Posts Tagged ‘novels’

#CBR4 Cannonball 27: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I was disappointed. I thought the romance was rather cobbled together, and Catherine Morland seemed the most dimwitted of all of Austen’s heroines.

It improved upon the second reading, though. I think my problem with my first read was that I was expecting it to focus too much on the romance. But upon reading it a second time, I realized that the strength of this book is its emphasis on friendship, especially in regard to avoiding bad ones.

Catherine Morland is seventeen, and visiting Bath for the first time. Society in Bath is exciting, and young, na├»ve Catherine is taking it all in with much excitement. She’s overjoyed when she’s befriended by Isabella Thorpe, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Bath. At Isabella’s urging, she begins calling her by her first name, spending all kinds of time with her, and even doing a few things that she might not have thought proper back home in Fullerton.

Isabella flatters her endlessly, but is also oddly inconsistent in her behavior. She declares that she won’t dance unless Catherine gets a partner, but soon abandons her to dance with Catherine’s brother, James. She declares that she doesn’t care at all for Frederic Tilney, but, somehow, always seems to be talking to him. But Catherine, loyal to the core, insists to herself that Isabella must have a good reason for her behavior, or must not know how her behavior is affecting others.

In the meantime, she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Catherine likes Henry almost instantly, and she’s glad to find that she likes Eleanor, too. Eleanor’s not as flattering or flashy as Isabella, but she’s steady and likeable.

udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, one of the gothic books that Austen references in Northanger Abbey

Catherine’s also a great reader of gothic mysteries. She longs for the excitement and romance that she reads about in these books, and her desire for adventure gets her in a bit of a pickle down the line. Austen uses this to gently encourage the reader not to put too much stock in what you read in books — even as you read hers.

The resolution of the romantic entanglements still felt a little too neat to me, but the friendship angle is still a good lesson to learn today. It’s good to have an open temperament, and to be willing to get to know and like people. But it’s also good to exercise discernment because there are many who would prey upon the unwise and take advantage of their trusting natures. Don’t become jaded, but don’t be a fool, either.

It’s a nice, little morality play, and it teaches an important lesson: don’t be blinded by flattery in friendship. A true friend doesn’t flatter, but tells the truth, whether it’s complimentary or not.

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Cannonball 14: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan GreenBlack Swan Green by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who’s ever watched Mean Girls knows that there are castes in school, the same way that there are castes in Indian society. There are the Brahmin, the highest caste, which everyone reveres. There are the Untouchables, the lowest caste, which everyone shuns. And then there are some castes in the middle which nobody really cares about unless you’re in one of them.

There aren’t many Brahmin. It’s an honor to be Brahmin, and if everyone were Brahmin, it wouldn’t be as much of an honor. There are plenty of Untouchables, but not so many that they’d overrun India and take it by force.

Most people fall into those obscure, in-between castes, and nobody cares much about them. Or so they might think, at least.

When I was in junior high, I was in that in painful, nameless, in-between caste. I wanted desperately to be popular, but my every effort to win the friendship of the popular kids was summarily rebuffed. Every once in a while, one of them would throw me a bone and be nice to me (sometimes so that I’d let them cheat off me), but it never lasted. I hated life in those days. I felt like a total loser, and I despaired because, in my heart, I believed it was true.

David Mitchell captured the essence of my despair, put it in a thirteen-year-old English boy, threw in a few other hardships, and made a masterpiece.

nicholas hoult

It's like About a Boy, but not as lighthearted.

Black Swan Green is the story of young Jason Taylor. Jason lives in Black Swan Green, a nice neighborhood in Worcestershire. He has a stutter, he’s unpopular in school, he just broke an antique watch of his grandfather’s that his father gave him, and there’s something weird going on between his parents that he just can’t figure out.

Jason’s story is, in many ways, typical. He has some disadvantages: his stutter, his unpopularity, his desperate desire for popularity. He also has a few advantages: his parents are well-off, there are kids even less popular than he is for the popular kids to pick on, he’s not a complete idiot.

And it’s Jason’s averageness that makes him so relatable. Most people have relatively unremarkable upbringings. Our parents had problems and sometimes took them out on us. We fought with our siblings. We got annoyed with our friends. We were tempted to do the wrong thing in order to look cool. And it’s the sincerity of Jason’s reactions to these situations that make the story so compelling.

phoebe prince

Most of us have been tempted to do what Phoebe Prince did at some point.

