classics are reprinted for student reference. (Dracula, Hunchback, etc.) I was drawn to it after I studied abroad and got to spend a few days in Edinburgh, Scotland. Walking through the city streets, I stumbled upon a small “Writer’s Museum” chronicling the lives of famous Scottish writers. Really — it was only about Robert Louis Stevenson. Who didn’t even stay in Scotland — he travelled to the Pacific and spent time on the Hawaiian islands and then settling in Samoa. He even spent time on Molokai with Father Damien in the leper colonies.

I guess the truth is I didn’t purchase Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because I wanted to read a good story. (Though, it was a perk.) I saw the book and I remember thinking about what I had learned about the writer and I wanted to know how his imagination worked.

In One Sentence: A doctor devises a chemical to expel himself of moral struggle.

Favorite Line: He was the usual cut and dry apothecary, of no particular age or colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe.” — p.3

Review: Only about sixty pages, this novella is interesting in how it wraps up the mystery of events and persons through telling the story through a limited perspective. The details focus on characters and their complexities, which makes sense when the big reveal is how these complexities are the driving point to why Dr. Jekyll seeks change. This is classic horror — tense, crying children, don’t go in a dark room, horror. So, read it if you haven’t. What this book does very well is establishing universal motivations in what would otherwise be despicable people. The main character, Dr. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, wants to see Jekyll happy and rational. Jekyll struggles with his humanity and wants more than anything in the world to not struggle anymore. Isn’t that what we all want?

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Dr. Jekyll had my chemistry skills. (aka NONE.)

Adaptation:

Like any classic, there are many adaptations that have come since. Here is one of my favorite “Mr. Hyde’s”.

From the film The Mask (1994).

What’s your favorite adaptation?

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Garden of Shadows

GardenofShadows

I was never really into Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, or any series associated with the modern revival of smut fiction. But, dangit, I do enjoy some V.C. Andrews. Even though the characters are melodramatic and the plot nonsensical, I’m turning the page.  What does that say about story? Whether you’re reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a pitch — the most important response you can feel as an audience member is to lean forward, ears perked, wondering what happens next. 

I found V.C. Andrews’s Garden of Shadows in a discount library bin somewhere in Orange County. I used spare change from the bottom of my purse. I had already read three of the Dollanger series (first book being the infamous Flowers in the Attic) and knew with this novel there would be at least some guarantee of that infectious can’t-put-it-down-even-though-I’m-ashamed-to-be-seen-reading-it feeling

In One Sentence: A gloomy family in a gloomy mansion foreshadow the future incestuous genetic dispositions to the Foxworth ancestry. 

Favorite Line: “Chapter 15: The Blackest of Days. — ‘Mama, I’ve become a woman!'” -p.207

Review: This book is addicting, up until it becomes very clear the downfall of all prequels. I already know what is going to happen. There may also be some consequences to the fact that part of this book is actually ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman after V.C. Andrews’s death. The novel focuses on the evil grandmother from Flowers in the Attic‘s perspective as she tries to raise a family despite her evil, cheating, lying, scumbag husband. The biggest frustration was rooting for a narrator who in the end you can’t root for! There were so many ridiculous turns that were even a bit out there for an Andrews series (incest, I can handle. But avalanches?!) I wanted the narrator, Olivia, to rise up and realize her own power over her husband but alas. The prequel serves to explain the progression of Olivia into the villain she is in the first book but I wanted her to fight against her own fate more. It could have been more tragic, more powerful, maybe less like a V.C. Andrews book… Ugh. I did this to myself.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: people didn’t constantly WANT to be miserable. 

V.C. Andrews, What We Can Learn:

It took seven years of writing–some nine novels and nearly twenty short stories–before [V.C. Andrews’s] first sale. “I wasn’t persistent about sending my manuscripts out. If they were rejected once, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a complete failure,’ and I would put them away and begin a new one. Momentarily, I would think that I wasn’t going to write anymore, but then I would go right back to the typewriter and do it again.

“I just kept right on going. Every time I heard from an editor–and I did hear from them, not just receive form rejections–they would say, ‘If you get gutsy, you’ll be sold. You’re not gutsy enough.’ And I really didn’t know what they meant, to get on the gut level, so I began to think about it. I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m writing around all of the difficult things that my mother would disapprove of.’ So once I brushed her off my shoulder and got gutsy enough, I sold. I decided that I would have to be embarrassed and write these things. That’s how simple it was. Now I don’t feel embarrassed at all.”

