June 30, 2009

June Reads

I sorta fell behind in my reading this month. It started promisingly enough with a Pulitzer-winning book that was utterly absorbing, but then the reading for the month sadly fell flat with two young adult books of my childhood. Oh, the soft patina time casts on books, objects, events of long ago, fooling us into thinking these things were just as interesting/exciting/fun as our memory currently serves them to be!

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. "She had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away." I love this line from the novel, as I feel it completely captures the essence of Olive. Blunt, crotchety, and larger than life, Olive is revealed through the 13 short stories of which the novel is comprised. Set in a small coastal town in Maine, each chapter features different inhabitants of the town and their own stories. The common thread that ties them all is Olive, whose character is revealed through the myriad perspectives of her fellow townspeople. You get little snippets of her character (instead of sweeping descriptions had the reader stayed with her throughout the novel), and I think the smaller insights pack a more powerful punch. Some people like her, some people don't like her, and some people barely think of her at all. She's a passing figure in some stories, while featuring more prominently in others. The novel's very structure implies that perhaps there are certain aspects to Olive's personality that even she can't recognize or decipher, but others infer. Olive is far from perfect, but she is so incredibly human and relatable and so full of love, even if she doesn't always show it. I find her journey heart-breaking and real--there were quite a few scenes which I felt could have been taken straight from everyday life, and that's what makes Olive Kitteridge utterly compelling. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in April.

The Secret of the Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene. I was sorely disappointed with these two books. I know, I know. They're for little kids, so my expectations shouldn't have been what they were. Never mind that they're a bit simple when it comes to plot and characterization--I was willing to overlook this considering the age of the target audience. But what I couldn't get past were the outdated expressions and situations. Case in point: When Nancy's friend Helen got covered with soot after examining a chimney for a mischief-wreaking "ghost" in The Hidden Staircase, the investigation had to be put on hold so that Nancy could assist Helen with a "shampoo and general cleanup job." Not only that, but the author lets it be known in several places that the girls start exploring the house only after the dishes have been put away, the floors have been vacuumed, and the beds have been made. This isn't a spunky, resourceful sleuth, this is a goody-goody who plays by the rules and comes off a bit boring in the process. Is this the way Nancy Drew had always been and I conveniently erased it from my childhood memories? After doing a bit of sleuthing myself, I discovered that the books published by Grosset & Dunlap--which are the yellow-spined ones I picked up from the library and which are most commonly found in bookstores--are actually the revised editions from the 1950's. The original books in the series were published by Applewood and written in the 1930's, and they featured a much more feisty, human, and subsequently more interesting, heroine. Now if I could only score some copies of those Applewood editions; I'd be curious to read the original versions of these books as a sort of compare/contrast.

Up next in my adventures in reading: getting through a 700-page Gothic novel and more food for thought.

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