Sunday, November 30, 2008

67. The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger
read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow

I would describe this book as romantic fantasy or a sci-fi love story. The hero, Henry DeTamble, can time travel (although he has little or no control over it), the heroine, Clare Abshire DeTamble, cannot. They first meet when she is 6 and he is 36; they first meet in real time when she is 20 and he is 28.

The time-traveling acts as a marvelous metaphor for love, how it changes, how it's always affected by the past and the future. The book won the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award (the United Kingdom’s top prize for science fiction).

I will admit up front I am a sucker for time travel stories (not otherwise being much of a fan of sci fi). I think this one is especially interesting because it explores lots of aspects of time traveling - not revealing the future to those in the past, predestination paradoxes, determinism versus chaos, free will versus God’s purpose, etc. - and has the characters discussing them. I also find it interesting that the author portrays Henry’s time-traveling as a genetic disorder that might be curable or controlled at some point – this impacts the storyline.

I think the time traveling in this book is especially interesting. Usually, time travelers don't seek themselves out in other time periods to interact with themselves. I think it's very interesting that the adult Henry is the one who trains his small self how to survive the time jumps. Clare learns from Henry growing up and then teaches him how to accept himself as worthy of affection after they meet in real time. Henry considers Clare to be the stabilizing force in his life.

Clare has "known" Henry for 14 years by the time they actually meet in real time, but it's the opposite for Henry. There is something very appealing about someone who seems to understand you completely and is very comfortable around you.

I could relate to the characters and the setting. I was born in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, and still have a lot of family in the Chicago area. I remember visiting the Field Museum in 1970, just a couple years after Henry's first visit. Like Clare, I went to Catholic school for grades 1-12. I thought Clare as a Catholic schoolgirl was pretty realistic!

However, I could have done with less of the music details in the book - all the names of the punk and other groups that Clare and Henry liked to listen to. I feel that will date the book further down the line. Conversely, it might have been interesting to hear a little more about Clare's paper art.

The book also has a lot of unique metaphors: Henry reflecting on his double self that's five years older ... "I envy him......whatever pleasures are to be had, he's had them; for me they wait like a box of unpoked chocolates." (p. 152)

When Henry doesn't recognize the little gifts he's given Clare over the years when he's visited the Meadow .... "all the little tokens and souvenirs in this museum of our past are as love letters to an illiterate." (p. 170)

From the letter Henry left for Clare (p. 519): "Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust."

This was a difficult read for me the first time around (in 2004), but it was easier the second time. I learned the hard way the first time I read this that you really have to pay attention to the dates and ages at the beginning of the various sections. It all comes together more by the end of the book. I found a blog where the author has constructed timelines for the book. BE FOREWARNED - there are spoilers in the timelines - but they might help by the time you finish the book:

The author had two timelines (perhaps Henry’s and Clare’s?) to help her stay organized while writing the book. Niffenegger, a writer, artist, and professor in the Center for Book & Paper Arts of the Interdisciplinary Arts Master of Fine Arts program at the Columbia College Chicago, says the story was inspired by the love between her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather died young, and her grandmother, who lived another three decades, never remarried. "I wanted to write about a perfect marriage that is tested by something outside the control of the couple."

I think this book is one of those ones you either love or don't. I personally love it; I've always been fascinated by time travel stories and the whole structure of this book is so unique. I guess its aspects of timeless love mesh so well with my own life that I can relate a lot to its themes. When two people meet at a young age and have a relationship that lasts through the years (at least for Clare), consciously or not they would influence each other's development, so if they had not met, they would surely be different people.

I originally met the love of my life when I was 22 and he was 37; we dated for 4+ years but did not marry for various reasons. We re-met at 48 and 64. We'd only seen each other once between ages 27-48 (me) and 43-64 (him), and there were only some Christmas cards/phone calls/e-mail messages otherwise, as we both ended up marrying (and divorcing) other people in between. We thought/dreamed about each other a lot though.

In a way, after we re-met, it was kind of like time-traveling back to our past - all the passion was still there. I know I would have been a very different person if we had not met the first time, and he says the same.

A little oddity that caught my interest (being a librarian) - when Henry has his "foot dreams," he describes a box in the Newberry Library in Chicago that contain his feet, with a call number of CASE WING f ZX 983.D 453.

There are no Dewey or LC call numbers that correspond to even parts of this, but I did see that the real Newberry Library Special Collections includes a section on printing, book arts, and the history of the book funded by the John M. Wing foundation:

I did find 8 items with both "CASE WING" and "ZX 983" in the call number, but nothing with this exact number. I’m not an expert, but it sounds like an archival cataloging system. The "D 453" might refer to DeTamble.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook version for this reread. William Hope (as Henry) and Laurel Lefkow (as Clare) are fantastic! It's very easy to keep track of the viewpoints with the audiobook. At first I didn't care for Hope's slightly cynical and strident voice, but I have grown to feel it is appropriate. Lefkow is absolutely marvelous, makes Clare sound like a little girl and a teen as needed. I would definitely recommend this audiobook to others!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

66. Moloka'i

by Alan Brennert

This is fascinating historical fiction set in Hawaii from 1891, when Rachel, the main character, is five, until her death in 1970. At age seven, Hawaiian native Rachel is diagnosed with leprosy and ultimately sent to Kalaupapa, the leper's colony on the island of Moloka'i, the one made famous by future saint Father Damien.

