Maguire owes Stephen Schwartz a great deal of thanks for turning his complex, meandering book into an amazing musical. I have been trying for years to read Maguire’s book thinking that if I just tried harder or if I switched from print to audio, I would understand how this book is so popular and how Schwartz was able to create one of my favorite musicals. But after listening to nearly twenty hours of audio over the course of three days, I’ve come to realize that it’s not me. It’s the book.

The premise is fairly well known; the life of the Wicked Witch of the West encountered by Dorothy during her visit to Oz before Dorothy’s house fell on top of the witch’s sister. Maguire named the witch Elphaba and begins telling her life even she is even born introducing readers to her promiscuous mother, according to Nanny, who cannot recall if she cheated on her husband let alone why her daughter would be born (a) green and (b) with sharp, fang-like teeth. It is a question Maguire refuses to answer until the very end of the novel preferring instead to concentrate on the question of what drives a person to become evil.

In Elphaba’s case, the answer is teased out in four separate parts to the novel with the first concentrating on Elphaba’s birth, the second on her years in university where she meets Galinda who will eventually become Glinda the Good Witch, the third on her years rejecting her former life and being Fiyero’s lover, and the fourth on the fallout from her life choices during the third part. The fifth focuses on Elphaba’s interactions with Dorothy but, by then, we are supposed to believe that Elphaba has already become wicked. Yet the catalysts – mainly, the lack of love from her family and the realization that she lives in a prejudiced, racist world — put forth as the reason behind her wickedness are the least believable aspects of this novel. I have yet to meet a college student – liberal or conservative – who hasn’t gone off to school and learned the world is not like they assumed it to be.

Elphaba’s quest to help Dr. Dillidmong, a professor who is now being cast out from academic circles because he’s an animal, and prevent the enslavement of animals speaks more to the wickedness of the world around her not the wickedness of Elphaba herself. Certainly, those in the Emerald City, Munchkinland, and the land of Oz are going to see Elphaba as wicked for her counterculture ideas, but that idea is much clearer in the musical than it is in the book. And I thought it was particularly on point that Galinda, who grew to accept Elphaba despite her green skin, would years later still be unable to shake the racism she internalized from the society around her.

Maguire might have wanted the affair to be seen as indicative of Elphaba’s wicked nature yet while I certainly don’t condone adultery, it is more difficult to cast stones against a woman and a man cheating on the wife he was forced to marry at a very, very young age. Was it wicked for Elphaba to treat her son, Liir, with such indifference and bring him to live at the home of Fiyero’s widow? Possibly, but you would also have to believe that Liir is, in fact, Elphaba’s son and Elphaba herself cannot remember being pregnant or giving birth. Taking Liir with her was the condition for her leaving the institutions where nun-like women cared for her during the time she was drugged, near-dead, or in a coma (Maguire never makes it clear what actually occurred) and never bothered to explain that she gave birth to a child, that Liir was not one of the many orphans the order cares for.

And was it wicked for Elphaba to covet the silver shoes given to her her sister, Nessarose, by her father? Nessarose was born without arms; a condition Elphaba is blamed for by the mother figure in her life because their mother had been so worried about having another green child a la Elphaba that she took unknown pills purchased from a Gypsy woman. And Elphaba spends her life caring for Nessarose helping her younger sister walk, watching her family fawn over her sister, and prioritizing her sister’s comfort whilst they were both enrolled at Chiz. (The later I have seen firsthand at university, and it is difficult to watch as the non-disabled sibling is denied the opportunity to be an individual rather than a pair or, worse, a shadow.) It certainly make sense that Elphaba would be willing to do all she can to assume ownership of the shoes sent to her sister when nothing was sent to her, especially when it becomes plain that the wizard was to use to shoes to seize the land Nessarose governed.

Given all this, it is possible that Maguire was not trying to explore how someone becomes wicked but rather how they are perceived as wicked through their (usually) morally just actions. But that I cannot answer in certain because the book is so poorly written, so jumpy and ill-structured and filled with characters who are never given a true story or characterization. The idea behind the novel – to tell the story of the Wizard of Oz from the villain – is perfect, but Maquire became lost in the endless possibilities. Thank goodness Schwartz was there to slog through the muck and give the world a truly amazing musical.

Book Mentioned:

  • Maguire, Gregory. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Narrated by John McDonough. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2000. Audiobook. 19 hours, 37 minutes. ISBN: 9780060987107. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Recorded Books. Retrieved: August 16, 2014.

Imagine if two percent of the world’s population disappeared on October 14th? No virus. No war. One minute your brother, neighbor, coworker is there and the next? Poof — gone. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton are still struggling to make sense of the sudden disappearance of their loved ones.

The town’s reverend has launched a slanderous campaign to prove the event was not the Rapture because the people who disappeared could not possibly be worthy of God’s love. Others have channeled their attention on moving forward, on refusing to dwell on events that cannot be explained must to the dissatisfaction of the Guilty Remnant. Dressed in all-white, traveling in pairs, and smoking incessantly, members of the cult-like Guilty Remnant monitor the people of Mapleton silently reminding people of what they are choosing to forget.

