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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

World Book Night: The Third Batch

Among the thirty titles on last year's World Book Night list loneliness was definitely a theme. Whether that was intentional or not I have no idea, but I have found another running theme within this year's crop. The fighting spirit. These books are full of fight and strong will.

So, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones is about children caring for a litter of pitbull puppies in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Yes, they make these dogs fight each other and yes, there is a twenty+ page description of a dog fight near the end of the book and no, I do not ever think dog fighting is forgivable. That being said, this book is fantastic. I felt literally all the feelings. The subject of this novel is such a “look away” one, but Ward wrote about it with absolute grace and it is so compelling. Often the book was difficult to read because I wanted to stop what was happening to the characters, but I had to finish it because I cared too much for them to not know what happened.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier was a surprise for me. I was expecting a somewhat staid romance novel, but what I got was a full impression of 17th century Delft. Chevalier's novel absolutely succeeds as a historical work. The characters are not fully drawn, but this makes sense in the context. Mainly because we have few details about the life of Johannes Vermeer, the artist who painted the eponymous girl. More importantly though, the characters are not what matters in a story like this. The setting is more important – recreating the world. This is a novel that strongly evokes place and time through the first person narration of a young maid living in a famous household.

Best book on this list bar none would have to be City of Thieves. David Benioff told his tragic story with a humor that made it bearable. This levity added to the story of the siege of Leningrad is exactly the type of humor it takes to survive not only during the events being described but to live with them afterwords. This novel is a testament to humanity. It is introduced as a fictionalized version of a time in the life of the author's grandfather. Fictionalized because Benioff's grandfather could not remember the details necessary to a work of nonfiction, but it is with novels like this that we realize the job of fiction – to tell the greater truth.

As I said, all of these novels center around a fighting spirit but none so much as Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Alice Howland is a fifty year old Harvard professor that is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The novel describes the disease as it takes the life and career of a deeply intelligent and ambitious woman. Alice fights the encroaching darkness of her diagnosis with every fiber of her being, but Genova describes her slipping away in such a thorough and heartbreaking way. This novel made me uncomfortable at every turn. It was hard to see this battle played out, but I definitely see why it is an important one and a story that needs to be told because it is so difficult to understand.

Lisa Scottoline's Look Again was another case of a book that is just not meant for me. I never really became invested in the characters so their struggle never set in with me. Ellen Gleason finds information that suggests her son may not be the child she thought he was, and her adoption of him is called into question. Within the confines of a thriller, Scottoline does a good job of pondering motherhood. What is a mother? Is it emotional or biological? Who does a child really belong to anyway? These thoughts are interesting but a little heavy handed and I like my novels a tad more subtle. Look Again is a good read, just not really for me.

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