Monday, March 2, 2009

Eleven on Top/A Different Road

What's with the new website at Baker? I can't find a link to the blackboard or to email! I'm sure I'm overlooking something, but my goodness, I've searched until I'm seeing double...

Anyway, my readings this week were the novel Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich and the short story A Different Road by Elizabeth Strout.

1. Compare/Contrast. The novel became an instant favorite, and I plan on reading the rest of the series...someday. Even though I was dropped into the middle of a series, I thought the author did a good job easing the new reader into the life of the main character, Stephanie Plum. The novel begins with a random explanation of a memory from one of Stephanie's past jobs, and then ties into her current job. The development of the characters begins right away, with brief but succint descriptions of each character. The figurative language was extremely helpful in getting me to "see" the environment and the characters of the story. Not once did I feel that I was missing some key information, which is what I feared when I learned that this was the eleventh in a series.

On the other hand, the short story was extremely vague with immediate ennuendo about some past event in the lives of the main characters. I felt that I got a full description of the physical natures of the characters, but that the personalities of the characters were purposely hidden and only unfolded in little increments along the way. The vagueness of the characters and the implications that "the past event" had real significance in the development of their personalities kept me reading to find out, just what in the world was going on with the Kitteridges. Henry and Olive were likeable enough, but I think this is because the author was careful to reveal that any odd behaviors in these two should be excused because of "the event".

The plots of these two readings were wonderfully scripted. Being a continuation of a series, Eleven on Top was a situational episode that a reader could identify and follow to conclusion within the single novel. Evanovich gave a fulfilling and complete story so that any reader could pick up the book and enjoy it, without knowledge from the prior novels. There was plenty of description to help me identify with the characters and to clearly understand how the mystery of Stephanie's stalker was carefully interlaced with ongoing relationship developments. As the plot unfolded, so did my understanding of Plum, Moretti, and Ranger. Each development in the case brought new insight and a renewed intrigue to keep me reading further. I had a hard time putting the book down.

The plot of the short story was completely weaved through a memory, with only a very small portion in the "current" state of the situation. The development was circular, in that we are introduced to modern day Olive and Henry, and are taken immediately from Olive's car into a memory where "the event", and therefore the story, unfolds. Then, once the reader is given a full understanding of the event and how it changed the lives of the Kitteridges, the plot circles back to the "current" state and Olive's car, where the reader is treated to a whammy of a surprise ending. Olive's character, and her life to date had come full circle.

2. Gender differences.
I think a man or a woman, either one, could have pulled off the writing of either of these. However, I think the fragility of the nature of both Stephanie and Olive were handled by the authors in such a way that, my being a woman made it easy for me to "trust" that they were going to give me everything I needed eventually. It felt like some unspoken bond between the author and myself was there when I opened the pages and began reading. I never felt frustrated about the mysteries, only invigorated. I really feel that the vulnerabilities of these two characters was pointed out clearly, and that if a man had done the "pointing out", I would have felt like it was judgmental and that these vulnerabilities were weaknesses.

But having a female pointing out these same features, I was more relaxed. I felt it was more a revealing of the vulnerabilities of all women, and that I was free to feel sympathy for these characters. When Stephanie fixated on donuts and sex in some really stressful times, I felt sorry for her and felt that she really needed some release from the craziness around her. When I found out Olive's big secret at the end, I wasn't repulsed. Rather, I was sympathetic to the "poor dear".

3. Review of A Different Road.
This short story is about the change that one major and stressful event can cause in the lives of people. The reader is told that the big event changed the lives of everyone involved, but focuses primarily on the effects it had on Olive Kitteridge.

The story opens as Olive has just come from a shopping trip to buy material for some project. Henry and Olive Kitteridge are in their sixties, and live a somewhat normal and civilized life in a small community. Their lives seem fulfilling, except for their son's unexpected marriage and moving to another state. They appear to be caring and loving to one another, after many years of marriage.

Then, through the memory of Olive as she drives home from the store, we are transported back in time to one evening in June. On their way home from an evening out with friends, Olive ends up in an emergency room with what could be food poisoning, but is most likely (and more believably) just indigestion. Due to some wierd exchanges between Olive and the medical staff in the ER, she ends up in a hospital gown in a treatment room. It is here that "the big event" happens. Two masked men enter the ER, taking hostages, apparently seeking drugs. Olive identifies the two men as Pig Face and Blue Mask - Pig Face being a large, scary man, and Blue Mask seeming confused and perhaps even frightened. While Pig Face conducts the business out in the ER, Blue Mask is assigned to sit in a closed room with the hostages.

The scenario is punctuated with moments of terror and rage, as the nervous Blue Mask and his hostages become more agitated. In Olive's mind, Henry reacts rather poorly to it all. Although her disappointment in Henry is subtle, it is present several times throughout the night. The event ends with a flurry of armed police and the capture of the two criminals.

The reader is given a little insight into the distance that now seperates Olive and Henry, in the aftermath of the event. Both seem to have changed personalities, and their relationship with each other has become strained, and at times, uncomfortable. They do not often discuss what happened that night, and they seem to be shutting down, both individually and as a couple. Near the end of the story, Henry and Olive have tried to have a discussion about the event, but to no avail. The only things they can focus on are the little annoyances they had with each other throughout that night, instead of the grave danger they had been placed in. Henry says, "Olive, we were both scared that night...We were both scared. In a situation most people in a whole lifetime are never in. We said things, and we'll get over them in time." But it is clear that neither one of them has yet been able to let go, and there is no probable recovery in the near future.

The big surprise ending comes when the reader finds out that Olives trip to the store had been to purchase material for something she is making for Blue Mask who is now in prison.

I liked the story format. There was no real mystery throughout it, other than some blanketed feeling that something signficant has changed about Henry and Olive's relationship. The big reveal is just how severe their relationship, and Olive's psyche have been damaged. I thought it was a worthy ending, and justified the way the author provided all the data in a memory.

4. I really liked both reading this week. I had taken Eleven on Top with me everywhere the week I read it. It initiated a discussion with my mentor, at a basketball game of all things. She recognized the cover and told me she has read the whole series. She jumped into a major discussion about which man Stephanie should end up with, Moretti or Ranger. It was fun to discuss generalities with her, but she was unable to recall the specifics of that one novel, because each novel has its own story and plot.

I am puttingEvanovich's series on my read list for "someday" when I have time. I really liked it.

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