Perrotta’s novel specifically focuses on the Garvey family and how they and the people closest to them deal with the fallout. Kevin, Mapleton’s new mayer, wants to move his community forward and channel their grief into a single day of remembrance, but his wife and son are unable to move on as quickly as he. Tom fixates on the disappearance of someone he once knew in grade school, someone he hasn’t spoken to in years dropping out of college to follow a self-proclaimed prophet, Holy Wayne, who claims to absorb people’s pain and abuses young, Asian girls in the name of his special gift. Laurie, who was visiting with her best friend when said friend’s daughter disappeared, joins the Guilty Remnant willingly choosing to severe all ties with her family, including her teenage daughter, Jill, who changes her entire image in order to deal with the changes.

The only non-Garvey focused on in this book is Nora Durst, who lost her husband and her toddler children on October 14th. Still reeling from the tragedy, Nora rations out episodes of “Spongebob Squarepants”, her son’s favorite show, and tries to move forward through her relationship with Kevin. But that is more difficult than she anticipated, especially given the temptation to see her missing husband and children as more than perfect.

I tried to convince my book club that members of the Guily Remnant, who states that their purpose is to reject society, smoke cigarettes as a way to get society to reject them in turn. The idea donned on me as I was walking home from work watching people speed up to pass smokers or hold their breath while waiting for the light to change in an obvious rejection of the behavior of the person next to them, and it was an idea that stayed with me long after Perrotta finally explained the group’s decision to smoke. My book club rejected this idea in favor of Perrotta’s explanation, but this example ultimately demonstrates the most interesting and frustrating thing about this book: the answers are few and far between.

I expected there to be more answers — I’m still trying to figure out if the rapture was truly the rapture — and it took me a few days and a book club discussion to realize the purpose of the novel is to explore human nature in the wake of an unexplainable tragedy. In this case, there is no one to blame (unless you choose to blame God), no cause to explain why people left so how does society move forward?

The gravitation to Holy Wayne and the reaction of the reverend are the two responses I felt were most accurate and, personally, I wish Perrotta has spent more time on them rather than on Laurie. It is hard to support both Nora and Laurie because Laurie chooses to abandon her family despite the fact that she didn’t lose anyone within her immediate family. At least, not the same sense that Nora lost her family, and the juxtaposition between the two characters is incredibly frustrating.

What is even more frustrating is the way this novel peters out. I expected some kind of climax and while in the context of the story Perrotta is trying to tell the ending makes sense,  I felt like it ended on an underwhelming and weak note. The beginning, however, is very engaging, and I can appreciate a good character study now and then.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Perrotta, Tom. The Leftovers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011. Print. 355 pgs. ISBN: 9780312358341. Source: Library.
Book Cover © St. Martin’s Press. Retrieved: August 12, 2014.

A case of mistaken identity — or, rather fanciful wishing on the part of Professor Howard Merriam and the use of initials on the part of Alexandria Bartram — allows a young woman who dreams of becoming accomplished in the field of botany to join a field study in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1989. Displeased that find a woman on their team, Professor Merriam and the rest of his hodgepodge team of scientists attempt to persuade her to return home, but Alex is determined to stay and explore the yet undocumented wonders of the Nation’s Park before the visitors — including a foreign count who calls hunting “science” — had a chance to destroy its beauty.

I once took a class at the university where many of Smith’s characters hail; there’s no Hill Hall but there is a building dedicated to the study of botany so Professor Merriam got his wish. And, having spent several summers and winters exploring Yellowstone Park, it was fun to revisit the park and consider how the first national park has changed and yet remained the same in the last 116 years. Captain Craighead may be a fictional character but I am thankful there were members of the U.S. Calvary, people in government and academia, and common citizens who refused to allow the park to be siphoned off into a series of private enterprises or for the railroad to build an electric rail through the park to carry visitors in and gold or ore out. Alex’s experiences are not entirely unlike my own — the excitement of seeing a bison for the first time, the wonderment over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the hope you will see a bear in the wild — and it was wonderful to revisit those experiences in my mind as I read about Alex.

The title of Smith’s book led me to mistakenly believe it was a nonfictional book and while it quickly became clear that was not the case, the book does live up to its title in the format in which it is written. Rather than relying upon a more traditional narrative, Smith presents the story in a series of letters and telegrams sent to family and friends outside the park’s boundary allowing the reader to be privy to thoughts and feelings that might not have been readily presented in another format. The letters did not always convey the time period in which they were supposed to be written. Some of the thoughts appears to modern, although that may be because I often have the same thoughts whilst visiting Yellowstone. Even so, I enjoyed this deviation in narrative styles enough to hope Smith finishes the other novel she mentions in the interview at the end.

Book Mentioned:

  • Smith, Diane. Letters from Yellowstone. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print. 256 pgs. ISBN: 9780140291810. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Penguin. Retrieved: August 10, 2014.

