Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Popham Beach in December

Season's Greetings from Maine! 

Book Blog Watch: The Perpetual Page-Turner has a link list to 2010 Book Surveys from multiple book bloggers, including my Gift Book Suggestions from 2010. Steph Su is listing best 2010 books by genre, craft etc. Happy Reading!

Holiday Humor: The Digital Story of Nativity on YouTube

2 week blog vacation: next post January 5, 2011. This post is my holiday card.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alternating Point of View

In my current work-in-progress, A MATCH FOR EVE, my narrators are an American girl and a British boy. As an American married to an Englishman, these voices are coming easily to me. The hard part has been figuring out how to split the narrative, especially when both main characters are in a scene together. For guidance I have been reading novels written in the boy/girl point of view.

One Day by David Nicholls (2010) uses alternating point of view to show the complexities of a relationship over time. The narrative follows two Edinburgh University graduates from 1988 to 2007 in London. We connect with them “one day” every year. Both characters are English but from different socio-economic backgrounds. Dexter is a charismatic alcoholic working in television, and Emma is a literary liberal, scrambling to pay the rent. Nichols, writing in the third person, splits every chapter between the male and female perspectives. The voices evolve and converge as the characters age. Unrequited love drives the delightfully haphazard plot.

One Day is a laugh-out-loud satire for the Gen-X generation. The cultural references are spot on, although you will need a firsthand knowledge of the UK to get all the jokes. One problem with alternating voices is that the reader often bonds more to one than the other. I was impressed by how well Nicholls, as a male author, conveyed the female voice and avoided convention. If I had issues with a character it was with Dexter, not Emma. Also, the ending was too abrupt and random. Still, my husband and I really enjoyed this novel.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares (2010) was written for teens, but its cynical humor and off-beat characters would appeal to adults too, especially to fans of J.D. Salinger. The material pushes the envelope as to what is appropriate for younger readers, but I'm letting my 13-year-old daughter read it...soon. She picked it out while we were in NYC, and I stole it from her. Bad mom.

Two bored teens are on their own for Christmas in NYC. Dash told his mom he's with his dad and his dad he's with his mom. Lily's big brother is meant to be looking after her, but he's distracted by his new boyfriend. Lily leaves a moleskin notebook in a used bookstore with clues and a dare for a stranger who fancies J.D. Salinger. Dash picks up the challenge. The dares escalate from braving the Santa line at Macy's to clubbing at 2am for Jewish punk rock. Seriously. I usually find holiday books too schmaltzy, but this one had me laughing so hard I had to put it down.

Rachel Cohn wrote Lily's chapters and David Levithan wrote Dash's. This is the third time these authors have collaborated. They swapped chapters back and forth like the fictional notebook and a wacky but surprisingly cohesive story emerged. Occasionally the chapters fall out of time sequence but mostly the structure worked and was full of surprises. Having 2 authors also facilitated the rendering of gender. However, lonely Lily sounds more like a real teenager than jaded Dash. It's hard to imagine a 16-year-old boy more into words than messing around. For most of the book, the two are apart with parallel narratives, only connecting on the page. Both need to reconcile the Plutonic ideal in the notebook with the real person when they finally meet under the worst circumstances.

Dash: "I was a firm believer in preventive prevarication-in other words, lying early in order to free myself later on."
Lily: "I'm pretty sure my curfew is suspended on holidays. Like alternate side of the street parking rules."

Flipped (2001) by Wendelin Van Draanen is a he-said-she-said story for a younger audience. Every scene is replayed in paired chapters for a dual perspective. I found this construct too repetitive. It was, however, interesting to see which details were important enough to be noticed by each character. Unfortunately, I disliked the boy and found the girl too good to be true. My favorite character was a tree. The narrative is set in eighth grade with flashbacks. Although Flipped is labeled young adult fiction, it would appeal more to tweens than to teens because of its sweet innocence.

Young adult author Simone Elkeles has written several novels in alternating boy/girl POV chapters. Each chapter is labeled by character and narrated in first person. Elkeles uses dual narration effectively to break stereotypes and to show that there are two sides of a story. Her romances are a bit formulaic: good girl falls for bad misunderstood boy.

In Perfect Chemistry (2009) a Hispanic gang member is paired with a popular rich cheerleader as lab partners. I loved Alex but never connected with Brittany. The story about gang warfare was gripping, but the schmaltzy epilogue went too far in tying up all the plot strings. There are two more novels in this trilogy, following Alex’s brothers. Drugs, sex and violence make these novels upper young adult.