Mitchell is fair in his portrayal of Jason’s bullies through his eyes. We can feel Jason’s hatred and fear of these boys, but Mitchell also gives us short glimpses of what might make these kids they way they are. Jason, as a kid in the thick of this bullying, doesn’t think that far about it, but the adult reader has to consider it, if only for a moment.

There are several brilliant scenes in the book; the teacher’s class discussion about secrets, Jason’s visit to the House of Mirrors at the carnival, the episode with the gypsies. And there are plenty of laughs to be had, too. It wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of life as a thirteen-year-old boy without a few laughs.

Mitchell’s writing is pitch-perfect. He does an excellent job of communicating Jason’s thoughts to the reader, but still writing beautifully. Sometimes, you have to make your main character a poet in order to write poetically from a first-person point of view.

susie derkins

I used to have Susie Derkins hair, and wear khaki cargo shorts I stole from my brother under a Chicago Bears jersey I found at a garage sale. That was when I was nineteen. Now, try to imagine how much MORE awkward I looked at thirteen, and you'll understand why I didn't post an actual photo here.

This book called my thirteen-year-old self to mind so vividly that it was almost as though I were in the room with myself: hunched over self-consciously, wearing jeans and a Simpsons t-shirt because she didn’t have any sense of style, hair unmercifully permed by her mother, thick glasses made for American noses inevitably slipping down her face, which was screwed into a perpetual frown of dissatisfaction with herself.

This was a girl who, in her desperation not to lose the two more popular friends she had, went along with their cruel decision to ditch a third less popular friend. She wrote a really mean letter to that third girl and never explained herself and never apologized. She signed that letter with her name because she wanted the two friends she had left to be impressed with her courage. She forever regretted knowing that, whenever the third girl looked at her after that, she would always see the decisive signature at the bottom of that heartless note.

When that third girl was finally accepted back into the group, with no explanation and no fanfare, she never could bring herself to apologize for that note.

(Sue Mei, if you’re out there somewhere, I want you to know that I regretted writing that letter the minute I sent it to you, and I’ve been wanting to apologize for it ever since. I hope you can forgive me.)

If I could talk to that ill-adjusted thirteen-year-old girl, I wouldn’t tell her to just suck it up because everyone goes through this phase. I wouldn’t tell hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.

I’d just tell her I was sorry for her, and that I always would be, but that these are the things that you have to go through in order to grow up.

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Cannonball 45: About a Boy by Nick Hornby

About a BoyAbout a Boy by Nick Hornby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d never read Nick Hornby before picking up this book. I had seen and enjoyed the movie with Hugh Grant (and Nicholas Hoult, who, by the way, is aaaaaaall growns up now).

about a boy

Before.

nicholas hoult

After.

But I’d heard great things about this book, so I picked it up on a recommendation from Pajiba.

As usual, the book was better than the movie. One of the reasons that books are generally better than movies is that books can take a moment and make it last without making it feel like it’s taking the two or three minutes that it’s actually taking you to read the words describing that moment. Books can take you into the psyche of the character and let you feel what they’re feeling, whereas the best that movies are able to do is to either hint at it or give you some cheesy voiceover.

(P.S. I still love movies.)

About a Boy tells the tale of a womanizing man-child who meets an unpopular kid. Will lives off the royalties of his father’s hit Christmas song, and Marcus is the child of a suicidal hippie tree-hugger.

Marcus is unpopular at school, and the usual parental advice of “ignore them” isn’t helping. And the fact that his mother might still be suicidal makes it even more difficult for Marcus to deal with everything going on at school. The only time when he’s able to just relax and be himself is when he’s slumped over on Will’s couch, watching “Countdown.”

I liked that Hornby went back and forth between Will’s and Marcus’ points of view. And I like that Will and Marcus help each other without it being an obvious Ebenezer Scrooge-like transformation. Will cares about Marcus despite his selfish nature, not because Marcus is such a lovable kid, but simply because he senses that he can offer help, and it won’t be too difficult to proffer that help. Will’s afraid of getting involved with people because he likes that his way of life leaves him untouched and invulnerable to emotional hurt by others. But because of Marcus’ persistence, he can’t avoid seeing that Marcus is hurting and that it’s in his power to help.

I loved Will’s epiphany in the book that, while he was the last person qualified to teach Marcus how to be a man, he was the best qualified to teach him just how to be a kid. He thought he was worthless to Marcus because he lived this man-child lifestyle, but that information actually came in handy to a kid trying to fit in at a new school.

About a Boy was touching and funny without being cloying or overly sentimental. And that’s what I appreciate most about Hornby’s writing. It’s a quality that we seem to be losing as a society: subtlety.

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