{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!

{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?

{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!!

{homo homini lupus}

Today, my virtual book group met to discuss Wolf Hall. As the first woman to win two Man Booker Prizes and the first author of a book and its sequel to both win Bookers, Hilary Mantel is causing quite a lot of buzz in the literary world. As a complete history nerd, this Book One in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy was also a great pick for me. I’ve read quite a few books (fiction and non) on the Tudor reign, and what always fascinates me is how many different perspectives there are on the dichotomy of good and evil. So many characters, so many power struggles, so many conflicting perspectives on right and wrong—which is why there were also so many beheadings. Across the board, though, Thomas Cromwell is almost always a villain, which made Mantel’s focus on him especially fascinating.

One of the major themes we discussed today was the power of narrative and its pervasiveness throughout the novel. Again, Henry VIII’s reign was fraught with discord and feuding factions—the narrative is unclear, unorganized, and open to rewriting. Cromwell himself manipulates others’ narratives throughout the course of the story, attempting to shape the amorphous facts of reality into a cohesive and sensical narrative.

As one friend mentioned, Cromwell seems a true 20th-century man, at times out of his element. He’s a common man motivated by upward mobility, whose personal ethics are sometimes at odds with his governmental role. He takes every opportunity to give others a chance to save themselves from a brutal fate—during the climactic pages when he interviews Thomas More and judges him as treasonous for refusing to swear Henry VIII as the head of the church, Cromwell constantly tries to convince him to just give the king the minimum. He explains that just saying the words will be enough, just signing More’s name—there is no follow-up action required, it doesn’t matter what More actually believes, he can have his fingers crossed for all Cromwell or the king care. He’s unable to understand More’s refusal to do so, a stance which convinces Cromwell that More deserves his fate.

“I have never understood where the line is drawn, between sacrifice and self-slaughter.”

“Christ drew it.”

“You don’t see anything wrong with the comparison?”

Obviously, Cromwell’s attitude is mirrored by the religious and political thrusts of the time. Martin Luther and King Henry, though for conflicting reasons and at odds with each other, are each attempting to redefine the Christian church, to rework the gospel narrative. They seek to take away the immense power of the Church, the emphasis on a need for an interpreter for the common people. As Henry’s chief minister, Cromwell is charged with the task of distributing this message to the English, spreading the Act of Supremacy that More so objects to.

It doesn’t, as some say, make the king head of the church. It states that he is head of the church, and always has been. If people don’t like new ideas, let them have old ones. . . I am all for clarity.

Cromwell’s stance for clarity is certainly a precarious one. While I found the middle of WH slow going at times, it certainly picked up toward the end, and I can’t wait to read the second in the trilogy and Mantel’s newest Booker winner, Bring Up the Bodies.

 

{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!

{i read way too fast}

For the fourth installment of my nostalgic English major alumni book group, we read NW, new by Zadie Smith. We met on Sunday (my first meeting since Swamplandia!, since I tragically missed the Train Dreams meeting) and discussed. 

I read Smith’s On Beauty about four years ago. Fresh out of a messy break-up, I did not love the plot: A cheating husband attempting to hide his affair from his wife is a major storyline. I think I was so distracted by that that I didn’t pay too much attention to the writing style, which Smith is known for. (Her White Teeth, which I have never read, is in my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.) So I didn’t walk into this the biggest Zadie Smith fan. And I have to say, not much has changed.

NW follows three or four Londoners: Leah, Felix, Natalie, and (marginally) Nathan. All were childhood residents of Caldwell, a housing project in the northwest of London, and all are now adults defined by that childhood—either by remaining in Caldwell or through their attempts to escape.

When a story and its characters are so defined by their environment, I believe that that environment needs to be powerfully understood. Reading NW, there was too much lost in translation for me between the Bay Area and London’s grit. Reviewers (a couple of my book group friends included) laud Smith’s writing style as abstract and absorbing, but for me, it just meant more I had to work through to get anything out of the book—and it just wasn’t quite worth it.

This says almost more about me than Smith, though—my reading style is primarily fast and as such does not mesh well with her primarily subtle writing style. My friend says this is a book that “rewards slowing down and really working through it,” whereas I did not even notice a major change in the book’s last paragraph until someone brought it up. Really, though, I guess I just didn’t find NW‘s rewards enticing enough.

Members of my book group (who, since they actually took lit theory classes instead of completing an entire major with period lit courses as I did, I think of as “real” English majors) described it as “Joycean.” So maybe that means something to you. Also, this.

{epic in miniature}

Following on the heels of Blueprints of the Afterlife and Swamplandia!, the next book chosen by my college alumni nostalgic English majors book group was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. While it’s still unclear whether I’ll be able to attend the discussion this weekend, I did read the book (it’s literally 116 pages long, I had no excuse) and am ready to record my thoughts.

Astoundingly, despite its short length and relatively simple prose, TD created such a powerful atmosphere that I found myself frequently rereading sentences, paragraphs, or even whole pages trying to figure out how Johnson did it. The story centers around Robert Grainier, who works building railroads, clearing forests, and other day labor in early 20th-century Idaho and Washington. His is not necessarily a story with a cohesive plot and defined events; rather, Johnson provides a series of random snippets from Grainier’s life. They don’t follow a set chronology or theme, but serve to invoke an overall sense of the everchanging American West so skillfully that—again—I couldn’t even tell how it was being done.

