Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Young Adult Novels or Adult Novels: The Round House and Eleanor and Park

I'm curious about the line between Young Adult fiction and any other kind of fiction. S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, written when she was just fifteen, has been recognized as one of the first--if not the first YA novel.  Since then, this particular genre--or target group--has had a huge impact on reading.  As a general rule, these books involve young protagonists dealing with issues common to adolescents--family, friendship, love, heartache, violence.

However, since all adults have actually been adolescents--and lived to tell about it--many of us find ourselves drawn to these books.  Many great books written before Hinton's novel could be included -- To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, Great Expectations.  It doesn't take much thinking to come up with a long list.  Two of my recent favorites are novels about young people with a more universal appeal.

When our school library ordered a copy of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, I decided I ought to try her earlier hit novel Eleanor and Park  first.  The two title characters, Eleanor and Park, are an unlikely romantic couple.  Park is the son of a former military man and his Korean wife; Park manages to keep a low profile and stay on the perimeter of the popular students at his school, including his next door neighbor and his girlfriend, who thrive on mocking or bullying other students. Eleanor is a ripe target. Not only is she the "new girl" at the school, but she has a headful of flaming read hair and pale skin. She wears outrageous clothes that don't effectively camouflage her weight, not because she is particularly rebellious, but because her mother can only afford to shop for her--when she has any money to spend--at Goodwill and thrift stores.

When the seat next to Park is the only one available when Eleanor gets on the bus for the first time--to the mocking jeers of the other riders--he is anything but friendly. Gradually, subtlety, they not only become friends, sharing his collection of comic books, but theirs becomes a genuine romantic relationship.

Park's adolescent challenges are the usual ones: His younger brother is bigger and more athletic.  Park's father is also determined that his son must learn to drive his truck--a stick shift--before he can get his driver's license.  This conflict is blown out of proportion in part, Park feels, because he doesn't live up to his father's expectations.  While he has the normal parent-child conflict, though, his family is a solid, loving one.  Eleanor's is anything but.  She and her siblings live with their mom and her new husband, whose addictive behavior leads to fear and abuse.

While her relationship with Park offers her some solace from her home life, she has to keep it a secret, pretending she has a girl school friend who invites her over.  While she keeps her misery secret from Park, he--and his mother--recognize the symptoms of a bad home life.

What is most refreshing about the book is that Park sees her just as she is--unusual, anything but the high school ideal for feminine beauty--yet he finds her beautiful.  Rowell  characterizes the adults--the teachers and counselor at school, and especially Park's family--more realistically than in many YA novels. (Often in YA novels, the adults all come across as nondescript as Charlie Brown's teacher:  Wah Wah Wah Wah). Park's mother and father are flawed but genuine and loving.

In the other novel that seemed to land alongside Eleanor and Park, Louise Erdrich in The Round House, also presents a huge family crisis through the eyes of a young teenager. Joe is a thirteen-year-old Chippewa boy whose mother is raped by a white man. While a couple of his friends live in much poorer circumstances, Joe has a stable, comfortable home. His father is a tribal judge, a career the son is obviously headed toward in the future.  His mother also works on the reservation--handling issues related to tribal enrollments.

Because his mother was blindfolded when the attack occurred, taken some distance away from the tribe's spiritual landmark The Round House, she is unable to say without question whether the crime was committed on or off the reservation, complicating the legal process.  For a time, her mind and body shut down, refusing to let her remember enough to report details to the police.

Erdrich, herself from a Native American family, sets most of her major works on the reservations.  She also writes convincingly from the point of view of a young male. The crude humor, the mischief and worse that Joe and his friends drum up, are hilarious, frightening, and always believable.  In many ways, the narrative reminds me of some of the best of Sherman Alexie.

