What does it mean to be? It’s a question often reserved for freshman year philosophy courses and late night bull sessions, but this week it also happened to be deeply intwined in the books we were reading. These books, in totally different ways, explore what makes you different from (or the same as) other people, why some people are chosen (or not), and what it means to be alive (and, of course, die). Heady stuff, but with half the country buried in snow, you might find yourself with plenty of time this weekend for contemplation.
Mallory: Vivian Apple is the opposite of the teen girl you typically see in today’s media: Mean Girls, Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars, and the like. Vivian is a good kid. She actually likes her parents, and doesn’t feel the need to rebel against them. Except in one way: she doesn’t believe in the mega-church that converted them, as well as a large portion of America. So when her parents get “Raptured,” she finds herself left behind amongst the damned, and things start to get interesting.
Despite the religious theme and apocalyptic plot tropes, the book is neither about God nor the end of the world. It’s about the pain of uncertainty as you come of age, not knowing what to believe in. It’s about not wanting to let go of the comforts of childhood, and the reassuring linearity of progress that comes with pleasing adults and being rewarded in return. Most of all, it’s about finding your own voice in a world that can all-too-easily drown you out.
Justin: Nobel laureate José Saramago’s The Double opens with a scene that will be familiar to anyone: the protagonist, after a day he’d rather not think about anymore, settles in for the evening with a decidedly mediocre movie. His evening is spoiled and his life irrevocably altered when he sees an actor who looks uncannily like him. What follows is a strange tale of obsession and identity, complete with doppelgängers, switched identities, a brilliant twist, and even a little romantic suspense. Despite having the premise of a thriller, however, the story unfurls in a decidedly literary mode.
Though I’m engaged by the story of the history teacher and his actor-double, the real protagonist is Saramago himself. As a narrator, he’s incomparably charming, intelligent, self-deprecating, and frequently meandering. You can easily imagine Saramago relating his story at the head of a table, well-fortified with wine. Saramago is in no hurry to tell his story, expertly delaying gratification until the last possible moment. Frequently, at some critical juncture, Saramago pauses to muse about the nature of storytelling itself. In one of my favorite moments, he steadfastly refuses to disclose the thoughts of his protagonist, fearing that they would be so unconnected with the story at hand, that “the story we had decided to tell would inevitably have to be replaced by another.” As curious as I am to know what that other novel might have been, I’m thankful for the one Saramago has given us.
Alex P: As you may have heard, we recently added New York Review Books to Scribd, which has made me extremely excited, in no small part because it gave me an excuse to revisit The Dud Avocado. It’s one of those cultish books that’s become a secret handshake among young female Francophiles—its name is always mentioned with a knowing smile, the recognition of a kindred spirit.
Sally Jay Gorce is the novel’s protagonist, narrator, and élan vital. Though the book is from the ’50s, her idiosyncrasies and attitudes feel surprisingly contemporary and utterly charming; Zooey Deschanel’s got nothing on this girl. The story manages both to satisfy all the classic “American girl in Paris” tropes, and to dismantle them with a smile and a sip of Pernod. It’s a hoot, and totally insightful; but its greatest charm has to be how truly authentic it feels. Rereading it has been, of course, like catching up with old friends; but strangely, it’s also been like catching up with old me. I guess Sally’s right: “It’s amazing how right you can be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.”
Niree: Paul Harding’s slim-yet-powerful Tinkers stunned just about everyone when it won the Pulitzer Prize as a debut novel from a small nonprofit press. Once you’ve read it, however, it’s easy to understand why it became an instant classic.
The story revolves around George Washington Crosby, an old man who, on his deathbed, thinks of his father, a former clockmaker. The moon of George Washington Crosby’s mind waxes and wanes as his last breath approaches. Memories unwind in lavish sentences, bringing to life the sepia sights, sounds, and smells of his past. Family, relationships, love, the passage of time, and of course death—Harding commands all these subjects with a mature and impressive style. Just listen to this sentence:
And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.
It’s this sort of chilling yet beautiful meditation on the human condition that seizes your soul and stays with you forever.
Ashley: Lately I’ve been meandering through Fantasyland, having a lot of fun adventures, but increasingly missing Dystopialand (I know, it’s very weird to feel nostalgia for such a place, but I can’t help it). But then Alex P pointed me to Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, which takes place in a border country of Fantasyland and Dystopialand and ends up blending the best elements from both (Thanks, Alex P!).
Aveyard’s world is one where people who have red blood are relegated to a life of hard work and barely scraping by (yay to the future of plain old humans like you and me!) while superhumans with silver blood and magical powers rule (perhaps they opted out of attending Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and becoming superheroes). When the disgruntled Red pick-pocket, Mare Barrow, accepts a serving job in the Silver Palace, she’s just trying to protect her friends and family. Soon, however, it’s discovered that she somehow possesses powers only Silvers should have. I’m so eager to know how her powers will begin breaking down the rigid class system that I’ve been listening at 1.5x speed, which I regret only because I don’t want to leave Mare’s side so soon. Mare reminds me a lot of Katniss (who is basically my everything) and narrator Amanda Nolan does a perfect job capturing her wit, insecurities, and unwavering strength. This debut completely blew me away (without even using its supernatural high-wind generating powers).