A Generic Patchwork Quilt

I haven’t been updating, but I have been reading. I don’t want this blog to become an abandoned project, but that’s also something that needs to happen for a number of reasons I’m not going to address.

Instead, here’s a bunch of mini-reviews of books I’ve read since I got to know half of the McKade brothers intimately. My reading has gone all over the place. In the order I read them:

Hondo by Louis L’Amour – I was supposed to read this for my undergrad thesis, but never finished it. I chose it as my staff reading challenge’s final book, the Western. Three years ago (eep!) I wrote said thesis about Blood Meridian and the first chapter of Hondo (Louis L’Amour’s first novel, which was actually a novelization of a John Wayne movie based on one of his short stories) was more than enough to demonstrate how Cormac McCarthy deconstructs tropes of the Western genre. I don’t really know what to say other than reading Louis L’Amour in a postcolonial context makes me feel pretty gross. Sexism, racism, imperialism…all your old friends are featured.

Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis – This year has gotten off to a rough start, and one thing that has comforted me during these troubled times has been the music of Joy Division. More than just the music, I watched the pretty-good fictional biopic, Control, and Jon Savage’s excellent Joy Division documentary. Touching from a Distance was written by Ian Curtis’s widow, Deborah. Written in a scattered, confessional style, I thought Curtis’s portrait of her husband—who committed suicide at age 23 on the eve of the band’s first American tour—was compelling. But it was also really depressing.

It’s not always the best thing to realize that the person who wrote the music that gets you through the day spent a lot of time mistreating his wife and exhibiting emotionally abusive behavior. In addition to extreme mood swings, Ian Curtis spent a lot of time toward the end of his life giving Deborah the cold shoulder—which made me wonder how her perspective of things would measure up to his if we could ever know it.

Also, no side of the Curtis story I’ve explored so far seems to give all sides a voice. On tour, Ian Curtis began an affair with a Belgian fan, Annik Honoré, while Deborah took care of their only daughter alone in England. Surviving members of Joy Division have said the events as portrayed Control is highly fictionalized and Deborah Curtis reportedly hated it. Jon Savage’s documentary features Annik as an interview subject and acknowledges her involvement in Ian Curtis’s life without divulging many details, whereas Deborah’s only voice comes from extracts of Touching From a Distance onscreen. And of course, Deborah is not exactly a fan of Honoré—and somewhere on the internet I found Honoré saying the book is untruthful. It’s not that Ian Curtis’s love life is that important to the story of Joy Division, it just gives the feeling that things are skewed or left out. Part of me wants to read bassist Peter Hook’s memoir of the band, but part of me wants to just listen to the music without context.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – I participated in a book group on Housekeeping this spring. My repertoire is pretty devoid of twentieth century lit, especially that from the postmodern era. Housekeeping was a really lovely read, though. It’s ethereal, poetic, impactful, and not at all what I was expecting.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton –  Adventures in Contemporary Lit brings us to this 800+-page tome that captured the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I have a lot of complex thoughts and feelings on The Luminaries, but I’ll keep it short: Catton’s ability to plot is nothing short of masterful. However, her emulation of Victorian style kept me at arm’s length as a reader—the opposite of my experience reading actual Victorian authors like Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc. The enormous pantheon of characters made the novel feel stretched thin to me; that is, I had trouble feeling close to any character. The resolution felt a little neat to me, and while throughout the text I appreciated the rehashing of the immensely complicated plot, it felt like that distracted the book from the depth I was searching for. Overall, good but not great—and it took me four months to get through.

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot – Another author I’m ashamed not to have read is James Joyce. Here we have Talbot’s memoirs of growing up as the child of an eminent Joyce scholar intertwined with the biography of Joyce’s own daughter, Lucia. As far as graphic memoirs go, the only one I’ve read was Alison Bechdel’s peerless Fun Home, a dense, complex, and beautiful work. Unfortunately, when Fun Home sets the bar, Talbot’s shorter, sparser, divided work doesn’t measure up. After reading it, I only want to re-read Fun Home and pick up Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? Oh yeah, and James Joyce was a dick. Anyone famous is a dick.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King – Winner of the Michael L. Printz Honor Award, I decided to pick up this novel after John Green’s superhit The Fault in Our Stars left me cold. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is about the daughter of teen parents in a nowhere town trying to move on after her best friend’s betrayal and subsequent death. This book was pretty good, but it was only halfway there compared to how I remember feeling about some of the YA lit I read when I was a teen. Also, while John Green’s characters are philosophically pretentious, King is guilty of dropping Sonic Youth references, which can be just as bad even if I have loved Sonic Youth since I was the characters’ age (+50 indie cred points). I liked the main character because social outcast characters are my catnip and the fact that there were plenty of burnouts, skinheads, and other unsavories. However, some of the devices (multiple perspectives, the “evil burnout” trope, an abundance of “destiny talk”) just didn’t work for me. I want to get lost in a book, not feel like it’s trying to mask its Very Special Episode-ness or feel like the main character is too clever to be real. That’s been my problem with my recent attempts at YA lit.

