I’m at the end of a week of reading a bunch of stuff that didn’t suck. It’s awesome when that happens, you guys. Everything this week has been well-written and masterfully crafted. I love weeks like this.
Two of this week’s books cover the same time period: The Falls and Breathing Lessons both take a look at a life from the mid-fifties to the late seventies. The Falls covers that time period as it happens (in the confines of the story) and Breathing Lessons covers it in memories and flashbacks and it’s interesting to me to consider both the similarities and the differences between the two. My takeaway from that little exercise: people from Maryland are normal and people from New York are whack.
And with that, onto the reviews!
The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates
- Modern literature
- Kindle e-book, borrowed from library
- PopSugar Challenge Category: A book set somewhere that you’ve always wanted to visit
I chose this book because I’ve dreamed of Niagara Falls for what feels like my whole life. I imagine the noise, the mist, the drama and majesty. I think about people throwing themselves into that turmoil, knowing that they won’t make it out alive. How much braver is that than simply jumping from a bridge? The drama, beauty, and sheer awesomeness of it make it show up regularly in my dreams. I’ve even wondered if actually experiencing it would cheapen the dream.
Reading this book added a new lens through which I can view the Falls. The story follows the life of Ariah, a Protestent minister’s daughter from Troy, New York. She’s on her honeymoon in the fifties, she’s twenty-nine years old and has married so late in life (for her time and culture) that she knows nothing about her new husband, and so is blind-sided by him throwing himself over the railing and into the Falls on their first morning as husband and wife. This even sets the stage for everything that follows: her second marriage to a well-known and respected Niagara Falls attorney, her life as a member of upper-class Falls society, her three children, her fall back to where she came from, so to speak. We follow her up to 1979, and view her from her childrens’ perspectives, and see how their lives have been shaped by her personality and her choices.
I did not like Ariah as a character, and I would not have wanted to be a friend of hers. I did not like the way she behaved, the choices that she made, her interactions with her children. I didn’t notice until I’d finished, though, that I found her so very unlikeable. I’m reminded of several discussions I’ve heard on podcasts about unlikeable characters and how some readers won’t read books that focus on people we just cannot root for. In Ariah’s case, I could root for the people around her and I could become absorbed in this awesome story of how man can mess stuff up.
A large part of the narrative talks about Love Canal and the effect it had on the region. In retrospect, I’d have to say that Oates did a tremendously good job of weaving fictional lives into the truth of Love Canal. It reminded me a bit of Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver in that both books talk about a serious environmental issue that is directly caused by human negligence or ignorance or downright assholishness, but they come at these issues through the carefully woven and well-developed points of view of very fictional characters. This is the first Joyce
Carol Oates I’ve read so I can’t say if environmentalism is a common theme in her works or if this is a one-off for her, but it definitely works well here. I wonder if she used the characters to tell the story of Love Canal, or if Love Canal made the perfect historical setting for the characters that had already created themselves. Either way, it worked.
I say read The Falls if you like taking a different look at an historical event, if you like characters that are so well-developed that you want to find out what happens even though you kind of hate them, or if you simply want a good and engaging read. It’s worth it.
Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
- Modern literature
- Paperback, library check-out
- PopSugar Challenge Category: A Pulitzer Prize-winning book
Oh man, what a great book. I’ve been encouraged to read Anne Tyler, both because she’s an awesome writer and because she’s a fellow Marylander, but this is the first of her books I’ve ever read. That Pulitzer was extremely well-warranted.
Breathing Lessons is a look at a single day in the lives of married couple Maggie and Ira Moran, from Baltimore Maryland. They’re on a road trip to some little town just across the line in Pennsylvania for the funeral of Maggie’s best friend Serena’s husband. Through a series of events and flashbacks, we get a look deep inside of their lives both as individuals and as half of a couple who are well into their second decade together.
Maggie and Ira’s personalities, behaviors, and interactions are as much a part of the plot as anything else. I glanced through an interview at the end of the book and Tyler said that she’s not much of an action writer, and I agree based on this book alone. It all unfolds through conversations and memories and there is almost no action. The few places where setting is used to convey the story are few and far between, and are so well-written that each one packed a punch I am still remembering – the description of Maggie’s hand trailing across the privet hedge, the view down the two streets in the town where Serena lived with her husband, the bubbling up of Coke out of a bottle that wasn’t held quite still – all beautiful, evoking feelings layered on top of clear visuals.
I’m pretty sure that the thing that will stay with me the longest was the conversation Maggie had with her mother about Fiona, the 17 year-old bride of Maggie’s 18 year-old son. The mother claims that Fiona isn’t even from Baltimore – she’s such an outsider that she can’t even pronounce Wicomico – she says “Weeko-meeko” instead. We live in Wicomico county and this is such a random and true fact that it cracked me up (It’s pronounced why-com-ih-coe, if you’re curious).
If I was one to use stars, this book would get five out of five. There is nothing I didn’t love about it. The characters are so well-developed that I feel like they’re relatives, the setting is perfect for the story (an open country road, occasionally dotted with farms and tiny crossroads-towns is the perfect place to delve into your memories, especially if you’re not driving), and the arc is incredibly well-done considering the story only covers twenty-four hours. I’ll be looking for every single book she’s written.
I’ll be redundant and give my recommendation: READ IT.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Coming of age
- Paperback, library book (YA section)
- PopSugar category: A banned book
I’ve heard, more times than a few, comparisons between A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye. Since I read Catcher so recently, I found those comparisons in the front of my mind as I went into A Separate Peace. I found obvious similarities in setting (a boy’s boarding school in New England), voice (both are narrated by a boy in high school), and war as a sub-theme (Catcher is set just after World War I and Peace during World War II). Yes, it would be easy to call them similar based on those things.But there are more differences than similarities.
Although Gene has been with his class at Devon, he’s a bit of an outsider because he’s not a native New Englander. We never find out where he’s from, except that it’s south, but not as far south as he sometimes pretends (my guess would be Maryland or Virginia – not that it matters). He’s smart and intellectually driven. His roommate Phineas, or Finny, is from Boston and is Gene’s opposite and many ways. Finny is graceful and athletic, the frequent descriptions of how he moves and how he occupies space are sheer poetry. Finny is popular and a born leader, is irreverent and a natural storyteller, is unconsciously aware of his ability to enchant all around him. And because of the sort of person that he is, he chooses outsider brainiac Gene as his best friend.
Of course, things go awry. Gene is all but eaten up with jealousy of Finny and is at an age where he doesn’t really understand what he’s feeling or why. He lets the feelings rule, though, and does something that will touch him for the rest of his life. In fact, the story that we’re told is a much older Gene’s memories of what happened, memories brought to the surface by a visit to the school when he’s much older.
I’ve commented before on the fact that I keep reading books set in World War II. I get that as a device; it’s so multi-faceted and well-documented that it’s a great go-to. But where some books I’ve read use the war as a sort of scapegoat, easy out, others weave it in so well that it is a natural part of the narrative. A Separate Peace is the second type. I was left with the feeling that such things could only happen in that atmosphere; in a school that should have honored academics above all else, Devon was focusing on creating soldiers and making athletic ability king.
If you’re like me and were never assigned this book to read in school, you should really check it out. It’s more a look at jealousy and the darker side of adolescence than historical fiction. It reads smoothly and quickly and the ending is not what you’d expect it to be. Don’t pay any attention to the naysayers who claim that the book was irrelevant when it was published and is even more so now – jealousy is not something that ceased to exist with the coming of the 21st century.
- Jenny Pox by J.L. Bryan
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
- The Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle
- An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison