I’m going to say right up front: it was a mistake to read this book during the “rolling blackouts” that led to the power outages in the first week of 2014. Reading dystopia when you’re safe, warm and comfortable is one thing. Reading dystopia when you’re living through a freezing cold weekend without power and realizing all too vividly how precariously our entire lifestyle is balanced on the reliability of electrical power and supplies, is a whole different experience. This is a well-written dystopian novel that starts in a time and place that is entirely relatable and believable — current-day suburban California, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl — and quickly spins into nightmare as the earth’s rotation inexplicably starts to slow. Days and nights are thrown out of whack and everything reliable about the environment and human culture gradually slips into crisis as 24-hour days become 25-hour, then 30-hour, 48-hour and 60-hour days. Julia, the protagonist, is going through the typical changes and challenges of middle school in a world that appears at first to be keeping a grip on normality, but is changing in ways she can’t even begin to understand.
I found this novel very hard to put down and very hard to forget. While the actual triggering event — the slowing of the earth’s rotation — is farfetched and never explained (which annoyed some readers who were expecting a more sciencey science-fiction book), the resulting devastation is the kind that could occur as a result of any one of a number of ecological disasters. As I said, I was probably more vulnerable to this kind of thinking because I read it during a dark night when we were being warned that our power plants could generate enough electricity to see us through a winter cold spell, so the picture of a world where everything humans have come to rely on slowly falls away was poignant and terrifying. This book gave me chills on a very cold night, and troubled me in a way dystopian visions of the future don’t normally do.
When We Were on Fire is a raw, intense, very personal memoir about growing up in the thick of 1990s American conservative Christian culture. Many of the cultural details of the world in which Addie Zierman came of age will resonate with those who lived through it — “See You At the Pole” prayer gatherings, WWJD bracelets, Christian rock concerts, and the obsessive focus on finding a path in life — including a partner — that fit “God’s will for your life.” Essentially, this is a young woman’s story of how she grew up in that culture and discovered as a young adult that she no longer believed in much of what she had been taught and was ill-equipped for marriage and maturity. It’s about a journey out of fundamentalism into an adult appreciation of life and faith.
While Zierman doesn’t reject every aspect of her Christian faith, or blame the church for every bad thing that happened to her, she is unflinching (and sometimes quite funny) in pointing out the limits of that worldview and the ways in which she failed — at least partly as a result of her religious environment — to develop an adult approach to life and relationships. She’s a good writer and the book is compelling and very readable. If I have one critique it’s the same one I’ve levelled against some other memoirs (Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox is a prime example) in that Zierman still seems to be very close, both chronologically and emotionally, to the events she’s writing about. Allowing a few years to pass might have made the book a little richer and deeper by giving a greater sense of perspective on her young-adult struggles, but on the other hand there’s a raw immediacy here that might have been lost if that were the case. That concern aside, When We Were on Fire is a memoir that will probably be interesting to most people who’ve grown up in a conservative religious world and come to question the faith that shaped them.
Alice McDermott is a heavy-hitting name in American literature: National Book Award winner; twice a Pulitzer finalist. Her books are beautifully written, masterpieces of deft description and carefully chosen language. It’s probably a shortcoming in me as a reader, rather than in her as a writer, that while I enjoy every moment of reading an Alice McDermott book, in the way you would enjoy reading poetry — marvelling at what she can do with words — her books don’t linger with me the same way some more commercial, less beautifully-crafted novels have haunted me for years. She creates strong characters — in Someone it’s Marie, a girl growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s. There’s nothing remarkable about Marie — she isn’t “someone” in the sense that she’s not a person living a huge, important life that attracts the attention of others. But she is someone — she’s an ordinary person living through the changing world of twentieth-century America, living through love and heartbreak and hope and loss. There are incredibly powerful moments in Someone, particularly the ending, which is as poignant as any I’ve read lately. But in the end, for me, there’s too much not told — I wanted so much more of Marie’s life, her experiences, her thoughts and feelings and the things that happened to her, over and above just the few moments — gorgeously polished jewels — that McDermott lifts from that life to show us. The very restraint that makes McDermott a great writer makes her, for me, a frustrating one too; she leaves me wanting much, much more, but it’s clear she has no intention of giving it.
I actually read this in 2013 — before I wrapped it up to give to Emma for Christmas — but I forgot to review it last month so it’s getting reviewed here. This is just such a fun book for young-adult readers — perfect for Christmas but fun at any time. Three top YA writers — Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle — each tell a stand-alone novella-length story of young love. The twist is that all three stories happen in the same small town over the same stormy Christmas, and main characters from one story show up as background characters in another. Each story is funny, sweet and quirky, and I thoroughly enjoyed all three.
After the quiz video from last week, I’ve finally made the follow up video on my 10 best books of 2013 — plus reports on how my self-challenge to read more poetry and more classics worked out.
If you just want to cut to the chase, the quick version of the list is below. You can find my reviews of all these books and many, many more here on the blog. (But isn’t it fun to watch me wave my hands about in the air as I talk about them on video?)
10. Torn by Justin Lee
9. The Universe vs. Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
8. Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
7. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
6. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
5. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
4. Longbourn by Jo Baker
3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
2. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
1. Someone Else’s Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson
Watch the video to find out how to win one of the ten best books I read this year. You can check out all the reviews and search for clues right here at Compulsive Overreader. Email me your guess at the final list at email@example.com and be sure to put “Book Contest” in the subject line. Contest closes next Tuesday, January 7, and I’ll post the final list and the winners here next Wednesday.