The Good House by Ann Leary – Library displays really do work and books are designed to be judged by their covers. I picked this novel up on a whim. It’s the story of Hildy Good, a townie on Boston’s North Shore who is also a recovering alcoholic, divorced real estate agent in her 60s. I liked that the main character was an older woman, and in spite of myself I liked her descriptions of the East Coast-ness of the town and growing up in its East Coast-ness. I’ve spent a tiny bit of time in New England and have very mixed feelings about the place overall, but I liked the way Leary painted it from the perspective of someone who had an ancestor hanged in Salem. (Sorry, East Coast readers, but from my observations it sometimes seems hard for your part of the country to get that people come from other places that are different.) But I felt like some of the other characters involved in the main plot fell flat. Overall, reading this novel felt like eating at the Black Eyed Pea: it wasn’t bad and it’ll do for the day, but I’ll never think about it again.

So yeah. Like a poorly coordinated potluck, I have sampled so many types of literature and have been overwhelmingly disappointed by my findings. But so far, I’ve finished 15 books out of my goal of 40 for the year.

I’ll try to be better about updating over the summer.

I read an honest-to-god romance novel and my brain needs a thousand showers

Spoiler alert: I read a Nora Roberts novel and I hated it. If you don’t like snark, judgment, and possible myopia, click away my friend. Click away.

I now have only one book left in my staff reading challenge: a Western. That means I have conquered a romance novel.

Before I start talking about the actual book I read, I want to point out that there are a lot of underlying issues here that I want to dig deeper into with time. Sexism in the publishing industry is an issue I don’t take lightly. I mean, Jane Austen writes about read novels being dismissed as a silly, “female” past-time, and two hundred years later Austen’s books are still dismissed for their being “girly” and so are many other books aimed at female readers.

That being said, the romance novel I read was fucking awful. Like, maybe the worst novel I’ve ever read. Like, I’d rather re-read The Sacred Fount ten times than re-read this one. So I’m going to be honest and say that I had a hard time trying to actively deconstruct the issues in place surrounding the genre because trying to finish The MacKade Brothers: Rafe and Jared caused me to expend the majority of my mental energy trying to keep my eyes from rolling all the way into the back of my head.

I knew at the outset I would have to read a romance novel for the staff reading challenge I’ve been on about for months now. I had no idea which one. I decided to try to pick a novel that was only a romance, i.e., did not blend with other genres like urban fantasy, mystery, or historical fiction. No naughty dukes for me. But I still suffered over what to pick. I’m almost never about the love story. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Tilney are pretty alright, but secondary to Austen’s wit. I rarely watch movies where romance is the focus. There are exceptions to this rule, of course (even if I argue romance isn’t at the center of my beloved costume dramas, I still love Rushmore). So picking a book with no pretense other than the love story made me a little crazy.

When I tried to do research, I discovered this list of romance writer Bella Andre’s ten favorites. Her Number 1 book wasn’t available in physical book format from the library where I work and I don’t have an eReader (the reading challenge needs to involve books available in our catalogue). I picked up books with hunk-a-licious entanglements on the cover for months and put them all back.

One day, I couldn’t take my own over-analysis any longer and pulled The MacKade Brothers: Rafe and Jared out from the pack of Nora Roberts novels. The book is actually a twofer, containing both the short novels The Return of Rafe MacKade and The Pride of Jared MacKade. It was like the worst piece of Wrigley’s Double Mint Gum ever.

The Return of Rafe MacKade

Nora Roberts has published over 200 books and something like 175 of them have been #1 bestsellers. I am about to say a myopic, judge-y thing: this fact makes me lose faith in humanity. Even with troubling social tropes in play throughout the novel, it’s very badly written and it’s very boring. In short, I’m offended as a feminist, as a reader, and as a writer.

The Return of Rafe MacKade is the first book in a series about the four chiseled, green-eyed MacKade brothers of Antietam, Maryland. But they’re all different. Their eyes are even four different shades of green because symbolism. Bad boy Rafe comes back to town after a decade-long absence in order to restore a decaying old house to its 1862 splendor. And who better to help him than Antietam newcomer Regan Bishop, the local antique dealer and the only woman possibly ever to rebuff Rafe MacKade’s advances…at least at first……

Let’s start with the bad writing. The book certainly does. Chapter One opens thusly:

The bad boy was back. The town of Antietam was buzzing over it, passing fact, rumor and innuendo from one to another, the way guests at a boardinghouse passed bowls of steaming stew.

It was a rich broth, spiced with scandal, sex and secrets. Rafe McKade had come back after ten years. (18)

So his return is like an awkwardly executed, overly specific soup metaphor? Like, a friend stayed over at my apartment on Valentine’s Day and in our own stew of ironic zeitgeist, holiday spirit, and chardonnay we tried to read this book out loud to each other for the lulz but it was too bad to continue.

I will just  briefly list some of the problems: the perspective shifts are scattered and jarring, the characters are drawn with such broad and divergent strokes that they’re both clichéd and confusing, and a pretty major subplot about Civil War past life/ghost business appeared suddenly and then was dropped. And so much telling-not-showing—Rafe is a bad boy but he’s also sensitive. What about his own character drives him forward? It’s pretty much not answered. We get the allusion to some daddy/mommy issues, but other than that he’s a bad boy stereotype who goes against type at periods that occur seemingly at the author’s convenience. Even as someone whose knowledge of the genre comes from pop culture osmosis, it felt like Roberts was going through the motions.

Also, I found The Return of Rafe MacKade to be sexist in a lot of troubling ways. I give Roberts credit for at least attempting to cast Regan Bishop, the female lead, as someone who treasures personal independence. you know, when it’s convenient. Rafe MacKade, again, is a “bad boy”—he picks fights and lets out his aggression by committing violence (or threatening to). For example he threatens and/or beats up on his brothers for talking about Regan’s physical attractiveness and for one having gone out with her on a couple of chaste dates before Rafe knew she existed. It bothers me that Rafe’s possessiveness and aggression make him somehow heroic, especially because Rafe is contrasted with another character’s physically abusive husband.

