Monday, October 31, 2011

Back from the Dead: Classic Literature

Since it's Halloween, I feel like it is only fitting to mention at least a little something about the dearly departed. But since this is a literary blog, I want it to be book themed as well. My compromise: classic literature.

Those of you who have ever taken an English class may have heard the term "canonical literature" or had a teacher who talked about books that are a part of the canon. No, they probably weren't talking about those weapons on pirate ships or battle fields; they were most likely talking about the literary canon. To put it simply, books that we classify as being in this group are ones that have been deemed of significant importance. In layman's terms, they're the books or authors we refer to as the classics.

William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chalres Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. off the top of my head generally belong in this group. If you noticed these seem to almost all be the names of dead white males, you'd be right, but luckily for us, society and what we value is in constant flux, so this group is always growing and has actually become fairly diverse.
These classics can often be very challenging to read, though, because they were written so long ago. I got through many titles and authors in high school and college, but I must admit that since graduating, contemporary fiction has been my primary reading material. The language is more familiar. The social customs aren't so foreign to me. I don't have to work as hard to identify with characters. I fear that this has made me a bit of a lazy reader.

Recently, I decided to get back in touch with those classic books I'd fallen in love with as a student all those years ago in my high school English classrooms. But I didn't want to cheat, I wanted my brain to really have to work at it, so I couldn't just reread Pride & Prejudice for the
6th time. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I picked a book I'd heard of nearly my whole life but never took the time to read.

I'll give you a Halloween hint: there's a candy bar with the same name.

Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers was my choice, and so far, I'm really happy with it. Sword fights, action, honor, hot tempers, friendship, taking down the bad guys - no wonder they decided to remake it into a movie (in theaters now). All of that has been going on, and I'm not even 100 pages in yet. As someone who primarily has read contemporary female authors for the last few months, It was a conscious decision to read something written by a man because they just have a different way of looking at things. In a nut shell, so far, so good.

But why do it if it's so much harder? Isn't hard enough for most people to find time at all to read an actual book and not just email or even blogs? Why bother with books that are sometimes hundreds of years old with ancient ideas that can't possibly be relevant to people today?

Because they are relevant. Because the whole nature of reading and books is to help us escape, to challenge us, to grow. They are the classics because they mattered once, so who's to say that they don't still matter or that people today can't relate if we don't actually read them? Pride & Prejudice was written by a woman who never got married back in the 1800s, yet that plot can be seen time and again in chick-flicks in cinemas now. And that's just one example. Many of today's stories or authors owe thanks and pay homage to those who came before.

So after all that, here's my two cents: read a classic. You may be surprised at how much it can tell you about the world today.

As always, happy reading, comments welcome, and if you like what you see here, tell your friends!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sisterhoods and San Francisco

Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares
Random House, 2011

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Dutton, 2011

In the last week, the two novels I finished reading both had one thing in common: girl power. Not necessarily in a 1990s, Spice Girls "If You Wanna Be My Lover" sort of way, but in a "know and embrace who you are, surround yourself with people who love you for you, you are a strong young woman" sort of way.

Not long ago I shared my thoughts on Ann Brashares' fourth novel in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Forever in Blue, and how much I was looking forward to the fifth installment. Sisterhood Everlasting did not disappoint, though I will admit that it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Brashares was brave in that she diverted from her tried-and-true formula when telling readers about the lives of Tibby, Carmen, Bridget, and Lena ten years after the events of Forever in Blue. They're all grown up now, but traces of their past insecurities are still very present and their bonds tested. I liked that the girls were still recognizable, but this felt much more like an adult novel to me than YA. My less than glowing comments are only two: first of all, I loved that Brashares brought back some secondary characters as well, but I felt that she left them underdeveloped. I know they aren't the protagonists, but it just felt like a tease when someone would be mentioned but then we didn't get anything more than that. I also felt that throughout the series as a whole, there were some characters who just always got the short end of the stick. I know not every story can have a happy ending, but for two characters in particular I was more than slightly frustrated by the choices Brashares made.

