Monday, November 28, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #27


The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte Press

How famous would you have to be in order for your 1863 wedding to knock the Civil War off the front pages of newspapers all over the country? Well, you would have to be 32 inch tall Lavinia Warren about to marry General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) in front of 2,000 guests.
Think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt without the Jennifer Aniston controversy. Think Kim Kardashian, but a marriage that lasted two decades longer.  Think Lindsay Lohan and that girl DJ (but without the ankle monitors, drugs, and alcohol). Think Liz and Gianna…adorable right? [Not really.]

Anyway, Lavinia was the most photographed woman of her lifetime. Let me say that again, she was the most photographed woman of her generation. Every other famous person on the planet, including kings, queens, and Presidents, knew her. Lincoln gave a reception at the White House for the newlyweds (think Bono minus sunglasses).  But why, if Mrs. Tom Thumb was so famous, don’t we know her today? Well, take note reality TV star wannabes: maybe because she became famous because of her stature, not because of a talent or works, her legacy didn't endure. And that is the tragic part of this novel, that such a wonderful woman--a brave, strong, optimistic, smart (so smart) woman--could be lost in history. She chose the life she had, she sought out the limelight, but for her it was a way foreword; she couldn’t have known that it would lead to what had to be a good amount of loneliness (especially after the death of her younger sister). She had visitors daily, but they paid to see her.  They certainly had no personal investment in her, they didn’t care about her. It's an interesting footnote that tombstone next to General Tom Thumb merely reads “his wife.”
Well Lavinia has the last laugh now because she’s on Facebook!

Benjamin has managed to write one of the most interesting historical novels I think I have ever read. It's an absolute page turner. At its core this book is a fascinating travelogue of America, a who’s who and lesson on every page.  If you read and enjoyed Ragtime by Doctorow, I think you will like this as well.  


The Gap Year
Sarah Bird

What would a best of list be without an author from our neck of the woods?  Every Sarah Bird novel is different, but the common bonds among them are 1. her outrageous sense of humor, and 2. a Texas-sized heart.  (You'd think that some of this compassion for people would rub off on my pal Gianna, but no.  We technically don't even work together and still she tortures me with emails that say things like "Fuck the comma!" Do you know how hard I work to proofread her posts before flinging them onto the web?  You need that comma, I need that comma, but why must I suffer for her?  Why?! Moving on.)  Sarah Bird is at her absolute best when her stories draw from her own life, and such is the case with her newest book, The Gap Year.  Sarah channeled her anxieties about her child going to college into her latest novel.

Sarah Bird
The Gap Year follows a single mother and her daughter through the course of the girl's senior year in high school.  Cam, her mom, is doing the motherly thing and looking at colleges for Aubrey.  Both Cam and Aubrey are anxious about this major step looming, but for different reasons.  Cam is facing that empty nest thing, while Aubrey doesn't know what she wants to do with her life.  She does know, though, that she wants to spend as much time as possible with Tyler, the golden-boy quarterback with mysterious roots.  The Gap Year is a traditional coming of age novel, but with distinctly Sarah Bird touches.  Remember how I mentioned Sarah's sense of humor?  Cam, she's a lactation consultant, and the scenes involving Cam's profession and her lactation classes are full of humor and warmth.  As someone who's vehemently anti-baby, I was squirming a bit, but also laughing.  

Your book group should be reading The Gap Year.  Fans of The Gilmore Girls?  You'll like The Gap Year.  And when you're finished with The Gap Year, go back and read The Yokota Officers Club, another book that draws from Sarah's life.

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