In Leaving Paradise (2007), the bad boy has spent a year in juvenile detention after his car hit the girl next door, disabling her. Of the two Elkeles novels that I read, I preferred Leaving Paradise for its plot twists and the unusual relationship between the characters. Elkeles’s approach to disability felt emotionally true and realistic. The sequel  Return to Paradise was released recently.

Having sampled these five books and others, I have settled on the alternating first person narration with labeled chapters because it is easiest for readers to follow. I won’t be replaying scenes in NOT CRICKET, but for pivotal scenes one character will narrate the first half and the other character the second half, a technique Elkeles employs very well.

I actually prefer the writing in One Day and Dash & Lily, but Elkeles's narrative structure would work better for my story because my characters, like hers, are in school together and sharing scenes. I’m aiming to use my dual voices to show that English really is two languages divided between the US and the UK. Structural form can shape the story; it’s the author’s invisible hand at work.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: no free products were received. Flipped was a library book (recommended by  Maria Padian –thanks!) and I purchased the other books. My daughter picked out Lily and Dash with her book allowance. She is reading it now and loving it, although a bit traumatized by my book snatching.

Book Blog Watch for the Holidays:
A List of Books From the House of Edward.
Check out my Gift Book Suggestions from 2010 (posted 2 weeks ago)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman & Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, 2 reviews

Since Hanukkah starts tonight, I’m reviewing a novel and a Broadway play with Jewish characters. Allegra Goodman is one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed most of the stories in Total Immersion. One of the best novels I’ve read about science was her Intuition. Goodman researches her subjects thoroughly and then brings the workplace alive with passionate but fallible characters. Her most recent novel, The Cookbook Collector, would appeal to a wide audience. It tackles a broad range of topics from rare cookbooks to new technology start-ups.

The Cookbook Collector follows two half Jewish sisters in their twenties, pragmatic Emily and dreamy Jess. Emily has started a dot com business in Silicon Valley, and Jess is a philosophy graduate student at Berkeley who works at an antiquarian bookstore. Jess is in a relationship with an environmental activist but is attracted to her aloof employer, a man twice her age. Drifting and confused, Jess is drawn to Jewish mysticism. Emily is having problems of her own, managing a long distance romance with a competitor while weathering the astronomical ups and downs of the dot com industry in the 1990s. The close relationship between the sisters tie the disparate narrative strands together.

The third person narration includes multiple perspectives like a late 19th century novel, allowing for full development of even minor characters. The diverse cast of characters felt real down to their exasperating personality tics, and they avoided stereotypes. I loved seeing a young woman play a stellar CEO. Workplace romances resulted in unexpected consequences.

Despite the myriad plot strings and perspectives, the narrative is coherent and flows well. The Cookbook Collector is literary fiction but as easy and pleasurable to read as commercial fiction. This book was meant to be enjoyed by the fire on a long winter’s night. The warmth comes from within the pages:
“Who could resist cracking books like these? He wanted to open them right now, one after another on the kitchen table. He wanted to shuck these books like oysters in their shells.”
The Cookbook Collector also opens with one of my favorite quotations from Shakespeare's As You Like It: "I can live no longer by thinking."

Disclosure: I bought this book from an independent bookstore when it was released this summer. The author did not respond to my request for an interview.

Check out last week's post for my list of good gift books from 2010.

Shakespeare Watch: 
Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice 

Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice live on Broadway

While in NYC for Thanksgiving, we saw The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. Al Pacino was phenomenal as Shylock (better than Dustin Hoffman in the same role in 1989) and Lily Rabe was an equally strong Portia. The staging was terrific too. It was one the best performances I've ever seen, as good as Sir Ian McKellen playing Richard III at BAM. The strong cast could rival the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. The Americana actors avoided English accents and spoke the lines of Shakespeare naturally with emotional resonance. I was moved to laughter and nearly tears. My teenaged children loved it too, sitting on the edge of their seat for 3 hours. This performance is well worth a trip to NYC on its own.

The Merchant of Venice is playing through January 9th at the Broadhurst Theater. If you can't make it to NYC, rent The Merchant of Venice filmed in Venice. Al Pacino is really good in the movie, but he's even better live on stage. That's rare in a Hollywood actor.

The Merchant of Venice, the film (2004)

Happy Hanukkah!

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@Barrie Summy