If a happy ending and something more in line with YA, chick lit-y, warm-fuzzy story is what you're in the mood for, then I have two words for you: Stephanie Perkins. I came across this fantastic up and coming author earlier this year when browsing the shelves of my local library and picked up her first novel, Anna and the French Kiss. I was immediately taken with her charming writing style. Perkins is incredible at capturing all the warm, amazing, butterflying, agonizing, devastating, and completely wonderful roller coaster feelings that come with having a crush and falling in love for the first time. Lola and the Boy Next Door is a companion novel to Anna, so people who read the first get to still see a few of their favorite characters in a new setting. San Franciscan Lola is a girl with big dreams and an even bigger wardrobe - she's a budding costume designer with an older, rock and roll boyfriend, a shy best friend, two fantastic dads, and a whole lot of unrequited feelings for Cricket, the boy who used to live next door. She feels like she has a pretty good handle on all of this until Cricket moves back. Suddenly, Lola has to look at various things in her past that she'd rather not and learns that looking fabulous on the outside only counts if you're making the effort to be a good person on the inside. Perkins takes readers on a fantastic journey. You may not always like the choices Lola is making, but you can't help but root for her and hope that she figures things out in spite of all that. I also cannot applaud Perkins highly enough for how wonderfully she took on the characters of Nathan and Andy, Lola's dads. Lola is very straightforward about it and has an attitude that I find commendable - neither dad is less of a man than the other or anything like that, they love each other, and they love her. It's a fantastic home and family environment that was so refreshing to see. I quite literally could not put this book down which is the highest compliment I can pay any writer or work. 2012 can't come soon enough for the final companion novel in this collection, Isla and the Happily Ever After. If you haven't heard much about Perkins, just wait because you will.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Follow-Ups, Give Aways, and NaNoWriMo

Long before I became a blogger myself, I was a person who reads blogs. It should come as no surprise that since I am attempting here to write my own kind of book and literature related blog, I follow more than a few that already exist on the subject. One that I want to mention today is Youth Services Corner. YSC is run by a woman named Whitney who, like me, has a library school background and a genuine passion for youth services. I personally love her insights into the world of YA. Her most recent post is extremely timely given my last one here: I told you about Read it 1st, Whitney has just compiled a list of which upcoming movies are actually based on books or short stories. I highly encourage you to check it out.

There are also blogs out there who are able to provide their readers with more than just thoughts and information - they can give you genuine, tangible stuff as well. Literary Rambles, a fellow blog, is a fantastic resource for people interested in children's books authors, agents, and publishing. The information is gold in this blogger's opinion, and they currently have a few ARC giveaways going on right now (ARC as in Advance Readers Copy, not a boat). Readers can currently try for a copy of Crossed by Ally Condie (the second book in her Matched trilogy), Darkfall by Janice Hardy (the final book of The Healing Wars series), and Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe which is in stores now.

Finally, with October soon coming to a close, I want to briefly mention a huge international event that will be upon many of us for thirty days. November is National Novel Writing Month, but since that can be a mouthful, it's often shortened to NaNoWriMo. The objective is simple in theory if not necessarily in execution: write an entire novel between midnight November 1st and 11:59 p.m. November 30th. And by novel, they mean a minimum of 50,000 words. Is it a daunting challenge? You bet. But I'm really excited for what November brings because this will be my first time participating. If I'm successful, this will actually be the second book I've written this year. (I spent four months this summer writing the first draft of a YA novel that was just over 60,000 words long). I'll be posting my word counts here (I'm actually aiming for 60,000 words again because that's the average length of a YA novel) and let you know how the process is going.

With a few posts here under my belt, questions and comments would really be appreciated. And if you like what you see here, please don't hesitate to tell others about it too!

Happy Reading (and writing)!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Turning Tradition on its Head: Nikki Heat and Read it 1st

Heat Rises by Richard Castle
Hyperion, 2011

Sometimes it scares me that Hollywood seems to be out of original ideas. I mean, how many TV shows and movies each year are based on books or short stories? It seems to me like that number is rapidly growing. As a librarian-in-training, someone who works in the education field, certified English teacher, and, in general, a person who just loves books, I am a staunch believer that whenever possible, you should read the book first. Time and again, we’ve seen that while some film adaptations can be extraordinary (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.), they still often don’t quite measure up to everything that the book was able to be.

