Precious/Push - Sapphire

There is at least one positive thing about the adaptation of a book to the big screen: it gives publicity to a work you might not have come across otherwise. Push is the debut novel of the poet Sapphire, which was published in 1996. It was later renamed Precious after the 2009 film adaptation by Lee Daniels and its success at the Sundance Film Festival the same year.
Sapphire worked as a social worker and a teacher of reading and writing in Bronx and Harlem before pursuing a writing career. She digged in this experience to create the characters of her novel.
The story is narrated by 16-year-old Precious, who, pregnant with her second child from her father and abused by her mother, is expelled from school. She is illiterate but has always enjoyed school, and been eager to learn. She enters an "Each One Teach One" adult GED program and meets several other women. For the first time in her life, she can learn, she is listened to and helped, and she meets friends, helping her through her new life.

There is one word to describe this book: powerful. You get knocked out at the very first page. The technique used, to write english as 'bad' as Precious speaks it, makes us better understand her constant alienation from the people around her. Not only is she abused by both her parents, but she doesn't fit at school or in any other social environment. A translation of this alienation is Precious' physical appearance: she is obese and black. In American society today, even after some improvements in laws and mentalities, the ethnic origin and an appearance different from current beauty cannons presented in all medias (i.e. young, white, thin (skinny?), etc.*) are still a motive of rejection and result in alienations.
As Precious learns, her writing gets better and better, her opinion of herself improves. She realises that her experience is far from being unique and that talking about it, and listening to other's experiences make her realise that, for the first time in her life, she isn't alone. In the film, it is translated by the color tones of the images: from very dark images to very bright.

In the British newspaper The Independent, the journalist Susie Boyt wondered "what exactly the point of committing all this horror to paper was". Well, of course, one certainly enjoys more reading the Devil wears Prada. But a story like Push might be put among the likes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison as books which might present horrible if not unbelievably atrocious scenes, but which need to be read.

Especially today.

A book written in 1969 as an autobiography (the first of six volumes) by the incredible Maya Angelou is studied in school because of its socio-political message of how a woman grows up to be a woman in an extremely racist and sexist environment. A book like The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, which has been repeatedly attacked for being part of school curriculums, relates the story of Pecola, a young black girl constantly pointed out as ugly (because in this society beautiful = white), and whose only dream is to become blond with the bluest eyes in the world. You follow her evolution throughout the book, where detaching herself from reality is the only way she is able to cope with it.
But Push takes place today. And this is probably the hardest part to believe for people living in a priviledged environment. The fact that it is a fiction doesn't make the story complete fabrication. Everybody, reading, would ask him/herself why, after giving birth at 12 years old to her father's child, no one tried to do anything.
I have read a very frightening statistics in an essay, it is estimated that in the developed rich countries from the West, one in six women has or will be raped during the course of her life. One in six**. Not talking about it or avoiding reading about it on the base that it is horrific is like putting a blindfold on while you're driving. Don't complain when you hit a tree and kill a kid.

This book is very rich in the sense that many themes are developed, which are usually ignored or avoided in mainstream literature: the appearance of women (and I am not talking about imaginary Bridget Jones' like "flaws") ; the relations with male figures (may it be a father, brother, boss...) ; the meaning of life (yup, some people do deal with harder issues in life than high heels and lipsticks) ; teen pregnancy (you see this in the episode with nurses who immediately think Precious is to blame for her pregnancy); and many other themes. People obviously perceive books differently and that is why I am sure that everybody will have something to learn from this novel.

* Just to give an example: the magazine Vanity Fair does every year a cover of the new it-girls and it-boys in the cinema industry. As always, Vanity Fair considers variety when you have a blonde next to a brunette next to a redhead in the picture. Many have for instance criticised the notable absence of Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe for her role as Precious and the presence of virtually unknown actresses in comparison. The "New Hollywood" is young, white, and painfully skinny (look at those legs!).

** Obviously this is a statistics which has to be interpreted with much much care. I take it from a french essay on the History of Women in the West (Histoire des femmes en occident, Tome V. Le XXème siècle, sous la direction de Françoise Thébaud, Plon, 1992, 2002, Introduction de la nouvelle édition, p.18). It just gives an idea of the phenomenon, which is very far from being rare, even in the most developed societies.