The reason for her success, Andrews says, is simple: “I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. I wanted my new book to be published in hardcover, and my editor said that if I wrote in a more boring style, I would go into hardcover. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest about what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.

Read the whole article: Face of Fear, 1985

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Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade

slaughterhousefive

This was my first dive into Vonnegut. There was another time, the year after college, when I sat outside of a library with a coworker handing out flyers and he read me a passage from another Vonnegut novel but I don’t think that counts because I can’t remember what it was or what was said except for the fact that it touched him deeply (the coworker, and probably Vonnegut too). I found a tattered 1960s edition of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five at a Goodwill. The yellow Goodwill sticker priced it at $2.99; inside from another thrift store was scribbled $3.00. Not much of a cut down if you ask me.

I wasn’t sure what it was about. Of course, I had heard of it, but it seemed to be a book you see more often on a reading list with no summary of plot, simply a detail of its notoriety in literary history. But, I’ve read it now, and all I can say is I understand why there is a whole school of writers studying Vonnegut.

In One Sentence: A writer tells the story of the Dresden Bombings through a man who has become unstuck in time after an alien abduction.

Favorite Line: “He did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way.” – p.150

Review: I didn’t expect to get as sucked in as I did. Such an interesting humor and perspective on people and the world. It begins with a writer, perhaps Vonnegut or maybe an unnamed Narrator, telling his friends about the book he is writing on Dresden. Then, we dive into the main story — Billy Armstrong’s story — as he travels through his own timeline full of war, death, and love after an alien abduction. The strange thing is is that this is not a science fiction story, not really. More precisely, it’s a story about telling stories as the reader feels Vonnegut circumnavigating the retelling of his own Dresden experience. And everyone who cares about reading or writing should pick this up.

This describes perfectly my feelings on this book:

nothinghurt

The Book Would Have Ended A Lot Sooner If: there were no survivors after the plane crash.

Actual Favorite Line: “She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.” – p. 152

 

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The Giver

thegiver

Sometimes I need a book for a specific purpose and I’m forced to splurge. After college, I got a job tutoring writing for middle school students. I came up with prompts teaching techniques of literature analysis and went seeking a book that would hopefully inspire ideas and get them excited about the project. Okay, honesty moment? I bought Lois Lowry’s The Giver for five dollars at my favorite used book store “Book Off”. I used it a little in my tutoring, but ended up switching to The Hunger Games.

Even though The Giver has a slower buildup and payoff for a dystopian fable, I didn’t regret the purchase. I hadn’t read it myself. In sixth grade, my teacher read it to me but looking back this is absolutely the wrong book to read aloud. The transitions between past and present bleed into each other, and if you’re only half-listening it can get rather confusing. Luckily, rediscovering the young adult novel in my twenties gave me a new opportunity to appreciate the message of the story. Plus, catch up before the new movie comes out! (We’ll get to that later…)

In One Sentence: In a “perfect” new world, a young boy is assigned to become the new host for all of society’s memories.

Favorite Line: “I liked the feeling of love,” [Jonas] confessed… “Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.'” – p. 126

Review: Looking at dystopia through the eyes of a twelve year old is interesting because that time of your life is all about the transition from accepting the world as it is and questioning it. This book has a clear message on the importance of memory, that it is something to be treasured, but takes a different turn when it can only be harnessed by one person. Most of the book is just defining the rules of this world and the underbelly that the main character Jonas discovers to be less than perfect. Because it’s a complete new society, and a lot of the work is in integrating the reader into the world, I found the characters very awkward with each other. BUT as Jonas gained more wisdom, he became less awkward — less formal — more confident in lying. It’s an unlikely future, but begs the reader to think about ‘what if?’ The ending isn’t totally satisfying, but I recommend it as a Bucket List classic. Then, you can switch to Hunger Games.

The Book Would Have Ended a Lot Sooner If: Jonas’s father decided not to nurse baby Gabriel at home.

Coming to Theaters:

Thoughts:

1. Why is most of this movie in color?!

2. Jeff Bridges. Phew.

3. Did they just show a possible ending?

4. Prediction: the rules of the world will be like the book, but they’ll add lots more conflict.

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