Be yourself

A Wrinkle in Time

What’s it about?
A Wrinkle in Time is a YA classic. If you need a refresher: Meg O’Keefe’s father has gone missing. Her mother and father are both scientists, she is the oldest of four, including twins, Sandy and Dennys, and the youngest, Charles Wallace. Events start one night during a late fall New England thunderstorm, when Mrs Whatsit visits to tell them all there is such a thing as a tesseract. Meg and Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin head off on an adventure with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which to rescue Meg’s father.

Why should you read it?
It really is a classic. It’s wonderful for any scientifically inclined kids to see how their smarts can make a difference, it also illustrates how being different can make you uncomfortable, stand out in a crowd that you maybe don’t want to stand out of. But it ultimately leads you down the path that being different is what makes you you. It’s what makes us all wonderful and individual and worthy of love. And love is the most important thing. It’s a wonderful book.

A Grand Love

The Last Great Dance on Earth

What’s it about?
The Last Great Dance on Earth is the third of three novels about Empress Josephine. This book remains a very intimate portrait of her and her family, their loves and lives. But it’s probably the grandest part of her story. She’s fully in the palace, living the life of an empress, haunted by what happened to Marie Antoinette. Her continuing inability to get pregnant with Napoleon’s heir (likely because of her imprisonment during the Revolution) leads to their eventual divorce, where she moves to a country house (still a small palace). Napoleon is shown to continue to love her – wikipedia even states that “he had married a womb” (of his second wife). Little mention is made of Napoleon’s love affairs. I suppose it is the French myth that a man can remain married to one woman while having sex with many; a woman must remain loyal to her husband. To be fair, the first book does address this point – Josephine learns that this is what is expected of a good French wife. This volume chronicles her downfall – the complications of life at court, his family’s continuing jealousy and scheming, and her eventual death at her home in suburban Paris.

Why should you read it?
Because the three books together make up one story. There is no drop-off in quality from book to book and they really do read as one whole, split into three to make them manageable. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the publisher releases them all as a single volume some day. They are a lovely portrait of life in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Intimacy and Grandness

Tales of Passion Tales of Woe

What’s it about?
Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe is the second of three books about Empress Josephine, of Napoleon & Josephine fame. The three books make up one seamless story of Josephine’s entire life; this volume covers the time she marries Napoleon until just after he is crowned Emperor of France. It’s a surprisingly intimate look at their lives, given the sweep of events that lead Napoleon from a capable general to Emperor of France. We learn about their passion for each other as well as the petty jealousies of the Buonaparte family. Though, I suppose, when an empire is at stake, can the jealousy really be petty? It sure reads like it, though.

Why should you read it?
Because all three books are a good overview of what the French Revolution must have looked like, at least a little bit, from the inside. Not to mention that Josephine is an awfully likable character. You feel for her dread of telling her children she’s remarried, her pain at not being able to get pregnant again, her growing love for her husband. It’s a pleasant historical fiction about a very famous woman.

Towards glamour

Night Circus

What’s it about?
The Night Circus is kind of a romance, kind of a fantasy novel, and it’s a lot about glamour. There are two magicians older than we can know, who are in constant competition. Every so often, they each choose a student to compete against the other until one can no longer stand it. The remaining magician is the winner. For this particular competition Celia and Marco are both constructing a fabulous circus. It has amazing things – a tent that is only ice, a fire that never goes out – and its performers never age. Celia and Marco, of course, fall in love. So how will the competition end? Who wins? It’s worth the read to find out.

Why should you read it?
I mentioned glamour above. Glamour is an idealization. Glamour is beauty – these are both very lovely people. The circus, to its visitors, is graceful and mysterious. But what makes it not glamorous to the readers is that we see how it works. We see what it does to Marco and Celia to create this circus and keep it running. They do not lead rich, full lives. And glamour is also about sprezzatura, the art of making an idealization (the circus) appear easy. The circus is work and it wears on our heroes and it is not hidden. You should read The Night Circus because it can make you think about what goes into amazing creations, be they books or movies or buildings. It can be worth asking: what’s edited out? Why? What does the circus’ audience see? What do we see?

Amuse Bouche

The Pursuit of Love

What’s it about?
The Pursuit of Love is about people who are foolish enough to want to always be falling in love without ever being in love. They only want that first flush of excitement and attraction. As soon as it settles down, starts deepening into a more robust relationship, they get bored and flee. both Linda and the Bolter – Fanny’s mother – are constantly flitting from one relationship to another.

Why should you read it?
It’s a bit slow by today’s standards – again. Life moved at a slower pace before radio and television and the internet. But it is delicious. You probably know (or knew) someone who flitted from relationship to relationship, never settling down, always convinced that the next person would be The One. Is it a quest for perfection? Perhaps. Does it ultimately lead to happiness? It depends on how you define happiness. The Pursuit of Love is amusing and fun to read, sympathetic to all its characters, while endorsing none.

