Saturday, April 23, 2016

Margaret Wise Brown Prize, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, and Spy Mom by Beth McMullen

I've been a fan of Jane Yolen for years. I'm thrilled that she and her daughter have won yet another award. 
Winners were announced for the inaugural Margaret Wise Brown Prize in
Children's Literature
which showcases the most distinguished picture book manuscript or
manuscripts as selected by a panel of judges. This year's recipients are
Phil Bildner for his book Marvelous Cornelius; as well as Jane Yolen and
Heidi E.Y. Stemple, co-authors of You Nest Here With Me. Hollins
University established the award as a way to pay tribute to one of its
best-known alumnae and one of America's most beloved children's authors.
Winners receive an engraved medal and a $1,000 cash prize.

A moment of silence, please for Prince Rogers Nelson,(RIP) the diminutive rock star whose talent was so huge, it was amazing that it could be contained inside of one body. He was only 57 years old when he died yesterday, which was the age my older brother would have been had he lived beyond his 33rd year. My husband and I saw Prince live in 1994 at the Vh1 Honors Concert in Los Angeles, and I was stunned by how short he was, how thin and jaundiced he looked. You could see his ribs move when he sang. He performed alongside his soon-to-be wife, who would bear him a child who would die, along with their marriage, some years later. I wanted to tell him that he needed to eat some mac and cheese and take a vacation to get healthy back then, but I never quite mustered the courage to get past the huge bodyguard who was employed by his purpleness and his wife. I did love his music, though, and his stance on women of all sizes and colors and shapes being beautiful. I admired his brilliance, and I can't believe that we've lost so many musical icons this year already, though we're not even halfway through the year. Here's a great article on Prince that my friend Caryn posted on Facebook:

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is the first book in a four novel series called The Neapolitan Novels, translated from Italian into English with a very deft hand. 
I read an article on one of the bookish websites who frequent Facebook that mentioned this series as being unforgettable and a fascinating look into young women growing up in Southern Italy in the 1960s. These are girls who were born in the late 1940s, so they are about 14-15 years older than I am, but their experiences are vastly different than girls growing up in the Midwest in the US, so I was interested to read about those differences. What struck me right away was the prose style and the intimacy of the writing. It feels as if you're reading the diary of the main character, Elena, as she navigates life with the help of her best friend and rival Lila, who is as bold as Elena is retiring and shy. Here's the blurb:
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.
The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.
Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a tetralogy, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction. Publisher's Weekly: The world of Elena and Lila, Neapolitan girls growing up after the Second World War, is small, casually violent, and confined to their poor neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and the few prosperous families dominate. There are rules and expectations, and everyone knows and lives by them. Except Lila: smarter and bolder than the others, she does what she wants, drawing Elena, who narrates the story, in her wake. But this is more than a conventional up-from-poverty tale. Elena completes her schooling; Lila does not. Elena leaves the neighborhood and eventually Naples and Southern Italy; Lila does not. Yet it is Lila and her dreams and caprices that drive everything. In fact, the narrative exists because the adult Elena, hearing that Lila has disappeared, decides to write Lila’s story. And she does, in dense, almost sociological detail (the list of the members of the key families is actually necessary). This is both fascinating—two girls, their families, a neighborhood, and a nation emerging from war and into an economic boom—and occasionally tedious, as day-to-day life can be. But Lila, mercurial, unsparing, and, at the end of this first episode in a planned trilogy from Ferrante (The Lost Daughter), seemingly capable of starting a full-scale neighborhood war, is a memorable character.

I felt every emotion that Elena felt, and could see and hear whatever she was seeing and hearing, because Ferrante was so descriptive in every paragraph with the details of the heart and mind of Elena and Lila. While this is a fascinating prose style, it becomes exhausting after the first 250 pages, and all the description does slow the plot to a snails pace, at times. I was also shocked at the aforementioned "casual violence" with which the men dominate and punish the girls and women in the novel. They seem to be separated into the gentle and lovelorn boys and the wealthy violent jerks at first blush, but we learn later that this is only an act, and that once married, these boys become abusive and cruel, only wanting to possess and subjugate the females in their lives into wives and mothers who fulfill their every desire. Sadly, this horribly oppressive way of life is taken for granted, and men are allowed to treat their wives as possessions and beat them to death without fear of reprisals. Lila, upon discovering that she's been duped by the local grocer's son, decides to retaliate in the only way she knows, which is to spend as much money as possible on her wardrobe and makeup and hair, and home furnishings while making sure that her husband knows that she thinks he's an unrefined goon. Having been sought-after by all the men in town, this only fuels her husbands jealousy and rage, and he beats her constantly, even enlisting the help of Elena to tell her friend to stop being so independent and smart-mouthed and just knuckle under and be a meek and submissive wife. Though Elena wants to help her friend, she realizes that Lila will never be anything but what she is, a free spirit. I am currently wading through book 2, which is 200 pages longer than book 1, but I am still hoping that things will work out for Elena and Lila, who are both so unhappy with their young lives. This book, while not an easy read, is fascinating as a glimpse into a different world, and as such deserves an A, with a recommendation to anyone interested in the lives of Italian women in post WW2 Italy.

