{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!

{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.

{completely undone}

Dayzz and dayzz of not reading/blogging. Hello, 2013!

I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone over Christmas vacation, so forgive me if my recollection of the book is not super detailed/accurate. SCU is Dolores Price’s first-person narration of her life—from a childhood of divorce, to a preteen rape victim, to a college dropout, to a mental patient, to a wife. It’s a messy, messy story, and not one that I went into (or came out of) lightly.

A friend had earlier compared this book to Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors, and while they are of a similar genre (let’s take this chance to coin the term bildungsroman disturbia), my emotional reaction to each was very different, perhaps due to the difference between memoir and fiction. RwS left me shocked, uncomfortable, and majorly questioning my own life boundaries and expectations. While SCU was no less shocking, no less uncomfortable, I finished it feeling gratified.

The difference, I think, was my attitude toward the protagonist. Dolores is no saint, no traditional heroine—in fact, throughout much of the book, she treats the people in her life horrifically. Her decisions made me cringe, her choice of allies terrified me, and her lifestyle was often repellant. Yet her tenacity and frankness caught my loyalty from the start. Throughout all the truly awful s*** in this book, I remained a firm believer in Dolores, a reading experience that’s not easy to overlook. Somehow, Lamb created a powerful and deeply sympathetic character out of disillusionment and pain. It’s something to be aware of before starting this book, I think, but well worth the emotional disturbance of reading it.

{all of the secrets and all of the lies}

It’s been a while since I posted because it took me a while to get through this book—I’ve spent the past 2-3 weeks listening to the recording of Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper. This was about 90% due to a free Audible download I acquired, and 10% due to my theory that I’d be able to focus more at the gym with a new recorded book than with the same playlists I’ve been listening to for at least the past four years (I will say that theory had a nearly 85% success rate the one time I tried it). This is the third Kate Morton book I’ve read (including The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours), so I felt enough of an expert to recommend her books as Christmas gifts for not one, but both grandmothers this year! So if you, too, share literary taste with your octogenarian relatives, I suggest you read on.

Like all her other books, TSK revolves around two main stories: the first from the past, relying heavily on orphans, lost lovers, and family secrets; and the second of a modern-day relative/somehow-involved person attempting to unravel the decades-old mystery. This particular book opens on a lazy summer afternoon in 1961, when 16-year-old Laurel witnesses her mother, Dorothy, commit a violent crime. Fifty years later and beside her mother’s deathbed, Laurel begins to make sense of what she saw and explore the trajectories of the past that culminated in that one act of desperation.

The majority of the story is told from three different viewpoints: the adult Laurel, the young Dorothy in war-torn London during the Blitz, and Vivian, Dorothy’s sophisticated and mysterious friend. As Laurel gradually uncovers, Dorothy and her fiancé became involved in a “plan” for their future that went terribly awry, a plan that resulted in deaths and irreparably shattered relationships, a plan with repercussions that reached 20 years into Dorothy’s future as a happily married mother.

As I’ve said, Morton’s books are highly formulaic, but this one had two major differences from the others I’ve read. First of all, I truly hated young Dorothy. I normally find the modern storyline to be the dullest: I’m less than interested in a thirty-something sad sack trying to figure out why she’s always felt her life to be missing something and then finding the answers in the past, etc., etc. Laurel, a 66-year-old Oscar-winning actress, was smart, resourceful, and had a refreshing amount of sass and cynicism about her (of course I identify with the grandmothers’ heroine). Young Dorothy, on the other hand, was revolting. Spoiled, whiny, manipulative, and quite frankly delusional, I found very little to recommend her throughout the entire story. I was far more interested with her fiancé, Jimmy (Morton’s excellent job of painting his carefree handsomeness and shock of brown hair falling into his face certainly did not hurt), and Vivian, who was just prickily enough to draw me in right away to whatever she was hiding.

