When I was trying to think of something to do this spring to kind of kick off everyone's collective winter doldrums the warm weather image that jumped into my head was of leaning against the back fence and leisurely talking to a neighbor. I grew up in suburbia where chain link fences were common and everyone was forever calling back and forth for lost balls, wayward frisbees and the occasional wandering gopher turtle. I liked that idea of celebrating spring with a book that you loved and just had to tell everyone about - the book you wanted to pass over the fence.
This is not a revolutionary idea in a lot of ways - we all write about books we like all the time. But, and it's a big but, we don't often read books that we flat out adore. I have liked and enjoyed many books already this year but when it comes to a book that I plan to reread again and again, that I tell everyone about, that I think about at odd times or am reminded of and want to quote from, well that is not so common. Part of that is likely because I read a lot of fiction that I am purposely reviewing for an audience other than myself (Chameleon, my current read is an excellent book that I am looking forward to reviewing but it is going to resonate with teenage boys a heckuva lot more than my 40 year old self.) So while I'm not sure what everyone else participating today decided to do, I went for a book on my shelf that I have read more than a dozen times in the past ten years and shamelessly adore. It is one of the smartest, most wholly original titles I have come across ever and - bonus - it never fails to make me smile. Bellwether, by Connie Willis, is the book I most love to recommend.
Willis has said herself that Bellwether is a book about fads. It is almost a history of fadism in America. (Is fadism a word?) It is also a very Office-type look at the insanity (and stupidity) of corporate culture.
Sandra Foster works for HiTek Corp where she studies fads in an attempt to learn how they start and thus predict them (and thus make money for HiTek). (Readers of Scarlet Thomas' PopCo take note.) Sandra studies everything from hair bobbing to hula hoops, angels to Power Rangers and readers get to enjoy her wry observations about the fickleness of humans. (Dance marathons? Dr. Spock? Virtual pets?!) Just the sheer pleasure of reading Willis go often on dozens of crazy pop culture moments is worth reading Bellwether but that is not the only thing she is doing here. There is also Bennett O'Reilly and the sheep and the quest to find a project that will receive a million dollar research grant. Bennett studies chaos theory and sheep are all about chaos. Sandra studies fads which are all about the herd mentality. Sheep are the ultimate herding animal; Sandra and Bennett are a match made in heaven - or at least their joint project for HiTek is. Then just like your favorite Cary Grant movie (with Rosalind Russell or Sophia Loren or Leslie Caron) or any movie with Hepburn and Tracy or Doris Day and Brian Keith or Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball or even - dare I say it - Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks/Billy Crystal/Tom Hanks), it all comes together in a way that is so smooth and smart and damned beautiful from a writer's perspective that you shake your head in awe and can't keep the smile of absolute satisfaction off your face.
Bellwether seems like a book that is light and maybe even superficial but it's not, it's social satire of the highest level. It brings me joy every time I read it and as a writer I always come away a bit more impressed by how effortless Willis makes the craft seem. There are many reasons to love Bellwether and for all of them, it remains one of my all time favorite reads.
Other Over the Fence recs:
Kelly Fineman on Acting Out: "A must-buy for libraries and school libraries and any elementary or middle-school drama teachers out there, and an excellent addition to the libraries of anyone interested in becoming a playwright for kids, or fans of any of the authors-turned-playwright in the book (and I'm guessing that's, um, most of my readership)."
Betsy at Fuse Number 8 loves Ultra Violet Catastrophe: "You know, there's a kind of relief a person feels when they run across a book beloved to them in their childhood and they find that the title was actually quite GOOD."
Little Willow weighs in with A Certain Slant of Light: "Whether or not they contain ghosts, many books which have been described as haunting. With its lyrical writing, exceptional characters, and imaginative (as opposed to wholly traditional or predictable) take on ghosts, A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb is honestly worthy of the "haunting" descriptor and the shivery response it elicits."
Mother Reader writes about Standard Hero Behavior: "At the core, the book is about rising to a challenge, stepping outside a comfort zone, and facing the unknown. The premise is great, the adventure is exciting, and the characters are wonderfully flawed. I particularly loved the acronistic stuff thrown in along the way. While I can recommend this title to anyone, it would be perfect to read to a class of older elementary kids because it's funny enough to keep them listening, but includes themes of challenges, expectations, and self-discovery to be explored."
Finding Wonderland looks at the work of James White (spotlighting their inner SF geek!): "Look: it's not my fault. My mother watched Star Trek. The original one. My great-grandmother loved the Monkees. Geek happens. If I can identify the sound of the doors on the Enterprise in my sleep, so be it. If I can watch (and rewatch) episodes of Babylon 5 (until that last season) and weep, and wish they had chosen to revive it instead of Battlestar Galatica, so be it. We know who we are. We are geeks, and we live large, with our fanfic and our cons, our cosplaying and our filking... or, we live undercover, in our closets with our lamps and our stacks of paperbacks and Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathons, and our microwaved popcorn. Whichever. Whatever."
And LIz at A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy wants us all to know The Real Benedict Arnold: "We all know what Benedict Arnold did. A book that simply tells us those facts -- snore. But a book that takes those facts and impresses the reader with Arnold's actions before he changed sides; that creates sympathy with the worst type of betrayal -- a traitor!; that somehow makes us hope that it's not going to end the way it will; is exciting, vibrant, and makes it all seem like it is happening now. And that's why we read history; to learn not only what happened, but also why. And to see how we can apply what we learn to today's news and events. What is happening now in the world where a "right" decision isn't clear? And won't be clear for years?"
At The Reading Zone Sarah writes about what her students are raving about which includes - would you believe - Lurlene McDaniels!!!!: "Tween romance novels are all the rage in my room, and the girls in my homeroom are devouring each novel before passing it their group of friends. The latest favorite? Don't Die, My Love by Lurlene McDaniel. I remember my McDaniel stage- it drove my mother nuts. She couldn't understand why I wanted to read so many books about kids my own age dying of terminal illnesses. But because I went through that stage, I totally understand why my girls can't put Don't Die, My Love down. It's full of romance, star-crossed teens, and you know the one of the main characters is going to die. It's the perfect recipe for tweens."
ETA: Monica let me know in the comments that she has started an occasional series highlighting great books - check out her first entry two weeks ago!
[Post pic: "Canvassing over a garden fence during Parliamentary by-election." Humphrey Spender. Copyright Bolton Council from the Bolton Museum and Archive Service collection.]