Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

This book is heart-breaking, beautiful, completely engaging. I read it on a bus ride from DC to NYC and the people onboard must have thought I was nuts, as I was visibly crying numerous times. Maynard authentically captured the voice of a thirteen year old.  Wendy is full of angst and confusion.  She is a budding individual.

I love the way she had the character write about The Diary of Anne Frank and Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding. As a former Middle School English teacher I saw Wendy’s voice as incredibly authentic, as if she was penning a reading response, the way my students used to be required to do.                      

Maynard’s characters are so vivid, so human. That is what I love about the book: the way it captured the bite of the real. The humanity. The authenticity. Wendy is a thirteen year old on the cusp of adolescence, suddenly wanting nothing to do with her mother and love-dovey step father or her adorable baby brother. She has a wonderful family life but she starts feeling misunderstood. All of that is shattered post 9/11 when her mother doesn’t return home from the World Trade Center.                  

The structure of the story is unique. It starts with September 11 and moves both forward and backwards, exploring the story of Wendy’s mom and dad, Wendy’s mother and Josh (the bass-playing, jazz loving step dad who honestly views Wendy as his daughter), how Wendy’s mother gives up her dream of being a dancer to support her daughter (she becomes a secretary at a law firm).                                                                                                                            

As the story moves forward we are introduced to various vivid characters. In New York the faces of people who decorate missing posters including one heroic fire fighter, Wendy’s dramatic best friend Amelia, Wendy’s mother’s best friend Kate. In California we are introduced to a cactus-growing, tarot card reader, a runaway skateboarder searching for his beloved brother, Alan, the father of a severely autistic son who owns an amazing book store and introduces Wendy to a series of wonderful novels.

The most vivid characters are Wendy’s family: her mother who wore dance costumes as outfits and did a Ginger Rodgers-Frank Sinatra routine with 4 year old Louie. Louie is an amazing character as well – a four year old trying to deal with loss, hoping magic can bring back all he has lost.And then there is Josh – a man devastated by the loss of his wife. A character I can envision in my head with his green sweats, messy hair, vitriolic feelings towards margarine and love for Janet and music. All of the characters embrace life in such a full-hearted way. I hope this book helps me to snap out of funk and figure out what is going to make me happy. This combination of beautiful language and amazing stories is what makes me a die-hard reader.

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

I am sure there are countless written reviews of “The Ten Year Nap” on the web. After all it was a New York Times Bestseller. But I was a reluctant reader. It was simply one of the best options at the “I Love LA” store in the Delta terminal at LAX. The book seemed interesting enough. But the book didn’t grip me the way most books do. I wasn’t compelled to find out the end of the story. I read it in snippets, stopping at chapter breaks – something I rarely do.

To be honest I wasn’t floored by the writing. There weren’t sentences that captured my eye and made me linger the way they did when I recently read The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard. And I didn’t feel empathy for most of the main characters. I found Amy petulant, aggravating. I understood her desire for more, her lack of love for her chosen career path, her new view on life. I could relate to her. But I didn’t care much for her. With Jill and Roberta and Karen I felt much the same way. But more than halfway through the story I was won over. I feel the story raises so many salient questions. About what makes for a fulfilling life, about gender roles and the way society socialized boys and girls.  Reading the book made me ponder all over again: “How can I best live my life?” It also made me realize how much the women of my generation take all our freedoms and abilities for granted. The four friends who have taken a “ten year nap,” are the children of a generation who paved the way for female greatness. Amy’s mother became a successful novelist and a notable feminist organizer. Jill’s mother’s absence emboldened her to work harder for success but also left her forever altered. Karen’s mother worked hard at a physically demanding job, and begrudged the way her daughter spent time dreaming of math. After finishing the book, I immediately wanted my mother and best friend to read the book. I think it is a perfect selection for a book club as it raises so many discussion-worthy questions.

Time to begin

I am a compulsive reader.  In college, I read 30 books during a spring break, more than 70 books during summer break.  I am a former English teacher who devoured YA books quickly, reading on the subway to and from school.  My students came up with a silly nickname when I told them I read two books about the same character in one evening (Sharon Flake's Money Hungry and Begging for Change) - and so I became "Marnie Pants."  My happy place, and home away from home is Barnes and Noble. And my old favorite doorman called me Marnes and Noble.

In the first few entries, I will be posting about the books I have recently finished. And then I will begin to review books in real time.  I am very excited to share my thoughts.