Boarding School Fiction(9/18/2018)
Boarding schools have always been fascinating to me. Imagine leaving your family behind to live with your friends in a venerable stone pile surrounded by playing fields and ancient trees. But also imagine the cruel teachers, snobby students and intense pressure inherent in the boarding school milieu. Boarding schools are ripe for all sorts of fiction---horror, mystery and coming-of-age. Authors have taken the setting as an opportunity to intensify teenage angst to a boiling point (Holden Caulfield, remember, starts out at a boarding school).
Something Dangerous by Patrick Redmond exploits the dark side of what we imagine boarding school in the 1950s to be like: repressive discipline, pressure to conform. Set in a remote seaside town with an imposing Gothic edifice, Kirston Abbey is the picture of malign schooling. The story is told from the perspective of Jonathon Palmer, a shy boy from new money finding his way in the school populated by aristocrats. Richard Rokeby, the handsomest, most academically gifted boy in school— who also happens to be the most mysterious-- befriends Jonathon. Jonathon soon finds though that there is more to his new friend than he imagined. Straddling the line between thriller and horror, this first novel is impossible to put down.
Curtis Settenfeld’s Prep couldn’t be more different from Something Dangerous, but it is set in a boarding school. Lee Fiona is an outsider—coming to an elite prep school from the Midwest and not privy to their East coast, old money ways. Because most of us remember the teen years as being a study in exclusion, her experience is more universal than the setting would allow. The hardest thing for her at Ault is not that she is an outcast—it’s that she is nothing. One of the strongest points of this novel is the author doesn’t play on stereotypes when it comes to Lee—she may be surrounded by cardboard cutouts of teenagers, but Lee lives and breathes on every page.
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris builds slowly to an unforgettable ending. Roy Straitley is a jaded classics professor about to retire from the prestigious St. Owald’s. However, a new teacher is intent on bringing the school down through deceit or even murder to avenge old wrongs. Told in alternating chapters narrated by Straitley and the perpetrator, this book keeps you guessing until the final twist. Throughout, Harris evokes the lovely smell of autumn and chalk dust while building her riveting plot.
As a bonus title, Whipping Boy by Allen Kurzweil is a non-fiction book about the author’s abuse at the hands of a bully at a Swiss boarding school, and then his 40-year search to find out what became of the boy. Part childhood memoir and part mystery, this book is more complicated than the description I just gave expresses. Although the boarding school aspect is relatively small, the whole rest of the book was so good it deserves a read.
The Great American Read(7/24/2018)
PBS is hosting a multiple part series this Fall on America’s 100 “best loved” novels. They did a nationwide survey asking Americans to name their favorite book and narrowed the responses to 100 fiction titles. As a result of this monumental survey, they chose 100 books and are encouraging Americans to read them and vote for their favorite on their website.
In May, they had a 2 hour kick-off special (which can be watched here).
The aim of the series is “to get the country reading and passionately talking about books.” This aim has been successful as far as I can see, because I have had many library users come in and ask for titles from the list. After watching the kick-off episode, I have half a dozen books to add to my (already lengthy) to be read list.
I am always amazed at how people want to be told what to read: the popularity of celebrity book clubs is a powerful testament to this. There is an undeniable allure to making your way through a list of “best” books. What makes the Great American Read different, in my view, is that it is not touting the quality of the literature represented (50 Shades of Gray and Da Vinci Code are on the list), but rather the quality of the reading experience. These are books people loved, ostensibly for the joy reading gave them.
Of course, the classics are on the list as well. Pride and Prejudice is surely a favorite of many despite being over 200 years old.
The series kickoff features various people—famous and not so famous—evangelizing for their favorite book. Indeed, the premise of the series seems to be to advocate for your favorite book to get it votes. The first book I remember anyone trying to sell me on was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. That was over 30 years ago, and, surprisingly, that title is on this list.
Many of the favorites mentioned in the kick off special are favorites because they speak to the identity of their readers. When Chicanos read Bless Me, Ultima, I imagine it speaks to them differently than it would speak to me. One of my favorites is Gone with the Wind, but I imagine I would feel very differently about it if I were African American.
One identity we all have shared though is that of being a young person. The most interesting segment in the kick-off special featured young adult author John Green talking about Catcher in the Rye. He said how reading the book as an adult, he recognized how vulnerable Holden Caulfield was, how he was searching for a place in the world he may not find. This reminded me of the saying “you never cross the same river twice.” You never read the same book twice, because you are a different person the next time you read it. I hope the Great American read encourages us to reread the books we loved as young people to see what they can tell us now.
We own almost all of these titles—so check them out and vote for your favorite.
Outdoor Adventure Mysteries(5/21/2018)
Combining the allure of an unsolved mystery and the danger of the wilderness, each of these titles examines the lives and circumstances of adventurers who have disappeared while exploring.
In 1959, a group of 9 college hikers disappeared in the Ural Mountains. On the face of it, this would not seem too unusual, as weather conditions were harsh and the area was known to be dangerous . What is odd, however, is that their bodies were found far from their campsite, inadequately clothed for the conditions, and the campsite completely undisturbed, with even a cup of tea still sitting awaiting its drinker! Add to that Cold War paranoia, traces of radioactivity, unexpected causes of death and the Dyatlov Pass incident has fueled decades of speculation and conspiracy theories. In Dead Mountain, outdoor journalist Donnie Eichar uses previously unreleased Soviet archives, unprecedented access to the hikers’ journals as well as his own re-following of their footsteps to develop a theory of their disappearance. This book was so gripping I read it in one sitting.
