{bucket list}

I may not have been born in Oregon. I may not live there now, and I may not have lived there for any significant length of time over the past seven years. I may never live there again (but I seriously doubt that). But despite all these very true facts, the one that remains most important to me is that I freaking love Oregon, and it will always be home to me.

I’ve pretty much always known that, but what recently brought it especially to my mind was reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1995, devastated by the death of her mother, the loss of her family, and her recent divorce (among many other traumas), Strayed hiked the California and Oregon sections of the PCT alone. Seventeen years later, she wrote a memoir of that adventure, describing in page-turning detail the lost toenails, the brutal terrain, and the very real fears of dehydration, hypothermia, and starvation.

Of the five sections of Strayed’s book, four of them describe her journey across California, most of which elicited my response of “Ugh, that sounds terrible.” But terrible in the kind of way that made me about 60% want to try it. Terrible in the kind of physically painful, fear-inducing way that means you can do anything. Terrible in the kind of way that made lying motionless on my bed or in the park reading this seem almost equally terrible, because I wasn’t doing anything. The landscapes were extreme and alien, ranging from the draught-ravaged Modoc Plateau to the “socked in” Sierra Nevada. Once she got to Oregon, though, my opinion had changed to “I 100% want to do this and where are my hiking boots.” Everything about Oregon was so familiar and dear to me, either because I have already been there or because I could picture so distinctly everything she was describing. Her description of the awe she felt on arriving at Crater Lake almost brought me to tears. By the end of the book, I was definitely, definitely going to hike the Oregon portion of the PCT. Someday.

On a slightly more serious note, I do have some friends who either did not like or did not finish the book, namely due to Strayed’s shortcomings as a backpacker. One friend said, “It just didn’t turn out to be what I was expecting,” referring to, I might assume, an expectation that it would the story of some totally bad-ass experienced backpacker who completely rocked the PCT from Mexico to Canada alone in record time. It’s true that Cheryl had no backpacking experience before starting; that she made almost no effort to physically prepare herself for the trek; that she was mocked frequently along the trail for having a ludicrously heavy backpack that no skilled or sane person would dare to carry so many miles. But in a way, these facts endeared Cheryl to me even more, because I felt like I understood them. I’ve never done anything as crazy/awesome as hiking the PCT, but I understand what it’s like to be so blinded by a goal that you lose sight of rationality. And even more so, I understand that Cheryl’s journey was one of redemption. And you don’t practice redemption. You don’t prepare yourself for it. You embark upon the journey and you suffer through it until you achieve it. From the pain of hitting rock bottom, sometimes it requires pain of a different sort to bring you back up.

{fangirl}

It has taken me literally all summer to read Look Homeward, Angel. (And I’m still not done. Shh. This is embarrassing.) One of the myriad reasons I could choose to blame for this is that months ago, I set aside the summer to catch up on all the television series I’d been putting off during what I still refer to as the “school year.” One of these was Downton Abbey.

Even though DA is clearly so far up my alley it can’t be seen by passersby, I’d avoided indulging in it before now because all I heard was how easily you get sucked in. I, as a particularly quick-to-be-sucked-inner, just didn’t have the time (a statement proved by this blog, since before I could actually manage to read books in a respectable amount of time). As expected, the degree of sucked-innage was high, and I am now fully a DA fangirl. And like the exceptionally nerdy fangirl that I am, I sought out a book about my fandom.

{story building}

I can count the number of graphic novels I’ve read on one finger (it was Persepolis). I’ve nothing against them; just that, like sci-fi and Westerns, it was just never a genre I really ever felt drawn to. Chris Ware’s Building Stories caught my eye, though, because it’s not a book—it’s a graphic story told through 14 different pieces which (supposedly) can be read in any order. Intrigued, I nominated it for this month’s nostaglic English majors book group and trekked to the library to pick up the approximately 6 lb, 11″ x 17″ box that these story building blocks are housed in.

For posterity’s sake, here is the order in which I read the contents of the box (matched to their description on the Building Stories Wikipedia page):

  1. A 52-page cloth-bound hardcover book with no markings
  2. “September 23rd, 2000,” a 32-page hardcover Little Golden Book
  3. A 52-page wordless landscape booklet
  4. A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonist in the snow
  5. A double-sided accordion foldout of the protagonis with her daughter
  6. “The Daily Bee,” a fold-out newspaper
  7. “Branford: The Best Bee in the World,” a 24-page comic book
  8. “Disconnect,” a 20-page comic book
  9. A 16-page comic book featuring the old woman from the first floor
  10. A 16-page comic book featuring the couple from the second floor
  11. A single poster, folded in half
  12. A 20-page broadsheet
  13. A 4-page broadsheet
  14. A four-panel accordion-folded board

I put no more thought into this than simply grabbing them out of the box in the order the previous library borrower had packed them in.

