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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

World Book Night: The Second Batch

This year's World Book Night list was not peopled as heavily with my own TBR list as was last year's. The bulk of these were books I would probably not have encountered, so it has definitely been interesting reading.

To begin by admitting what is probably my greatest readerly sin, I have never read a novel by Mark Twain. Yes, that means I have never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I know. I know. But if anything, reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has made me realize that I must rectify this error post haste. There is a part in this novel where it is recommended that we replace royalty with cats because they are basically the same. I laughed at this joke for two days. Connecticut Yankee is satire at its absolute best. The story is that of a 19th century man (from Connecticut) being transported to the 6th century (and King Arthur's court). The novel is humorous all the way through, but where it really gains its footing (both as a satirical work and as classic literature) is in the moments that it becomes blatantly obvious how little human nature has changed from the 6th to the 19th to the 21st century.

Almost as transportive as the time travel in Connecticut Yankee, Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency made me feel what it was like to be in Botswana. Precious Ramotswe uses the money she inherits from her father to open the first ladies detective agency in Botswana. She sees this as her way of helping people, and while she is able to help her customers the agency really serves as a way for readers to encounter Africa. Mma Ramotswe deals with people from every walk of life in Botswana, and Smith describes them all with care and an obvious devotion to his setting. Reading this book on a warm spring afternoon made me feel like I was traveling around the countryside in Botswana and more than anything it made me want to travel there.

Hillary Jordan's Mudbound is the social justice book on this year's WBN list (in case you are wondering, I have been looking at each book and comparing it to last year's list to decide what makes a WBN selection), but it could not stand up to last year's The Poisonwood Bible. There is a missing emotional element in Jordan's tale. Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson are soldiers returning to Mississippi after serving in WWII. One character is white and the other is black. Mudbound is the story of their very different homecomings. This novel often made me angry and sometimes made me sad but I never felt a genuine connection to the characters. All I had to hold on to was the horror of the story (and the deeper horror in knowing that things such as it described did happen time and again to families all over the south), and for me that just wasn't enough. Mudbound is a solid novel and very well written, it just did not resonate with me on an emotional level.
My Antonia by Willa Cather was a reread for me. This was one of those novels that I was assigned in high school which I was clearly not ready for. I hated it then and thought it a terrible novel. Oh, how wrong I was. I absolutely adored the descriptions of Nebraska and the fairytale quality of the stories told by the immigrant characters. The novel ends with the line “whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past,” such a beautiful sentiment about the people of our childhood. The novel is one that looks heavily at memory and time past. Jim Burden tells the story of Antonia, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants that grew up near his grandparent's farm. Antonia has come to mean childhood, excitement, and freedom to Jim as an adult and he tells his story of her with an abiding passion.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers was another book that just was not for me. Much like Grisham's Playing for Pizza, my disdain for the main character kept me from enjoying the novel. Victoria is an orphan who grew up in and out of the foster care system. The novel tells her story in an attempt to detail the cracks in the system and the troubles people who fall through are left to face alone. The problem was that in making Victoria troubled and flawed Diffenbaugh failed to make her real. The only way in which I did connect with Victoria was through flowers. She had been taught the Victorian language of flowers and they were both the lens through which she viewed the world and the way she forged emotional connections. Victoria's feelings about flowers and the way she communicated through them were absolutely the best parts of the book.

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