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Review and Give Away: Hummingbirds (Gaylord)

Title: Hummingbirds
Author: Joshua Gaylord
Pages: 342
Genre: Adult fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Challenges: TLC Book Tour
FTC Disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for participating in the online book tour
Summary (from the back of the book): Hummingbirds is a wonderfully compelling novel about the intertwining and darkly surprising relationships at the elite Carmine-Casey School for Girls in Manhattan's Upper East Side, where the rivalries and secrets of teachers and students intersect and eventually collide.

In the world of students, popular Dixie Doyle battles to wrest attention away from Liz Warren, who spends her time writing and directing plays based on Oresteia. In the world of teachers, Leo Binhammer must now share his territory with Ted Hughes, the new English teacher who threatens Binhammer's status as sole owner of the girls' hearts. Seasons change and tensions mount as the students, longing for entry into the adult world, toy with their premature powers of flirtation. The deceptive innocence of adolescence becomes a trap into which flailing teachers fall, as the line between maturity and youth begin to blur.

Review: I had a difficult time getting into this book, but I think I just wasn't in the right space because once I started reading it during the Dewey Read-a-Thon I plowed right through it. As a teacher this was an interesting book to read and, I must confess, at times it made me really uncomfortable to read the parts  about the sexual tension between the students and the teachers. I know that exists in real life for some teachers and some students, but it just seems so wrong.

This book is well written and dialog is used well to propel the story along. The conversations between the students in particular are good: what they are worrying about, caring about, lying and exaggerating about. It's all about the posturing and trying to figure out if they are "keeping up" with the other students.

The adult relationships are also good. They are complicated, stiff, confusing, and "normal". There are misunderstandings, competitions, and people who just put up with one another. Just like in life. The book is real, I guess that's one of the things that makes it so good.

Interview with Joshua Gaylord:

Hummingbirds is set in a high school and you have been a teacher for a number of years. Did you find yourself including snippets from your own experiences into the story?

"Snippets" is a good word. There are definitely little moments here and there that I've borrowed from my own experience--mostly in terms of the competitive relationship between Binhammer and Ted Hughes. But for the most part, the book is a departure from real life. I opted for a very stylized (and less-than-realistic) veneer for the characters and situations. In writing the book, I was less interested in giving an accurate representation of modern private school life and more interested in creating a compelling alternative world. Ultimately, that world is based more on Muriel Spark's THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE than any true life experience. I wanted the characters to be just a bit off-center, a bit cartoonish.  On the other hand, both Binhammer and Hughes love teaching--they're actually addicted to the dynamic--and that's something I feel every day I step into the classroom. 

Do you have a favorite character? If so, who is it (or who are they) and why?

If I had to choose one favorite, I think it would have to be Dixie Doyle. She has a unique energy about her.  She's not the brightest girl in the world, and she doesn't always handle situations in the most politic way. But her charm lies in the boldness of personality. Whatever she says, no matter how ridiculous, she says it with conviction and purpose. Whatever she does, no matter how ill-conceived, she does with a ferocious independence. I know some people will find her irritating, but I can't help finding her endearing. Her voice is the one that, for me, echoes throughout the book.

What do you think it is about certain male teachers (like Binhammer and Hughes) and the "cult of personality" that can surround them? This tends not to happen with female teachers. Is it the thrill of an older man or do you think there is something more to it?

That's an interesting question. I do think it happens with female teachers as well--though maybe not with the same frequency. A lot of the book is inspired not by my experience as a teacher but by my experience as a student, and the utter, starry-eyed devotion I had for my ninth grade female English teacher. Whether or not it's a gendered thing, I think teachers have a tremendous amount of power.  They're like magicians. A good teacher can take a boring book and make it--suddenly, magically--interesting or even life-changing. I remember sitting in class in ninth grade and being amazed at how this teacher led me straight to the most beautiful things I had ever seen in literature. And I hadn't even noticed them before she pointed them out to me. I think that dynamic has the obvious potential to be romanticized--sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in dangerous ways.

I see in your online bio that Bharati Mukherjee, Leonard Michaels, and Maxine Hong Kingston were your teachers; that must have been amazing! How do you feel your writing was influenced by these writers?

I had an incredible time in Bharati's class. What I remember most about her is that she always seemed to want more violence and sexuality in my stories. Of course, I was happy to give it to her.  She's one of the people who convinced me to be less timid in my writing. All told, I think she would be disappointed with the low levels of violence and sex in HUMMINGBIRDS, but I'll make it up to her in future books.  And Leonard Michaels taught me the value of a beautifully turned phrase. Not only are his stories as close to poetry as prose can get, but in class he would always focus not on plot but rather on stylistic moments. He would pluck out a line from somebody's story and repeat it over and over, as though it were a gem he was holding up to the light for us all to see. As a result, I probably have a greater appreciation for style than for plot--which may come across in HUMMINGBIRDS, a book that is relative subdued in its action.

You include quotes from book bloggers on your website. How do you think the online book community has affected writers and the way they market their books?

As far as I'm concerned, book bloggers are one of the great revolutions of the literary world. It's the perfect example of technology used to its greatest effect. Not only can books get attention on a more personal level without having to pander to large publications, but these blogs are the ideal way for authors to connect with readers. I'm always fascinated to read what bloggers have to say about my books--both their compliments and their criticisms. So often being a writer involves sitting at your desk, completely alone, creating worlds that, for all you know, only you are interested in. That moment when other people start taking walks through the worlds you've created--that's one of the best moments imaginable for a writer. And to have readers reporting on those journeys through your book--well, that's exactly the kind of feedback that makes the hours of aloneness worthwhile. So I'll extend a big thank you--on behalf of other readers and on behalf of the authors you write about.

Give Away: Open internationally. Closes Monday, October 25, 2010


mpartyka said...

I'm so glad you liked this book - I was beginning to think I was alone. I'm reviewing this book on Friday and will link to your interview.

Athira said...

I've been curious about this book so I'm glad to see that despite the reservations, this one was worth it. It certainly has an interesting title!

PS: Thanks for reminding me about the word verification. ;-) I had totally forgotten about it!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Mari--Can't wait to see your review (and the others on the tour)

Aths--Check out the others on the tour to see what they think of it. I think it is one that will get some diverse opinions

Heather J. @ TLC Books said...

I can see how being a teacher and reading about sexual tension between teachers and students would be uncomfortable! But it sounds like the characters themselves are very real - that's something I appreciate in a book. So glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

Stephanie said...

I have this one on my shelf and can't wait to read it!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Heather--Thanks for including me as part of the tour. It's always such a good experience

Stephanie--I can't wait to hear what you think of it