{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!!

{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.

 

{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.

{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.

{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)

Continue reading

{alone and hunted}

I was shocked—shocked—that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and, indeed, any Carson McCullers were not included in my so-called trusty 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I mean—really?

Despite my shock and disappointment, I blazed forward with THIaLH, a task which took the better part of this month. I read The Member of the Wedding about 10 years ago, but hadn’t tried any other McCullers and knew next to nothing about THIaLH. Warning: This isn’t a book to venture into lightly. One of the main reasons it took me forever to read is that it’s very heavy—definitely not a cozy night home alone type of book.

THIaLH is told primarily from the perspective of four main characters: Mick Kelly, a young girl who dreams of being a musician despite her tough upbringing; Jake Blount, an alcoholic wanderer searching for someone to take his theories seriously; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who has spent his life attempting to advance his race through Marxist theory; and Biff Brannon, the owner of the local café. At the center of each of their stories is John Singer, a deaf-mute whose perspective opens and closes parts 1 and 2 of the novel. Each character is very different in their beliefs, emotions, and reactions, and McCullers uses these differences to highlight their struggles for comprehension.

Each character is drawn to Singer because only he can “listen” without judgment, giving them the acceptance and agreement they crave. Singer’s own motivations are left undisclosed—even the brief portions of text that center on him deal in only external commentary, focusing on his actions rather than his thoughts. What no one realizes (including, arguably, Singer himself) is that no one can be simply a receptacle for other people’s desires and obsessions and remain unaffected.

You going to traipse all around like you haves to find something lost. . . Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t love and don’t have peace. And then some day you going to bust loose and be ruined. Won’t nothing help you then.

McCullers’s prose is dry and raw, sometimes choppy. Her characters lead relatively simple lives and use simple vocabulary, but nothing else about them is simple—their dreams and motives are incredibly complex and often left unexplained. Again—not a book to pick up for a quick read. These characters are completely caught up in politics, racism, sexuality, alcoholism, rage, poverty, etc., and these elements interplay strongly and without resolution throughout the story.

{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.