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Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy

Source: Purchased Hooray for Books
Hardcover, 352 pages
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Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy is young adult novel that never speaks down to its reader as it asks questions about what it means to be a friend and what it means to be a neighbor and community member.  When tragedy strikes the fictional community of Franklin Grove in Meigs County, outside Washington, D.C., teen babysitter Danielle Snyder must cope with feelings of guilt and responsibility.  Her fear of speaking in public has haunted her long before the tragedy, but it is the loss of her friend, Humphrey, that causes her to speak out, to advocate on his behalf.  An unlikely friendship between a sophomore babysitter and a five-year-old boy blooms in the summer, but when it’s cut short, how does Danielle reconcile their unlikely connection and what has happened under her watch, especially when the small community is looking for someone to blame.

“I eat; the talk shifts to nothing in particular, which is good.  It’s as though we’re strangers sitting at the same table in one of those family-style restaurants.  We feel the need to make conversation, because that is what polite people do, but we are careful to keep the conversation safe.  Nothing to ignite sparks between Adrian and Mom.  Nothing to upset me.”  (page 4)

Her family life is not necessarily dysfunctional, but its not exactly serene when her brother Adrian is visiting after moving out.  And despite their inability to relate and emote without raising one another’s dander, the tragedy somehow brings them closer to reconciliation.  Shifting between the present after the tragedy and the past before the tragedy, Levy unfolds her story in an intricate way, allowing readers to see the whole complicated picture, even as Danielle begins to see it for the first time.  While her family dynamics play a role in the background, the real focus is on her relationship with Humphrey and the blame she lays at her own door for the tragedy.

“I rapped.  I crooned.  I rocked out.  Somehow dancing outdoors felt easier than in a school gym or hotel party room.  Plenty of space for my arms and legs.  I let myself lose control, and danced like crazy on the planet of Thrumble-Boo.

‘You look like a beautiful daddy longlegs!’ Humphrey said.”  (page 195)

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy is about relationships that surprise us, about the illogical arguments of grief and assigning blame, but more than that, it’s about finding our way out of that grief to recognize the beauty in knowing and experiencing those relationships we may lose sooner than expected.  Levy’s characters are real, they’re the kids down the street searching for a sense of belonging, and they are burdened by the same emotions we all feel as adults.  It’s a highly emotional read that will leave a lasting impression.

About the Author:

Debbie Levy writes books — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — for people of all different ages, and especially for young people. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor; before that, she was a lawyer with a Washington, D.C. law firm.  She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan.  She lives in Maryland and spends as much time as she can kayaking and otherwise messing around in the Chesapeake Bay region.  Visit her Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 320 pages
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What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullan is a detailed look at 12 stylistic techniques and concerns in Jane Austen’s numerous works, including the unfinished The Watsons and Sanditon.  The twelve puzzles Mullan explores range from the importance of age in her books, what characters call one another, and what games characters play to why her plots rely on blunders, what her characters read, and how experimental a novelist she was.  There are moments in the book where Mullan’s examinations become bogged down and overly verbose, but he clearly enjoys picking apart the most innocuous moments in Austen’s novels to support his theories.  Most of the theories he offers and backs up with source material from Austen’s books and letters to family members also are discussed by other scholars, whom he cites.  For aspiring writers, Mullan’s book can be used as a guide for creating those unique moments and nuances in a novel, emulating Austen but adapting it for modern sensibilities.  Although it is not a how-to guide for writers, it does offer some insight into elements of the craft.

“Admission to a bedroom is a rare privilege, for the reader as well as for a character.” (page 29)

“Names are used by Austen, as well as by her characters, as though they are precious material, so we sometimes hear only once, glancingly, what someone’s name is.  Thus the label on the trunk seen by Harriet Smith, directed to Mr. Elton at his hotel in Bath, which names him as Philip (II. v).” (page 46)

“But Austen wants us to think not so much about how characters look, but how they look to each other.  Her sparing use of specification when it comes to looks is striking when looks can be so important.”  (Page 57)

“Meteorology clues us in to the passing of the year.  But it is more than this.  Austen likes to make her plots turn on the weather.  Having arranged her characters and defined their situations, having planned her love stories and hatched the misunderstandings that might impede them, she lets the weather shape events.  It is her way of admitting chance into her narratives.” (page 101)

“The rather few critics who have written on speech in Austen’s fiction have discovered how each of her speakers seems to have their own idiolect — a way of speaking that is individually distinctive.”  (page 132)

Austen is an often underestimated author, especially in light of the writers who dismissed her early on.  Mullan pinpoints the genius of Austen beyond the morays of the time period in which she wrote and the social commentary.  Readers who have read all of Austen’s major works but once are likely to want to read them anew after reading Mullan’s examination.  Even those have read certain Austen books multiple times could find new theories in this book.  It is interesting to see what it means when characters blush, why weather is important, and what seaside resorts mean in Austen’s work.  Mullan also asks whether there is sex in her books.

What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullan is less about the puzzles of Austen than about her techniques as a writer and creator of fiction.  It was an interesting look at how she stacked up to her contemporaries and offered something more.