This is why I’m a huge fan of a relatively new website simply called Read it 1st. While it’s not by any means a new idea, this brain-child of Hank Green and Nerdfighteria is very straight forward – here people can make the pledge to read the book before they watch the movie and can sign up to get newsletters letting them know what stories coming soon to a theater near you may actually already be available at your local bookstore. The pledge, sign-up, and a copy of the first (and so far, only) newsletter are all that make up the website now, but I sincerely hope to see this grow in the future.

However, there are always exceptions to the rules. Anyone who has ever had to try to spell correctly in the English language knows this (oh, that pesky “I before e except after c!”). Nikki Heat can fall into this category, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. But first, some explanation is necessary.

Now in its fourth season, ABC’s hit show Castle follows mystery writer Richard Castle, a “consultant” with the NYPD who hangs around so he can follow the brilliant Detective Kate Beckett as research for his latest series of novels. And so Nikki Heat was born, a character who bares many similarities to her “real life” counterpart. In a completely brilliant marketing move, ABC decided to make the series a reality. So what we have is a real book series being written by a fictional author based on “real life” fictional people. It’s all very Meta, but trust me when I say that it works.

Here in lies the dilemma, however. The books often contain Easter eggs that relate back to the series. Non-viewers may miss out on some of the jokes or those “hey, the characters had that same conversation last season!” moments. Also, I find myself hearing and seeing the TV characters I’ve come to know and love in my head as I’m reading (it’s obvious who from the show is who in the books). So to read or to watch first? That is the question.

My answer? Either way works. I’m not usually one for mystery novels, but the show and these books have opened me up to a genre I probably would have continued to overlook. On their own, Heat Wave, Naked Heat, and Heat Rises (which came out just last month) are great mysteries. I love the style of the writer and there are plenty of plot twists to keep me interested without feeling blindsided. These books aren’t the hardboiled detective stories of old, and that’s why I like them. They’re contemporary, fresh, and like playful brain candy. And, since I watch the show (it did come first), I get those occasional Ah-Ha moments that people will get to have if they read first, then see the show.

The long and the short of it to me as that books and media don’t have to always be butting heads. So often they actually complement each other. Read it 1st shows us that books can inspire great film and that it can be thrilling to see some of our favorite characters brought to life. Likewise, Castle/Nikki Heat has been able to get huge numbers of TV viewers to turn off the tube and pick up a book or two or three. The moral is clear to me: Never underestimate the power of a good story.

Richard Castle's Website
Richard Castle on Twitter

Monday, October 10, 2011

Past and Present: Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood

I remember first reading about Tibby, Lena, Carmen, and Bridget when I was in late elementary school or early junior high and completely falling in love with their friendship. I was so jealous that there were people (okay, I realize they're characters) who had such strong friendships like this, other girls that they could count on whether they were together or apart, making good choices or less than awesome ones. I adored the first book, was less enthused about the second, and fell in love all over again with the third.

And then, just like the girls do in the books, we drifted apart. I learned a few years later that a fourth installment had been written, but it become just another title on my extremely long "books to read" list. The book would always be there in the same way that The Pants would be for the Septembers. It wasn't until the 5th installment of the series, Sisterhood Everlasting, came to the library where I work that I realized how much I missed these girls and this story. I checked out both books and in the spirit of the fact that today it's 79 degrees out and a day off from work, I soaked up the entire fourth summer of the sisterhood sitting in the sunshine.

Ann Brashares has so lovingly shared this sisterhood with YAs and adults for years, and this chapter in their journey is no exception. Part of this may be nostalgia talking, but anyone who reads this book can see the immense care that Brashares has taken to accurately show what it's like to be a teenager in today's world and how easy it can be to lose touch with the people who matter most to us despite the fact that technology or a pair of pants connecting happen. Emails, texting, letters, and phone calls are never quite the same as being in the same space as those we hold dear.

One aspect of Forever in Blue that shines is its ability to tell not just the story of one summer, but really four summers. The pants have become little more than a "thinking of you" greeting card and though they aren't present very often, it is summertime and they are able to work their magic in small ways. In them Carmen is able to start rediscovering the confidence she's lost, Tibby hopes to find comfort in a time of uncertainty, Lena tries to look forwards rather than back, and Bee realizes she can't move to the future without acknowledging the past.

