#CBR6 Review #67: The Fever by Megan Abbott

Back in July, ElCicco reviewed The Fever by Megan Abbott. I was intrigued. I got it from the library and devoured it on a rainy weekend afternoon. It’s a great and thrilling read, but it’s also a relevant and chilling one, too.

The Nash family lives in Dryden, where they’ve always lived. Dad Tom is a high school science teacher, mom Georgia has left, son Eli is an attractive hockey star at the high school, and daughter Deenie is studious and friend-oriented. The novel opens with the high school girls getting the HPV vaccine, and the scene is set when Deenie’s best friend Lise has a sudden seizure and goes to the hospital. Slowly, girls begin experiencing seizures and unexplained illnesses, leading to accusations of vaccination poisoning. Yet secrets and lies abound, forcing the town to question what it knows about itself–and what its inhabitants know about each other.

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I know this is a fictional novel, but Abbott portrays at least two very current issues in ways that are so realistic, they are both painful and poignant to read. One is, of course, the increasingly volatile debate over vaccines. I won’t debate that argument here, but I am becoming increasingly concerned over the number of eradicated diseases that are returning to the United States. The rhetoric surrounding anti-vaccination has honestly worried me, particularly since I *am* allergic to the pertussis vaccine (that means I can’t have the adult TDP booster and have to have a special one made), and am therefore all-too-susceptible to the whooping cough. So, it was a little nerve-wracking to hear this debate so accurately portrayed. While I have personal reservations about the HPV vaccination itself, I do get nervous when parents start citing conspiracy theories in relation to vaccines.

The other, and much more chilling, issue portrayed in the novel is that of mean-girl cliques in high school. Navigating adolescence as a young woman is hell, and even more so if social pressures or enmity arises. And it does, in ways I was not prepared for as a reader. What makes this subplot even more painful is the recent Slenderman attack by two twelve-year-old girls on their “friend.” As a teacher, I am always heartbroken to read of incidents like these.

Honestly, if I was mentoring teachers or teaching a preparation for high school education course, I would teach this novel to provoke discussion about how we identify dangerous friendships, particularly in young women. I am so glad I read this book, and I will definitely seek out more of Megan Abbott’s work.

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#CBR6 Review #66: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

On July 11, 1906, Grace Brown, a skirt factory worker, was killed after she was evicted from a boat and fell into a lake in upstate New York. Her body was found the next day, and her lover was targeted as the chief suspect in a homicide. Grace had been pregnant, and letters to Gillette proved that their relationship had been covert and tempestuous. Gillette was convicted of her murder and later executed after an appeal and appeal to the governor failed. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is based on this true story.

The novel is psychologically well-executed, for it develops the upbringing and passions of the criminal, named Clyde Griffiths in the novel. He is the child of itinerant preachers, hating the restrictions and ascetic lifestyle required by his parents, and he shows fascination with the secular world outside. His sister Esta runs away, and he convinces his parents to get a job, first at a soda shop and then at a hotel. There, he meets the selfish Hortense Briggs, tries to woo her haphazardly, and becomes involved in a scandal that requires him to flee Kansas City.

In Chicago, Clyde becomes acquainted with his uncle Samuel, a wealthy shirt-collar factory owner in Lycurgus, New York. Clyde moves to Lycurgus, works his way up to management and meets worker Roberta Alden. Lonely and desolate, he seeks and reciprocates Roberta’s attentions until the wealthy Sondra Finchley and regrets his entanglement with Roberta. Dreiser pulls all these elements together to bring them to their tragic conclusion.

The novel is very long, but well-crafted and compelling. Dreiser characterizes Clyde in a way that makes him simultaneously an object of pity and revulsion. It took me a long time to read, but it was well worth it. I read Jennifer Donnelly’s young adult adaptation A Northern Light in college, and I meant to read An American Tragedy long before now. I highly recommend it.

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#CBR6 Review #65: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

I never read David Sedaris till now. On the advice of my sister, I requested the audiobook, which, after my experience with B.J. Novak’s One More Thing, seemed like a smart idea. After listening to David Sedaris read his own stories, I can only highly recommend the audiobooks as a pleasurable listening experience. Therefore, this review is written with the audiobook in mind.

David Sedaris is a humor nonfiction writer, and Me Talk Pretty One Day, focuses largely on his transplant to Paris with boyfriend Hugh. Several essays highlight his struggle to learn French, as he compares himself to a toddler and uses delightfully apt phrases that mirror the language learning process. My very favorite story from this collection is “Jesus Shaves.” In his language class, there comes a culture clash so deep that language cannot begin to explain the workings of faith. In it, one of Sedaris’s classmates is a young Muslim woman who does not understand the concept of Easter. Sedaris and several Catholic classmates attempt to describe the celebration for The Baby of God and other hilarious phrases, and then trouble lands when they try to describe the Easter Bunny. It was hard to concentrate on my driving, as I was laughing really, really hard.

I greatly enjoyed this collection, because Sedaris is a funny and honest writer. He uses minute, exaggerated detail to increase the humor and he sketches his family and friends in such a way as to make them vivid characters in his essays. My sister, who has read several of his collections, said that she felt his shtick is wearing a bit thin (and I can understand that), but I really enjoyed reading this as my first experience with Sedaris. And you definitely need to listen to the audiobook.