Shiver - Maggie Stiefvater

I was in the YA section of a bookstore when my eyes fell on this book. My first impression was "yet another author surfing on the werewolf-vampire-twilight success" *sneer* and I refused to buy it on principle. Two weeks later, I condescend to read the fourth of cover - and end up buying the book.
That's where the old "never judge a book by its cover" saying comes in, because I was totally blown away by this book. I would normally wait for the end of the series to make a post (because book number 2 is bound to come out this summer 2010, and it is - is there anything else anyway? - a trilogy), as I am currently doing for the Hunger Games or Rachel Vincent's books. But the story of the Wolves of Mercy Fall deserves praises.

The story revolves around 17-years-old Grace, who has been attacked by wolves when she was younger, and saved from a predictable death by a yellow-eyed wolf. Ever since then, she watched the woods every winter for her wolf. One autumn, she meets a yellow-eyed boy and she recognizes him instantly. Follows love-story, fear, adventure, life-challenging events and beautiful pictures.

The incredible talent of Maggie Stiefvater is the care she takes in creating unique characters. They feel real because none of them are perfect, all of them have annoyingly cute habits, and nobody cares who's the cute boy who will take me to prom. Grace is a strong independent girl, on the verge of womanhood, who takes care of herself and of her parents (irresponsible workaholics that you can't even bring yourself to hate). Sam is a very sweet boy-wolf and is as hooked on Grace as she is on him. But, and I love this, they are not alike. They have very dissimilar selves which were only brought together by Grace's attack by the wolves and intertwined through years of mutual observation. Her high school friends and the wolves each have their individual personalities which makes them instantly recognisable rather than mere secondary characters just here to fill the gaps. As some YA books tend to overdo the whole sex/responsability issues of the teenage characters (they do their homework, they never have sex, they barely hold hands, they don't say bad words...), Stiefvater makes them real, with a bit of rebellious attitudes every now and then (I'm not saying she makes them take drugs or engage in suspicious behavior either...).

Her second and most important talent is that she has one hell of a writing style. Not once do you get bored, not once do you think "huh, didn't I already read that ten pages before?" or "does the author have only three adjectives per character?", not once do you get somehow detached from the story by an irregular writing. She creates very visual expressions to describe people and situations that you've never heard of but to which you relate instantly. A lot of YA books you usually read have a rather simplistic, plain and traditional writing style. Stiefvater rocks YA literature with this novel, by not taking teenagers for morons and by aiming at a good writing.

Another cool thing is the Stiefvater's spin on the werewolf mythology, the fact that no one really knows how it works and where it came from is interesting because you wait to read more details in the sequels (clever girl) but you can relate more to it because it is just something happening that you have to deal with it. Kind of like everything else in life. Another interesting spin is that it hurts. The recent stories about werewolves or wereanimals that I've read (which isn't much either) hardly mention the shift and don't make it a painful experience. Here it is painful, so it is a dilemma to shift or not to shift. One last thing is that she links the shifters to their environment and to the natural behaviour of real wolves. They are humans in their human forms and wolves in their wolf form. Reading about an invented nature in a fantasy book is great, watching impressive special effects in films (hello Avatar) is dreamy, but writing about real nature that hasn't been yet (for now) completely devastated by human behaviour is way better. Nature that already exists on this planet (on whichever continent and time of the year) is mesmerising, you just have to keep your eyes open for it.

Anyways, I would definitely recommend this book to the Twilight freaks and YA horror fantasy fans in general (of which I'm - obviously - a part) since it's a very good story and I particularly like her wolves. But I will also recommend it to the romance fans since the book - in both Grace's and Sam's perspective - recalls the likes of the unforgettable Time Traveller's wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

Mothernight - Sarah Stovell

A bookstore next to my place was closing down and putting all its hidden shelves' stock out on display to sell. I found in the middle of other forgotten books this very cool artistic cover. I fell in love with it immediately after reading a few key words on the back cover "intense relationship", "painful past", "dreadful accident" and "disturbing, manipulative influence" (yes, yes, it's all me, Miss Glass-half-full) and bought it without any other form of questioning.
The story revolves around Olivia, who is getting to know better and better her boarding school friend Leila, a brilliant and very lonely girl, who seems to be carrying a burden from her past. Going to her house for the summer, Olivia discovers bit by bit what happened 9 years ago, with Leila's baby brother, her bitter stepmother Katherine and her evil friend Rosie.

