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.

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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.