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#CBR6 Review #64: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Chancellor has, of course, read The Giver, and apparently so has everyone else but me. I don’t know why I didn’t read it, but somehow it slipped away. And then, of course, the movie is out, so there’s new buzz. We’re going to see it this weekend, so I decided to read it and get my view of the book first.

So glad I did. What a beautiful and amazing and heartbreaking book. How are they ever going to do it justice in the movie????

Jonas is a member of a community in perfect harmony. There is no fighting, no divorce, no strife. At dinnertime, the family shares feelings. Each year is a ceremony for the children passing into another year, and this year, Jonas is a Twelve, which means adulthood. He is chosen for a new and special task, and this is where he meets The Giver, the receiver of all memories and historical heritage that the community has forgotten or never experienced. And that’s where his life really begins. He experiences deep joy, love, and excruciating pain. And then he is forced to make a decision about his future.

I think Ms. Lowry does an amazing job of configuring what we would consider to be an “ideal” society and then presenting the opposite of what we’d think would come out of it. It begs the question of the role society plays in our individual lives, as well as whether we want to be protected from “evil,” particularly when you understand what “release” really means in this society. I am super excited to read the rest of the novels in this universe.

 

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#CBR6 Review #63: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Paging Jane Austen enthusiasts! Paging Jane Austen enthusiasts! This is pretty much the greatest Austen adaptation I’ve read–and I’m including Longbourn, which is the second-greatest Austen adaptation (and I’ll be honest–it was a close call. If you don’t like sci-fi or speculative fiction that much, you may give the preference to Longbourn, which is totally understandable. But you really don’t have to like sci-fi to enjoy this novel).

I first heard of this book, because scootsa1000 read it and gave an excellent summary and review. Read it, and you’ll understand what’s at stake.

Why did I like it?

First of all, it felt like Jane Austen meets Margaret Atwood. I never thought I would have reason to type this sentence, and it gives me joyful chills to do so. It’s a novel about Anne Elliott and Captain Frederick Wentworth, but it’s also about the problems of society dictating the moral codes and preventing the betterment of a people. Diana Peterfreund makes an interesting commentary about the nature of humanity, as well as the nature of science, and it’s intriguing.

Second, it engages with the Persuasion novel, but it does so in a way that feels original and fresh. You don’t need to have read Austen to enjoy this story. But if you have, I think your enjoyment will triple. Let’s just say Peterfreund reworks the letter in a way that felt genuine and satisfying.

Third, the world is intriguing. Peterfreund sets up a world with juuuuust enough information to make you curious, but you are able to draw your own conclusions as you read. It’s a smart means of storytelling that allows your questions to be answered without being didactic. Plus, it’s a world of potential. Peterfreund can continue to write without being limited to the Austen adaptation frame that has held this novel together.

I polished this novel off on a leisurely summer afternoon. I highly recommend it.

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#CBR6 Review #62: The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

I read A Country Doctor ten years ago for my American Literature survey course in college. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, but didn’t know that Jewett was more famous for The Country of the Pointed Firs. Ten years later, I finally got around to reading it.

It’s not a plot-driven text. In fact, it’s way more experiential than plot-oriented, and I’m not sure how to go about talking about a book like this. Jewett does a great job of creating a scene, a feeling, a setting, and you really feel like you understand the town in which the unnamed narrator is living for the season. The local anecdotes give you sense of Dunnet Landing’s history and its inhabitants, but why the narrator is there, and why she is staying with Mrs. Todd are never explored.

It’s well-written and interesting book, but if you expect a traditional conflict-oriented plot, you will be disappointed. So I learned to enjoy the novel for what it was: an experience-oriented sketch of life in a rural coastal area, peopled by women of strength and determination. You find out what drives a few of the characters, even if some of the obvious questions (“How did Mrs. Todd become a widow?” “Why is her mother still living in isolation?” “Why is the narrator living here?”) go unanswered. If you think of Sarah Orne Jewett as not only a regional author but a feminist author, you will find some interesting study. I’d be curious to see how a class might view her depiction of women as opposed to Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, even Edith Wharton.

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#CBR6 Review #61: My Antonia by Willa Cather

So: Willa Cather is a new favorite author. I’ve spent this summer devouring four of her most well-known books, and I have enjoyed them all so deeply. This one is great, because it encapsulates the nature of growing up, moving on, and coming back as adults to soak in the memories and re-ignite the past.

Jim Burden is an orphan who moves to his grandparents’ farm in Nebraska. Here, he meets the intriguing Bohemian girl Antonia Shimerda and strikes up a lifelong friendship. The novel chronicles the highs and lows of eking out a living on the Great Plains, the problems of being an immigrant in a land that does not provide the affluence and luxury it promised you, and the changing nature of friendship and love over the course of a lifetime.

My Antonia is a valentine of sorts to old friends. The relationship between Jim and Antonia–really, Jim and his hometown, too–takes its turns for better and worse, especially when Jim starts to consider a future outside of his grandparents’ house. Yet some bonds cannot be ravaged by time, as Cather demonstrates in this lovely and moving novel.

What I liked about My Antonia was its focus on relationships. Cather has been called a “regional” author, but this novel blends the Nebraska setting with more universal themes of friendship, loss, and longing. Antonia is a compelling and rich character, and though not all her decisions are smartly made, you feel empathetic towards her. The Song of the Lark is still my favorite, but this is still great.

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