About the Author:

John Mullan is a Professor of English at University College London. He specialises in 18th century fiction. He is currently working on the 18th-century section of the new Oxford English Literary History. He also writes a weekly column on contemporary fiction for The Guardian and reviews books for the London Review of Books and New Statesman. He occasionally appears as an 18th-century and contemporary literature expert for BBC Two’s Newsnight Review and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. Mullan was a judge for The Best of the Booker in 2008 and for the Man Booker Prize in 2009. He was a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge and a Lecturer at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before coming to UCL in 1994.

This is my 47th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

Poet Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden is not only a collage and biography of a woman, Mary Delany, who began a career as an artist late in life, but it also is partially a memoir of Peacock’s own life and the nuggets of wisdom she’s gained from her obsession with this floral artist and her collages or flower mosaicks.  Delany is a woman who began working with scissors and paper long before she gained recognition for her art, starting as a young girl in school.  While one of her classmates recognized her talent, life got in the way as Delany was plucked from her home and moved to her aunts and back again as English politics became tumultuous and her family backed the Pretender.

“A few of the papers she used — all of the papers in the eighteenth century were handmade — in fact were wallpapers, but mostly she painted large sheets of rag paper with watercolor, let them dry, then cut from them the hundreds of pieces she needed to reproduce — well, to re-evoke might be a better word — the flower she was portraying.  There is no reproduced hue that matches the thrill of color in nature, yet Mrs. D. went after the original kick of natural color, and she did it like a painter.”  (page 7-8 ARC)

Through all of the upheaval, Delany kept to her crafts and her music, once inspired by a meeting with Handel.  Peacock’s prose is intimate and conversational as she speaks of Delany like a beloved friend and peer.  She speaks of her journey to learn about Delany’s life and craft like a careful historian citing her sources and engaging in reverence for her subject.  Through her delicate prose, the beauty of Delany and her work emerge gradually, like the petals of a bud opening slowly as the sun rises.

Peacock does a fantastic job comparing individual mosaicks to events in Delany’s life in England and Ireland even though many of the pieces were created long after the death of her second husband and her younger sister, Anne.  She was an early mixed media artist who used wallpapers, paints, dried leaves, and other materials to create her portraits of flowers, breathing new life into even the most simple flower.

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock is a quiet read chock full of details about Mary Delany’s craft, her family, and her inspiration, but it also is full of advice, beautiful images of Delany’s work, and tidbits about Peacock’s motivations in her own poetry and life.  Readers will dip into this book, think and wonder about Delany’s craft, but also ruminate on what this journey she embarked upon taught her and ourselves.  In almost a meditative way, the biography pulls the reader in and pushes them out to ensure the depth of the art and its meaning is thought about on a deeper level.

***Some of my favorite quotes from the book that can apply to writing***

“Great technique means that you have to abandon perfectionism.  Perfectionism either stops you cold or slows you down too much.  Yet, paradoxically, it’s proficiency that allows a person to make any art at all; you must have technical skill to accomplish anything, but you also must have passion, which, in an odd way, is technique forgotten.”  (page 28 ARC)

“Not to know is also sometimes the position of the poet, who depends on close observation to magnify a subject, hoping to discover an animating spirit.  There’s romance in that forensic impulse . . .” (page 34 ARC)

About the Author:

Molly Peacock is the award-winning author of five volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. Among her other works are How to Read a Poem . . .  and Start a Poetry Circle and a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece. Peacock is currently the poetry editor of the Literary Review of Canada and the general series editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English. A transplanted New Yorker, she lives in Toronto.

Visit Molly Peacock’s Website.

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This is my 4th book for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge.

Dante’s Divine Comedy adapted by Seymour Chwast

Dante’s Divine Comedy by Seymour Chwast is a graphic novel adaptation of the classic, allegorical epic poem written in three parts:  Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.  Dante’s lines were written in Italian, the language of the people, rather than Latin as a way to protest the political influence of the church and the Pope.  Chwast has taken a great many liberties with the text and Dante’s poetic lines.  Although the poetic lines are not as lyrical, the text is easier to read for those who find language in the middle ages and poetry hard to understand.  Chwast’s Divine Comedy graphic adaptation would be an excellent introduction to this classic without causing new readers to shy away from poetry.

“We witness carnal sinners/Those lustful creatures/who committed sins of the flesh/who are tossed about carelessly in the dark/by the most furious winds.” (page 19)

Dante, the poet, is guided through the inferno, purgatory, and paradise by the poet Virgil and several female muses, including Dante’s real life love, Beatrice.  Chwast’s illustrations capture the essence of each canto, though the depictions of Virgil and Dante in what looks to be 1940s clothes is an unusual selection.  The characters almost look like they are from The Untouchables.

Chwast makes this classic accessible to many more readers, but for people that love the classic’s lines or the original Italian words, the book could read like Cliffs Notes.  However, the illustrations are very detailed and accurately depict the travels of Dante and Virgil.  Dante’s Divine Comedy by Seymour Chwast is a helpful introduction to a classic, epic poem from the middle ages, by a politically active poet.

***The book is printed on natural, recyclable paper from wood grown in well-managed forests.***

This is my 50th, and final, book for the 2010 New Authors Reading Challenge.