The second thing that caught me off guard was the ending. No spoilers, but Morton’s MO is to divulge an “ending solution” to the mystery that all characters accept as true, then drop the real ending in a huge twist at the very end. I was practiced enough in this habit to recognize the false resolution as soon as it was revealed, but was equally certain that I knew exactly what the real ending would be. However, I was ultimately outsmarted—the true resolution was one that had never even occurred to me (although, looking back, it really should have).

This Christmas Eve, I’m sitting in my parents’ house in front of the fake gas fire, eating peppermint stick ice cream and watching my mother vacuum under the tree. In literary news, I’m giving my dad a copy of Wolf Hall and the movie A Man for All Seasons (the ultimate history nerd’s double feature!!). I also just finished She’s Come Undone, but since I’m behind on blogging and don’t have anything to read for the rest of my vacation, I’ll save it for next time.

In other words—happy holidays!!

{emotional stitches}

As I alluded to in my last entry, recent weeks have been un peu roof. Coming down from the high of an August move and a September promotion, I dove headfirst into October moodiness and November homesickness in much the same manner as my father once dove headfirst into a concrete wading pool and came out with a forehead full of stitches. Oh, California: You seduced me early on with your promises of glistening beaches, eternal sunshine, and seasonal fluidity (and gainful employment). How was I to know that SAD apparently also applies in reverse? Is there the opposite of a sun lamp on the market? Preferably, a device emitting a constant light mist and scattered raindrops, accompanied by damp orange leaves and a brisk autumn chill? Luckily, the combination of a week’s vacay in my hometown and The Heroine’s Bookshelf were just the emotional stitches I needed.

In THB, Erin Blakemore explores the literary heroines that she (and I) grew up with and their continued relevance to adult life. Each chapter is dedicated to a single heroine and a trait that she most embodies—Jane Eyre is “Steadfastness,” Scout Finch is “Compassion,” etc., etc. For me, the 12 chapters ranged from books I have literally memorized (Gone With the WindLittle Women) to one-time acquaintances (A Tree Grows in BrooklynThe Color Purple), with only one that I have never read (Colette’s Claudine at School). Each chapter contained biographical authoress information, a summary of the literary heroine’s journey and eponymous trait, and usually a personal anecdote from Blakemore herself.

While I see how some may find this type of thing a bit nauseating, I value this book for several reasons. Blakemore did an excellent job of channeling the nerdy little girl who read books during birthday parties and sleepovers, and who grew up to be the awkward young woman who overanalyzes everything and writes in a slightly cheeky, but more treacly, prose. As I say repeatedly, I was never a “real” English major, drawn in by theory and rhetoric; my favorite and most reread books continue to be exactly the ones that Blakemore uses.

They accompanied me to my first kiss and my first breakup, through college and into the weird uncharted territory of quarterlife crisis and grown womanhood. . . This wasn’t so much about becoming a cliché or a walking ad for libraries as it was about getting through my life. And it still is . . .

The one minor hiccup was that each of these author’s biographies is as rife with divorce, addiction, and chronic disease as any Housewife franchise, Real or Desperate. Sure, these women wrote the canons of heroine literary that would inspire generations to come, but their real lives were much more failure than success, a fact that I find moderately depressing. Still, they are facts—you can’t blame the biographer.

As luck would have it, the combination of THB and a visit home did more than provide emotional stitches—it’s the perfect timing for me to pack up and haul out my own heroine’s bookshelf.

{comedy of errors}

“No one writes books like this any more!” said my friend who recommended Michael Frayn’s Skios. “It’s awesome!”

I’ll agree that I haven’t read many books like Skios. Considered by reviewers a farce, a romp, a comedy of errors, it reads more like a play than a book (a logical jump, since Frayn is perhaps better known for plays, such as Noises Off). It’s reminiscent of some of Shakespeare’s best comedies: mistaken identities, crossed paths, jumping to illogical conclusions.