David Grann also retraces the steps of his subject in The Lost City of Z. Percy Fawcett was a British explorer who ventured into the Amazonian jungle in search of a fabled civilization, the City of Z and was never seen again. Many expeditions have been launched over the years searching for evidence of Fawcett and his party and all have come up with nothing. Journalist Grann, who also wrote the bestselling Killers of the Flower Moon, was captivated by the story and hearing of new evidence relating to the expedition, set out for the Amazon to see what he could find. This book is part travelogue, part mystery and reads like a thriller.
A more familiar wilderness disappearance, at least to American readers, is that of Everett Ruess. Ruess was an explorer and artist, friend of Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, who disappeared in the Southwest in 1934 at the age of 20. At the time of his disappearance, the southwest was as remote, forbidding and beautiful as any place on earth. In Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts, the author captures this milieu and examines not only Ruess’ disappearance but the legacy his explorations and his mystery have left through the decades.
Most of you have probably heard of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Like Ruess, who probably inspired him, Chris McCandless left civilization behind to explore the American wilderness. He started in the Southwest and eventually made it to Alaska, where his body was found. We know what happened to McCandless, so the mystery that Krakauer explores is why he acted as he did. Krakauer explores his motivations, examining the draw of the wilderness that caused him to leave his comfortable life and family to ultimately die alone in the wild. Krakauer’s book is a classic, as is the movie based on it.
Little House IRL(02/26/2018)
For generations of Americans, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of growing up on the American Frontier provided not just a backdrop to their childhood, but also their education in pioneer life and American history and values. Wilder’s stories give us a powerful vision of self-reliance and victory over adversity as well as a cozy picture of family life. What we forget is that Wilder’s books are fiction; historical fiction, to be sure, but not strictly autobiography and never were intended to be. In recent years, several books have been published that attempt to fill in the true story of Wilder’s remarkable life.
Published in 2014, Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography is Wilder’s first draft of her memoirs, the source content for what would become the fiction series we’re familiar with. This non-fiction book, however, has episodes and perspectives that were edited out of the fiction series, written as it was for children and heavily influenced by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Pioneer Girl is also packed with annotations, giving cultural context to her memoirs with newspaper stories, census records and factual background that will inform and round out the tales told in the fiction series. For the casual reader, this book might be a bit much, but true fans will thrill to the details given of Laura’s life.
Last year, Caroline Fraser wrote Prairie Fires which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by the New York Times Book Review. Like Pioneer Girl, Fraser makes Wilder’s stories real and gives them background. She also has drawn on unpublished memoirs, letters and records to illuminate and contextualize Wilder’s entire long life. Fraser works to flesh out such idealized characters as Pa, eulogized in fiction as hardworking, resilient and ever cheerful. In real life, Charles Ingalls was morally ambiguous, put his family in harm’s way more than once and attempted to settle land he knew belonged to the Osage. Fraser puts the whole story of Wilder’s life in larger context, a context Laura herself may never have been aware of. Wilder’s life is both harsher and more exhilarating than the sanitized version presented in her fiction.
If the above sound a bit heavy, try The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, an irreverent exploration of Laura’s life as well as a travelogue to her home sites. This is McClure’s journey through “Laura World” as she calls it, a personal exploration of what the Little House books meant to her growing up and how she confronts the reality of Laura’s life as it actually was. Along the way she has hilarious adventures and meets fellow pilgrims who are also exploring what Laura’s life meant to them.
The dark and cold of winter reminds us of our mortality and the fragility of our survival. These titles explore the winter world through the adaptations living creatures make to survive it.
Naturalist Bernd Heinrich’s book, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, focuses on the ways that animals survive the cruelties of extreme cold. Because cold changes the substance most essential to life, water, animals must modify their very biology to survive harsh winters. Heinrich lives in Maine and Vermont and uses these locations to see for himself how his animal neighbors survive. He uncovers nests of overwintering bugs and cozy beaver lodges; he watches fluffed up birds search for food through the snow. His awe at their adaptations is evident in every page.
If reading Winter World makes you want to explore more in depth and technically the way animals survive the winter, try Life in the Cold by Peter Marchand. Marchand takes the concepts poetically meditated upon by Heinrich and takes them apart scientifically. For example, there is an equation that demonstrates the energetic advantage of huddling. (Also suitable for a Valentine’s card for your favorite geek). Marchand also covers plants and their survival mechanisms in the cold. This one’s pretty technical, but if you’re science oriented and a nature lover, you just might love it.
For those of us humans who find winter survival challenging, not for its physical rigors, but rather the mental ones, Winter: a Spiritual Biography is a balm for the soul. This is a collection of essays and poems from around the world that discuss how the barrenness of winter can be life giving to our spirituality. Rather than extolling the coziness of the season, these writers praise the brutality and harshness of the season. John Updike’s essay, “The Cold”, for example appreciates winter for the insight it gives us into our frailty and need for civilization. He wrote the essay for a Brazilian newspaper after a Brazilian friend observed that Brazilians do not understand the cold. Contributions from Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard and others cover spirituality, nature and philosophy as illuminated by the winter season.