And let’s see…at some point, aforementioned physically abusive husband attacks Regan for getting . And what is Rafe upset about? Regan didn’t call him to come rescue her. I mean, what kind of woman is so preoccupied with stabbing an assailant in the eye that she doesn’t think to call her knight in shining armor? And she lets his butt-hurt over this fact actually convince her that she’s in the wrong. The couple also discuss how they have few things in common and make a friendly bet about something I’ve forgotten. If Regan loses, she must appear in a pool hall in a leather mini-skirt. If Rafe loses, he’s supposed to recite Shelley. Because no woman can love pool and no man could love poetry. And because they both want to prove how much they love each other, they each hold out the loser’s end of the deal. Of course, Regan’s is public and humiliating. But it’s okay if Rafe just privately recites the four lines of Shelley it took his dumb ass a week to memorize—because it would be embarrassing for a man to recite some sissy poetry in front of anyone but the woman he intends to marry.

Oh, and the sex scenes are boring. I know this isn’t erotica, but come the fuck on (pun intended? ew). If the love story made any sense, maybe I could get behind the more romantic-as-opposed-to-erotic inclinations. But then I mean, Charlotte Brontë has written some prose that makes my hair stand on end and my soul ache.

Also weird: not that many sex scenes even occur, especially if you think about the instances of antique/decorating talk in the book. Here’s a passage:

Her nerves strained as she stopped by the settee. It was a gorgeous piece, and it had had a price to match. However much she coveted it, she would never have made the bid if she hadn’t had a customer in the wings.

Now, she thought of that customer—the scarred boots, the ripped shirt, the potent aura of man. What had she been thinking of, she wondered frantically, imagining Rafe MacKade approving of an elegant, curvy, and decidedly feminine pieces such as this?

“Ah, it’s walnut…” she began, running a suddenly icy hand over the carved arm. “Around 1850. It’s been reupholstered, of course, but the material is very much in keeping with the era. You can see the double-shaped backs are centered by a circular upholstered panel. The workmanship is first-rate, and the seat is surprisingly comfortable…It’s sixty-nine inches wide, and well worth the expense.” (82)

Um…yeah does anyone else need a new pair of underwear after reading about this couch? I mean, clearly Regan is thinking about the settee as a metaphor for herself, seeing if she’s worthy to hold up Rafe MacKade’s bad boy butt. But then the details again get oddly specific. So let’s read part of a sex scene:

The climax slammed into her, a bare-knuckled punch that knocked her senseless. Reeling from it, she sobbed out his name. And, shuddering, shuddering, hungered for more.

He gave her more. And took more. Each time she thought he would end it, must end it, he found some new way to batter her senses. There was only him, the taste, the feel, the smell of him. They rolled over the floor in a wild, glorious combat, her nails digging ruthlessly into his back, his mouth searing hers. (110-111)

Remember, these two characters are supposed to just be naturally drawn to each other through preternatural sexual chemistry (hereafter referred to as PSC). I know more about that damn 1850s couch than I understand how they connected or what the hell was going on during their incredibly abstract sexy times (wait, did he actually punch her? no? maybe?). I also threw some major shade on those really violent metaphors through my yawning (if they are metaphors).

The Pride of Jared MacKade

So once Bad Boy Rafe gets his happy ending, it’s time to tell the tale of Lawyer Jared (the second twofer book in the series relays stories of Sheriff Devin and Farmer Shane, if anyone is interested). Jared gets in a tizzy because of a defiant, independent single mother who, like all women, apparently wants nothing more than to just be dominated and then taken care of. And I shit you not, her name is Savannah Morningstar, which is okay because she’s part Native American and therefore “exotic.” She’s also an artist and he is a boring lawyer with the worst color scheme of all time in his office (this is a major plot point).

The Pride of Jared MacKade wasn’t as awful, but the bar is set pretty damn low. This story is less about the “bad boy” trope and more about the persistent approach. It’s cool that Savannah is independent and all, but again the plot is really pretty sexist. Jared gets his undies in a wad because she used to support herself through exotic dancing and “he has a right to know” if she was ever a prostitute. He also gets mad at her secretiveness surrounding her past. Savannah gets upset by the perfect appearance of Regan as an ideal she can never measure up to. And I’m not sure either of these plot points would even be unbearable as they are if they were handled differently, i.e., not in a ham-fisted, unimaginative, melodramatic way that doesn’t seem to have much root in the characters. Or if Jared even really changed at the end. But even under his “heroism,” his possessiveness and obvious dominant position in the relationship as “the man” stay the same.

So yeah. Bad just bad. Boring and awful, so much so I can’t turn on the critical, lets-unpack-these-tropes part of my brain. Just crap. Crap I say.

Okay, now that I’ve had my temper tantrum, I’d really like anyone with anything to add to step in and help me understand the popularity of novels like this and Roberts as an author. Granted, I’ve read one book from the 200 she’s produced in the past 30-plus years. Are there any people in the audience who have more to add about things like theory or the perception of the genre? Are all romances this bad? Is this one even bad or is it relatively good to those familiar with the genre? I’m just baffled. Please help.