I would not normally pick up a book like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, because it is about death and the cremation and funeral industry in this country from a first person perspective, and I am not the kind of person who likes blood and gore and gruesome death descriptions. But my library book group seemed to think that many of the non fiction titles that were recommended by Jen, the head librarian for the King County Library System (KCLS) during her yearly visit in October were a great idea for the group. So we will be discussing this short volume in May, which is ironic considering that everything is sunny and bright, blooming and lively in spring, while this book focuses on death and decomposition. Here's the blurb:
“Morbid and illuminating” (Entertainment Weekly)—a young mortician goes behind the scenes of her curious profession.
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like? Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

The descriptions of disintegrating and moldering corpses got to be a bit much for me, so I actually had to put this book down a couple of times and read something else. I think the morbid fascination that the author has for the most grotesque parts of death is chilling and bizarre, and I wasn't at all interested in indulging her disgusting descriptions, but I figured since this book is short, I would just get through it as quickly as possible and move on to something more positive and interesting. Stomach-churning horror novels aren't my thing, either, for much the same reasons. I don't like being scared or grossed out. For me, living life to the fullest means finding things that are enlightening and joyous and beautiful to read and participate in, and this book highlights the opposite of that. Frankly, I found the author creepy and weird, not in a good way, and I would give the book a C+, and only recommend it to people who are interested in this morbid subject, like my mother, who loved the book when she read it last year.

Spy Mom, the Adventures of Sally Sin by Beth McMullen was two novels in one, which lead to a rather long 615 page narrative. I found this book at the bargain table at our local dollar store, and it sounded like something that was right up my alley, with a female protagonist who is a former spy and the mother of a toddler, married to a man who is trying to save the world through various "green" initiatives like solar energy and recycling. Here's the blurb: Meet Sally Sin. Wife. Mother. Retired Spy. Or so she thinks. After nine years with the USAWMD (United States Agency for Weapons of Mass Destruction)--where she desperately tried to stay one step ahead of her dashing nemesis, Ian Blackford--Sally has become Lucy Hamilton, stay-at-home mom to Theo and wife to adoring husband, Will, who knows nothing of her covert past. But now, instead of chasing bad guys through perilous jungles, she builds giant Lego towers, reads Green Eggs and Ham, and crafts exceptional forts from couch cushions and blankets.

Just when she's starting to settle into retirement, Sally's old Agency boss, Simon Still, shows up to recruit her for one more job, involving the illegal arms dealer, Blackford, who is on the move again. Original Sin features Sally's great chase to thwart Blackford, who, conveniently, no one besides her seems to be able to stop. But can she make it to preschool pickup, get dinner on the table, and foil Blackford's nefarious plot?

And just when you think the thrills are over, you'll be ready To Sin Again.

When the Agency Director is taken hostage, Sally is once again called into action. A rescue operation? Easy. That is, until Sally learns of a connection between the kidnapping and her own mysterious childhood, which complicates everything, even Theo's kindergarten applications. Being a mom is hard enough, without having to save the world.

Funny, fast-paced, and compulsively readable, Spy Mom offers two action-packed adventures for mothers and spies, and anyone who has ever dreamed about being either.

 While I agree that the prose is compulsively readable, and the plots very well calculated to move along at a brisk pace, I found myself growing tired of Sally/Lucy being so cavalier about putting her child in danger by going off on these missions for her former boss. Granted, Simon (who looks like David Bowie at his most dapper) doesn't give her much choice, at first, but then after she's done being bait or doing whatever it was she was supposed to do, she has the option of getting back to her life and just letting it go, which she doesn't do. Ever. She always continues with the mission, even going "rogue" though it will most certainly put her family in danger and threaten the life of her child. That made no sense to me, as Lucy/Sally claims to want to keep him safe, but at the same time brings him along on parts of her mission where her son is introduced to violent sociopathic characters and other horrible men, like arms dealer Ian Blackford, who has kidnapped her and threatened to kill her several times, yet never actually goes beyond drugging her and using her as a messenger pigeon for her boss. I also got tired of Sally/Lucy constantly screwing up her missions, which we flash back to in every chapter, and with her somehow being disheveled and dirty all of the time, and finding all of that to be amusing and urbane, when really it made her look like an idiot, and not in a charming way, which was what I think the author intended. Why isn't it possible for a woman to be well put together and be good at her job and not apologize for it? And why, if her relationship with her wealthy husband is so wonderful, can't she tell him about her previous life as a spy, and also demand that he spend more time at home with their child? Why is childcare only her responsibility? And why, when it is obvious that she's struggling with one child, would Sally/Lucy not use birth control to keep from getting pregnant again? I was also, as a mother, ticked off with Sally/Lucy's poor parenting skills and her belief that it was perfectly okay to never set boundaries or discipline or even say NO to her horribly spoiled and bratty toddler. Not only is it not okay, it is detrimental to children to not give them boundaries and show them that there are consequences for bad behavior, which her son already displays in getting other children to take risks that might harm them. At no time does she even attempt to punish her kid, though he is quite a nasty little guy who vomits and throws tantrums and gets whatever he wants, when he wants it, because his mother is a weak fool. Seriously, I wanted to yell at her to grow up, for heavens sake, and be a parent. Still, despite these flaws in the story and characters, I still enjoyed the books, for the most part. I'd give them a B, and recommend this dual book to anyone who likes female protagonists and spy thrillers.

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