Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?
For off-the-land adventure:
- Gather nuts and berries with Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days
The numbering in Peggy’s days has gone awry. Readers meet her in 1985 after she has survived some sort of disruption to the pattern.
The story’s suspense is anchored in the fact that the nature of the disturbance is unknown.
The root of her present-day sadness has something to do with her relationship with her father, who is overwhelmingly absent whent he novel opens. But her isolated state, her hesitant and loosely sketched process of recovery, only provokes more questions for readers as the pages turn.
The scenes in the past, beginning in 1976 when Peggy is eight years old, are boldly drawn. They number amongst the most memorable for readers, partly due to later-understood emotional significance, partly due to the author’s skillful use of detail.
These early scenes possess a weight which accumulates more because of the present-past and rush-revoil structure than because of their content. The structure is key to the novel’s pacing, which is evident in the following passage:
“I had no idea this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years. Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and tucked my knees around one of her stout legs. Stuck fast, like a limpet or a Siamese twin, I would have been carried with her when she rose in the morning to milk the cow, or into her kitchen to stir the porridge. If I had known, I might never have let her go.”
As the distance between the two timelines narrows, the balance between the significance of the structure/plot and the content of the story shifts; many readers will be most impressed by the elements of story, which Claire Fuller releases dramatically just when readers are most desperate to understand.
For my part, the structure of the novel holds the greatest appeal, and the demands that the pacing places on the author in terms of developing character, particularly with what is understood only later in the story to be an astute handling of a peculiarly vulnerable voice.
Our Endless Numbered Days is Claire Fuller’s debut; I’m keen to see what she writes next.
For bestseller fans:
- Revisit your inner-Margaret (or Sally, Sheila, Winnie, Jill): Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlkely Event
Some of Judy Blume’s books have a particularly summer feel to them (Iggie’s House and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself).
Others (like Blubber) feel like school-year stories.
But, for the most part, I associate her books with summertime because that was when I was most likely to reread my favourite books.
And oh boy, did I reread Judy Blume’s books.
There are other specific books which I reread (like Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and the early Anne books by L.M. Montgomery), but Judy Blume’s coming-0f-age stories were at the top of my stack of re-reading every summer.
Fortunately, In the Unlikely Event also devotes the bulk of its pages to a coming-of-age story, so that those of us who loved this novelist’s writing when we were girls feel completely at home reading this story as adults, years later. (And in the summer, at that!)
At the heart of the narrative is the year in which Miri Ammerman is fifteen years old in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Readers actually meet her in 1987, when she is travelling back to New Jersey, but while while Miri is crossing the miles, readers are travelling back in time.
“She wondered what he felt holding her that way and hoped it wasn’t her Hidden Treasure bra. Give a girl a Peter Pan and she will grow, grow, grow…. Not like Nat King Cole would record that one.”
(The spine of my copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is starting to peel, in the way that ’70s paperbacks do, when the rereading has left them so worn and creased, that they begin to disintegrate, first at the bottom and top, then the flaking moves towards the centre. The above passage from In the Unlikely Event immediately brings Margaret to mind.)
The coming-of-age elements of the story are inherently dissatisfying and all the more so because this is a novel written for an adult audience, so there are characters of a variety of ages whose perspectives are presented, alongside Miri’s, so that one has a sense of a real community, more than a single person’s story. (A large part of this immersion is due to carefully selected cultural references, from ice-cream parlors to department stores, from Kurt Vonnegut to Member of the Wedding.)
For the first half of the novel, I was simply swept away in the myriad of voices, enjoying the complicated interconnections (for instance, someone’s sister works in an office, which belongs to the father of one of Miri’s best friends, and she is dating the boy who might or might not be feeling that Hidden Treasure bra).
Part-way through, I realized that I was wholly invested in so many minor characters that an anticipated loss began to be truly unsettling. Much of the chatter about this novel openly discusses the tragic elements of the story, but even if one has managed to avoid the spoiler, there is an aspect of the story which eventually reveals to readers – however unfamiliar with the events unfolding in this time and place – that heartbreak lies ahead.
What surprised me was that, somewhere along the line, in a quietly subversive way that I associate with writers like Anne Tyler and Cordelia Strube, I had begun to truly care about the outcome. The shop-girl, the compact-buying husband, the neighbour-woman’s pilot son, the younger sister, the older brother’s best friend: I did not want any one of these people to face tragedy. So as much as I loved turning the pages at the beginning of the novel, I soon began to dread the progression of the story.
The kaleidoscopic narrative voices combine well and provide a solid basis for characterization, aided by a series of newspaper articles published by Miri’s uncle which often serve as epigraphs to chapters. And the bookended nature of the twinned 1987-narratives is ultimately satisfying for readers, though just a teaser in the beginning.