Cut off from anything else that might trouble them, the gang, numbering sometimes more than forty and never fewer than thirty-five men, fought the forest from sunrise until suppertime, felling and bucking the giant spruce into pieces of a barely manageable size, accomplishing labors, Grainier sometimes thought, tantamount to the pyramids, changing the face of the mountainsides, talking little, shouting their communications, living with the sticky feel of pitch in their beards, sweat washing the dust off their long johns and caking it in the creases of their necks and joints, the odor of pitch so thick it abraded their throats and stung their eyes, and even overlaid the stink of beasts and manure.

See? And that is just one sentence (albeit a crazy long one). A lifelong Westerner myself (who pseudo-nostalgically loved the many TD references to Spokane), I felt so strongly that this was my country. Through some crazy genius means, Denis Johnson got me to identify so completely with this Robert Grainier that I felt like I was living vicariously through him.

Seriously. If you have any interest in literary or historical fiction, read this book. Highest recommendations. If it means something to you, I told my friend that it reminded me a lot of Willa Cather. However, it’s been about three years since I read any Cather, so don’t sue me if that’s totally wrong. (Just read it.)

And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.

{time’s a goon}

I MOVED. Moving is exhausting and leaves no time for anything else and I’m never allowed to do it again. Short-term, the best thing that has come of moving so far is that it left me too exhausted to do anything after work today but take a four-hour nap and finally finish Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Now I’m not-at-all-sarcastically thrilled to spend my Friday night updating my blog and pondering the hell didn’t I read this earlier?

Besides being able to check it off my bookmark list of Pulitzer fiction winners, I’m super happy I finally read AVftGS because it was just really, really good. Contradictingly to what I’d originally thought, it’s not really a novel, but a collection of short stories that center around (a LOT) of shared characters. Seriously—there are a lot of them. I didn’t, but I really wanted to make some kind of flowchart to keep track of them. Instead, I’ll probably just read the book over and over again, because it was that good.

I think the main reason I found this collection of stories so good was that they constantly surprised me and somehow simultaneously really made sense. Each chapter is a snippet, a vignette, a moment out of someone’s life that might qualify as a “main character,” or might just be married to a “main character,” or might just have been casually referenced in passing in an earlier chapter and oh look! now they have their own chapter. There’s no immediately discernable rhyme or reason to the order of chapters: they span countries, decades, some even moving into the future. The only thing that seems to concretely unite them is a shared appreciation for music, identity, and time itself, which if that isn’t one of the vaguest things I’ve ever written here, I’m not really sure what is.

In an attempt to collect my thoughts, I’m going to result to one of my weakest (and yet most frequented) blog ploys: the bulleted list.

  • If I wasn’t completely emotionless/my tear ducts worked, I would’ve cried reading “Out of Body.” Love love love.
  • Any author who can tell a thoughtful, emotional, powerful story using PowerPoint slides (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake”) is worthy of admiration, I think.
  • If I had to decide, I suppose that Sasha—the focus of the opening chapter, “Found Objects”—would be the best candidate for “main character,” by virtue of the fact that she had the most major appearances in other stories and seemed to be the lynchpin of many relationships. I did not find Sasha to be the most interesting character or the one I liked the best, but she was both interesting and favorable. That factor, I think, accounted most for the surprise I mentioned earlier: Each character is mentioned in passing or not even at all, and then all of a sudden they have their own chapter and (after you’ve perplexedly paged back through earlier chapters to try to remember why that name sounds so familiar and where you heard it before) they suddenly have the most interesting story in the world and you can’t quite remember if the whole book isn’t actually about only them.

All bulleted-listing/sleep-deprived ranting aside, I really really do recommend this one. It left me fulfilled, sad, wondering, and anxious—all in the best possible way.

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

{tragicomic}

My friend and coworker suggested Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, saying something along the lines of “OMG IT IS LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY, YOU WILL FALL OUT OF YOUR CHAIR.” I read it and . . . didn’t. This is not at all to say that I did not like it—I did. There was just no chair-falling involved in it for me.

Burroughs’s memoir focuses on his childhood and early teen years in Massachusetts. After his parents’ divorce at age 12, he lives briefly with his mother before being more-or-less (and, later, legally) adopted by his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. The Finch household is truly disgusting, overrun with roaches, feces, and children. Dr. Finch believes that children shouldn’t be told what to do (or where to live) after the age of 13, and brings his family up accordingly. The young Augusten loves smooth hair, shiny coins, and pleated pants, and is at first shocked and repulsed by his new surroundings. Soon, though, he becomes solidly ingrained in the Finch lifestyle, as Natalie Finch becomes his constant companion and Augusten’s mother veers toward complete insanity.

As a memoir, RwS was filled with enough shocking events and crazy characters to make for a real page-turner (I started and finished it in the same day). The tone is dry and extremely self-deprecating; I can sort of see why my friend found it hysterical, but I mainly found it tragic.

Princess Diana was almost like a parallel-universe version of Natalie. A version that didn’t give her first blowjob at eleven, wasn’t traded for cash by her father at thirteen, and didn’t long for a job as a counter girl at McDonald’s.

As quickly as I read it, I didn’t recover quite as fast. Partly because of my friend’s comments, I spent most of the book searching for this unbounded hilarity, and coming up dry. My friend aside, though, this is the kind of book that slaps you in the face and forces a reaction out of you. What it doesn’t do is clarify the appropriate reaction, and this kept me guessing and page-turning throughout the entire book.