Janeites Unite: Deborah Yaffe, Austenmania, and Me

2013 was a banner year for me as a Janeite, and not just because it marked the bicentennial year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I finally read Sense and SensibilityNorthanger Abbey, and Emma for the first time, cementing my own personal baseline of Janeite cred. I wrote an article about my love for Jane Austen at Renegade Word and purchased my first piece of Austen fan art. I went to my first JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America for those not in the know) event: a series of lectures featuring Claudia L. Johnson, Susan Celia Greenfield, and Sandy Lerner. I transcribed an 1815 novel for Chawton House Library’s Novels On-Line Project (founded by Sandy Lerner). I saw Austenland in theaters (spoiler alert: hated it). I joined JASNA officially and went to my chapter’s annual Jane Austen birthday tea. On a trip to England, I went to Chawton to see the Jane Austen House Museum, saw Jane Austen’s writing desk in the British LIbrary, and on my twenty-fifth birthday I got to see the only known portrait of Austen in the flesh in London’s National Portrait Gallery. I received two books on Jane Austen for Christmas. One of these books was Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe.

Before I talk about the book, here’s my own Janeite tale, with apologies for the long intro:

While I was a lonely young nerd, I came to Austen later than many. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time until I was sixteen or seventeen, an assignment for eleventh grade Advanced Placement English. I don’t remember my preconceived notions of Austen beforehand—they were probably of the erroneous “the nineteenth century is hard you guys” variety. I may very well have repressed them because they would embarrass me now. I had seen the Wishbone version, but that was about it. I laughed out loud at the first sentence, and a love affair began slowly.

My junior year of high school happened to be in 2005, and we finished Pride and Prejudice about a month before the Keira Knightley version hit theaters. We went to see it as extra credit as a class. I saw it a second time. I didn’t really care a fig for Mr. Darcy and his unflattering pants scared me a little. I loved the film visually and I liked that it was funny. But the book was better. I distinctly remember our class discussions being among those that really illuminated the world of literary analysis for me, the this-description-of-Pemberley-is-pretty-reflective-of-Mr.-Darcy discussion.

In college, I read Persuasion in my first English class and Mansfield Park in my last. Persuasion was simply amazing. I did a video presentation highlighting Patricia Rozema’s postcolonial treatment of Austen’s text in her 1999 adaptation of MP—a controversial topic among Janeites (a tangential dimension to the famed Fanny Price wars). I confess that in between finishing and defending a thesis, worrying that a Shakespeare paper would blow up in my face, and the fact that I was about to pack up my earthly possessions, clean out a rental house, and leave all my friends to move back in with my parents to enter the so-called “Real World,” I could have given Mansfield Park and the paper I wrote on it a little more attention.

The Janeite facet of myself became more or less dormant in practice. I watched the movies, but I didn’t read much of anything after graduation. And then I wanted to save face for a day of Jane Austen lectures put on by two nearby JASNA chapters and the rest is history. Well, one year of history. But a banner year.

I’ve had the pleasure of reflecting on my own identity as a Janeite in part due to Deborah Yaffe’s excellent new book, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom. Here’s a great summary from the book’s purpose from the introduction (sorry for the long quote):

…I set out to examine Janeite obsessiveness from the inside, and maybe to figure out along the way what kind of Janeite I was myself. I didn’t go looking for a single Big Theory that would make sense of Jane Austen’s appeal; I wasn’t planning to collect quantifiable data and fashion it into an explanation rigorous enough to satisfy a social scientist. My task was more impressionistic: to explore what Austen obsession looks like and feels like for people who are living with it, and perhaps to tease out some of the common threads that weave this diverse array of individuals into a community. I’d spent enough time immersed in online Austen discussions to know how differently her works could be read by people who all considered themselves Janeites. Were all of us just seeing what we wanted to see, finding ourselves relfeted in an Austen-shaped mirror? Or did our divergent interpretations reflect something real about Austen herself? (xxv)

I think two things really make this book work: 1) Yaffe’s training as a journalist is apparent and she does a great job of conveying facts while painting a compelling portrait; and, 2) Yaffe has been a Janeite for most of her life. Her affinity for Jane Austen gives her a good baseline: she gets it because she’s one of us (gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble). Austen fandom is so widespread (especially in this Information Age we’re all talking about), but it’s also a very private thing. Everyone’s love for Austen presents in a different way, but we all feel like she speaks to every one of us.

This is a task best handled by a Janeite, and Yaffe does a wonderful job. There’s a great balance of humor and affection throughout the book. I think Yaffe and I have similar Janeite styles: pretty middle-of-the-road, tending on the side of Austen purists (i.e., preferring Austen’s work to the myriad of sequels, adaptations, fan fictions, etc.), and not really into costuming or conspiracy theories. There is an overarching narrative of Yaffe’s exploring another dimension of Janeite-ism by buying a period dress for the ball at JASNA’s Annual General Meeting.

Yaffe’s book starts on a Jane Austen tour of England and ends at a JASNA AGM. The bulk of her book tells about the subjects she meets along the way and they are fascinating: they are the costumers and the conspiracy theorists. They’re also the fan fiction writers, the academics, the speech pathologists (yes! Austen is used therapeutically), the roller derby academics, and on and on. Sandy Lerner makes an appearance. I loved reading about how each person carved out her or his respective Janeites paths and the places their Austenmania has taken them. (And, let’s be honest, it made me feel pretty normal, which was good or bad depending on the chapter.)

