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It’s not like any other love: Eleanor & Park

22 Oct

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press

Expected publication: March 2013

Previously published in the UK by Orion in April 2012

Digital copy for review kindly provided by the publisher.

“It’s not like any other love – this one is different, because it’s us…”* Naturally I have to use lyrics from The Smiths to discuss Rainbow Rowell’s eloquent forthcoming novel. After all, imagine my delight over finding this quirky story set in Omaha, Nebraska during the 1980s (an especially good decade for cartoons) about two teens slowly falling in love over comics, the maudlin sounds of Morrissey and Joy Division, and a shared sense of being completely out of sync with the world around them.

Park has always been somewhat of an outsider in the Flats – his musical tastes, predilection for X-Men and Alan Moore, and biraciality (he’s half-White/half-Korean) sets him apart from his classmates. His pseudo-friends, the oafish Steve, and his mean little girlfriend, Tina, find Park curious. Sure they tease him, good-naturedly, but deep down they’re confounded by him, and in Tina’s case, definitely attracted, too. Enter Eleanor.

Eleanor’s bright red hair, and her off-beat fashion makes her the target of ridicule on her first day of school. On the surface, Eleanor reminded me of Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink. Like Andie, Eleanor outwardly appears stoic, quietly enduring the jeers and taunts; inwardly, she’s self-conscious, and the choices she makes aren’t always dictated by a need to go against the grain. Kicked out the year before by her abusive stepfather, Eleanor is just returning home, uncertain of everything and everyone around her.

When they first meet, Park is taken aback by Eleanor – his reaction partly stems from how his peers perceive her. Even though he knows he’s different from his them, he doesn’t want to be ostracized. Park grudgingly lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus. Rowell builds up their relationship ever so slowly – moving from the mundane details into deeply emotional territory. In many contemporary stories, love swoops in almost too quickly, and that’s largely because we live in a culture of immediacy, demanding instant gratification. Rowell’s novel is soporific – sure there are nightmarish moments (especially Eleanor’s family life), but their romance truly feels dreamlike – like a paused moment in time.  While their connection has all the bright intensity of an indie love song, it’s clear to readers that Eleanor & Park won’t go the distance. Not because love isn’t enough, but because love doesn’t always conquer all.

Rowell intercuts the romance with poignant dialogue about Park’s feelings about his Korean identity –sadness over being misunderstood by his white father, and insecurity over Eleanor’s attraction to him. In a particularly telling scene, Park tells Eleanor, “Look at M*A*S*H. The whole show takes place in Korea, and the doctors are always flirting with Korean girls, right? But the nurses don’t use their R & R to go to Seoul to pick up hot Korean guys. Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls” (Location 2824 – Kindle). When Park tells Eleanor that he doesn’t understand what it means to be Korean, she asks, “Does it matter?” (Location 2838 – Kindle) It’s not such a minor question, considering that Park spends a significant amount of time analyzing all the dissimilarities between himself and his father, including, racial differences. Eleanor’s Danish heritage is revealed in a violent scene in which her drunken stepfather hurls a bowl of risalamande (Danish rice pudding – traditionally served during Christmas) against the wall. Eleanor’s Danishness is a wistful reminder of how things were before her mother married an abusive man; it’s not surprising that she wonders about the importance of one’s cultural background.

Rowell writes with brilliant clarity, expertly using alternating voices to draw readers into Eleanor and Park’s world. If you’re looking for a happy ending neatly tied up with a bow, this novel doesn’t provide that. Rather, Eleanor & Park’s appeal stems from its stark realism, and the sense that this story could happen to anyone.

*Hand in Glove by The Smiths

Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

31 Mar

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

Pub Date: August 2012

Publisher: Little, Brown

Level: Teen/Ages 10-up

Published in the UK last year, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is a devastating debut by British writer, Annabel Pitcher. Little, Brown is publishing it this August, in the United States (with a brand-new cover).  10-year old Jamie Matthews’ life is in flux–his mum has walked out on him, older sister, Jas, and their father, unable to cope with the cloud of sadness that’s hung over the family since Jamie’s sister (and Jas’ twin), Rose was killed in a terrorist bombing in London five years ago. After what would’ve been Rose’s fifteenth birthday, Jamie’s dad decides that he cannot reside in London anymore, and he moves everyone to the English countryside for a “fresh new start.” In truth, Jamie’s father wants to escape the city for life in a place without Muslims. “‘None of that foreign stuff in the Lake district’ he said. ‘Just real British people minding their own business.'” (pg. 26) In addition to his newfound (and frankly, misplaced) sense of patriotism, Dad has a drinking problem and spends most of the novel hungover, sad, and/or angry. He clings to the memories of his dead daughter, holding on to her ashes (which are kept in an urn on the titular mantelpiece).

