Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What should I read next? Wednesday #4: (after) Fall

Oh crap. Upon re-reading this, I realised my theme here is totally teen crime. Oooops. Oh well, forge on, brave readers...

Fall by Colin McAdam was one of my favourite 2009 reads. Set in the fictional St. Ebury School in Ottawa (McAdam himself attended Ashbury College), Fall is narrated primarily by Noel, a misfit at St. Ebury (nicknamed "Wink" because of his lazy eye) who is determined to change his fate. When his new roommate ends up being Julian, the popular son of the American ambassador, Noel strikes up a friendship with him, and his girlfriend, the lovely Fall (short for Fallon). McAdam soon regularly alternates points of view between Noel and Julian, as the lives of the two boys become increasingly, complicatedly, intertwined. I especially loved descriptions of Julian jogging through Rockcliffe with his dad (in part because their relationship was so interesting, and in part because I jog those streets all the time! There are few literary novels set in Ottawa ... a cheap thrill for me...) Fall, meanwhile, has gone missing: what does Noel know about this? What does Julian know about it? Who is telling the truth? A suspenseful, psychological thriller that leaves you wondering about the mythologies we create around our own identities.

And aren't all novels about school days a bit about this: the mythologies we create to survive, to fit in, or to not fit in, to stand out? This particular read-alike could really go on and on and on, but I'm going to stick to just a few titles today. Fall, by the way, won the Quebec Writers' Federation Literary Awards: Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was on the 2009 Giller Prize longlist.

The first title that jumps right into my mind is (also) local writer Priscila Uppal's The divine economy of salvation. Disclaimer: I happen to have previously had a drink with Uppal; if you think that clouds my judgement, whatever. In Divine, Sister Angela receives an anonymous package in the mail, sparking memories about her past in a Catholic girls’ school and forcing her to confront her involvement in a terrible crime. Again, how much can you trust Sister Angela's memory? The resolution of this book is a bit over the top, but it's a solidly satisfying dip into teenage psychosis (aren't we all glad we're past that?)

More of the same with a much-appreciated dash of humour to break up the tension in The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler (who you might know as Lemony Snicket). Handler’s tone in The Basic Eight is recognizably Snicket-esque in some ways, although the subject matter is very different. The Basic Eight purports to be the diary of one Flannery Culp (Handler can’t shake those Dickensian names!). Flan’s diary is being published because she is the criminal-du-jour, incarcerated for killing classmate Adam State. Her diary perfectly captures the almost-adulthood of 16-year olds: Flan and her friends (who call themselves the Basic Eight) throw dinner parties with illicit liquor flasks, competent adults are almost entirely absent, and Flan’s parents in particular seem to be disturbingly AWOL for the whole book. What’s the deal between Flan and Adam? Well, it seems that Flan spent the previous summer in Italy, where she sent increasingly romantic postcards to Adam; upon her return, however, it seems that Adam will have little to do with her. Meanwhile, Flan has some problems with her biology teacher and Flan’s best friend, Natasha, seemingly perfect and idolized by Flan, makes sure he is dealt with. One poisoned teacher later, the story takes a turn for the worse, with absinthe, secrets among friends and, before long, Adam’s inexplicable (or is it?) murder. Should the Basic Eight turn on its own? Handler deftly satirizes the media, especially Oprah and Dr. Phil, with the Winnie Moprah Show, a thorn in Flan’s side as it sensationally reports on her case. The discussion questions added to the diary by the team of expert psychologists and social scientists will also have you rolling around in a fit of (sometimes much-needed) laughter. Note that The Basic Eight was optioned for film (but seems to have fell off the map) and is, disturbingly, at least partially based on a real story. The Basic Eight and the next book are much more playful than the first two, but have the same dark undertones and sense of suspense running throughout.

Special topics in calamity physics by Marisha Pessl is oddly shelved in our Mystery section, which I think both hides it from fiction lovers and gives it a chance with mystery lovers, so I'm not sure how I feel about that... Anyway, Special topics features another misfit, Blue Van Meer (the name probably didn't help), who has been shuttled from city to city across the US throughout her childhood by her father, a perennial “visiting lecturer” and scruffy, somewhat loveable academic. Finally, in her senior year, Blue manages to stay in one place – Stockton, North Carolina, and more specifically, St. Gallway School – long enough to make friends. She also soon becomes enamored with a new, mysterious teacher… Again, something happens, and Blue has to decide whose side she is on. The novel is structured as a syllabus for a “Great Works of Literature” class, and is filled with references to novels both real and imagined.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is my last read-alike for Fall, but is less about actual crime than the special brand of emotional betrayal perfected by teens. Lee Fiora leaves her small hometown in Indiana at 14 to attend Ault, an elite prep school on the East Coast. There, she spends four years becoming increasingly enmeshed in her school’s culture: first an outsider, by senior year she is secretly dating a popular boy(or is she just sleeping with him?). Looking back a decade later, Lee muses about the secrets her fellow students kept from each other and the painful process of growing up.

I could totally read books set in schools, like, exclusively.

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