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Weekly Reviews: Portraying the Famous (and Infamous)
Today we review three novels with famous people as their subjects. The first is Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Teens continue to be fascinated by the Jazz Age and they read the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, not only in literature classes but also for fun. (So I learned in a recent discussion with a class of 9th graders asked to share their recent favorite reads.) Z might do even better after Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby comes out in early May. Teens are certainly looking forward to the film.
I had never heard of the subject of Child of Vengeance before I picked up David Kirk’s debut novel. Mushashi Miyamoto was one of the most celebrated of all samurai. He also wrote The Book of Five Rings, making him a rare combination of scholar and warrior. While some teens might groan at the thought of reading about 17th century Japan, those who enjoy action-filled novels full of battle, betrayal, and vengeance should be persuaded to give this one a shot. Just make sure potential readers can stomach violence. An opening scene relates the seppuku performed by an 8 year old boy, and that’s only the beginning.
And finally we have Typhoid Mary. Disease, injustice, thwarted love, all set in the world of early 20th century New York City. There is an upstairs/downstairs aspect to this story that might widen its appeal to include Downton Abbey fans.
By the way, during that same 9th grade discussion, one student spoke ardently about the novels of Michelle Moran (and in particular, Cleopatra’s Daughter). The next thing I knew all of them had been checked out by her friends. Isn’t it amazing how effective peer recommendation can be?
Adult/High School–Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the prototypical Jazz Age woman–married to the author F. Scott, childhood pals with “Tallu” Bankhead, friendly with Picasso and Porter (and not so friendly with Hemingway). Flitting between Alabama, Paris, Antibes, and New York, she lived an enviable life. Or was it? Writers tend to have money problems thanks to their sporadic income, and the Fitzgeralds were no different; add to that Scott’s drinking and Z’s growing dissatisfaction with their life and you have a recipe for marital disaster. And then there’s Zelda’s mental problems (possibly schizophrenia, possibly manic-depression, no one knows for sure; whatever the problem was, she was mistreated). Fowler does a wonderful job of marrying fact and fiction, blending the Fitzgeralds’ “Midnight in Paris”esque lives with the realities of being on the verge of poverty at a time when the world’s financial structure was shaky at best. Readers will be surprised to learn that Zelda was an author (albeit one frequently robbed of full credit by her husband’s insistence that he was the author/brand) and a talented ballet dancer. Her evolution from southern belle to flapper to dancer to mental patient is brought to life in a way that will interest those seeking to learn more about this era, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s life, or women writers.–Laura Pearle, The Center for Fiction, New York City
Adult/High School–Bennosuke, a boy destined to become the legendary Mushashi Miyamoto, is the samurai hero of Kirk’s debut novel. Bennosuke is an insecure, weak and scared kid whose future seems anything but heroic. His samurai father, Munisai Shinmen, abandoned his son at age five on the night of his mother’s tragic death in a village fire. When the novel opens eight years later, Bennosuke is working with his uncle in the village temple. Munisai’s return changes everything. Not only is Bennosuke expected to become samurai despite his youth and awkwardness, but halso learns the secret about his mother’s death. After intensive training with his father, he is sent to work in a nearby town where his temper leads him to chop off the arm of the heir of the Lord Nakata, a family enemy. Bennosuke is expected to commit seppuku to redeem his honor, but his father offers his own, more valuable life in exchange. Lord Nakata and his retinue shame Munisai during the ritual; thus begins Bennosuke’s quest for vengeance. In this world, vengeance is “a holy moral duty, and anything can be forgiven in its name–so long as you are prepared to give everything for it. This is being samurai.” Years of wandering in poverty end with the battle of Sekigahara, in which Bennosuke makes his name at 16. The brutal violence of this life is described in almost loving detail, yet escapes being gratuitous because it is prescribed by the culture in which readers are immersed.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Adult/High School–In 1907, Doctor Soper, a physician from the New York City Department of Health, using emerging discoveries about contagion, determines that Mary Mallon, a 38-year-old Irish immigrant cook, is a rare “asymptomatic carrier” of typhoid disease. Under his orders, Mary is dragged from her home, her job, and from Alfred, the love of her life, to live out her days in isolation in a small cabin on an island outside of New York City. She is given no explanation, and is expected to submit to humiliating blood drawing and examination. There is no trial, nor is she ever charged of a crime, but she is detained, alone, frightened, and angry. While Mary waits for her lawyer to gain her release, she reflects on her past: her hard-scrapple life in Ireland, her immigration to America, her love of drunken Alfred, and how she discovered a talent for cooking, working her way into the kitchens of the wealthy. Death stalks her whenever she cooks, and while Mary doesn’t make the connection, others do; she is forced to stop the one thing she loves doing most because it carries the disease to others. This well-written novel brings to life the smells, dirt, crowds, joys, and tragedies that made up early 20th century New York City. Being a poor, uneducated woman leaves Mary vulnerable to manipulation from those around her, but her fiery nature and good heart prevent them from keeping her down. This is an excellent read for lovers of historical fiction and brings to life a woman who is destined to go down in history as “Typhoid Mary.”–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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