A witty woman

Love in a Cold Climate

What’s it about?
Love in a Cold Climate is ostensibly about a young woman who falls in love with the wrong man and lives to regret it. Really, it’s about ogling the upper classes and their love affairs in Interwar Britain. Nancy Mitford was of the upper class, one of the famous Mitford sisters; many people read her books to learn more about them. The houses are lovely, the people are scheming and beautiful and witty.

Why should you read it?
Because Nancy Mitford is, in fact, a good writer. Forget learning about her life growing up, revel in Polly’s idiocy in her choice of husband. Or in Lady Montdore’s grasping of a new image. Or at Cedric’s flamboyance. This book is funny, if a bit slow-moving by modern standards. If you like P.G. Wodehouse, this might be for you.

We’re all so perfectly perfect

Princesses of Iowa

What’s it about?
The Princesses of Iowa is about teenagers, growing up. Isn’t that the core of most YA? Paige, our main character, is a princess, has always been a princess, and if her parents and friends have their way, will always be a princess. She will always look perfect and she will always get straight As. She will marry her similarly perfect boyfriend – after they finish college of course – and they will go on living perfectly perfect lives. Except of course that’s not how life works. There’s a car accident before the book even starts; The Princesses of Iowa deals with the fallout. One of the princesses ends up with a permanent limp, another becomes a bit of a crusader, and our Paige somehow manages to escape almost all the consequences. Except that she’s not happy and she doesn’t see what everyone else has been going through. You really don’t like her – and I don’t think you’re supposed to – for most of the book. But there is character growth at the end, and she does grow up and figure things out.

Why should you read it?
It’s a lovely little meditation on what growing up means. It’s not gaining power or responsibilities or being the  most popular. It’s knowing who you are and how your actions affect other people. Growing up is an ongoing process. It never finishes. We’re always changing and learning more about ourselves and the people around us. I think that’s why well-written YA appeals to all ages – these are changes we all go through, at one point or another. Sometimes, it’s nice to reflect on it.

Media Studies 101

Scandals of Classic Hollywood

What’s it about?
Posting yesterday about the Mitford sisters and today about Scandals of Classic Hollywood may out me as liking celebrity gossip – as long as it’s from 80 years ago. Anne Helen Petersen is a former media studies professor who specializes in how celebrities use the media to shape their images (she writes for Buzzfeed now). Scandals is a series of essays about movie stars and their images and real life; it started as a series on Hairpin. Everyone quickly realized that it was awesome, and it turned into a book.

Why should you read it?
Because you live in a modern society where much information comes through some form of media. Because you want to know how the media chooses which information to share and which to hide and why. Because, thanks to social networking, we all craft an image of ourselves online – what information are you choosing to share about yourself? Why? Also, because gossip is fun.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Wait for Me

What’s it about?
Wait for Me is an autobiography of the Duchess of Devonshire, aka Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the Mitford sisters. The Mitford sisters were, in some ways, the original Paris & Nikki Hilton – the six of them were famous  mostly for being rich and pretty in the 1930s. They also had some disturbing tendencies towards fascism (except for Jessica, who was a dyed-in-the-wool communist) (Unity was all the way into fascism; it was more than a disturbing tendency). Deborah was much more traditional than her sisters, not getting into extreme politics and marrying right before war rationing kicked in. She does kick a lot of butt – she claims to only have been a housewife, but she was a housewife to an alcoholic husband and she oversaw the rebuilding of Chatsworth House into a fully-fledged business that could not only pay for itself, but eventually turn a profit.

Why should you read it?
Sadly, I’m not sure you should. The Duchess was an amazing woman, but the book was forgettable. I checked it out of the library after she passed away a little over a month ago; when I went to enter it into Goodreads, it turns out that I’d read it two years ago and completely forgotten it. I decided to read it again anyway, but didn’t find it interesting enough to continue with. There are better biographies of the sisters.

A state of grace

Lila by Marilynn Robinson

What’s it about?
Ostensibly, it’s about a woman in a small town in Iowa, falling in love with a preacher who is much older than her, getting married, and having a baby. But it’s also about so much more. It’s about loneliness and how you connect with other people. It’s about why things happen in the first place. It’s about a very practical, and very loving, version of Calvinism – religion is everywhere in Lila but it’s quiet and practical and encourages everyone to get along. It’s a version of church that’s about fellowship, not ideology. And yes, the baby being born is very symbolic of Jesus’ birth to be a savior. Even if the little boy is only saving Lila.

Why should you read it?
Because Marilynn Robinson is easily one of the best writers ever. She writes both intimately and expansively. The little town of Gilead could be the biggest city in the world because it has everything she needs to tell her story. Her characters remind me of my grandparents, who lived in rural Iowa: loving but reserved, deeply but not outwardly religious. I love them all. I loved Lila.