Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review: Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm (2006) by Polly Shulman

Back Jacket:
Jane Austen never had friends like this...

"There is little more likely to exasperate a person of sense than finding herself tied by affection and habit to an Enthusiast." Julie knows from bitter experience. Her best friend, Ashleigh, veers wildly from one obsession to the next, dragging Julie along on her crazy schemes. Ashleigh's current fancy is also Julie's own passion: Jane Austen's great love story Pride and Prejudice. Dressed in a vintage frock and dragging her feet, Julie finds herself sneaking into a dance at an all-boys' prep school with Ashleigh, in search of heroes. Unfortunately, they both fall for the same one: the handsome and gallant Grandison Parr. Will Julie have to choose between loyalty and love? Or will Ashleigh's embarrassing antics drive him away before Julie gets a chance?

Before the Review: There's this little thrift store that I frequent, largely because they almost always have an excellent selection of very gently used YA books. I don't know who's donating them, but I can frequently find recent releases and/or widely acclaimed YA novels on their shelves. I don't even have to look hard. For example, they had both Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty and M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Not that I've read them yet, or anything, but it's like shopping at Barnes and Noble. If Barnes and Noble charged a dollar. So that's where I got this book. Do you have any magical second-hand shops in your life, or are their shelves full of old Highlights magazines and Western romances from the 80s? Which, actually, is magical in its own way.

Review: Okay, so I'll be honest: I didn't have high expectations for this book going in to it. But I was looking for a light, fast read and you can probably tell from looking that it fits the bill. But. Some of the reviews suggested that "Enthusiasm has the makings of an instant classic." It's not true. (I'm looking at you, Time magazine. You are lying liars.) I mean, sure, it was light and I guess it could have been fast, but usually I can destroy 198 pages in an hour and this thing took me like a week. It's like watching a straight-to-DVD movie: there isn't a whole lot to it but it draaaaaaags. And I think the reason was this: the characters were kind of flat, the writing was average, and the crises arose from miscommunications that, you know, usually make for a comedy of errors but instead just had me sighing.

However, I did find some of the bonus material at the back interesting. For instance, the title is Enthusiasm because Jane Austen's niece wrote a novel with that title. Also, Grandison Parr is named after one of Austen's favorite literary characters. Yay for fun facts!

Conclusion: Reading over this, my review sounds disdainful and nasty when it's not really deserved; Enthusiasm wasn't bad by any means, it just wasn't exactly good. I give it 3/5. It fulfills everything it set out to do: it's breezy, entertaining, and caters to Austen fans and has boys with good manners and fencing skills.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: Flipped

Flipped (2001) by Wendelin Van Draanen

Back Jacket:
Bryce: My mom didn't understand why it was so awful that "that cute little girl" had held my hand. She thought I should be friends with her. "You like soccer. Why don't you go out there and kick the ball around?" Because I didn't want to be kicked around, that's why. And although I couldn't say it like that at the time, I still had enough sense at age seven and a half to know that Julianna Baker was dangerous.

Julianna: What did a kiss feel like anyway? Somehow I knew it wouldn't be like the one I got from Mom or Dad at bedtime. The same species, maybe, but a radically different beast. Like a wolf and a whippet. Only science would put them on the same tree. Looking back, I like to think it was at least partly scientific curiosity that made me chase after that kiss, but it was probably more those blue eyes.

Review: This is a fun read, but ultimately not as light-hearted as the back jacket makes it seem. Which is actually a good thing; this book has a lot of substance. Van Draanen tackles issues of family, prejudice, stereotypes and (of course) first loves. Bryce and Julianna are drastically different characters, and Van Draanen does an excellent job of giving each their own distinct voice. Each chapter alternates point of view between Bryce and Julianna, so the reader is often privy to the same event or conversation from both views. Many books alternate POV, but few re-visit the same scene, which is essential to this story's point of seeing things in different lights. Often, Bryce assumes that he knows Julianna's motivations behind an action or comment but when readers get it from Julianna's POV they discover that Bryce is wrong a lot. It reminds me of something Mark Twain said: "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so." Because Bryce gets himself into all sorts of trouble due to what he thinks he knows.

I also really enjoyed the side characters: Bryce's sister, Julianna's brothers (who, in a happy coincidence, are oddly reminiscent of the Weasley twins...if the Weasley twins owned a boa constrictor and were making music instead of jokes), and the families of both main characters have relatively small roles but are also very important to the character arcs. Julianna has a really solid relationship with her family--her dad, especially--and over the course of the book, readers follow the change in Bryce's relationship with his own father.

Apparently, this book has been made into a movie starring two very charming young people:

While the book is seemingly set in modern times, the movie version is clearly set in the 50s. I actually really like this change, because movies set in the 50s have a certain nostalgic charm to them and also when I read the book, some parts seemed to fit better in an older time. Also, if you watched the preview, that chicken scene is hilarious in the book.

Conclusion: I give this book a 4/5. At times, the writing seemed better fitting for a Middle Grade book, and my first impression was that while I really enjoyed myself, I probably wouldn't read it again. But I realized that several days later I am still thinking about it, and what really did it was this: the beginning and the ending tied together perfectly and left an impact. Ultimately, Flipped is fast and light-hearted with a thoughtful, relevant message.


