#CBR6 Review #80: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan gets it. He understands the complicated nature of the human heart, the means by which we process love, loss, faith, loss of faith, life and death. His later novels are especially interested in human nature, not as an abstract concept, but as a reality. A solid, concrete, beating heart. And it’s to this material that he again returns with The Children Act.

The novel’s title is a pun of sorts, deriving both from The Children Act of 1989, and a short, declarative sentence. Fiona Maye is a judge in a family court. Her husband has asked her for one last fling, since she has turned away from him sexually. In her refusal, she finds her domestic life falling apart as she must make proclamations on the domestic spaces of others. It is in her court that she encounters a case upon which the novel turns: 17-year-old Adam Henry, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness, suffers from leukemia and must receive a blood transfusion in order for his treatment to work. He and his parents refuse the transfusion, but the hospital appeals to the court. The decision is Fiona’s. Does she honor the faith of a young adult? Or does she cite the law and his youth and inexperience to go against his wishes? The decision will come to haunt her.

There are echoes of other McEwan novels in the story of Fiona and Adam (two that come to mind most notably are Enduring Love and The Child in Time, which comprises a major part of my third chapter), but it’s the way he discusses faith and unbelief that still has me thinking. McEwan is neither dismissive nor accepting, but in his steadfast neutrality, the reader can examine his or her beliefs and ponder. And wonder.

As a person of faith, I felt challenged by this novel. In a good way. McEwan is an atheist, but he’s a steadfast believer in the beauty of the human experience, and it’s the multi-faceted glimpse at humanity that draws me into his novels again and again and again.

The ending is gorgeous and melancholy at once. I ended the novel with tears in my eyes, and there are tears welling up as I write this review. I do believe I will be haunted by this book in a way that McEwan has never haunted me before.

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#CBR6 Review #79: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

As an academic, I do enjoy poking fun at myself and my profession every once in awhile. Like any other profession, there is plenty about academia that is ridiculous/absurd/unfair/hilarious. I don’t particularly enjoy Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (and I suspect that has as much to do with the sort of white-boyisms that populate the novel, and that Jim is kind of a twit), and I haven’t yet read any of David Lodge’s work (I hear The British Museum Is Falling Down is excellent, however). So it was a delight and a treat (and a bit painful) to read this short novel by Julie Schumacher.

Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about a professor of creative writing at a university. Jason T. Fitger is beleaguered by requests for recommendation letters from students, faculty, and administrators, his sense of failure, and the string of scorned women he has left behind (but immortalized in his novels. Seriously, bad idea, dude). The novel unfolds in a series of letters as Fitger tries to reconcile what he has left of his writing career, promote his promising graduate student’s novella (a bordello adaptation of “Bartleby the Scrivener”), and make his discontent heard in his letters. He is maddening, pathetic, irritating, and profoundly human all at once.

The novel is so very true, I could point to several faculty at all three institutions I went to and say, “Yes, you illustrate this trait very well.” “You would totally say this in a letter.” “Hm, I could see myself doing this.” Schumacher does an excellent job of balancing the grim and the absurd with a satiric eye and witty tone. It’s a Jane Austen expose of human nature within the academic system, and it rings true to life (both good and bad). If you are an academic, I especially recommend this to you, since the scenarios will likely ring true to something of your experience at some level. If you aren’t an academic, you will still enjoy it, though some of the inside jokes may not be as funny or painful.

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#CBR6 Review #78: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Ever since The Luminaries was announced as 2013’s Man Booker Prize winner, I have been intrigued to read it. When I heard that Eleanor Catton, the author, was my age, I immediately felt depressed that I have not even finished my (about) 200-page dissertation, when Ms. Catton quadrupled my page count. The sheer size discouraged me from picking it up before now (and I felt rather foolish for borrowing this tome, thinking I would just have to return it to the library). And then I opened the book.

