11. Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson)
This is a re-read, since I'm gearing up to teach it for the second time. It was a huge (unexpected) hit with my students last year, and I see why. It's emotionally intense, for sure. Once you are three pages in, the first-person narrator has already mentioned two important people in her life who have recently died. It only goes downhill from there.
I'm not struck this time by how long it is (my Honors kids were fine; my fears are put to rest), but by how dark it is. I mean, it features child slavery, of course it's pretty dark. But usually (especially in our 7th-grade curricular "canon") we have humor to break things up. Not here! (The one time there is a bit of gallows humor, it is quickly snuffed out by things going from terrible to unthinkable, and that little experiment is not repeated again; Isabel is too depressed.)
Wonder if this is the year a parent rises up in protest… now that I AM the department head, and the former chair, who started us reading this series with the kids, is gone, leaving me with the bag. :D Wouldn't be surprised.
10. Walk Across the Sea (Susan Fletcher)
This was excellent YA!
Fletcher can turn a phrase, man. She uses her understated small-town idiom to the hilt (to the point where it can only barely be called 'understated' anymore. But it remains a force in making the language powerful yet supple.)
She kept a lot of threads tightly bundled together. It's so engaging, realistic, and well-edited that it reminds me of nothing so much as Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl (that's a compliment). Actually, I like this one better: it's equally successful at what it sets out to do, but it's more ambitious in what it wants to do.
It's historical California fiction… and boy have I discovered there is a TON of that since moving out here… but, for a change, the oppressed minority is Chinese, not Mexican. So, that was oddly refreshing, and I actually learned some stuff about local history I didn't know before. Depressing stuff mostly, but still.
The characters aren't wildly original, but the characterization is subtle and strong. Eliza Jane and Wah Chung don't do any melodramatic Romeo and Juliet stuff: their relationship (a potentially deep friendship, not necessarily romance) is tender and thoughtful. Two very genuine young people circling toward each other.
The main character, Eliza Jane, in the midst of all her growing up and legitimate personal drama, is also thinking big thinky thoughts about life, the universe, God, and What It's Really All About, Alfie. This is usually a big flashing red warning light for me that the author is about to tank their book in favor of shallow only-seems-deep wateriness. Actually, however, Fletcher (although not, from where I stand, finding the strength for full orthodoxy) did a nice job genuinely awakening the mind and soul. At least, the mind and soul of a teenager.
It was a great, unique story. Did I mention it's set in a lighthouse? Oh yes.
9. Les Misérables (Victor Hugo)
I love this book so much I can't even.
(Curse you, tumblr. Look what you've done to an ex-English major! I can't even. Pitiful.)
The first thing I did upon finishing was to start flipping through and finding the best scenes again -- which turned out to be almost every scene that was a scene, and not the author philosophizing or narrating away a couple of months/years. Every actual scene was brilliant.
Not to say I hated all the philosophizing. Some of it yielded golden lines:
Thoughtful minds make little use of this expression: the happy and the unhappy. In this world, clearly the vestibule of another, no one is happy.
The true division of humanity is this: the luminous and the dark.
To diminish the number of the dark, to increase the number of the luminous, there is the aim. That is why we cry: education, knowledge! To learn to read is to kindle a fire; every syllable spelled sparkles.
But whoever says light does not necessarily say joy. There is suffering in the light; an excess burns. Flame is hostile to the wing. To burn and yet to fly, this is the miracle of genius.
An entire political school, called the school of compromise, has sprung from this. Between cold and warm water, this is the party of tepid water. This school, with its pretended depth, wholly superficial, that dissects effect without going back to the causes, chides the agitations of the public square from the heights of a demi-science…
However, little by little, whether some distant air holes sent a little floating light into this opaque mist or his eyes became accustomed to the obscurity, some dim vision came back to him, and he again began to get some confused perception, now of the wall he was touching, and now of the arch under which he was passing. The pupil dilates in the night, and at last finds day in it, even as the soul dilates in misfortune, and at last finds God in it.
But, even though the philosophizing mostly agreed with me and I even enjoyed Hugo's delineating of a lot of beliefs we don't share, these are not of course what really make the book -- not primarily. They are important glue giving the scenes the necessary weight. But the scenes. The scenes are heaven and earth rolled into two-packet packets of rapier wit and heartmelting tenderness. Not the plot! The plot is a little ridiculous. Try summarizing it, and you realize that we have left suspension of disbelief for dead in a ditch by the time we got to page 300 (which is nothing, in this book). That's another reason you need all the philosophizing: so that you are thinking about something (and admittedly Something more important) than the improbability of Javert having so little of a life (seriously, dude -- adopt a few cats) or of some combination of Valjean/Marius/Thénardier managing to cross paths that many times. You think about it for two seconds and realize that it's melodramatic hackery.
But those scenes! They're mesmerizing. Hugo can do dialogue and emotional undercurrentry like no one else's business. No wonder they made a musical of these scenes. At the time, I was too enchanted (and too preoccupied with the business of pleeeeeeease try desperately to finish the book and find out how it all comes out) to put my finger on it. With a bit more perspective, you can see that every one of them is usually built around two characters who are opposing forces (well, often there's a third wheel in there too, for texture or -- like when Javert arrests Fantine and Madeleine intervenes -- to be the object of the conflict). You are dying to know which one of them will have to change as a result of the scene. Hugo will drag it out indefinitely, and he will have masterly paragraph breaks and witty, pitch-perfect dialogue while he torments you. Bastard.
Melodrama or no, and well-worn as some of the themes are by 2016, reading this book is still nearly a religious experience. You can't help but come away from it more tender towards everyone you meet and more in awe of them. You can't help but want to live a finer life. After all: "It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live." (Thank you, Jean Valjean. And yes, even though you took chapters to die and your dying words lasted four pages, I still cried. Bastard!)