Young Adult Fiction

OK, obviously I’m falling a bit behind here, and it’s appearing less and less like I will make it to 50 books before July 25. But I’m not giving up (entirely) yet! Especially because the small piece of good news is that I’m actually further behind in the posting than I am in the reading. But since the pressure of writing 3 long reviews is just going to drag this out further, I’m going to do a bit of consolidating here. Short commentary tied together with a nice theme…(if by “nice, I mean “guilty”). No, I did not set out to read three consecutive books about guilt/Jews, but once I finished them all– and had yet to post– the element tying it all together was glaringly obvious…


Jews & Guilt.1 “The Book Thief” By Markus Zusak (2005) 550 pages, Started March 16, finished March 27.

My friend Ruth lent me this one at the very beginning of the book project, but I was slightly daunted by the length… 500+ pages did not seem doable in one week. But a couple of people assured me it was a quick read (one voracious reader friend said she read it in one day!) so I was optimistic that this wouldn’t slow me down too much. And it didn’t– once I got into it, this novel was very absorbing: A German girl, Liesl, moves in with a foster family in 1940s Munich. The family is not Jewish– although they are far more sympathetic to the plight of the Jews than some of their neighbors. A friend of the family comes to hide in their basement, Liesl steals a lot of books, and the whole thing is narrated by Death. Not happy material, but like many young-adult novels, I found this one to be both fascinating and gripping. The narration-by-Death device took a little while to get used to, but this was a very, very worthwhile read. This book provides some interesting answers to the question about what regular German citizens were doing and thinking during the war. Yes, something like 90% of them were members of the Nazi party, but how did they feel about that? (For at least some of them, the short answer was: guilty.)

Plot_against_usaJews & Guilt.2 “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth (2004) 391 pages, Started approx. April 1, finished April 25

I typically wouldn’t have jumped right from one WWII historical novel into another, but this one was for the Jewish Book Discussion series on Alternate Histories, and my goal was to read it by the group meeting on April 5 (alas, did not happen…) although by that point I was at least far enough along to join in the conversation. What if Charles Lindbergh ran against– and beat– FDR in 1940? Philip Roth tells this story from the perspective of 9 year old Philip Roth, and it is SCARY.  The first third or so of the book focuses on Roth’s family (complete with actual names of actual relatives) and their hometown of Newark NJ– and it is so evocative of real life that by the time things take a turn for the worse, I was already sucked in, completely convinced that this could all be true. It is precisely because this novel is so plausible (at least until the end, anyway) that it is completely terrifying. There’s also plenty of guilt here to go around, mainly having to do with the major sub-plot regarding the family and their neighbors. Despite this being a made-up story, there are many real-life elements worked into the plot (you probably already knew that Lindbergh was famous for being anti-semitic) so it’s also somewhat educational. When I finally finished it, I had a ton of questions and handily, the book has a long section at the back that answers a fair number of them. One last thought- I really did not like the ending. Unlike the rest of the book it felt contrived, and although I mostly liked the first three-quarters, I was also pretty glad to be done with it. There’s only so much energy I can devote to a horror-story version of 1940s America.


Jews & Guilt.3 “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” Edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (2005) 304 pages, started mid-April, finished May 1.

I broke my rule of finishing a book before starting another with this one– I needed a break from reading about World War II and my mom returned this to me at just the right moment– along with her recommendation: “You’re going to really like this”.  I’ve owned this book for a few years– a friend sent it to me when it came out, and unbeknownst to me until I started reading it, my husband actually knows the editor. (Yes, it is a small Jewish world indeed….) Not surprisingly, I loved this collection. Reading these essays was like having a series of wonderful conversations about family, dating, marriage, kids, work, etc. etc. with a bunch of really close girlfriends. (It actually made me miss a lot of my old (long-distance) friends, many of whom I don’t get to spend nearly enough time catching up with these days.) Some of the essays were heavy and intense, some were humorous, but I related in some ways to almost all of them. Especially the last one, by Susan Shapiro, whose essay on “Quitting Guilt”  felt it could have been a letter written directly to me. (Although I suspect I’m not the only person who feels that way when reading about learning to say No…)  I’ve read material by some of these women before (and the new-ish novel “Book of Dahlia, by one of the writers, Elisa Albert, is something I’ve been looking forward to reading for close to a year)  but now I have a whole new list of authors to look for.  It was fun to read this incredible group of Jewish Women writers all in one place and now, assisted by the detailed bio section at the end, I have some new additions to my list of what/who I want to be reading next.


snicket latke“The Bad Beginning” (Book the First of A Series of Unfortunate Events) By Lemony Snicket (1999) 162 pages, Started March 14, finished March 16.