I also got the pleasure of seeing Yaffe speak to my local JASNA chapter this weekend. I wish I’d taken more notes during her talk, but a) I was spellbound, and b) I couldn’t write due to having an injured thumb and a plate full of cookies. The talk was a great supplement to the book. One illustrative example in particular has stuck with me: Austen leaves a lot open to interpretation in her novels. Yaffe brought up the end of Sense and Sensibility: in the film versions from 1995 and 2008, Edward Ferrars comes to confess his love to Elinor Dashwood and asks if she’ll still have him after his missteps. Poor, repressed Elinor loses her shit on the spot, assents, and they live happily ever after. But in Austen’s actual words, it’s hardly the romantic scene the films make it out to be. Austen’s blend of romantic plots with dry wit is widely open to interpretation and appeals to lovers of romance and satire alike. Basically, you get Jane Austen or you don’t, but there are also as many different ways to get Austen as there are Janeites.

Through all these experiences and Yaffe’s book, I’ve gotten to know myself as a Janeite: I don’t think I could ever dress up, I might buy some Austen fan art here and there, my adaptations must take place in the period, and I have no stomach at all for the fan fiction (except, for some reason, the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club, which I will talk about at a later date). My Austen is the feminist satirist, and okay, some of the romantic interests are pretty alright, too. I look forward to really growing into myself as a Janeite: re-read more, plumb the literary depths deeper, and maybe even take a strong stance in the Fanny Price Wars.

On Meh-Moirs

For the Staff Reading Challenge I keep talking about, I had to read a book in the “humor” genre. For genres I wasn’t familiar with, I tried to stick with suggestions I had from friends, like I did with Parable of the Sower and The Lies of Locke Lamora. Sometimes I went the popular route, as with The Fault in Our Stars and a crappy Gillian Flynn novel (which, in the interest of time will have to stand in as my mystery instead of the Dorothy Sayers novels I wanted to read, DAMN AND BLAST!).

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant for a book to be in the “humor” genre. Sure, I had frequented the shelf in my local Borders or Barnes and Noble as a teen, but a lot of those were straight-up parodies of things like travel guides. And I’d already done the audiobook of Bossypants. So I literally went to my handy-dandy 800s shelf and picked up a tiny volume with an 817 call number (Dewey Decimal for “Satire and Humor“) called I Suck At Girls by Justin Halpern, the mind behind the apparently popular Shit My Dad Says (which I’ve never read).

I will say as an avid feminist, at the very least Justin Halpern’s approach isn’t too terribly offensive. He’s not one of the famed “nice guys“—most of his problems aren’t really with women in general but with his own lack of confidence navigating the world of sex and romance. Parts of it were relatable. Most of it read like a romantic comedy and I hate romantic comedies.

But it also just wasn’t very funny. I chuckled from time to time, but the jokes were immediately forgotten. I mean, the dad was funny kind of. But overall it was heartwarming. If it’s going to be a memoir about a romantic history, I probably won’t enjoy it unless it’s there is true, total, cringe-inspiring humiliation. Halpern wasn’t humilated enough for me to care about his happy ending (in which case, good for him, I suppose). But I do give him a lot of credit for eventually maturing and not being a total asshole about women. Even his dad, who seems firmly ensconced in some kind of macho ideal from another age, isn’t that big of an asshole about women. Or maybe I’m blind to mild misogyny after living through the deluge of congressional bullshit with regards to women’s rights.

This book actually reminded me of another book I read last year: Quiet Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. Along with I Suck at Girls, this book falls into the category of what I call “Meh-moirs.” A Meh-moir is pretty much what it sounds like: a memoir that’s kind of just “meh.” You read it, you carved another notch in your GoodReads bedpost, and you’ll probably forget you ever read it. Meh-moirs are not really that compelling. In my experience, a lot of the “meh” element seems to come from the author trying to take a humorous approach and just not cutting it. But I’ve read very few memoirs in general and they usually feed a need for tragedy porn within me. Ones I remember reading include Prozac Nation, Girl, InterruptedJesus Land. Ones I remember liking are Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi and Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf (if that counts).

What makes a good memoir? Unfortunately, I think you need kind of a hook to get people interested. I got Quiet Please when I was checking out other books on librarianship as a potential career path. Life as a public librarian should have interested me, but the execution just didn’t cut it and it tried unsuccessfully to be funny. Maybe it’s that it’s harder to make someone laugh than to make them sad or disgusted? But then again, I remember reading Running with Scissors as a teenager and I kind of wanted to just run the book through with scissors. And Bossypants was pretty good.

So…I don’t know. It might just not be my genre. Or it might be that I should have just gone with David Sedaris or something.

I Read a Fantasy Novel and It Was Indeed Fantastic

Warning: I’m pretty sure I didn’t give much away you couldn’t have learned on the back cover of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Spoiler lovers, go elsewhere! 

I’ve mentioned briefly before that I’m participating in a staff reading challenge at one of my jobs (which is at one of those places that lets you borrow books for free). It’s to encourage people to expand their horizons and keeps our reviews honest (so people like me don’t just give their faves five-star reviews).

Obviously, my horizons need expanding. I might take a turn with a twentieth-century author sometimes, but my dance card is full of the nineteenth century and I can’t stop. I can reach for Faulkner and grasp Dickens. I can crack open a frosty Fitzgerald and find myself pining for Austen.