Precocious Jean ‘Bean’ Holliday lives with her gifted fifteen-year-old sister, Liz, and their flighty mother, Charlotte, who is determined to make it in the music industry as she relocates her daughters around California in the 1970s. When Charlotte’s latest fantasy backfires, she takes off to discover herself leaving her daughters enough money to indulge in frozen pot pies while she’s away for a month or two.

But the man who owns the grocery store becomes suspicious of Bean and Liz purchasing groceries for themselves week after week, the police are dispatched to investigate and Liz and Bean take off via bus to Virginia. There, in the hometown their mother fled soon after Bean’s birth, the Holliday sisters meet their Uncle Tinsley, discover who their fathers are, and learn why their mother left.

With no word from their mother and concerned they are putting undue economic strain on their uncle, the girls begin babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the town mill that was once owned by the Holliday family. Maddox shames his wife for her sexual behavior before their marriage and takes her clothes away in order to keep her under her thumb. And the town members turn a blind eye because the mill is only employment in town agreeing to whip boys whom Maddox hates and changing their testimony in a case that threatens to unravel the life of the Holliday girls.

At one point in Walls’ novel, her narrator begins to discuss the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and the familiarity of Walls’ novel began to make sense: a precocious narrator with a nickname who serves as the moral compass, a Southern town that turns a blind eye to injustices, an older sibling who provides wisdom and guidance for their younger sibling, a father who must make a choice about the morally right thing to do. It’s not the same and yet it is. Because while Walls’ novel addresses another scourge of this world, she relies upon an all too familiar narrator to tell it.

With that said, the beginning of the novel is very strong. I was pulled into the setting and the story wanting to know more about Bean but, most especially, her older sister who seemed wised beyond her years. Unfortunately, Liz becomes a victim to a prioritization of Bean as the character to root for, as the character who serves as the voice of morality for the story. It rubbed me the wrong way to read about Bean pushing for what her sister should do rather than allowed Liz to have the space to make such a decision for herself.

And the ending? I won’t spoil it for those who still want to read the novel, but I am curious as to how my book group’s discussion of this novel will go. Personally, I felt like the ending was a cop-out a la Jodi Picoult, and I was disappointed that Maddox’s other crimes were allowed to slide in that Bean never called him out for hurting his wife, children, or others in the community. I couldn’t not ascertain exactly what Walls was trying to say with her ending and I think I would have preferred to be left with the uncertainty of injustice than the ending Walls provided.

 Books Mentioned:

  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central, 1988. Originally Published 1960. Print. 281 pgs. ISBN: 9780446310789. Source: Purchased.
  • Walls, Jeannette. The Silver Star. New York: Scribner, 2013. Print. 267 pgs. ISBN: 9781451661507. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Scribner. Retrieved: August 8, 2014.

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Has it really been over two years since I posted my loot from the library. Eek! I can assure you that I haven’t been neglecting the library in that time. In fact, I picked up my public library card the day after I moved to my new city, and I have been liberally using it ever since. I forgot to photograph all the cookbooks I’ve checked out from the library, but I do have a mixture of fiction and nonfiction titles to share with you.

The Silver Star (Jeannette Walls): This is my book club’s selection for August’s meeting. I’ve heard several people call Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, a classic so I’m excited to read her first novel.

The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta): I read Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher back in 2009 and, unfortunately, didn’t love it. However, this book has been receiving a lot of attention as of late and I’m intrigued by the premise. I originally picked it up because a book club I wanted to join was reading it for August, but my membership was never confirmed on Meetup so I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity to discuss it anywhere but here should I decide to read it.

The Amish (Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt): Long time readers of this book blog know I can’t resist any book about the Amish be it fiction or non-fiction. The later is my preference, though, and I was thrilled to spy it on the new nonfiction shelf during one of my lunch break strolls through the library.

Love Anthony (Lisa Genova): Yet another book club selection. This is actually the September selection for the book club reading Walls’ novel in August but when I looked up the book in the library catalog, there was about fifteen or so people already on the wait list. I added myself thinking I’d end up having to source the book somewhere else so imagine my surprise when it showed up on the hold shelf for me. I read Genova’s Left Neglected back in 2011 and thought it was okay so hopefully this book will be a more enjoyable read.

Bunker Hill (Nathaniel Philbrick): I believe my dad and I heard about this book during our recent visit to the Bunker Hill monument and museum. Or, maybe it was referenced in another nonfiction book he has read about the American Revolution? Either way, I was very pleased to find this available at the public library. I’m hoping he can get a copy so we can discuss together.

The Crooked Mirror (Louise Steinman): This nonfiction book looks at the complex history of the Polish-Jewish relationship and the question of victim and persecutor under the guise of the author addressing her own feelings towards the Poles knowing the treatment of her mother and extended family during the Holocaust whilst attending a conference on bearing witness to the Holocaust in Poland.

Library Loot:

A weekly event, Library Loot encourages bloggers to share the books that followed them home from their local library in the past week. If you’d like to participate, write up your post — feel free to steal the button — and any time during the week and post the link on the blog of the host for that week. The event is hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief.

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