So I wanted a fast, fun read (especially after “The Last Jews of Kerala” which was neither fast not fun.) And I guess this qualifies as both, if you consider reading about three children who just lost their parents in a fire, are forced to wear itchy clothes and then have to move in with an evil thespian to be fun. And if you think a lot of little word-definition asides are fun, and not irritating. (I went back and forth on that one.) Considering that this is a YA (possibly even childrens’) book, it is very dark, but you can’t say you weren’t warned, I mean, look at the title. There are 13 stories in this series (all of which have been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time) and the first few were consolidated into a movie a few years ago. I am not sure if it was because I saw the movie, but I had a continual sense of deja vu while reading this one.  I knew I had started it a few years ago, but I was about 90% sure I hadn’t finished it. Although why I thought that, I have no idea– the pages are very small, the print is rather large, and its a pretty hard book to put down once you start. So once I finished it this time, I became rather certain that I had actually read it before. But no matter. I’m counting it as one of the 50 anyway. One other aside– the author, Lemony Snicket, is really Daniel Handler, the accordianist for the Magnetic Fields, one of the all-time best bands in the whole world. And he also wrote a really funny (and also very dark) Chanukah book called “The Latke who Wouldn’t Stop Screaming”, which really is a kids’ book; because its only about 20 pages and is mostly pictures, I probably shouldn’t count in the final tally.

summernakedswimparties_lead“The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” by Jessica Anya Blau (2008); 294 pages

Started reading December 15, Finished reading December 21.

OK, So I admit it- I read two young-adult (YA) fiction books in back-to-back weeks. I couldn’t help myself.  I was so excited to finish Twilight before my movie date with some girlfriends, and the same week, my good friend Shana  insisted that I read this novel ASAP. So I caved. And it wasn’t bad, although it was very, very YA. (But more on that in a minute…)

Shana lives in Baltimore and I live in Alabama, but it just so happens that she and her husband came to meet me and Josh and Ben at my parents’ house in Florida…. so since we are vacationing together right this minute, I’m going to take advantage of the situation and present my first-ever guest blogger…

RR: So Shay, how would you describe this book in two sentences?

SA: Its about a young girl’s coming-of-age, and discovering about her body, while looking at everyone else’s body. And discovering boys.

RR: Might I point out, that those other bodies were mostly her parents friends, which was kind of weird, very 1970’s, and way racier than most of the YA fiction I was reading at age 14.

SA: I recommended this book to a old lady at the Pikesville library and then cautiously told her son that it was really dirty.

RR: So did she get it?

SA: It wasn’t available but her son said “Don’t worry she can handle it.”

RR: Well, maybe she’ll get it next time. Didn’t you think these 14-year olds were having more sex than most people do in college?

SA: Yes. It makes good reading. Sex sells.

RR: I was kind of expecting chick lit by the title (which is not good- I hate it when a book has a title that makes it too embarrassing to carry around and read in public) and then from the blurbs on the back I changed my mind and thought it might actually be decent literature– but it was sort of somewhere in the middle. Definitely not trashy chick-lit, but…

SA: She intellectualizes growing up in Southern California in the 1970s.

RR: That she did. And she can write. But I found the main character to be pretty annoying at first, then the whole thing got very depressing (although incredibly true-to-life) but it really all came together at the end.

SA: I’d like to add that Jessica Anya Blau is Jewish and lives in Baltimore and teaches at Hopkins.

RR: I think we should be friends with her.

SA: Of course.

RR: I have one more problem with the book. The shoes on the cover don’t look like 1970’s shoes. Who picked out that photo?

twilight_book_cover “Twilight” By Stephenie Meyer (2005); 496 pages

Started Reading December 8, Finished reading December 14. Saw film on December 15.

So if you want to read a almost-500 page book in less than a week, this is the one. In fact, I would have finished it much sooner had I had a few hours in a row to just sit down and read. And as my friend Kim promised, the last 150 pages go by really fast. Like, in an hour. (If only I had had this one on the plane… but no, I was busy trying to get through Sarah Vowell…)

There’s not too much new to say about Twilight, and I’m betting that you already know all about it by now… But just in case: this teenage vampire romance series was a phenomenon before it came out as a movie a few weeks ago…  now you can’t go anywhere without seeing references or hearing people talk about it. (Today I was in Barnes and Noble and saw a woman walk by with a big stack of the tell-tale black books in her arms… clearly buying gifts for all the teenagers on her list.) It’s a cute book, if you like, um, teenage vampire romances (or really, even if you don’t). Seventeen-year-old Bella moves to the Pacific Northwest to live with her dad, and develops a huge crush on a beautiful, pale guy named Edward who only hangs out with his weird siblings, all of whom are equally beautiful and equally pale and are never seen eating. Huh, go figure. Not the best-written book out there, but really, what do you expect? Bella is a pretty convincing character and the story pretty evocative of real high-school life, except for maybe, oh, the entire the vampire part. And the fact that there is no sex whatsoever– but that’s part of the plot. (Spoiler alert: it’s kind of hard for vampires to start kissing humans without going further, you know?) But it’s really fun, and even though I generally have no interest in reading anything about vampires (or werewolves, zombies, monsters, etc.) I really enjoyed this one. Eventually I’ll finish the series (the are 3 other books) but not quite yet- it seems kind of like cheating to speed through 4 books like this and legitimately count them towards the goal.

And as much as I liked the book, I LOVED the movie. It was really well-done– gorgeous and funny and full of teen-angst (that’s a good thing) and was not nearly as much of a chick-flick as I thought it might be. The actress who played Bella was perfectly cast, but I kept wishing that James Franco would show up and step in for Edward. Alas, it was not to be. Oh well. I’ll see it again anyway.