I kinda have to get the lead out on this reading challenge. I completed some of the books in the fall, but then Brontë-palooza took over my life and now I have to read approximately one million books by the end of February in order to get credit for participating.

I let the Library Gods dictate my fortune to me, and they chose fantasy.

I do not read much fantasy. As a child, I read The Hobbit two or three times, but I remember almost nothing about it. I love The Princess Bride, but that’s really about it. Fantasy on-screen, though, is an entirely different story. When I was in the seventh grade, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring no less than six times in theaters. I tried to read the books as a poopy-faced teenager and closed them when I couldn’t take the lack of Elijah Wood’s beautiful face anymore. Then I tried to read The Silmarillion, which killed my interest in pursuing Tolkien stone-dead. I want Game of Thrones to come back so badly it hurts. But when I see someone with those bricky George R.R. Martin paperbacks, I have no desire to pick them up. None at all.

One of my friends loves A Song of Ice and Fire, though. And while she enjoys her share of science fiction, she usually doesn’t do fantasy because the genre is so ridden with uninteresting cliches. I knew I couldn’t read a thousand pages for one book for my reading challenge, so she recommended something she said was better even better than George R.R. Martin.

Enter Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first in the Gentleman Bastard series. The Lies of Locke Lamora tells about the life and times of the eponymous main character, an accomplished thief in Camorr City. Interweaving narratives tell two stories. One is of Locke’s origins and that of his gang, the Gentleman Bastards. The second follows the Gentleman Bastards as they try to pull off the biggest con of their careers…and accidentally get caught up in a war that rips apart the Camorri criminal underground.

I hope that this doesn’t negatively influence anybody, but this novel was like reading the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I mean that in the best way: it’s action-packed, brimming with swashbuckling, cool magic shit, and all manner of awesome characters. I don’t just mean characters that are likable, but characters that are real. Locke is a really good thief, but his skill isn’t preternatural. He’s not physically strong or a very good fighter—he relies on his team to complete him where he falls short. The banter is quick and fresh and full of swearing, which I love because I’m foul.

One thing I appreciated is that unlike, say, Tolkien (or some of what I’ve heard about Martin), Lynch’s action almost never suffers at the hands of his world-building. Part of this is due to the fact that the characters are orphans and poor and/or unconcerned with wealth, so there’s no real way for the narrator to take tangents on things like weaponry or family lineage. The historical asides and expository world-building are interesting, sprinkled throughout, and, most importantly, relevant to the action.

Really, I had a couple of issues that weren’t big trifles. There’s a love interest off in the distance who never appears, but I’m told she plays a greater part later on in the series. I did have issues with the pacing. For me, the novel got off to a relatively slow start, which was fine because I could soak up Camorr, Locke, etc. But I think the end moved at just a little too quick a clip for me to totally buy the resolution.

The only other complaint I had were character deaths. And that’s not really Lynch’s fault, just something I’m unprepared for. Usually, in Victorian novels you can tell the orphan/peasant with the sunny disposition will buy the farm after a long and dignified illness. Fantasy deaths are much more jarring, and a couple of these characters were killed off while I was still getting to know them. And I’m sure I can’t handle A Song of Ice and Fire if The Lies of Locke Lamora gave me roughly the same reaction as that kid in The Princess Bride. Perhaps, it takes building up an immunity to unfair character deaths. Now if only I were free to continue with the second book straightaway…

And Now for Something Completely Different: The Fault in Our Stars

I was one of those teens that read YA Lit, probably from around age eleven to fifteen. I read some “adult” novels like Stephen King in middle school, but I had friends who just skipped the YA section altogether. I didn’t, even though I barely remember anything I read at that time. I was passing out of the YA Lit world just before the YA Revolution hit. I have a special bookshelf tucked away for my favorite books when I was younger, but for now the two favorites that come to mind are Julie Ann Peters’ Define “Normal” and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. One day I’d like to post about these. But today is not that day.

I’m not connected to the world of Young Adult Literature. I’m just not. I devoured the first four Harry Potter books repeatedly and then my re-reads diminished substantially with each passing volume. When a new one was published, I would excitedly revisit the novels, read the new installment, and then stuff my Harry Potter Fan hat under the bed until the next book. I cried at the character bloodbath at the end of the seventh volume, but after a couple days I more or less forgot about Harry Potter. I came home from college one break and my friends were all obsessed with Twilight and I was like, “Why? These look awful.” I saw The Hunger Games in theaters and decided that was good enough. Even though the book is supposedly better, I felt no desire to read the novel.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is like the toast of the YA town—and my book club’s pick this month, or else I had plans to avoid it completely. Given the public’s recent obsession with YA Lit, John Green is kind of a larger literary deal. Since Harry Potter and Twilight, novels aimed at teens are the exciting things happening in the literary world. I actually tried to read Twilight for this blog when I first started out (sorry, not digging up the posts for a link right now), but it offended me on almost every level I have in addition to being as dull as watching glitter nail polish dry. I agree that John Green’s novel is much more my speed than Twilight, thought there are problems with him being hailed as the savior of all Young Adult Literature.

The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel and Augustus, two star-crossed teenage lovers. The source of their star-crossing? They are both cancer survivors to some degree—Augustus is in remission and Hazel’s extant tumors are managed with medication. But this story isn’t your typical tearjerker: Hazel and Augustus have keen intellects with healthy helpings of cynicism and wrestle with big questions.

