A Prescription for Comfort Books

When an Advil at breakfast no longer seemed like such a good idea to my stomach and wasn’t doing a whole lot for my aching back anyway,  focusing on reading a book was hard – but I wanted the distraction so badly.  YA books came to the rescue – from unlikely sources.

UnknownBuried in a pile of old Scholastic books, I found an Alice Hoffman story about a mermaid – Aquamarine.  Hoffman is one of my favorite writers for magical realism; I’ve read most of her books for adults and eagerly anticipate her next one.  Aquamarine is a short tale, not requiring a lot of time or attention; it flows easily into a story about two friends about to be separated at the end of the summer.  Aquamarine is a real mermaid, of course, accidentally trapped in a swimming pool after a storm.

41sKG6FpKvL._AC_UL160_Although I had started reading Eleanor and Park when it was first published in 2012, I never read past the sample pages on my iPhone.  When my ninety-two year old friend suggested we be a book club of two to discuss the ending, I downloaded the story of the two teenagers’ story of first love.  Not exactly star-crossed lovers, these two are from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but they connect on the school bus and save each other.  A short easy read with an ending my friend says “left her with a good vibe” – glad I read it.

y450-300A recent New York Times article by author Robert Lipsyte  – “My Struggle to Write Honestly About a Test of Manhood” -alerted me to his YA book – One Fat Summer.  The book has been reframed into a movie – “The Measure of a Man,” but the book sounds better.  I have it on my iPhone to read.

“In “One Fat Summer,” my glorified semi-autobiographical hero, Bobby, stood up to the bullies and survived their beating, an important lesson for males then. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. He endured the summer in what he thought was manly fashion, hanging tough, taking risks and trusting only himself. No wonder at the end, the girl liked him back. At least in the novel.”

img_5943-e1453331441807And finally, Margery Sharp.  I found this author through an old movie with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones in “Cluny Brown.”  Cluny Brown may be the patron saint of the distracted and Sharp perfected the easy style of story telling with  a Sophie Kinsella flair over eighty years ago.  The movie led to reading her books – funny and comforting.  I had forgotten about “The Gipsy in the Parlor,”  a two dollar purchase buried in my list of books on my iPhone.  Not a YA book, but easy reading and I am now happily and distractedly enjoying it .

Do you have a favorite YA book or some easy reading to recommend for an aching back?

 

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My Name is Victoria

51CcJuhIa1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  Lucy Worsley describes herself “by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and by night a writer of history books.” I first met her as the narrator of a BBC documentary about the wives of Henry VIII as she whispered commentary behind the scenes of the royal trysts.  Dressed as a maid servant in the series, her short blonde bob and posh accent gave her an air of the friendly yet knowledgable expert in British royal history.  With PBS Masterpiece Theater about to launch the third season of “Victoria,” her children’s book about an overlooked chapter in Queen Victoria’s young life is tantalizing.

As I read, I checked Worsley’s facts.  She didn’t make it all up; her historical novel fictionalizes a relationship between young Victoria and John Conroy’s daughter that did exist, and marks the introduction of Victoria’s beloved spaniel Dash into court life.

Kensington Palace may hold the upscale apartments of Princes William and Harry today, but Victoria felt trapped inside its dreary walls when she was a young girl, waiting to be queen.  John Conroy, the villain Irish comptroller and lover to her mother the Duchess of Kent, imposes rules restricting Victoria’s access and keeping her under constant guard, not only to keep her safe from her relatives who would kill her to get themselves closer to the throne but also to control her.  To offer some respite from the hostile environment of his Kensington System, Conroy brings his young daughter and her dog Dash to live as companions and playmates.  His daughter, Miss V, also named Victoria is also expected to spy on the young princess.

Historical references to Queen Victoria’s diaries have Miss V as a despised and suspicious tool of her father, but Worsley discounts those descriptions and has the two girls as friends growing up together.  The famous dolls are featured as are Victoria’s temper tantrums and her resistance to handing over regency power to the ambitious Sir John.  Handsome Prince Albert makes an appearance later in the book.

Worsely deftly educates the reader while offering some tantalizing possibilities about Victoria’s personality.  Her surprise ending actually has some creditability, feeding on the nineteenth century rumor of Victoria’s illegitimacy noted in A.N. Wilson’s biography Victoria: A Life.   It was still a surprise,and I loved it.

Never again will readers think of Queen Victoria as the overweight matron in black.  Worsley reminds us – like everyone who grows old, she once had a life.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

930857You might be reading Shakespeare without knowing it.  Hogarth Press commissioned a series of novels by famous novelists to retell and modernize tales from Shakespeare.  You can read them as tragedies or comedies without knowing the original plays, but comparing the modern action to a Shakespearean plot lends the story more panache and certainly proves Shakespeare’s universality and timeliness.

If you are not up to rereading the plays in the original verse ( not a bad idea), you could try two other sources for quick background reading. In 1807 Charles and Mary Lamb tried to make the Bard more accessible to children by writing their summaries of plots in Tales from Shakespeare for young readers.  Their book is available online for free. And in 2004 Tina Packer, the President and Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company, summarized Shakespeare’s plots and characterizations in another book for young readers.  Unlike the Lamb book, Packer inserts dialogue from the plays with the effect of giving the reader the pleasure of some of the play’s most memorable lines, and making the original works more approachable and understandable.