The protagonist mentioned above is a young woman who remains nameless. In her twenties, she works in a flower shop and lives in the third-floor apartment of a Chicago brownstone that is itself a pervasive character (incorporating the old woman from the first floor and couple from the second floor mentioned above). The young woman lost part of her leg in a boating accident as a child, had an abortion in college, and nannied for a wealthy family after she graduated. All these are told in flashbacks as she fills her lonely, uneventful days. In later sections, she marries and has a daughter, moving with her family to the suburbs, generally happier with her life but often frustrated at her husband, weight gain, and lack of creative outlet.

My mother once said something to me that I’ll never forget. I had just moved to California, gotten a great job, and was making a lot of new friends. Overall, life was pretty great—except I didn’t get along very well with one of my roommates. After I spent an entire phone call venting to her, my mother replied, “Well, it’s always something.”

Building Stories explains this “always something” better than maybe anything else I’ve ever read. Other stories have beginnings and endings; they’re defined by events; characters enact change in their own lives and then face new challenges. What bothers the protagonist isn’t so much one specific problem she’s trying to conquer, with a logical and attainable solution—it’s more that it’s “always something.” Her dead-end job, her lonely apartment, her disability, painful memories: these all just circulate constantly through her life in the brownstone. Later on is markedly better; she loves her daughter and has a supportive, loving husband. But there’s still “always something”: her father dies of cancer, her best friend commits suicide, her longtime cat companion finally dies. But beyond this, she tends toward just general despondency, frustration at becoming what she hates: a talentless suburban mom. (Even though at one point, she drives past the brownstone and, remembering how unhappy she was there, chides herself for continuing to complain.)

It’s an existence that (sadly) I think resonates with a lot of people, which is one of the reasons (I think) we turn to fiction. The endings may not please or satisfy us, but at least there’s that definite promise of a last page to turn. I don’t think Chris Ware could’ve gotten away with telling his story in the conventional form; the cyclical, undefined nature of his “building blocks” is essential to the mood—you never know what piece of the story you’re going to pick up next, if the one you’re currently reading is going to pick up again later or just be left unanswered.  The graphic element adds quite a bit as well—for one, I think it’s easier to follow such seemingly haphazard illustrations than it would be to track simply words. For two, the drawings convey the “boxed-in” sense of depression vividly enough without the use of extreme language. I mean this in no way to demean Ware’s writing skills, which are impressive, but just that because illustrations are also included, he doesn’t need to hammer home DEPRESSION with words alone, which I can imagine being more traumatic for the reader.

Building Stories is one of the most interesting, and certainly most unique, pieces I’ve read all year. I can’t wait to discuss it with the group—I’m really interested to see if we all took different ideas away from it by reading the pieces in a different order (I’m still not convinced you can actually read them in any order). Recommended!

{a few notes}

• I wrote a review of Louis de Bernières’s Corelli’s Mandolin for my group book blog, which you can find here.

• I was still thinking about Wally Lamb’s This Much I Know Is True for literally weeks after finishing. I finally had to lend it to a friend to stop staring at the cover on my desk and silently internally weeping. Yikes bikes. 

Here is a pretty good review of the Great Gatsby movie that I think pretty well sums up my reaction to it, if you weren’t tired of it already. 

Happy Monday!

{can’t repeat the past? why, of course you can!}

Of course I saw Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on the opening night, because it is one of my favorite books and I read it like six times in high school and I wrote my college application writing sample on it and also I like seeing Leo DiCaprio in roles he might be good at. Here is what I thought about it. I am too lazy to hide spoilers behind a cut, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and would like to, probably stop reading now.

I reread TGG last weekend and avoided all movie gossip prior to the showing, so I went into the theater both prepared and ignorant. With F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose fresh in my mind, I was constantly picking out direct lines from the book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie adaption that stayed so true plot-wise to the original book, with two exceptions. One was the absence of Gatsby’s funeral. Not crucial, but added a nice wrap-up to the novel. The other and larger change was that Nick Carraway is apparently now in a sanitarium for morbid alcoholism??? Luhrmann used it as a nice little device to explain Nick’s ongoing narrative of events past, but it seemed a bit of a desperate gimmick. As the setting of the movie’s very first scene, it also began a portrayal of Nick that, while complete and complex in its own right, was not entirely who I had found Fitzgerald’s original narrator to be.