I feel weird admitting this because John Green has an enormous following, but I found The Fault in Our Stars pretty good. I didn’t love it. Unlike American Beauty, Good Will Hunting, and all of Gillian Flynn’s novels, I’m not completely baffled by the hype surrounding this novel, my emotional connection just wasn’t very strong. Maybe that makes me like a monster, but a lot of literature really does give me strong feelings, so I can’t say much other than it’s a case of personal opinion.

This novel is frank and courageous and honest and sometimes lovely—but if I’m going to be frank and courageous and honest, I have to admit I also found it sometimes unrealistic and overwrought. Even as someone who went through a stage where I found metaphorical resonance in my daily life (a side effect of attending a liberal arts college), reading characters in books who do the same made me roll my eyes pretty frequently. Also, for fuck’s sake with the use of caps lock in dialogue, John Green.

I cried, of course. About a quarter of the book really resonated with me on a deep level, but the majority of it I just thought was pretty good (and some of it very uneven). A lot of John Green’s characters felt like teen characters written by an adult to me, and sometimes that adult strayed into the territory of pretension. That being said, there are worse things than a bestselling YA novelist introducing his readership to big ideas and enriching their vocabulary. (Then again, Bella and Edward are both mad for Austen and the Brontës…yeesh.)

I liked this novel as an example of genres I don’t normally read: contemporary and Young Adult. Still, though, I couldn’t help but make periodic comparisons to Speak. Sometimes John Green’s characters seemed real and then they’d collapse back into two dimensions when their ponderances about the universe seemed to come from the mouths of someone who’d taken an Intro to Philosophy course. When I read Speak, on the other hand the main character’s narration might as well have stood in for my own. Melinda and I didn’t have the exact same experiences, but I related to her and her voice unendingly. She never got away from me the way Hazel and Augustus did. Is that John Green or is that old age? I’m not sure.

Now, I was a moody teenager. I raged. I was kind of scary and sometimes when I run into adults who knew me then, I’m kind of embarrassed. I couldn’t manage my own emotions very well. (Sometimes I still can’t, but now I have my own apartment and don’t have to play it out on the goddamn high school stage so not that many people know.) One time during a particular episode of emotional turmoil, one of my teachers said something like, “This really isn’t a big deal” or a “This is just high school” kind of thing. That’s kind of a shitty thing to say to someone who is in high school because at that point high school is probably their whole world.

From where I’m sitting now, though, not even that far away from high school and still riding the emotional rollercoaster with great frequency, I really can’t connect to those feelings anymore. And that, I think, is why I don’t read YA. I have a huge respect for authors that can pull it off, but I think it’s time to say it’s just not my genre.

Adventures in Contemporary Lit: Gillian Flynn

Warning: This post contains spoilers for all three of Gillian Flynn’s novels: Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl. Plot twists will be laid bare.

Gillian Flynn is the argument for library books.

I don’t read a lot of contemporary lit. I don’t really know where to start with it, and in general (unless we’re talking Cormac McCarthy), what I’ve found just doesn’t speak to me in the same way. It’s not just popular literature like Gillian Flynn. For example, my book club read Colum McCann’s award-winning Let the Great World Spin last month. And it just didn’t do a lot for me. In a weird way, the book seemed to announce its own themes and then spend most of the text continuing to demonstrate those themes. When I read something like Jane Eyre, I feel like I have to do more work to construct a theme and find that my book-club-type questions tend to range a little deeper. Contemporary lit is something I need to work on.

Anyway, I kept hearing that this book Gone Girl was good from friends. I used to enjoy mysteries, so I thought, why not? I found a copy at the library and dove in. In the first hundred pages, I suggested our book club read it. It was pretty good. It was summer. Beach reading! (Well we’re landlocked, but you know.)

Then I finished the book.

Gone Girl is a novel about a guy (Nick) with a kinda-failing marriage whose wife (Amy) goes missing. Of course he’s the suspect. His narrative is intercut with diary entries from his missing wife about how she’s starting to become afraid of him. But Nick maintains his innocence (even though he withholds a lot of information) Then, suddenly, it turns out Amy is not dead. She faked her disappearance to take revenge on her husband for crossing her. And it turns out she’s faked a bunch of stalking incidents in her life. And it turns out she’s thought of absolutely everything because she’s just that smart that she didn’t leave behind a single piece of evidence that’s she’s actually evil and staged the whole thing.

Here are the things that bothered me about Gone Girl: the characters and the plot. So, you know, nitpicky stuff. Nick was unlikeable, but fine, whatever, you’re supposed to be unsure about whether he’s a murderer. Amy is the worst, not just because she’s like a clichéd Psychobitch of the first order, but because she’s not a real character. Her motivations baffled me: she pretends to be someone else, then takes revenge on her husband when he doesn’t bow to her every whim when she turns off the persona she’s constructed to get him to fall in love with her? That’s on you, lady. The unbelievability of her hitch-less scheme is matched only by the unbelievability of her undoing: for all her plotting and perfecting every detail, she has no bullshit detector. And this fact is only revealed when it’s convenient to reveal it.

The plot felt like a bad episode of Law and Order to me. Amy is evil? WHAT A TWIST. It felt unbelievable and yet clichéd at he same time. Amy gets out of everything, no one asks questions, even Nick stops asking questions and they just accept it. And some of the plot threads were dropped: Nick’s abusive father is prone to escaping from his nursing home and is found wandering around town in a dementia fog. And….nothing comes of this. Nothing. It just drops out of the narrative. At one point, Amy gets into hot water when some motel rats steal all the cash she’s set aside. Wow, Amy, how are you going to get out of this one? Oh, by contacting your high school boyfriend who is conveniently still in love with you and conveniently filthy rich and can conveniently hide you in one of his many houses, which are all conveniently nearby.