Both Erdrich and Rowell included strong families and complicated community relationships.  Joe, Park, and Eleanor have--to varying degrees--a network of adults capable of helping them, yet they often lack the maturity or trust to accept that help.  Even with mothers as victims in both novels, the young protagonists remain central; as a reader, I found I most identified with the boys in each of the novels.  Both authors left me genuinely concerned about what would happen next in their characters' lives--much longer than I remember or care about the characters in many of the novels I read.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The List: My 2013 Roll Call of Books Read

I read somewhere that singer Art Garfunkel has kept a list of the books he reads since he was sixteen. I wish I had thought of it sooner. As it is, I have maintained my list for quite some time. My wall calendar (which will never be replaced by any online version) bears the month-by-month record of books I finish. Then when the new year rolls around, I transfer my list to a "Book-woman" journal my mother gave me awhile back. The first entry is dated 1997.

If my "What to Read Next " list represents my bibliophilic New Year's resolutions, then the following reflects as least one part of my accomplishments. Please keep in mind that all the while, I am reading the material I assign for classes--from freshman comp papers to Brit lit assignments. (Technically, every year's list would include Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Utopia, two or three Shakespearean plays--at least--numerous short stories, poems, and plays, and--most time consuming and least fulfilling of all--numerous drafts of hundreds of student essays.)

Without further ado, here's my 2013 list:

Karen Thompson Walker, Age of Miracles
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior
B. A. Shapiro, The Art Forger
Jo Barbara Taylor, Cameo Roles (read twice--once for a review)
Malaika King Albrecht, What the Trapeze Artist Trusts (likewise)
Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her
Tina Fey, Bossypants
Joshilyn Jackson, A Grown-up Kind of Pretty
Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore
Chris Cleaves, Little Bee
George Saunders, Tenth of December
Walter Bennett, Leaving Tuscaloosa
Alan Bradley, Speaking from Among the Bones
A. S. Byatt, Possession
Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer
Maggie Shipstead, Seating Arrangements
Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind than Home
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Kate Atkinson, Life after Life
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys
Fannie Flagg, Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Therese Ann Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
William Landay, Defending Jacob
Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin'
Kent Haruff, Benediction
M. L. Steadman, The Light Between Oceans
George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones
Jeanette Walls, The Silver Star
David Sedaris, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls
Peter Heller, The Dog Stars
Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club
Ron Rash, Nothing Gold Can Stay
Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Unaccountable Weather
Jess Walter, The Financial Life of Poets
Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed
Jennifer Pharr-Davis, Becoming Odyssa
Joseph Mills, Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet
Kathryn Stripling Byer, Descent
Bob and Emilie Barnes, 101 Ways to Love Your Grandchildren
Jodi Piccoult, The Storyteller
Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Irmgard Al Hunt, On Hitler's Mountain
Daniel Wallace, The Kings and Queens of Roam
Margot Livesey, The Flight of Gemma Hardy
John Green, Paper Town
Robert Hicks, A Separate Country
Wilton Barnhardt, Lookaway, Lookaway
Tammy Foster Brewer, No Glass Allowed 
Robert Lee Brewer, Solving the World's Problems
Irene Gut Opdyke, In My Hands
Amy Franklin Willis, The Lost Saints of Tennessee
Carl Hiassen, Bad Monkey
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
Louis Sachar, Small Steps
Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway
Jeanette Haien, The All of It
Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor and Park
Lane Kaaberbal and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase
Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow!
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Allan Gurganus, Local Souls
Alex and Brett Harris, Do Hard Things
Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

There you have it:  The explanation for where some of my hours were spent this past year.  In case you're wondering, I do include audiobooks because (1. with a 25 or 30-minute drive to work and then back, audiobooks keep me sane; (2. I honestly sometimes can't remember if I listened to a book or read the words on the page--unless the reader was remarkably memorable, as many are; (3. I sometimes will read part and listen to part.

In case you don't recognize some titles, much poetry is included in the list.  There should probably be more. I have a huge collection of poetry books and chapbooks, especially since I am exposed to so many good poets each month at Poetry Hickory.  I plan to follow this list with several review, and I will certainly mention some of the poetry I've loved this year.

Please feel free to share your lists with me.  Where do you think I get some of my best suggestions?