I think it’s pretty standard that, when done well, movies are generally more emotionally charged than books—you can’t ignore the visual aspect when reacting to plot developments. I liked that diCaprio’s Gatsby was emotional and sometimes fragile; I sympathized more with him and his blind optimism than I did with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, whose essence is, after all, built on a façade. That was true with diCaprio as well, but seeing his clear agony when planning his reunion with Daisy really drove home his desperation to repeat the past.

Nick Carraway’s increased sentimentality I did not appreciate. Fitzgerald’s Nick is, to me at least, a deliberately understated character. He’s an observer, but not necessarily a passive or tender-hearted one. Tobey Maguire’s Nick, by contrast, was drawn to Gatsby to the point of besottedness. Interesting in its own right, I suppose, but often drew the focus of the film from Gatsby, the undisputed hero of the book, to Nick and his own reactions and emotions. He was a weaker observer, asexual at the very least, at one point even lewdly taunted by Tom Buchanan for “always liking to watch.” His affair with Jordan, implied so strongly in the book as to make it obvious, never really materializes (although Jordan herself, one of my favorite characters in the book for her extreme disinterest, was far too giddy in the film for my tastes).

The true scene stealer here, and the primary reason I would watch this movie again, was Joel Edgerton as Tom. I suspected from the trailer that he could be great, and he was fantastic. Tom—brutish, bigoted, and abusive—is a bit of a one-note character in the book. Edgerton kept these key traits, but also underlined how vindictive and truly dangerous he was. In one of the plot’s most pivotal scenes, the confrontation in the hotel room between Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, you could clearly see the emotional duality in Tom’s actions: rage at what he has just discovered between Gatsby and his wife, and a controlled confidence that he will emerge on top. The tension in the audience was palpable as Tom goaded an increasingly excitable Gatsby, giving real substance to Daisy’s doubts about her future with a bootlegger of questionable dealings. (The tension was there, at least, until any one of Carey Mulligan’s lines. The true disappointment in this movie, all her lines were stiffly delivered and reminded me instantly that I was sitting in a movie theater watching career actors and that I had a sugar headache from eating too many watermelon Sour Patch Kids.)

I’ve read a few reviews of the movie since Friday night, almost all negative (except for a seemingly universal awe for Edgerton’s performance). Yes, it wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, but please, reviewers, get off your high horse. You are not God, you are not F. Scott Fitzgerald, you do not know the one true meaning of TGGI found the movie to be enjoyable, entertaining, and, for the most part, well done, and I’m perfectly satisfied with that.

{truth}

I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone a few months ago, and it’s stuck with me pretty solidly. Lamb doesn’t pull any punches with the s*** that goes down, but his characters are so real in their complete flawed effed-up-ness that it kept me page turning until the end. I decided to follow up with Lamb’s other famous novel, I Know This Much Is True.

IKTMIS is the story of identical twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. Thomas has paranoid schizophrenia and has been institutionalized for half of his life, almost twenty years. The story opens with Thomas entering a public library and cutting off his own right hand, believing his sacrifice has been commanded by God to stop the approaching Gulf War. Dominick, the narrator, searches through his relationship with his brother, recalling a childhood with a submissive mother and abusive stepfather and trying to come to terms with his existence as the mentally and physically “whole” twin.

I should’ve been prepared for Lamb coming out of SCU, but honestly, this was probably the most emotionally difficult book I have ever read. Each of the characters experiences a pain that is almost palpable in its intensity, and Dominick sits at the forefront of this. Bound to his brother for life by love, fear, and guilt, he is unable to move forward on his own or forge an identity for himself separate from that of Thomas’s protector. Dominick himself certainly isn’t a perfect protagonist: he’s often arrogant and aggressive. After growing up both scornful and jealous of his brother’s sensitivity, he martyrs himself in caring for Thomas, accepting that sole responsibility as his role in life.

The best thing you could do was cut your losses. . . Play defense. That was something I always understood and Thomas never did.

The second half of the book weakened a little for me, as Dominick is hospitalized after an accident, reads their grandfather’s memoirs, and searches for their father’s identity. But the first half— Man, the first half just ripped out my heartstrings. These identical twins, so close they can tell when the other one is hurt, and one spending his life watching the other be destroyed, unable to either help or leave. It’s a story of redemption, really, for Dominick, redeeming himself for failing to protect both Thomas and himself.