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I’m a huge fan of complex and intricate Victorian novels by George Eliot and Charles Dickens. So it boded well that I found myself remembering and tracing the plots of the twelve men featured at the beginning of the novel. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving anything away, but a bare-bones teaser will do, I suppose: Walter Moody arrives at the goldfields in New Zealand ready to make his fortune. When he arrives at his hotel, he stumbles upon twelve men in a secret meeting, all determined to connect a series of strange events: alcoholic recluse Crosbie Wells has been found dead in his shanty near his goldfield; prostitute Anna Wetherell has tried to take her own life; and wealthy man Emery Staines has mysteriously disappeared. All the men suspect the unscrupulous Francis Carver to have orchestrated these events. How each man is connected to Carver, Wetherell, Staines, or Wells proves to be a complex mystery that torses on itself and recreates itself as the novel moves on.

This is exactly the kind of novel I live for: beautifully written, complex, engaging, and populated with interesting, flawed people. If you like novels like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I can say that you will most likely enjoy this one a lot. It’s not a fast read per se, but one you make it through Parts I and II (the first half of the book), the novel really picks up speed (much like another favorite, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

On a related note: this is exactly the kind of cinematic novel that would translate well to screen. I really think the BBC needs to get on it and film it RIGHT NOW. I already have my first casting choice for them:

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See, you’d watch that.

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#CBR6 Review #77: The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue by David Sax

I love food. I like to talk about it, read about it, view it via cookbooks or shows, prepare it, and eat it. So I was highly intrigued by the Barnes and Noble display that featured David Sax’s The Tastemakers. Hmmmm, I thought. Just why are we so crazy about cupcakes and tired of fondue? (disclosure: I love a good fondue. Who doesn’t love a meal that consists of you dipping bread and fruit into gourmet melted cheese? Just saying)

David Sax expertly explains food trends and how they play out in culture, agriculture, economics, and politics. He discusses everything from the subtle influence of Sex and the City upon cupcakes, a new trend of apple that is trying to emerge from Canada, a strain of China Black rice that is surging in agriculture, and the food truck wars in Washington, D.C. And yes, he explains why fondue is no longer a “thing” (spoiler: the AIDS crisis was part of it). His writing is illuminating, informative, and witty. The book is an engaging piece of journalism, and I devoured it (almost literally, the prose *is* pretty yummy). In fact, I liked it so much, that my students and I will be reading an essay or two from this book this semester. This is a relatable book for an academic or non-academic alike, as there is much to think over and take in.

I know a lot more about food trends, and how different sociocultural or socioeconomic factors play into what we buy and what we eat. I am still (obviously) disappointed that fondue is apparently a fondon’t in this country (sorry for the pun–my friend C came up with it when she made a batch of fondue that didn’t turn out quite like it should have). But then again, I can always share my love affair with cheese with THIS lovely lady:

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Sing it, Eunice.

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#CBR6 Review #76: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

So. I’ve heard all kinds of things about The Maze Runner, but until I realized there was a movie coming out, I didn’t feel an urge to read it necessarily. And then I saw the trailer, which left me a bit intrigued. And then I read the book very quickly.

I have no idea how or where to start, because I have a lot of complex feelings about the book. I guess a synopsis should come first, eh? Thomas wakes up in an elevator-like lift to be in the center of a maze, surrounded by boys, many of whom have been there for a few years. He has no idea how he got there, or why he is there, but something about the world seems vaguely familiar. He tries to navigate the world where terrifying Grievers roam the corridors of the Maze, and he tries to understand how to solve the puzzle, but in a short time a girl–the only girl–arrives with a cryptic message: she is the last one. The end is near.

As a story, I actually really enjoyed The Maze Runner. It’s an intriguing mystery–albeit unevenly paced and sometimes a bit maddening in exposition. I really wanted to know what happened and I was invested enough in the world to suspend my disbelief.

From a teacher’s perspective, though, I’m not sure how to go about recommending it. It’s actually quite violent for a young adult novel–especially in the way adolescent deaths and human experimentation are treated. It’s not a dishonest view of the needlessness of war, but there were some deaths that quite shocked me, especially when you think of them not as soldier deaths but those of teen boys. I think that’s what bothered me most. These are kids, after all. So I think there was an element of Lord of the Flies that kind of got under my skin.

I’m definitely interested enough to borrow the second novel from the library. We’ll see how I feel after round two.

