Sunday, April 10, 2016

Meditations on Memorial Table, Shakespeare400, Ally Condie, and Her New Novel "Summerlost," Which Is Set at the Fictional Equivalent of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

If you’ve been in Boswell lately, you’ve probably noticed that the store is looking a little like a funeral home. We’ve got about five memorial displays up, from Harper Lee to Pat Conroy and now Jim Harrison. Heck, I had to skip over Imre Kertesz because we simply don’t have room. We usually keep these up about two months, but it’s feeling like maybe I’ll have to speed things up. But every bookstore knows there is generally a renewal of interest in authors after they’re passing.

One author whose passing is being celebrated of late is William Shakespeare, and it’s feeling like a Shakespeare table is due. We’ve even got a title, Shakespeare 400, which is only confusing as the Bronte bunch is also celebrating Bronte 200, which celebrates the writing of the Bronte family novels over the next few years. In this case, we're celebrating Shakespeare's death. With a party for the birth, death, and work of each author, you can only imagine that the ghosts of literary legends must feel like they are jostling each other for shelf space.

We have an interesting Shakespeare event coming up later this month, with Elizabeth Nunez appearing at Boswell for her novel, Even in Paradise, which is King Lear set in the Caribbean. Nunez has published numerous novels but this one is special, and not just because she’s coming to Boswell. She’s also getting an honorary doctorate at Marian College in Fond du Lac, her alma mater. Congrats to her, and I hope all those folks out there who like fictional riffs on Shakespeare pick up a copy.

One book that is being published later this spring that’s captured the attention of several Boswell booksellers is Vinegar Girl, the latest novel in the Shakespeare Project, where contemporary writers are interpreting Shakespeare’s great plays. Boswellian Sharon Nagel noted that the newest, a re-imaginging of The Taming of the Shrew set in a household where a young woman is asked to enter a green card marriage for her scientist father’s lab assistant to prevent him from being deported. These literary programs have become quite popular, with similar projects ongoing  for Jane Austen (see our May 3 lunch for Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible) and the Bible. 

All good selections, and I assure you when I get this display up there will be many more, but the book that’s been on my mind of late is Summerlost, the new novel from Ally Condie. It’s so different from Matched, her first novel and the ensuing series. It’s a speculative novel with a lot of fans about a society where all choices are made for you, only when the heroine is ready to be mated, she is given two matches, both of which seem inappropriate. We had an interesting discussion about how the series would have been different as a stand-alone, and then we noted how unusual it is for speculative novels for kids (fantasy or adventure or otherwise) to be anything but a series. They just don’t publish them much, and Amie noted that while I may not be a series reader, kids do like them. And I also noted that for adult hard-core science fiction and fantasy genre, series generally trumps stand alone as well. Click on the link to see Pam's recommendation.
But Condie’s new book is so different from Matched, and I don’t think it would ever be a series, though it’s possible she might someday return to the Lee family. The story is set in a small Utah town, the site of a Shakespeare festival. The Lees, Cedar and her brother Miles and her mom have moved into a summer home, following a terrible auto accident that killed Cedar’s father and her brother Ben. While the family can’t live their permanently, as it’s too far from her teaching job near Salt Lake City, she’s hoping they can rent it out during the school year to students.

Cedar’s clearly in mourning. Ben had special needs, I’m thinking he was autistic, though it’s not spelled out, and she misses him, even though she sometimes was exasperated by him. He was different, and that wasn’t easy, and when the family tried mainstreaming him, he was bullied. That tone of mourning runs through the story. Cedar’s friend Leo gets her interested in a an actress named Lisette Chamberlain, perhaps the best-known actor to break out of the festival. She died young at a nearby hotel and the two of them run a black-market tour of Lisette landmarks for patrons.  The three kids also obsess over a soap opera called Times of Our Seasons, and a particular subplot where one of the heroines is buried alive by her archrival, with only a feeding tube keeping her alive.

The differentness is another theme that permeates Summerlost. Cedar is biracial Chinese and at one point, someone says she would of course get along with Meg in the costume shop because she’s Korean.  And her friend Leo, well, the first time she sees him he’s bicycling along in costume and it’s clear he’s not like the other guys in his family, burly guys who like playing football.  Leo, however, can fend for himself, even with a local bully after him. It’s Ben, or his memory, that has the most problems, and a particular scene in a lunch room with kids throwing food at him still resonates with me.

One guesses that Condie drew on some memories for Summerlost. It’s clearly set in the past, as there are no cell phones or computers. A family friend of her grandparents helped found the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and her grandparents themselves were involved in helping grow it. I was speaking to a theater person at Boswell, who told me that there are a lot of alums from that festival in the Milwaukee area. If they pick up Summerlost, I bet they will recognize some details.

What a lovely story Summerlost is, moody and wistful and nostalgic. At one point, I wondered whether a kid would even understand some of the things going on. But kids are pretty smart and I think they’d love the characters, the mysteries, and yes, the feelings about friendship and family and change. And it’s surprising how young one can be and still feel a sense of loss in a mature way.  

The publisher has recommended 12 and up for Matched, and listed 10 and up for Summerlost, so more in the middle-grade realm, but certainly a little more mature than a lot of other books in that category, which are more for 8 and up. But this is the kind of book that an adult could really enjoy as well, and in fact it reminded me of a lot of classic adult novels. And future adult classics, like Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. But I’ll save that for another blog post.

Event details:
Ally Condie will be at the West Allis Public Library, 7421 W National Avenue, on Monday, April 11, 6:30 pm. This event is free and open to the public. Books for sale will be available at the event.

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