“. . . there are two young men lost in the woods. . . I may never find one of the young men,” [Dr. Patel] said. “He has been gone so long. The odds, I’m afraid, may be against it. But as for the other, I may have better luck. The other young man may be calling me.”

{going, going, gone}

For the very first time, my suggestion won the nomination for next month’s nostalgic English majors’ virtual book group—Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I managed to snag a library copy and realized yesterday that it was due today, which meant I had to speed-read it and must now take super copious notes to retain anything for next month’s discussion.

WYGB centers around eccentric and agoraphobic Bernadette Fox-Branch and her teenaged daughter, Bee. According to her husband, Elgin Branch, Bernadette is a genius; according to the Seattle private school community, she’s a menace. To Bee, she’s simply a best friend. After Bernadette disappears right before a family vacation to Antarctica, Bee compiles personal and professional emails, newsletters, and memos in an attempt to find her mother and discover why she ran.

Semple’s strength here is definitely her humor. As a past writer for Arrested Development (among other hilarities), she deftly skewers Seattle’s upper-middle class community, especially private-school parents and Microsoft, where Elgin works. Bernadette’s rants on the “bike-riding, Subaru-driving, Keen-wearing” people who surround her were both amusing and bittersweet with homesickness for the granola-filled PNW. (Although Seattle is definitely a different brand from Oregon—for starters, Seattleites have money.)

Sometimes these cars have Idaho plates. And I think, What the hell is a car from Idaho doing here? Then I remember, that’s right, we neighbor Idaho. . . And any life that might still be left in me kind of goes poof.

I must admit that as much as I enjoyed it, I’m a little hard-pressed to think of discussion topics for WYGB. Aside from the fact that I believe we all hail from the PNW (and certainly went to college there), I’m not sure what else there is for a handful of starving ex-English majors to really sink their teeth into. In itself a worthy academic challenge, I suppose. Really, though, I’m pretty sure we could spend the entire time calling out the hysterical Seattle stereotypes. As the NYT points out:

[Galer Street School] gives three grades: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” So every kid is some kind of excellent.

BAHAHA. So funny because so true. God, I love the PNW.

{guilty pleasure madness}

As I’ve said several times before, I am actually an old woman. High on the list of my guilty pleasure reading material, then, is author Anne Rivers Siddons. I’ve previously written on my all-time fave book of hers, Colony, and I picked up Peachtree Road last weekend at the library book sale and immediately dove in.

PR is full of Siddons’s favorite themes: the South, love, betrayal, madness, family loyalty, I could go on. Basically everything that (for me) makes a real cozy page-turner. Cousins Shep and Lucy could not be more different, but growing up together in 1940s’ Atlanta left them forever bound together in ways that brutally and even fatally cripple both of them. Shep is the rich heir of distant parents, plagued by his own sensitivity and sabotaging loyalty; Lucy is the unloved oldest daughter of a social-climbing mother who never recovers after being abandoned by her father at the age of six. The book follows them through their tumultuous adolescence all the way through middle age, as Lucy flits from husband to lover to husband and Shep retreats further and further into self-imposed isolation in the house he grew up in.

Colony remains my favorite Siddons work. While certainly dark, there’s a larger sense of beauty, mostly rooted in the New England coasts and Charleston swamps of its setting. PR is dark all the way through. Through its setting, some action from the civil rights movement is included, but this takes a back seat to the internal demons constantly plaguing the characters, primarily Lucy. The love between Shep and Lucy is twisted and warped, with little to no redeeming gladness. Certainly an interesting psychological study, but not necessarily the kind I look for in a guilty pleasure reading. Their Catherine-Heathcliff bond was a little too much for Siddons to tackle.

One of Siddons’s greatest strengths, I think, is her description of place, and PR did not disappoint. In an early speech from Shep that may very well have been taken from Scarlett O’Hara fifty years earlier, he explains why he never left Atlanta:

It’s passionless, calculating, self-satisfied, intolerant, insensitive, uncultivated, vulgar, even soulless . . . but it’s alive!

That’s what I keep coming back to Siddons for.

{quitter}

I have to admit it: I have now become a quitter. Specifically, I quit reading Will Self’s Umbrella only 40 pages in.

I have a condition by which if I begin a book, I must finish it. This is not a stance I can easily be shaken from, not one I can easily talk myself out of. Often, friends, family, or even myself ask, “You clearly don’t enjoy this book—why don’t you just stop?”