PS: If you've read the book and seen the preview, what do you think of the time change?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2007) by Peter Cameron

Back Jacket: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is the story of James Sveck, a sophisticated, vulnerable young man with a deep appreciation for the world and no idea how to live in it. James is eighteen, the child of divorced parents living in Manhattan. Articulate, sensitive, and cynical, he rejects all of the assumptions that govern the adult world around him--including the expectation that he will go to college in the fall. He would prefer to move to an old house in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You takes place over a few broiling days in the summer of 2003 as James confides in his sympathetic grandmother, stymies his canny therapist, deplores his pretentious sister, and devises a fake online identity in order to pursue his crush on a much older coworker. Nothing turns out how he'd expected.

Review: I was originally drawn to this book because of the simple cover and, of course, the title. This is one of those titles that, incredibly, gives you a sense of what the entire book will be like. I know people say this all the time about books, and it's almost never true, but this book really is like Catcher in the Rye, if Holden Caulfield were working at his mother's art gallery in the 21st century. I always angst over writing reviews for books that I find moving or meaningful, because I feel as though I cannot possibly cover everything that deserves to be touched upon and do it justice. So sometimes short and simple is best.

The back jacket synopsis describes James Sveck really well, capturing the most evident qualities of his complex character. My favorite kinds of books are character driven, so while there are "events" throughout the novel, they are the type of everyday events that may seem insignificant, or are simply the consequences of a character being who they are. The voice in this book is incredible, and you really get the sense of James' surface disdain for things like stupid questions, small talk, and other social conventions; but you also get a sense of his vulnerability and, of course, pain. For example, when he takes the family dog Miro for a walk:

The dog run is this area of the park that is completely fenced, and once you pass through the two gates, which upon penalty of death must never be simultaneously opened, you can let your dog off the leash and let it frolic with its own kind. When I arrived at about four o'clock, it was fairly empty. The people who didn't have real jobs who frequented the dog run during the day had left, and the people who had real jobs hadn't yet arrived....There is a sense of camaraderie in the dog run that I hate. This sort of smug friendliness dog owners share that they feel entitles them to interact. If I was sitting on a bench in the park proper, no one would approach me, but in the dog run it's as if you are on some distant weirdly friendly planet. "Oh, is that a standard poodle?" people will ask, or "Is it a he or a she?" or some other idiotic question. Fortunately the dog walkers, professionals that they are, only talk to one another, in the same way I have noticed that nannies and mothers never interact in the playground: each, like the dog walkers and dog owners, sticks to its kind. And so Miro and I were left alone.
And later, when he's in a session with a therapist that his parents wanted him to meet with. James has just said that he feels like he could have their conversation by himself at home and Dr. Adler asks if he doubts the sessions will help him:

I looked around her office. I know it sounds terrible, but I was discouraged by the ordinariness, the expectedness, of it. It was as if there was a catalog for therapists to order a complete office from: furniture, carpet, wall hangings, even the ficus tree seemed depressingly generic. Like one of those little paper pellets you put in water that puffs up and turns into a lotus blossom. This was like a puffed-up shrink's office.

"How should I know if this will help me? It's like asking someone who's swimming the English Channel if they will get across. There's no way they know."

"Yes, but they can
believe they can swim across. Otherwise why would they set out? You wouldn't begin to swim across the Channel if you were sure you couldn't make it."

"You might," I said.

"Would you? Why?"

"I can't believe we're talking about people swimming across the English Channel."

"It was an analogy that you made."

"I know. I just don't think it deserves this kind of scrutiny."

She sort of squinted for a moment, and then said, "Why do you think you used that analogy?"

I shrugged. "I don't know," I said.

"Well, think about it," she said. "Why the English Channel?"

"Because I see not feeling sad as a sort of Herculean task."

"Yes, but any number of tasks might be considered Herculean. In fact, Hercules performed seven tasks. Why do you think you chose swimming the English Channel?"

I was fairly certain that Hercules performed more than seven tasks (I checked later and I was right: it was twelve), but I decided to let that pass.

Cameron does a superb job with the natural cadences, word choice, and phrasing of each character's dialogue. It really feels natural to me, like you are eavesdropping on real conversations more than reading a book.

Conclusion: I give this 5/5 because, while I was in some ways unsettled by it when I read it, it was in a good way. It's one of those books I like to sit with for a bit, and often it's when I'm thinking about it afterward that I realize how truly fantastic it was. This is a hopeful book, and timidly optimistic if not particularly feel-good. But most of all it is funny, poignant, and heart-achingly familiar.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Book Meme: Quick, Everyone Follow Suit!

Hey, everyone! I decided I should try this meme that I found over at Brooke's Box of Books since it looked fun and also I have never done a meme in my life.

One book that changed your life: Harry Potter. I think about it in some form everyday. Every. Day.

One book you have to read more than once: The Dive From Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer. I definitely appreciated more nuances the second and third time through.

One book you’d want on a desert island: Probably Harry Potter. Something old, well-loved, and that never disappoints.

Two books that made you laugh: Nine Rules to Break When Seducing a Rake by Sarah Maclean and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

One book that made you cry: Into the Forest by Jean Hegland.

One book you wish you’d written: Maybe Ella Enchanted. I'm sure there are lots I wish I'd written.

One book you wish was NEVER written: Nothing's coming to mind right now. Although if I had to have an answer, it might be The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner.

Two books you are currently reading: Nine Rules to Break When Seducing a Rake by Sarah Maclean and The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney.

One book you’ve been meaning to read: The Riddle by Alison Croggon. It's probably never going to happen, despite the way it gives me the evil eye from my bookshelf every day.

*I am aware that it looks as though I have bird feet for hands. Rest assured, I do not have bird feet hands IRL.
**But yes, my furniture really does float in space.