Brennert has done extensive research on leprosy, Kalaupapa, and Hawaiian history, and has even incorporated real places and people from the era, such as Mother Marianne Cope and politician Lawrence Judd, into the story. It has motivated me to read more about these subjects. Even better, Brennert has made Rachel and her friends and family into real people that the reader will really care about.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

65. The NTH Reader: Neglected Texas History

by Charles Chupp

This is a collection of humorous essays more or less about Texas history that my father enjoyed and gave me to read. There are 63 in all, some rather flippant ones about well-known Texas incidents (the Alamo), politicians (Ma Ferguson) and other famous people (Sam Houston). The better stories were those that are less commonly known, such as "Woe in Waco," a fascinating story about early lawlessness in this Bible Belt buckle town. The book is peppered with a number of black-and-white illustrations, many of them rather good drawings by Chipp. A fun read, probably best for those who already know their Texas history pretty well, who will get the in-jokes and can tell when Chupp is being tongue-in-cheek.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

64. Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli
read by S. Epatha Merkerson

Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee is an 11-year-old homeless orphan whose athletic feats are the stuff of legend. He winds up in a town geographically divided by race, and moves between the black and white sides, looking for an address and a home, encountering bullies, the prejudiced and good people of both colors. The characters, setting, and descriptions are especially strong (particularly the frequent references to Philadelphia-area delicacy butterscotch Krimpets), and in my opinion that makes up for any incredulity in the plot.

"Childhood recollected takes on a quality that is practically indistinguishable from what we think of as myth," author Jerry Spinelli said in an interview with Jennifer M. Brown for Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2000. In his acceptance speech for the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, Spinelli said, “I thought about the world that children inhabit. I don't know about you, but it's a world that, in many ways, I find indistinguishable from myth and legend.”

The book has been described by many critics as part realistic fiction, part tall tale. Spinelli intentionally wrote the book this way because he believes children have trouble distinguishing between fable and realistic fiction. For me the most unrealistic part of the story was the way Maniac was able to coerce the young McNab brothers to go to school, when Maniac did not go himself.

Nevertheless, I think this book was deserving of the 1991 Newbery Medal and is one that children, especially boys, would enjoy (particularly the fantastic portions). Written at a fourth- to fifth-grade reading level, it could spark all sorts of discussions about homelessness and social class distinctions for that age group. In Maniac Magee, we see that bullies and discrimination are not limited by color, and racial prejudice is not exclusive to one community. More importantly, though, we see the possibility of a world where children can exist who, like Maniac, do not understand what racial barriers are.

I listened to the audiobook read by actress S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order fame). She did a marvelous job creating different voices for each character, especially the children. Indeed, her characterizations (and Spinelli’s writing) were such that I often couldn’t remember if the Beales, the Pickwells, Grayson, and the McNabs were black or white – and isn’t that the whole remarkable point of the book?

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

63. The Gathering

by Anne Enright

This is not a book I would have read if my local book club was not discussing it. I have to wonder if the member who suggested it actually read it before, or recommended it simply because it won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 (the British Commonwealth equivalent to the National Book Award for fiction).

In a word, this book was awful. Dark and depressing. Characters I couldn't care about. Very little plot, and the events jump all over in time and are hard to follow. The narrator, Veronica, returns to her mother's home Dublin along with seven siblings for the funeral of her brother Liam, who committed suicide. Much of the book is about her grandmother Ada, the mysterious Lambert Nugent who is in love with her, and Veronica and Liam's childhood days spent in Ada's home.

This felt like one of those books you'd be assigned to read in high school honors or college English class, supposedly full of stuff to discuss and analyze. If I hadn't had to read it for book club, I would have stopped after 51 pages - and Enright doesn't really get to the point until pages 142 and 224 (out of 261).

Don't waste your time on this one like I did.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

62. One True Thing

by Anna Quindlen

I read this book for an online book discussion. In the prologue, 24-year-old Ellen Gulden is in jail, accused of giving her dying mother an overdose of morphine. Part One of the book are the events leading up to that situation. Ellen, who is a journalist in New York City, is back for a visit at the end of the summer in the small college town where she grew up and where her father, George, is a professor. Her 46-year-old mother, Kate, is diagnosed with cancer, and George, who Ellen practically worships, insists that Ellen move back home to care for her.

This is the strongest part of the book, showing Ellen's growing respect, admiration, and love for the homemaker mother she used to dismiss and take for granted, and her correspondingly increasing disgust for her father, who continues to envelop himself with work and sexual encounters while his wife is dying. Ellen and her mother start the "Gulden Girls Book and Cook Club," reading and discussing classics, while Ellen learns cook and participates in her mother's community Christmas activities. Kate's pain and disability increase, and Part One ends with her death in February of the following year.

Part Two is the aftermath, Ellen's arrest and the appearance before the grand jury. I won't spoil the end of the book, as it really doesn't matter. The story's strength is in the mother-daughter relationship. Quindlen took time off from college to nurse her own mother through her death from ovarian cancer at age 40, when Quindlen was 19.