The fifteenth chapter, however, takes a different tone and seems to toy with a more literary approach to delineating the first appearance of chaotic elements in the story, but this device is unnecessary (perhaps even distracting) in the hands of a writer whose characterization is so solidly drawn. Judy Blume doesn’t need to be fancy. She knows how to tell a good story.
For dystopia survivalists:
- Join The Program: Suzanne Young’s series is surprisingly addictive
Of course it’s a matter of life and death.
Page-turning YA: that almost sounds redundant these days.
“’For those who want to celebrate choice – the choice to kill ourselves if we damn well please.’ She shrugs. ‘We don’t want to die, but it’s fun to explore our dark sides when the rest of the world is intent on burying it.’”
The first volume published in the series was The Program but other volumes depicting events earlier in the timeline have appeared since. In storyline order, reading would progress as follows: The Remedy (2015, #0.5), The Epidemic (expected 2016, #0.6), The Program (2013, #1), The Treatment (2014, #2) and The Recovery (2015, #2.5).
My experience with the series was in publication order, however, and that added another degree of interest for me, piecing together the events, in which case The Remedy, for instance, appeared to be more of a companion novel than a preceding volume.
Teen readers would likely find the romantic plot more satisfying than an adult reader, which might decrease an older reader’s enjoyment. (Passages that might seem profound realizations to younger readers could feel like trite observations to older readers.) There is little suspense in this regard, if readers have a good bit of reading experience behind them.
The core plot, the question of a society facing an epidemic of suicide in the youth population and the complications surrounding the medical “solution”, is more satisfying.
One of the reasons that this element of the series holds greater interest is its ultimate preoccupation with identity and independence. The remedy requires a reassembly of self, which is fundamentally invasive.
“‘They dissected her,’ Miller responds, spitting out a bit of nail. ‘They opened up her head and took out the pieces, putting them back together as a happy-face puzzle. It’s like she’s not even real anymore.’”
But, of course, teenagers excel at rebellion. “‘The Program is hunting us; we’re an infection they intend to cure. You should be happy we’re helping you at all.'”
And, hence, the tension within and between novels. (I’m not identifying the source of these quotes, in the various volumes of the series, to avoid spoilers in the timeline.)
Although the series bears some resemblance to other popular YA series (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, for its focus on survival; Veronica Roth’s Divergence, for its interconnected cast of characters; Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, for its questions of identity and social conformity), the focus on the romantic relationship(s) in this series seems to overshadow the dystopic elements. So readers’ enjoyment will intensify or wane dependent upon their personal attachments to key characters’ attachments.
For an archetypal tale of survival:
- Cast your line in the waters of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen
The novel begins with two epigraphs. The first is an Igbo proverb: “The footsteps of one man cannot create a stampede.” The second is a verse written by Mazisi Kunene, which begins “The madman has entered our house with violence / Defiling our sacred grounds”.
Each epigraph underscores the novel’s preoccupation with change and in/justice. And on the back of this page, as though the reader could rip out this single sheet to act as a key, is a map.
This diagram looks to be drawn by a child, depicting significant places in the small town of Akure in Nigeria. The lime trees are as prominent as the mosque, and the fishing spot is marked with a cartoon-like fish next to the river.
Just as the epigraphs and the map suggest, The Fishermen is a story about one person’s footsteps and one child’s movement in the world, but there is also a parallel with a broader journey and a more expansive landscape as well.
As such, Chigozie Obioma’s debut can be enjoyed as a straightforward coming-of-age tale, but the narrative also has a mythic quality which affords an appeal to those readers looking for a deeper understanding of socio-political landscape in 1990s Nigeria.
“Like sparrows – which we believed had no homes – Ikenna’s heart had no home, no fixed allegiances. He loved the far and the near, the small and the big, the strange and the familiar. But it was the little things that drew and consumed his compassion, the most memorable of which was a small bird he owned for a few days in 1992.”
Readers can receive the story of the badly deplumed sparrow, who had been a pet and still had a piece of twine wound around his leg, as it is presented directly, as a representation of the disappearance of Ikenna (the oldest brother).
But one can also appreciate (even with only a cursory understanding of the ongoing struggles that groups within Nigeria have faced in an effort to gain independence and to address injustices) that the plethora of birds and other vulnerable creatures who populate this narrative have a greater significance beyond this tale of four brothers.
This connection between the imagined and the real is even more important than readers might initially guess; in fact, the power of storytelling blurs, even erases, the tie, so that the imagined can become real.
“The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”
For this reason, the author’s note resonates dramatically: “To all whom I couldn’t, due to space constraints, mention, you know your hands were here, and I thank you as much as those listed here. And to my readers, a hundred times more.”
Chigozie Obioma invites readers to imagine birds taking flight, even while he pulls our hearts and minds through deep and treacherous waters; in the end, we create a winged future which unfolds beyond the book’s covers.
Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?
Every day this week, items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. Some for sunny days and some for stormy days.
Now, you add one. Whether it’s best on a sunny-weather day or a stormy-weather day. Do tell!