Old and new characters wrap their way into the lives of this colorful quartet and I was thrilled to revisit these girls again. I am now more anxious than ever to read Sisterhood Everlasting which takes place ten years later. These books have simple plots that explore a complex time in anyone's life and stress the ideas to love yourself, be yourself, and true friends are always there, whether you're together or apart.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A New Take on Ancient Myths: Percy Jackson & the Olympians

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
Miramax, 2006 (first book)

The first time I ever learned about Greek mythology, I was in sixth grade. It seemed reasonably cool – gods with extraordinary powers, heroes going on amazing adventures. But by the time I got to high school and we had to study the myths for a whole unit in my freshman English class, my enthusiasm had waned. They were just a bunch of old stories, right? I mean, it’s not like any of it could happen, and even if it did, it was all thousands of years ago. Wasn’t it? That’s what Percy Jackson thought, too.

Percy has ADHD. He has trouble in school because chaos seems to follow him no matter how hard he tries. He’s nobody’s first pick for anything and doesn’t really think of himself as anything special. He wants to do and be good and is still trying to figure out who he is and what he wants. In other words, he’s like a lot of 12 year olds when you meet him. He certainly reminded me of myself at that age.

Riordan’s saga of Percy, the half-human, half-god son of Poseidon, is an amazingly relatable story even with the premise that has been set up: the ancient Greek gods really do exist, Mt. Olympus is actually above Manhattan, and demigods such as Percy are trained to fight monsters and save the world at Camp Half-Blood. Over the course of five books, we see the world as he does, feeling every conflicted feeling along the way.

It is easy for people to compare the series to Harry Potter. There are undeniably parallels. Both are stories of a boy with a less than desirable childhood/home life (yet with exceptional mothers) who think they just have a hard time fitting in only to discover they’ve been special since birth and that not all is as it seems. However, to me Percy felt a bit more grounded in that the story takes place in this world rather than an “other” location such as Hogwarts. America is Percy’s battleground, and while Camp Half-Blood is certainly unique, Riordan still gives it a summer camp feel that many can relate to.

Another strength of the series is that Riordan expertly keeps his younger readers in mind over the whole course of the five book saga. The choices Percy, his friends, and his enemies all must make get more serious with bigger responsibilities and consequences as the story progresses, yet it never reaches further than what a 12 year old reader will be able to understand.

Where Potter can intimidate some hesitant readers with its length, Percy seems to suck them in. It’s also a great tie in to those mythology units like the ones I had so many years ago – readers can make connections and see those stuffy old gods in a new light. The series also had me saying plenty of times “I forgot about that one!” Riordan has done his homework and put a fresh face on old tales, and readers of all ages will enjoy this young hero’s journey for many years to come.

Rick Riordan's Website
Rick Riordan on Twitter

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Welcome to the Files

Welcome, readers young and old, wherever you are, to The Fuma Files. What exactly do I hope this website/blog to be and who am I? Allow me to explain and to introduce myself.

My name is Monica Fumarolo (known as Fuma to my friends and Miss Fuma to my students) and above all else, I am a life long lover of books and stories. Despite the fact that we are living in a highly digital age, I strongly believe that books, whether read in traditional print or on an e-reader, have an incredible power to build communities and connect people of all ages, from all walks of life, and even across time periods.

My more professional credentials are as follows: I received my B.A. in English with a minor in Secondary School Teaching from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I'm currently a student in U of I's Graduate School of Library and Information Science where I am three classes away from being done with my M.S. I am a certified teacher in the state of Illinois for grades 6 thru 12, and I currently work as a teaching assistant in a high school library in the Chicago suburbs. I love what I do - getting to work with books and students at such an interesting and often dynamic age in their lives is a dream come true.

It is my hope that this blog will become a place for me and others to voice their thoughts on the books they're reading and themes, issues, concerns about the world of books. I'll be starting off posting reviews of the books I'm reading, and then we will see where this goes. I'm extremely flexible about this project, and I'm always hoping to hear what others have to say. I know that other sites exist for reviews (I myself have a Goodreads account which I thoroughly enjoy and utilize) I wanted to have a place to expand on ideas and make connections, focus on broader pictures or barely noticeable details.

If this sounds like something you may be interested in, I hope you decide to stick around. Books have an amazing tendency to bring out sides of people we may not have otherwise known about ourselves and can lead to amazing discussions. May the talking begin...