It’s been interesting to talk to people about Gone Girl. A lot of people I’ve met don’t like it, but it seems like they don’t (or do) like it because it’s “dark” or “twisted.” Maybe I’ve just read too many Cormac McCarthy novels, but I like dark and twisted and Gone Girl doesn’t cut it. It’s more like, “Look how dark and twisted I am! Someone tried to get her husband sentenced to death because she’s EVIL!” You know what’s dark and twisted? Scalping innocent people for money, a.k.a. the plot of Blood Meridian.

I borrowed a copy of Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel and winner of the Edgar award. I had to know if all her books were as terrible—and they’re not that long so they’d only take about a day to read. One thing I will say for Gillian Flynn, her books go fast.

Sharp Objects was better, I thought. The premise was a little dumb: Camille is a journalist at a failing paper and gets sent home to Missouri to investigate the murders of young girls, who are showing up dead with their teeth pulled out (to sell papers, I guess?). Her family life is fucked up: her horrible mom and the entire town dote on Amma, Camille’s thirteen-year-old sister, who is creepy as all get-out. But Camille is damaged goods: she used to be a cutter and she has words carved all over her body. Yes, words. And she can “feel” them light up at various points. This is just so dumb to me. It’s too neat. I imagined Camille with a Miss America sash reading “DAMAGED PROTAGONIST.” Seriously, parts of this novel sound like something a seventeen-year-old would write for NaNoWriMo.

Again, it was better. It turns out creepy mom makes her daughters sick with all her “medicine”—this actually killed Camille’s older sister—and eventually Camille fingers her mom as the killer. This conclusion was arrived more elegantly than Gone Girl‘s “oh wait we can lure Amy back because even though she’s super smart she’s ridiculously gullible.” But, aha! A twist! It was Amma who murdered the girls in town. The creepy dollhouse she’s been making has an ivory floor made of their teeth. Amma was raised by someone who has a classic case of Munchausen by proxy. Sure, it’s not a common disease, but the fact taht she turned out to be a murderer makes more sense than Gone Girls “Amy is just a  bad seed.” Do bad seeds occur in real life? Sure they do, but normally there are warning signs.

So I was pretty on the fence and decided to check out Dark Places—both literally and figuratively. Dark Places has another damaged protagonist, Libby Day, whose older brother Ben is in jail for murdering their mother and two sisters. Libby can’t function in society and lives off the proceeds from well-wishers and book royalties. The funds are nearly depleted and she takes offered money to speak at an organization for murder hobbyists. The hobbyists have dedicated their lives to proving Libby’s brother’s innocence, so she begins to conduct an investigation of her own.

Dark Places really wasn’t that bad. Again, the characters seemed a little flat: Libby is pretty much defined by her anger and depression, Ben felt more like a sketch than a person to me. This could be because the narrative alternates between Libby’s first-person, present perspective and the third-person narratives that alternate between Ben and the children’s mother, Patricia, on the day that Ben allegedly committed the murder. It was stretched a little thin.

Again, the plot in Dark Places depended too much upon coincidences. The day of the murders is rife with drama: Ben and his pregnant girlfriend are trying to get out of town, Ben is accused of molesting young girls in town, Ben and girlfriend have a run-in with Ben’s deadbeat dad and the participate in a Satanic ritual. Ben’s mother searches for Ben amidst the rumors of his troubles, she also has a run-in with the deadbeat ex-husband, and decides to have herself killed to get the kids life insurance money and avoid foreclosure on her farm. The killer-for-hire does his job, but he’s seen by one of the daughters, who he then also murders. While all this is going on, Ben and his girlfriend are in the house trying to leave town. Ben’s girlfriend strangles the oldest daughter when she threatens to tattle. When the two emerge, they think like their Satanic ritual worked or something? And right after Libby finds Ben’s girlfriend and daughter, the killer-for-hire is caught: turns out he’s someone the Kill Club was onto who has been killing people in debt for decades. Maybe this is just the way that mysteries are? So full of coincidences? I don’t read many of them, so this seemed a little too convenient for me.

One thing that frustrates me about Gillian Flynn in general is that she kind of addresses issues we experience in contemporary life—the recession, missing pregnant women, blaming violent media for violent actions, the twenty-four-hour news cycle—but sometimes only addresses them halfway. For example, running through Dark Places is the idea that Ben was wrongly convicted of murdering his family because he was a moody teen that didn’t fit in and got swept up in Satanic Panic. But then later in the novel, Ben’s girlfriend and her friend bring Ben along on an honest-to-God (no pun intended) Satanic ritual fueled by PCP. So…instead of critiquing the Satanic Panic mentality of the 80s (like Donnie Darko), the rumors are kind of half-true? What?

So, in conclusion, I am really glad I’m not one of those people who is fundamentally opposed to library books because then I’d be stuck with three Gillian Flynn novels that I’d have paid my hard-earned money for. Some people don’t think I have a very open mind, but at least I tried. I read all her work, I just didn’t like it.

I promise some day soon, I’ll finish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but I owe plenty of other fines for non-Gillian Flynn library books, so I wanted to get Dark Places out of the way.