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Crossing a line

Kinder than Solitude

Title: Kinder than Solitude
By: Yiyun Li

This is a complex, thought-provoking novel concerned with understanding four young people as they mature. At age 15, Ruyu, an orphan child from a provincial town, is handed off by her religious great aunts to distant relatives in Beijing, where she will attend high school. She is to share a room with the daughter of the house, Shaoai, who at 22 is much more sophisticated, opinionated, and bossy.

Sharing a bed with Shaoai on the first night, Ruyu converses with God: "Please, she said, sensing she was on Shaoai’s mind, please mask me with your love so they can’t feel my existence." Throughout her life, Ruyu fervently seeks the privacy of being unseen.

Two neighbor children a year older become friendly with Ruyu in spite of her reticence: Boyang, who is being raised by his grandparents, and Moran, who is in love with Boyang and feels tenderness for the orphan girl. Moran has the most ordinary family life of the four of them, but this is not enough to protect her.

When something terrible happens to Shaoai, the bonds of friendship are fractured, and all four lives are altered forever. Li ever so slowly unravels the mystery of this event. The strong contrasts between her characters remind us of the variety of ways we can choose to live our life in this world. Concomitantly, the way we we view ourselves and others depends on our individual personalities. I see these as motifs of this unusual and profound literary investigation.

Later in her life, Moran ponders: "Perhaps there is a line in everyone’s life that, once crossed, imparts a certain truth that one has not been able to see before, transforming solitude from a choice into the only possible state of existence."

What could be kinder than solitude?

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on Nov. 19, 2014 at 9:16 a.m.

Key mysteries

The Luminaries

Title: The Luminaries
By: Eleanor Catton

The gold rush in New Zealand! After a disturbing and eerie experience on the ship he arrived on, Walter Moody stumbles upon a disparate group of men in the back room of a hotel—men with competing and compelling stories to tell. If you love densely interwoven, multi-charactered historical fiction, please read this. It’s a fabulous brain-teaser, complete with astrological charts at the head of each section. Using a key at the front of the book and the horoscopes, you perhaps may predict which characters will connect, frustrate, aid or bewilder each other. I did not succeed in unraveling that mystery. But I do think I understand why this book won the 2013 Man Booker Prize: structural genius, authentic dialog, and excellent character development.

As the plot thickened I was mesmerized by the twists and turns and by observing the characters unfold. Thank goodness some of the key mysteries are revealed at the end of the book.

Knowledge of what an ascendant or a trine is adds an extra layer of depth to The Luminaries, but one doesn't have to be an astrology expert to appreciate its role in the story. Astrology is the perfect framework for this novel for two reasons.

As a personality sorting system, it captures the sheer diversity of the characters involved in any gold rush. There are indigenous Maori, Chinese coolies, Frenchmen, Jews, Scandinavians, second-generation New Zealand settlers, and immigrants from every far-flung corner of the British Empire. There are paupers, indentured laborers, aristocrats fallen on hard times, nouveau riche capitalists, and every social class in between. There are introverts, extroverts, reckless gamblers, dutiful workers, despairing opium addicts, conniving opportunists and almost every other personality archetype one can imagine: twelve to correlate to the signs of the zodiac, with another seven to match the classical planets. How else can one describe the juxtaposition of a Chinese drug dealer dragged into participating in a Victorian séance and an obese, pistol-wielding goldfields magnate than the volatile opposition of Air and Fire?

Furthermore, astrology reflects the mining town's obsession with the thin line between Fortune and Fate. Why does one man strike it rich while another fails miserably? Is it entirely random? Are certain individuals predestined for success by the stars? Or are there conspiracies afoot? (Spoiler: there are, though that doesn't preclude other explanations). Every detail interacts with every other detail, leading to a convoluted but fascinating chain of cause and effect.

NB: This book was reviewed by 2 staff members, April and Xenon (the latter in bold type), who chose to join forces here.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by counterpoint on Nov. 15, 2014 at 9 a.m.

Gaston unique


Title: Gaston
By: Kelly DiPucchio

One of these things doesn’t go with the other...or do they? Gaston is a funny story about what makes a family a family. Mrs. Poodle has three children the size of a teacup. Her fourth, Gaston, is the size of a teapot! He doesn’t look like a poodle at all. In fact, Gaston looks like Mrs. Bulldog; and one of Mrs. Bulldog’s children, Antoinette, looks more like Mrs. Poodle. What should they do? Well…both Gaston and Antoinette have to switch. Isn’t that the way things should be? Gaston may look like the bulldog family, but, as we find out, he is not like the Bulldogs. Watch as Gaston and Antoinette get into humorous situations as they try to fit in with their lookalike (but not alike) families. Ooh-la-la! How will it end?

View similarly tagged posts: picture books
Posted by websterp on Nov. 15, 2014 at 8:27 a.m.

An old family tale

Fiona's Lace

Title: Fiona's Lace
By: Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco is a wonderful storyteller, and a good number of her books are about her family. This is the story of her great-great-grandmother, Fiona, who as a young girl came over from Ireland along with her mother, father, and younger sister Ailiah to start a new life in Chicago. They went from being a farming family to (as did many immigrants who settled in America) working as domestics in wealthy people’s homes. Fiona’s mother was highly skilled in lacemaking, and taught her daughter how to make beautiful quality lace. Fiona started making lace to sell in stores and help support her family. When the 1871 Great Fire engulfed a large area of Chicago, Fiona and her sister were alone at home. They had to run for their lives, but wanted to make sure their parents know where to find them. The lace Fiona was making for a client plays an important part in this story's happy ending.

View similarly tagged posts: picture books
Posted by websterp on Oct. 8, 2014 at 12:51 p.m.

Peripheral supernatural

Tam Lin

Title: Tam Lin
By: Pamela Dean

If you were the Queen of Faery and had to pay a septennial teinde or tribute to Hell, where would you hunt for your victims? A small liberal arts college in Minnesota seems as likely a place as any to capture promising human youths: take your pick of any of the plethora of English and Classics students inordinately fond of quoting Shakespeare and Homer in everyday dialogue.

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin retells the Scottish ballad(s) of the same name in this modern setting. As in many versions of the ballad, the protagonist is a strong-willed young woman named Janet. (Her middle name, in a nod to other versions, is Margaret.) Starting on her first day as a freshman, Janet receives inklings that sinister things are going on beneath the facade of what passes for "normal" in college. Her dorm is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a student who committed suicide in 1897, strange rumors circulate regarding the intrigues of the exclusive clique that is the Classics Department (which is also known for its annual midnight horseback rides on Halloween), and certain of her classmates display unusual evasiveness about their pasts. But these are just the idiosyncrasies of college life, are they not?

The original supernatural element of the ballad remains peripheral in the sense of peripheral vision; it defies any attempt to look at it directly, remaining ever at the edges of the narrative. Until the seventh year arrives again, that is, and Janet finds herself in a position where only she can save the Queen's intended sacrifice, Tam Lin. "It was exactly as if she had spent four years reading a poem, probably by Keats, and had gotten to the end and seen, finally, what relation all the pieces bore to one another...Not science fiction at all, but a far older idea, remnants of things she had read in her childhood."

View similarly tagged posts: fiction, teen fiction
Posted by Xenon on Oct. 8, 2014 at 8 a.m.

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