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#CBR6 Review #75: Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

I devoured The Giver last month and almost fainted when I heard that Lois Lowry wrote more books in the series. So of course it was off to my local library to put in a request because EVERYONE IS READING IT. I can see why–this book isn’t exactly a sequel, but it does provide some unusual counterpoint to the Stepfordian world Jonas inhabited in The Giver.

Gathering Blue begins with Kira, who is mourning the sudden death of her mother. She is crippled with a twisted leg, but she has an immense gift for fabrics, textiles, and sewing. She is sent to live in the Council House to repair the special robe worn by the village singer for the annual council, and while she is there, she stumbles upon several secrets, ones that have the potential to change her life and her place in the community.

Lowry is a really talented writer, and she hits on so many crucial issues in what seems like a “simple” book. She asks us to question the role of art in our lives–how willing are we to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of beauty or craft? What price does the artist ultimately pay for his or her craft (and this is something I found in Cather’s The Song of the Lark, as well)? And, how does reconcile truth with comfort? This isn’t a direct sequel to The Giver, but it does cover a lot of the same ideas. And Kira is an interesting, lovely protagonist. So…I definitely put in a request for Messenger. That needs to get read. Once I thin down my huge stack a bit.

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#CBR6 Review #74: Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

Rarely have I felt like fist-pumping a book while I was reading it. But then, I had never read Diana Peterfreund before.  tumblr_lrylxlTnsA1qacgfco2_500

I fell in love with For Darkness Shows the Stars and then realized that there was a companion novel. I was so excited. Across a Star-Swept Sea is not a direct sequel, but it involves the same world and even has a few cross-over characters (I won’t say anymore–it would spoil the surprise).

This time, Peterfreund draws from the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. I don’t know about you, but I greatly enjoyed the novel when I was in college, and I *especially* love the 1980s film adaptation with Anthony Anderson, Jane Seymour, and the delicious Sir Ian McKellan. I mean, how can anyone resist its charms?

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“Sink me!”

Just as the Reduction wiped out people in For Darkness Shows the Stars, people who are not aristocrats (known here in New Pacifica as regs or regulars) face the dangers of Reduction and its damaging effects on the brain. The islands of Galatea and Albion find themselves in conflict, especially since Galatea is undergoing civil war and Albion is being governed by a princess placeholding the throne until her brother comes of age. The only hope of saving people from torture, Reduction, and certain death is the Wild Poppy, a wild, flamboyant, and highly elusive hero masquerading as a soppish and silly aristocrat.

And the Wild Poppy is a young woman.

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My feminist heart grew three sizes today.

Persis Blake is 17 and living a double life as the Wild Poppy and a silly socialite. She and her best friends, Princess Isla and Andrine, have formed the League of the Poppy in order to save Galateans from Reduction. In the midst of a rescue, she meets budding scientist Justen Helo, a descendant of Persistance Helo (a woman who formed a medical cure for Reduction). They agree to pretend to be in a relationship for a variety of political reasons, but then they become acquainted. And then secrets begin to surface that can jeopardize not only a potential relationship, but the entire world they know.

This is not just a love story. It’s the story of a woman brave enough to risk her life to save others who have been abused by figures of authority. It’s the story of finding your purpose in life. And it’s the story of not judging someone based on her appearance.

This is the line that made me pump my fists in sheer joy:

Yet even when she was acting her flakiest, she still managed to make more sense than his revolutionary friends back in Galatea. He’d known it, even if he hadn’t wanted to believe it. How odd that an array of gorgeous dresses and a few well-placed dumb comments were all it took to disguise her true self. Was it because she was a woman? Was it because Justen was actually far shallower than Persis had ever appeared to be?

That sound you hear is Diana Peterfreund dropping the mic.

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Farewell, vapid heroines. So long, silly young adult novel stereotypes. This is an awesome book about awesome ladies. The romance is secondary to the action, science, and adventure deftly integrated into this novel. The female friends are not fighting about boys–they are fighting to save the world from evil.

Across a Star-Swept Sea is easily one of my favorite CBR picks this year. I think I might even like it better than For Darkness Shows the Stars. It’s an exciting, affirming novel about what a young woman can do and be if she only believes in herself.

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