Friday, July 19, 2013

July 19: A Bunch of Books before We Leave for the Family Reunion!

We Need New Names: A NovelWe Need New Names: A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bought this at Sherman's, my ibs, after reading a review in O Magazine. It is a devastating and beautiful book, with several chapters that could stand on their own as short stories or excerpts to use in a class. What made the book especially impressive was that it didn't fit the usual narrative arc of an immigrant story: I read the chapters set in Zimbabwe with anxiety, watching as things deteriorated, hoping for improvement, for Darling to "get out of there" to some place better--but then, when she gets to the US, the better is muted, confusing, not-always-better. The novel/memoir? is heartbreaking not in its scenes of brutality or suffering, but in its depiction of the fact that home, for better or worse, leaves marks on our souls that can't ever be erased, and leaving home--no matter the reason, no matter the improvement--causes disruption and loss. A beautiful and sad book, We Need New Names should be required reading for anyone considering immigration issues.

Growing UpGrowing Up by Angela Thirkell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not one of Thirkell's most sparkling books, but an interesting view of the start of WWII on the home front. I got a very old edition with a 1960's cover (not the one shown) and the back blurb was entertaining, as the writer clearly was trying to cram Thirkell into a mode of romance novel that she just doesn't fit.

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just finished Orphan Train. It's written by a woman with strong local ties--heck, it mentions Ellsworth, the school I teach at, AND Marden's my favorite discount store!--and it has been riding a lot of buzz. I heard Kline speak at our library and she mentioned this book had a print run of 150,000, while her other books were about 50,000, so clearly: it's big!

I enjoyed the story. Though it's a style I've complained about in the past, the switched point of view worked quite well in this format. The Molly/Vivian plot and the Niamh/Dorothy/Vivian plot were equally interesting, and Kline gave each a good sized chunk at a time, so the changes weren't jarring or manipulative. The characters were interesting and the plot did pull me in. It was a good story.

However, my big issue with the book, what kept it from being a really strong piece of writing, was Kline's narration and dialogue. Molly is a disenfranchised teenager who's bounced around foster care for years, but her thoughts are clear and articulate at all times. A description will start effectively: "She is so white-hot furious she can barely see," but then segues into a kind of removed description that just doesn't ring true: "she knows that just beyond the rage is a sorrow so enervating it could render her immobile." Excuse me? One or two of those clunkers might not be a big deal, but they are frequent, and the characters' dialogue shows the same falseness: Jack, the boyfriend, is girl-fantasy articulate, understanding, and chatty; Dutchy, the scrappy survivor of a terrible childhood, tells Viv, "I was such a shell of a person. I had no confidence. Playing the piano gave me a place in the world. And. . .. it was something I could do when I was angry or upset, or even happy. It was a way to express my feelings when I didn't even know what they were." This is 1939, when "talking about our feelings" was much less common than now, and this is a young man. . . It just doesn't ring true. It's great for the story and for Vivian that he says it, but it doesn't feel realistic or convincing.

There's a lot to like in this novel, and I enjoyed it, but it needed a truer voice for some of the characters, especially the teenage ones. Incredible emotional experiences are really hard to summarize, which makes writing about them so tricky. Kline goes a little too far in making her points, even as she tells some important stories.

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