The first surprise is that it is the author Sarah Stovell's first (and only for now) book, and that it is a very interesting debut novel. Not only is the writing pretty gripping with its change of narrator / change of point of view style where you discover new clues each time over what happened. But the plot is incredible because you question the past events until the very end.
The second surprise is that the two main characters - Leila and Olivia - are actually a couple (talk about all-girl boarding schools fantasies...), and you discover the intensity of their feelings as the novel unfolds, but the LGBT theme in itself is not the point of this book. The real theme of the book is love, not the gooey glittery pink love that you see in most romances, but the love for the other (whomever), for who that person is (flaws, mistakes, doubts, evil included). This love encompasses the love between lovers, between friends, but also between members of the same family. The relationship between Leila and her stepmother Katherine has always been strained, even from the very beginning, and I feel that Stovell's talent has been to create such a depth in their feelings for each other without leaning too much on it by plainly describing it.

Sarah Stovell's Mothernight page on her editor Snowbooks website specifies that the title comes from the night of the Winter Solstice, called Mother Night in Norse mythology, which is the night where Leila's baby brother dies nine years before. But my curiosity googled the title and it also comes from a paragraph in Goethe's Faust which hints that there can be no light without darkness. Voluntary or not, this reference is totally embodied by the characters, all of them on different scales. I can't resist to put the very poetic extract from Faust:

"A man, the microcosmic fool, down in his soul
Is wont to think himself a whole,
But I'm part of the Part which at the first was all,
Part of the Darkness that gave birth to Light,
The haughty Light that now with Mother Night
Disputes her ancient rank and space withal,
And yet 'twill not succeed, since, strive as strive it may,
Fettered to bodies will Light stay."
Faust - Goethe

I wouldn't say that this is a must-read or one of the best books I have ever read, but it is a very promising debut, and Sarah Stovell is definitely a writer I will look out for in the future, hopefully not in hidden and forgotten stacks of books.

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

I have to admit that the only reason I bought this book was because Peter Jackson was directing the film. Not only am I a Lord of the Rings freak, but I also have been overwhelmed by his Heavenly Creatures (1994).
Alice Sebold's second book is about Susie Salmon (like the fish), a 14-year-old girl who, after being raped and murdered by one of her neighbours, narrates the story of her family and friends from her heaven. It is the story of a life which starts when it unexpectedly comes to an abrupt end.
She dies but not completely, living on in her heaven (note the possessive) and watching her family and friends as they go on with their lives, not entirely the same anymore. You witness her sister coping in her very own way, thus shifting her personality for the rest of her life. You see her parents lean into each other, break away, fade in different directions. You see her friends holding onto her or forgetting her altogether. But you see them, each of them, altered, knitting a web over memories of her. The book is beautifully written and you surprise yourself loving these struggling imperfect characters, as Susie does from her heaven.

One always tries to seek the keys of a story in the life of its author: is it autobiographical? is there a reason for this specific development? why? all the more so when you read this encounter, this clash between those two contraries that are Susie's innocence (hoping that this one word can fully embrace the concept) and her neighbour's perversity and corruption of mind. Alice Sebold has been raped during her freshman year at University; she wrote about it in a memoir, Lucky. She then used some of it in The Lovely Bones. You instantly fall for Susie, for her sweetness and originality, and you follow her in this gruesome experience that she doesn't fully understand and never grows up to.

This book feels just like a Jane Austen book or Jane Eyre for women and Farenheit 451 for human beings in general - a must-read. I wouldn't say it is a book about rape (though it is obviously a serious aspect not to neglect, be it in fiction or in real life). I see it more as a book about people, how they grieve, how they cope, and how they stand by each other.