Month: February 2009

25 Feb 2009

The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli

Am I the only one who hated historical fiction as a child? I had plenty of friends who were obsessed with American Girl books, with Little House on the Prairie, and my next-youngest sister still drools over Tracy Chevalier and A Great And Terrible Beauty.

Me? I associated the genre with school. Being a grown up now, I totally understand the whole cross-curricular benefits for teaching historical fiction novels, but DAMN did we really have to read My Brother Sam Is Dead? Wasn\’t there something cooler than The Sign of the Beaver, or my least favorite, Island of the Blue Dolphins?

Anyway. So almost-24-year-long-story short, I don\’t jump for joy over historical fiction. Unless it\’s Octavian Nothing, although that\’s less jumping for joy and more puzzling and muddling for joy.

I digress again. Dammit. What I\’m trying to say is that I am mostly uninitiated to the sub-genre that is Young Adult Historical Fiction, but apparently there is one lady who is. That lady is Donna Jo Napoli. And because my mother procured me a signed copy of this attractively covered book, I deigned to read it.

This book takes place in Rennaissance Italy, in Florence – a city run by the wealthy and extravagent Medici family, patrons of arts and leisure of all sorts – and in the surrounding countryside. Our heroine, Elisabetta, is a noble, but since she lives in the country on her father\’s silk farm, she mingles with the peasants and prides herself in being helpful with the family business, even if a truly Noble Lady wouldn\’t go near a smelly silkworm if somebody paid her. But despite her countrified ways, Elisabetta still hopes that her fifteenth year will be the year she is betrothed – to a wealthy, young man from a good family, not to some old widower. To hedge her bets, Elisabetta decides she needs a coming out party in the city, not in the country, but just as she convinces her parents of her idea, tragedy strikes. And when political turmoil mounts in Florence, it seems all of Elisabetta\’s carefully laid plans will go to crap.

That description reads exactly like you\’d expect it, huh? Girl wants something. Tragedy strikes, complications ensue. But what really drew me into the book was the depiction of what being a young woman at this time and place really meant. Elisabetta is obviously outspoken and liberal for her time, but even so, she is tied to the decisions of her parents, and the politics of a city she doesn\’t even want to associate with. This inner conflict, between her heady desires and her simple resignation to a life isn\’t fully her own, paints the historic landscape better than Napoli\’s lush descriptions and observations of the near-feudal caste system. While I didn\’t find this book as compelling as Octavian or as tension-filled as Laurie Halse Anderson\’s Chains, and the story didn\’t make me carry the book in my hip pocket, anxious to finish, I was still surprised and pleased whenever I did pick it up. Would she ever get betrothed? Would she be reunited with her true love…. and what does any of this have to do with the Mona Lisa?

(And don\’t tell my 6th grade English teacher…. but The Smile may have me jonesing justalittlebit for more, more, more historical fiction)

Donna Jo Napoli online | Indiebound Link

17 Feb 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Oh, Ms. Sittenfeld. So many thoughts about you and your books, and so very little time to synthesize them. I’ve talked about her before, last year when I read Man of My Dreams and I don’t really want to repeat myself… so I’ll just quote myself instead.

“Curtis Sittenfeld wrote Prep a few years back, a pretty convincingly YA book marketed as Adult. Anyway, Prep was pretty succesfull, and everyone doted upon Sittenfeld for being a young, talented female writer of something other than TRASHY CHICK LIT. Sittenfeld wrote an article for the New York times, reviewing Melissa Banks’s The Wonder Spot and calling it the bane of female literature, and officially casting the term “Chick Lit” as a black mark of literary condescension usually reserved for the romance novel.”

So that’s that. American Wife is her newest book, and probably her most notable. Notable why? Because it’s even further away from that dreaded “Chick Lit” title (although that is debateabl)? Because it’s more ambitious than her previous works? Because it’s better written, more interesting, more insightful?

No, no, no.

Because the protagonist is a fictionalized Laura Bush.

Alice Lindgren is a wholesome, reserved Midwestern girl (subtract Wisconsin, add Texas) living with her conservative parents and a live-wire grandmother. Much like Sittenfeld’s other heroines, Alice doesn’t neccessarily do much to direct her fate. Life happens to her. She rolls with the punches. When her best friend steals her boyfriend in middle school, she forgives her. When she’s involved with the accidental death of a classmate, she mourns quietly. When a handsome, charming son of privilege begins to woo her, she allows herself to be wooed. And when he is eventually elected President, she is the First Lady.

So there are complaints:

1) A sensational topic for a novel. What a total ploy for readership! Would it be worth reading otherwise?

2) She claims to loathe Chick Lit, therefore her own books must transcend this moniker…. yet this book is still a Book About A Girl who is mostly concerned with her Relationships.

3) Why are her characters soooo very bland and unexciting? Can she write us a NEW protagonist already?

4) Is it cruel to Laura Bush to write a book that lifts so heavily from her own life? I don’t know.

So my feelings about Ms. Sittenfeld are mixed with a side of “I can’t stand her.” This, of course, is based on one tiny article (that happened to be published in the NYTimes, mind you. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person) And I can’t really read her books and, in good faith, declare them to be bastiens of Literature.

But I still like them.

I like her quiet characters – even though they rarely make a life-changing decision, and the ones they do make (Alice Lindgren especially) are so weak they are barely even symbolic of change, I still feel for them. I still want to be their friends. I still like to hear what they have to say.

I like Ms. Sittenfeld’s proclivity for the understated tone – there could not be a less assuming roman à clef out there. And I don’t mind that she lifted the idea from pop culture because, unlike some other authors, it’s an extremely interesting take on a pseudo-public figure.

And she can certainly tell a story.

And that’s all I really want from a book, when it comes down to it. Take me somewhere else and don’t let me go until I’m turning those last few pages, desperate to know what will happen to Alice, to The President, to their marriage….then spit me out.

I’ll be ready and waiting for her next book.

Curtis Sittenfeld online | NY Times Review | Indiebound Link

03 Feb 2009

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

My first graphic novel of the year, although this book was not shelved in the graphic novel section (sneaking adult catalogers, at it again!) nor is it a novel in the most traditional sense of the word. But no matter what kind of an enigma this little paperback turned out to be, I did enjoy reading it (and so did my 15-year-old sister, I might add). Yes, despite the little discussion I’m about it have with myself, it was a pleasant read.

Let me first say that this book lacks a single lick of plot. There is no rising or falling action. Actually, the only action that goes on is eating, walking, and a little talking. This book is a travelogue – a diary – that Lucy kept while she and her mother lived in France for six weeks. And she doesn’t go out of her way to make those sweeping conclusions that almost define the travel-writing genre.

Her deepest cultural observation? French has excellent milk.

Her biggest moral conflict? Whether or not she’s prepared to go from college-kid to real-live-adult.

And her most pressing personal problem? How to be nice to her mother while suffering from PMS.

One of my favorite quotes is by writer Anne Beattie:

“It seems to me that the problem with diaries, and the reason that most of them are so boring, is that every day we vacillate between examining our hangnails and speculating on cosmic order.”

Lucy chooses to focus on her hangnails in this book.


Her hangnails happen to be in Paris.

And she draws them instead of writing about them.

So if you are looking for a page-turner, a sassy, poignant take on Paris or French culture, look elsewhere.

But if you want to see what Paris looked like to one 22-year-old girl – trying fancy food, taking shopping trips, and watching Arrested Development episodes on a laptop in bed with her mom – then you’ve found the single book in the world for you.

And, I don’t know about you, but I enjoy reading about other people’s hangnail examinations. 🙂

Lucy’s website | Author Blog