Saturday, May 30, 2009

Why I Read Fiction, Part I

W, my more than a friend, is a non-fiction fan.  He told me that he and his college friends used to discuss the merits of fiction vs. non fiction.  I of course have a lot of thoughts on this matter.

Here are my first thoughts, taken from a letter I wrote W. one day.

I was in the library before, in happy me mode, reading and I thought once again of why I love fiction. I know I will never win you over, and I don't even want to change your mind. But, I do want to explain myself fully - so that you fully get it. I went to the library and picked up a YA book I've been reading. And it was about a girl with cystic fibrosis, 19, a high school senior facing certainty in the worst form: knowing death is coming.

The reason I love fiction is yes, it allows me to escape. But it also allows me to think from a new perspective. It allows me to walk in another's shoes a la To Kill a Mockingbird.

This book forced me to think about young people facing death.  And I am worried about the degrees next to the names on a resume, the working hours sooner as opposed to later?

I need the perspective fiction forces me to consider. I need to get outside the repeating loops of static noise, the logic that takes me from A to B from Z to C.

Fiction has the power to help individuals gain new understanding. It takes us to another world -- a world that often can be more illustrative than reality.

Fiction is what authors use to entertain readers. But it is also a way for them to react, to test out theories, to satirize and provide sermons on reality. Fiction contains language that dances, stories that enchant, perspective that allows you to realize what really matters.

Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth

(Side note: Part of me feels as I am cheating on Barnes and Noble as lately I am reading library books/reading at the library or on the go. I hope BandN forgives me when I return).

There is something about the cover of this novel that perfectly matches the style of the writing. I think it is the feather that the title sits on. There is something feathery about the style of this novel. It is incredibly slow-paced, in the sense that the whole novel (273 pages) takes place over a short period of time.  First we have the diagnosis of the protagonist with a brain tumor. Then we have an amount of days resembling a week in the August that follows.  While the story begins with Helen and her seizure that follows a long run.  The book immediately shifts to narrate the experiences of her college-aged daughter Abby and her husband of twenty years, Elliott, a head master of a prep school in Ohio.  Helen, Abby and Elliott are journeying back to New Hampshire, a state they used to live in, to stay in a beautiful hotel and celebrate Helen and Elliott's twentieth anniversary with life long friends. They are also there to say goodbye, and to give Elliott a break from the mundanity of caring for his ailing wife.  But it is only Elliott that knows this fact. As he has not told Helen or Abby that Helen only has three more months to live. Apparently her doctors believe it is important not to tell her as this would leave her to give up; its hard to imagine such a thing happening to an adult woman today.  But the book is written in 1990 and I suppose it is possible the medical practice could have approached terminal illness differently back then. Part of me was bothered by this detail, but it is part of what gives the novel momentum and its story line, so I understand why it has to be.

There is heartache in this novel. The heartache of meeting a character who was once vivacious but only seeing her as the woman in unfancy easy-to-remove clothes, being babysat by her own child. A character who counseled troubled teens, and made the most of her own life, only to be stricken with cancer before middle age. It is an every-day story.  A reality that happens to so many today. It is easily a timeless story. And yet the novel is also a clear record of a different age.   It is 1990, and Abby goes to a liberal arts college where she learns to embrace vegetarianism and composting and wraps her head around the idea of the "the second shift."  There is no talk of email or blackberries or phones abuzz.

At the heart of it, this is a novel about the fragility of life.  One  of Elliott's dear friends likes to drive fast cars, and has remarried to a wife 20 years younger. And yet, he can't fight the reality that his life is changing - he is no longer a twenty-something. One of his friend's is dying.  The group dynamic is altering irrevocably.

There is no shocking ending here like in a Jodi Picoult novel (my mom is still angry about the ending of the last one). As much as we want to believe that things can change for this happy-go-lucky woman, we know they will not.  Thus, Chenoweth captures a bite of the real.  And in my mind that is a very big compliment.

Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller

After finishing this book, I thought: "Why have I never read Sue Miller before?"  As someone who is inherently interested in families, I found this book a fascinating window inside a reconstituted family.  It is the story of Eva, a divorced woman who is happily remarried with two teenage daughters and a young son from her second marriage.  Her new husband dies in a tragic accident and this dramatically alters the family. In many ways the book is focused most on the story of Daisy, the second daughter, and middle child, who was especially close to John and has trouble showcasing her grief.  She enters adolescence abruptly, operating in a changed family structure, and longing to find a place to be accepted. She looks to her happy, cheerleading older sister and thinks herself ugly in comparison. She doesn't understand why she has grown apart from her sister who she previously felt close to.  She begins an affair with an older family friend that will forever alter her life and lead her to seek support from an unlikely source: her father.  Thus the book is also the story of Mark, a man who messed up his first marriage for reasons beyond his understanding, a man who finds a way to truly be a father by providing guidance to his middle daughter, who is so very in need of love, support and a positive male role model.

Miller is a superb story-teller. But she is also concise. Every word works it into her story. And each chapter seems to begin with a concise straight-forward sentence.  Her dialogue is incredibly realistic and she so easily displays the inner thoughts of her characters.  She portrays grief and the confusing process of adolescence and parenting after divorce in such a  realistic and poignant way.  I look forward to reading more of Miller's works.

Catch Up

I've been terrible about reviewing books lately.  Over the last few months I have read a great deal of the latest fiction.  These include:

The Local News by Miriam Gershow
I want to dedicate a separate post to this later. But, in the meantime, I devoured this book in one day.  I am not sure I'd say I love it but the story drew me in completely. 

Reunion by Therese Fowler (and Souvenir) - 
She has easily become one of my "authors." I liked Souvenir more than Reunion but I think she is a formidable talent.  Reunion tells the story of an Oprah like celebrity who is haunted by the child she gave up for adoption at a young age. It is
 also about the man she loved as a young person and his own complicated relationship with his young son, a war photojournalist.  The characters are very life-like and interesting and the story is quite compelling.

Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty
      I am a huge McCafferty fan. In fact, my best friend and I went to a reading she did 
      for the last book in NYC, an we were so giddy afterwards. I can remember finding 
Sloppy Firsts in my first BandN. It was in the fiction section and I started reading it while sitting on the floor. I have been a die-hard McCafferty fan from the first sentence. I can remember first reading about Jessica Darling when I was in high school and college.  She is actually a year younger than  me. And its been interesting to see how well McCafferty understands the life of a modern teen, college student and twenty-something. I even got my mother into the Jessica Darling books. She commented that they require so much outside knowledge of pop culture (I believe she called to ask what Dooce meant, as well as MILF). I think McCafferty understands the zeitgeist in a powerful way. And she synthesizes it all into such captivating stories.  With Perfect Fifths, I was happy to have a culmination of the Marcus - Jessica love story. I am not sure it turned out as I imagined but I am not complaining. The structure of this book was also very interesting and different than the last four. But it didn't disappoint.    Although I am sad that this may be the end of the written script for Jessica Darling.
 Everyone is Beautiful by  Katherine Center
I can recall her first book vividly. There was a picture of a bowl on the cover I believe. It was about a woman whose husband walks out on her while she is pregnant. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Center is an amazing story-teller and she scripts the mundanity of motherhood and marriage in such nuanced and unique ways. She creates such vivid characters and such strong language. I am a big fan.

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff-
 I adored this book. I love her writing style. I love her topic. I love the setting.  After finishing the book, I immediately wanted to re-read it. I just felt so
 immersed in the story, so captivated by the language. I wanted to uncover the story, and yet I felt there was so much to be gained from reading through it again.  I am not sure I even loved all of the characters as much as I loved the fact that the novel tells the story of NYC and young twenty-somethings in the 1990s.  I have always wanted to write a book about a group of college friends and this tome (it is quite long) stands as a great example of how well it can be done.  Rakoff jumps through time quite a bit and shifts from one character's perspective to another (with some getting more air time than others) but its easy to imagine that she scripted out various other stories that didn't make it into the final book. I feel she must have lived and breathed these characters, moving them from Oberlin to Brooklyn and Manhattan, through real life events.  I can visualize some massive story boards in her apartment.  It is obvious that Rakoff is a masterful storyteller.

I also read a story- collection and two non-fiction books: Love Stories in this Town by Amanda Eyre Ward (who I love!); and Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner a non-fiction/memoir that I will be writing a review of later and The Girls of Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow. I have thoughts about that too and will try to write up a review.