Adam Gopnik in his 2016 essay for The New Yorker, says “the authors in the Hogarth series…aren’t so much reimagining the stories as reacting to the plays.  They’ve taken on not the tale itself but the twists in the tale that produced the Shakespearean themes we still debate” anti-Semitism, the subjugation of women, art and isolation…if Shakespeare is our contemporary, it is not because he shares our attitudes but because he shares our agonies.”

Hogarth’s list includes:

  • Howard Jacobson modernizing “The Merchant of Venice” in Shylock is My Name
  • Anne Tyler updating “Taming of the Shrew” in Vinegar Girl
  • Margaret Atwood doing “Tempest” in Hag Seed
  • Jo Nesbo retelling Macbeth.
  • Jeanette Winterson has “The Winter’s Tale” set in 2008 London in The Gap of Time
  • Tracy Chevalier places “Othello” in a 1970’s schoolyard in New Boy.
  • Edward St. Aubyn recreates “King Lear” in Dunbar.

I’ve read two books in the series and enjoyed them both, but maybe because they were based on two of my favorite Shakespearean plays.  I’ve included the reviews below – and highly recommend them – an easy way to get a little Shakespeare into  your reading.

  1. Review of Vinegar Girl
  2. Review of Dunbar

Wolf Hollow

9781101994825_p0_v2_s192x300     Bullies are mean and terrorizing.  Lauren Wolk’s coming of age novel Wolf Hollow demonstrates how ruthless and damaging lies and bullies can be.  Targeted for a young audience, the story’s message is appropriate for adults, reminding them not only of their responsibility to be aware of prejudicial labelling and scapegoating but also of the consequences of intolerance when left unchecked.

Although the story is set  in Western Pennsylvania in 1943, the theme is universal and could be happening today.  Annabelle, a precocious twelve year old who lives on a farm with her brothers and parents, narrates the story.  Betty, the new mean girl at school, who has been sent to live with her grandparents because she is “incorrigible” threatens Annabelle and her brothers; Betty is a “dark-hearted girl,” without morals or remorse, who beats Annabelle with a stick and breaks a bird’s neck.

Toby, the unshaven and tattered reclusive veteran of World War I,  roams the hills with his empty guns on his back; his mental health and morals are suspect and neighbors tolerate him as long as he stays out of the way.  But Annabelle’s mother, as well as Annabelle, see a harmless kind man with scars on his hand from the war, who lives a solitary life recovering from the horrors he faced as a soldier.  When Toby comes to Annabelle’s rescue from Betty,  Betty’s vengeful lies escalate to blame Toby for her own actions when she blinds a classmate and later tries to harm Annabelle’s brothers.

Betty’s determination to frame Toby awakens Annabelle’s protective instinct for the innocent man, and the plot turns into a series of soul-wrenching decisions and suspense as Betty unexpectedly disappears, and Annabelle determines her role in deciphering and exposing the truth.

The action escalates at the end, leading to a jarring but realistic conclusion.  Annabelle learns a lesson many adults are still grappling with:

“The stone made me aware for the first time that my life, however long, would amount to nothing more than a flicker. Not even a flicker. Not even a sigh…

And I decided that there might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried. Though try I would.

And that there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say.

But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried away with me that day:  If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

Beautifully written…a book adults should discuss…

 

 

 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

9780385741262_p0_v3_s260x420E. Lockhart’s young adult novel We Were Liars has been designated by some as the Gone Girl of the teen set. Similarities include an unreliable narrator who leads the reader astray, the unexpected twists that change the plot, and of course, the shocking revelation at the end.  Do not skip to the last section titled “truth” if you like to savor the mystery and try to figure it out yourself.

  • The setting:  a rich family summering at their Martha’s Vineyard compound
  • The characters: the wealthy family patriach, with three divorced daughters bickering over trust funds and inheritance, and assorted grandchildren
  • The Liars:  the three teenage cousins, including the narrator, Cadence, and a handsome outsider, Gat, a love interest for Cadence

Summers in New England are intense, as Lockhart methodically peels away the facade of the perfect rich family, revealing petty jealousies and hidden prejudice. An accident during the summer of her 15th year leaves Cadence with crippling migraines and total amnesia. She cannot remember what actually happened, and Lockhart cleverly sustains the mystery, with clues that don’t seem obvious until the end.  When Cadence returns to the beach, two years later, all is revealed in a stunning plot twist.

Throughout the story, Lockhart inserts shortened versions of fairy tales, linking the cousins, their mothers, and the grandfather – an eerie Grimm perspective.  Like a Grimm fairy tale, the story has a moral and a high price for redemption.  The ending left me wondering if Cadence ever would recover – although she does finally remember.  Lockhart may have offered a strong lesson for younger readers about greed and keeping up appearances, but I will remember her observations of the fairy-tale family who actually lived in a nightmare.