Jamie misses his mother, and desperately awaits her reunion with the family. In fact, when he receives a Spiderman t-shirt as a birthday gift from her, he feels it’s his only remaining connection to Mum and refuses to take it off. Arriving at his new school, hoping to make a clean start of things, Jamie is stunned to see a Muslim girl in his class (identifiable by her hijab), and feels uncomfortable when he’s assigned to sit next to her. The other kids in the class turn out to be bullies, but Sunya welcomes Jamie, and becomes somewhat of a kindred spirit. They bond over their love of comic superheroes, as well as devising ways to get back at the school bullies (Sunya’s inventiveness will have you laughing out loud, even when it’s oh-so- wrong!). And that’s the crux of the novel – Jamie is conflicted about his friendship with a Muslim girl, because of his sister’s death at the hands of Islamic extremists. He struggles to mourn the death of a sister he barely knew and is scared of betraying his father.

Pitcher does a fine job of drawing readers into Jamie’s story, as well as eliciting sympathy for all characters (including the bigoted dad, and that’s no easy feat). However, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece doesn’t go into incredible detail about cultural differences. I mean, yes, we understand that Sunya wears a hijab, she feels like an outsider at her Christian school, and also endures relentless teasing from classmates who taunt her with nasty names like Curry Germs. But, since the novel is narrated from Jamie’s perspective, readers aren’t completely clued into what’s really going on in Sunya’s head.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece isn’t about what makes us different, but rather, what brings people together. For me, one of the most powerful moments in the book comes about when Jamie visits Sunya’s house and realizes that every bad thing he’s ever assumed about Muslims is completely false. When the inevitable confrontation occurs between between Jamie’s dad and Sunya and her mother, it’s a tense and emotionally wrought meeting. I know I had to put the book down for a moment.

As much as I enjoyed this book – Sunya and Jamie’s friendship is touching, and I soaked up every word focusing just on those two – I was not a fan of Jamie’s mother’s storyline. Mum is beyond horrendous – she walks out on the kids, and never contacts them. You later find out that while Jamie and Jas have been dealing with a drunk, emotionally neglectful father, Mum has been gallivanting around the world with her new boyfriend. And, there’s a story behind the Spiderman tee that infuriated me beyond words.

What really worked for me was Jamie’s voice (I’ve read reviews elsewhere, where folks were disappointed in how “young” the voice sounded – I disagree) which felt authentic in its confusion, sadness, and moments of elation. Jas is also well characterized, and to me, it felt like she was the glue keeping the family together.When a wrenching loss finally brings Jamie and his father closer to understanding one another…well, you’ll definitely want to have some tissues on hand.

Loved this book, and recommend that everyone pick it up, especially given its timeliness. Yes, it’s a downer, but I think it’s worth it.

ARC for review kindly provided by Little, Brown at ALA Midwinter ’12.

Introduction

23 Feb

After much wavering, I’ve decided to start up a blog about children’s and young adult literature. As a youth services librarian, I often find myself relying upon friends’ and colleagues’ blogs as valuable collection development and reader’s advisory tools…as well as for some fun stuff to read on my own time. Lately, I’ve been feeling the need to track the books I’m reading. And I’m not just talking about perfunctory little blurbs on Goodreads, but rather, writing honestly about the books I read and often recommend. I’ve decided to call this blog Masala Reader because I hope that the vast majority of what I write here will emphasize diversity in children’s and young adult literature.

Masala is a Hindi word used to describe a mixing of spices, but in the context of this blog, I find it to be an apt metaphor for describing emerging literary trends reflecting myriad diversities. And, of course, there’s the personal connection–I’m Indian-American, a product of blended cultures. As an adult, I’m beginning to see the books I longed to read as a child being published and marketed to the mainstream. I truly believe it’s important for everyone, regardless of age, to be able to relate culturally (and I’m using this word in the broadest sense) to the media they consume. It might seem trivial to some, but when I read a description of a traditional South Indian dinner being eaten by an Indian-American family in Sheela Chari’s Vanished, I teared up. Sharing (as well as viewing) such intimate details about culture and ethnicity can be personally meaningful to authors and readers.

I’m looking forward to blogging and, hopefully, hearing what some of you have to say.