Yet for whatever reason, I found it to be almost a constant anxiety attack. I quite literally could not read more than five or six pages in one sitting without getting incredibly frustrated and stressed out. I found the writing almost excessively glib, but I could’ve looked past that if it hadn’t been for the fact that every single character refused to act rationally. I spent the entire book wanting just one person to ask the right question and avoid all of the nonsense that occurred when that never, ever happened.

I can see why people find this book funny. As a play, I’m actually pretty sure I would’ve enjoyed it (I do enjoy Twelfth Night and other stage farces). But in a play, there’s more of a suspension of disbelief in plots such as this, when actors ham up their parts in the best ways. In a book version, however, I found none of the characters—a professor, a confidence man, a foundation director—to be comedic in their own right. They were just normal people who, when thrust into a ridiculous situation, went along with that situation in a manner that I found more frustrating than funny.

But to each their own, am I right? It’s also entirely possible that, awaiting my first vacation/return to my hometown/visit with my family in almost a year, I’m excessively temperamental and stressed out even sans outside influences. THANKSGIVING, HERE I COME!

{not an easy choice, but the right one}

A friend of mine says her favorite Harry Potter movie is the first one, since it’s the only one that truly matches her own perception of Hogwarts and the surrounding grounds. Another friend got very upset during the seventh movie with the fake Harry and Hermione come out of the locket Horcrux and nakedly make out. “They’re sexualizing my childhood!”

If you agree with either of my two friends, you might not want to read JKR’s A Casual Vacancy. If you’re like me, though, and truly love all the Harry Potter books an obscene but also compartmentalized amount, you should read TCV, because I really thought it was quite, quite good.

The story, obviously, is completely different from HP. First of all, this is definitely a book for adults, and is a realistic story of a small English town—no magic, no dragons, no boarding schools for precocious wizard children. JKR’s writing style, however, is so familiar that I was immediately drawn into the book; while I had no idea what was going to happen plot-wise, I felt from the first page that I would enjoy it because I so associate her particular writing style with reading pleasure.

TCV continued to impress as I read. One of JKR’s greatest talents as a writer, I think, is character building, and this is shown off in full force in TCV. These characters are real; they’re raw and emotional and occasionally awful. I loved her character development in HP (obvi), but in a YA adventure-fantasy book, personalities are romanticized. Harry may have the occasional angsty outburst, but he’s still very much the hero. We may feel a little sympathy toward Voldemort about his wretched childhood, but he is still definitely evil.

The characters in TCV—and, classic JKR, there are many of them—aren’t wholly protagonists or antagonists. The narrative perspective changes so frequently (sometimes from paragraph to paragraph) so that the reader is constantly getting multiple views of a single event. While I certainly liked some characters more than others, there wasn’t a single one I could point to as being the main protagonist. It was a little eerie, but also very compelling, to find myself agreeing with and empathizing with each character in turn, even when they were petty, malicious, and manipulative. As my friend commented, “We’re all protagonists in our own story.”

That’s what JKR does here—she takes multiple stories and puts them into one, without losing any of the individualized emotional power along the way. Say what you will about preserving the sanctity of HP/your childhood/all reading experiences, but I truly believe TCV is just one more example of JKR at the top of her game.

{dear infinite friend}

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that Emma Watson is my soul mate. Having somehow missed this opportunity when I was actually coming of age, I’ve been attempting to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the past year to prep for Emma’s role as Sam in the movie version out this month (and written/directed by Stephen Chbosky himself!). Faced with a total dearth of cheap/free copies at used bookstores/libraries, I finally downloaded the audio book and happily spreadsheeted my way through work this week.

I have many things to say about the book, but I won’t. Sadly, I’m pretty sure that my enjoyment of it was strongly effected (both positively and negatively) by the fact that I listened to it instead of reading it, so I’ll just skip over my impressions there and go straight into the movie.

(spoilerz behind cut)

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