I don’t have a good answer to this question. It’s a reasonable one, I admit, yet not one that I seem willing to face reasonably. At least I’m consistent: I don’t really quit anything easily. I have a persistence, tenacity, and stubbornness that usually goes far beyond the rational and is often more of a hindrance than a help. I have been known to hold out for people, plans, etc., long after a sane person would’ve given up on them, and usually end up sabotaging myself in the process.

In the particular case of Umbrella, it just was not really my jam. In hindsight, I should’ve known better after unfortunately seeing it referred to as “unabashedly literary” and “[the injection of a] revivifying drug into the somnolent body of literary modernism” (yeesh). It was this month’s book selected for my nostalgic English majors’ book group (I completely failed to blog about our last meeting—short stories—but I have notes about it somewhere for the next time I get bored/inspired).

This isn’t so much an entry about Umbrella, though, since clearly I didn’t get anywhere near far enough into it to even begin to discuss it (and thus why I skipped the book group meeting—quitter, quitter, quitter). This entry is more dedicated to my own musings as to why I feel so guilty putting down a book unfinished.

I was the kid who should have never, ever watched any of the Toy Story franchise, because I was already so convinced that all inanimate objects had feelings that those movies sent me into a years-long shame spiral as a child. I would cry whenever I lost anything, not only I was sad I no longer had it, but also because all I could imagine was that object alone, friendless, and forgotten. So part of it, I think, hinges on that—I’ve somehow decided that not finishing a book equates abandonment.

The other half is completely self-centered and the primary reason I tried so hard with Umbrella. I have also somehow come to see not finishing a book as a personal failure, a sign that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough to complete what I had started. Even though most of my thoughts while reading Umbrella ran mostly along the lines of “I don’t understand this, this is miserable,” all I was able to hear was “I don’t understand this, I’m disappointing my teachers, my parents, and myself by not trying hard enough.” It’s not a fun realization, to be sure, but one I have a hard time letting go of.

So. I credit this weekend’s library book sale with helping me to let go of Umbrella—at least for now. But when you have five brand new (to you) books waiting on your desk, each easily surpassing 400 pages and selected with immense care from tables upon tables upon boxes of books, what’s a girl to do?

{the side effect}

Hey strangers. Let’s get started.

I’d had John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars on my to-read list for ages, but like every other new and decent book, it had a library waiting list a mile long. Luckily, I have friends with more disposable income/propensity to spend said income on books than I do. So I borrowed it, read it fairly quickly, and then held onto it for weeks until I finally got around to blogging about it (and, for the first time, missed an entire month. Sorry, February).

TFiOS is a book about young adults and (arguably) written for young adults, without being a young adult book. Like the metatastic An Imperial Affliction, it is a book about cancer without being a cancer book. It’s a book about death without being a death book. (Is that a thing? Who cares.) It’s a book that, basically, doesn’t try to be anything—and is beautiful for it.

Hazel is 16 and terminally ill with cancer. She loves her parents, ANTM (but I mean, who doesn’t), and the book An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten. She doesn’t love Support Group, which her mother makes her attend to attempt a normal social life. It’s at Support Group that she meets Augustus Waters, known as Gus, a 17-year-old in cancer remission with a prosthetic leg. The two strike up a friendship that—slowly, agonizingly slowly—becomes a romance.

I really can’t say too much more about the plot without major spoilers. Luckily, though, I found there was a lot more to this book than merely the plot. As the narrator, Hazel is biting, sassy, and not afraid to sound like the angsty teenaged girl that she is. The thing she struggles with throughout the entire book, though, is that she’s not really a teenager—she’s constantly, painfully aware that she is closing in on the finale of her very short life. How do you contain a life, a love story, a first kiss, a soulmate, to such a truncated timeline? Hazel’s and Gus’s physical and emotional states are chaotic and often humiliating, the stakes of every day are unbelievably raised, and it’s all far more romantic and unflinching than an expected lifetime.

…depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)

Hazel and Gus’s flirtation is adorably familiar to any survivor of a high school romance. At the same time, though, it’s constantly punctuated with agonizing abruptness. Hazel and Gus aren’t startled by this—it’s their entire life, every aspect of it, and they’re not spending it pointlessly wallowing—which makes it both refreshing and tragic. At one point, Hazel talks to a fellow cancer kid who’s been dumped by his girlfriend:

“To be fair to Monica,” I said, “what you did to her wasn’t very nice either.”

“What’d do to her?” he asked, defensive.

“You know, going blind and everything.”

“But that’s not my fault,” Isaac said.

“I’m not saying it was your fault. I’m saying it wasn’t nice.”