The Humans - Matt Haig Premise: A socially awkward alien lands Earthside, naked on a Cambridge street…And for a while, as Matt Haig builds from this premise, it’s funny! The Humans begins quite wonderfully with the arrival of an alien who can barely disguise his contempt towards humans and believes clothing is optional. The humor works because of our extraterrestrial narrator's terrific voice, which is matter of fact and superior. For example, the first piece of “literature” he reads is an issue of Cosmopolitan, which leads to this pithy discussion of magazines: Magazines are very popular, despite no human’s ever feeling better for having read them. Indeed, their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads to a feeling of needing to buy something, which the humans then do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next. It is an eternal and unhappy spiral that goes by the name of capitalism, and it is really quite popular. I would have liked an entire book of this: just a doofy alien in human form walking around the modern world trying—and failing—to make sense of it.Wishes never come true, however, so the last half of the book ditches the humor and devolves into New Age mumbo jumbo. The plot is unoriginal. Basically an alien comes to save Earth from too much knowledge, learns to appreciate humans, and abandons his old alien life to become a regular Joe Schmo. To supplement this lack of plot, Haig tries to explore the meaning of life through our bumbling old alien narrator, whose voice becomes instantly less charming as soon as he’s humanized.Blah. The moment someone expressly searches for the meaning of life is the moment I roll my eyes. Sure I find meaning aplenty in books, but it must arise organically through the natural interaction of characters and their environments. Even worse, the meaning of life discovered by Haig’s alien is more clichéd than a Hallmark card. There are a ton of lines like this at the end that made me figuratively gag: To experience beauty on Earth, you needed to experience pain and to know mortality. That is why so much that is beautiful on this planet has to do with time passing and the Earth turning. Which might also explain why to look at such natural beauty was to also feel sadness and a craving for a life unlived. There are tons of quotes about how “love is life” and how “it’s only through our flaws that we can truly appreciate humankind." By this point, I’d mostly checked out, hoping the narrator had one last good joke in him about Catholics. (He didn’t.) The reason the alien comes to Earth is to destroy a mathematical proof. So here’s some reviewing math for The Humans: smart-alecky alien who makes fun of humankind (4 stars) + heavy-handed existential tripe (2 stars) = 3 stars. Boom, math.
Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell I pride myself on my cynicism. I pin it like a ribbon on the dark clothes I wear to broadcast my angst. So when it comes to Rainbow Rowell I’m conflicted because she’s now written two books--Eleanor & Park and Fangirl--that make me want to dress myself ROYGBIV style while frolicking in a vat of kittens.This is not okay.That is not to say I will stop reading Rainbow Rowell books. Because: why? Why would I deprive myself of her perfectly gooey stories that never descend to shallowness and always leave me joyous? I guess I might just have to admit that for a few hours at least, when consuming a Rainbow Rowell book (consuming being the most apt descriptor: you do not read these books, you consume them like a cake topped with gobs of frosting and innumerable sprinkles), I am more sunshine than dark side of the moon. Yes, I am now an unabashed fan(girl) of Rainbow Rowell.While Eleanor & Park was an intense and internal tale of first love, Fangirl is a brighter, vaster tale of both first love and a bunch of things that happen when you “come of age.” Cath, a prolific fanfiction writer with social anxiety, goes to college and has to learn to navigate the "real" world instead of merely retreating to the safety of her fictional and internet-based world. It’s probably one of the better depictions of college—and I suppose also, young adultness—that I’ve read about. There’s drunkenness, roommate squabbling, empty nest syndrome, mental health problems, infuriating professors, dining hall conundrums, unintended makeouts, and family drama. These issues elevate the book above a standard romance. But let’s be real: I’m mostly here for the looooove and the fangirling. First, the fangirling. Cath doesn’t just write fanfiction; she writes Simon Snow fanfiction. In her fic, Simon (picture a scarless Harry Potter) and Baz (imagine Malfoy with a dash of Edward Cullen) are not the enemies they are in the canon series but gay lovers! It’s wildly popular of course. Throughout the book, excerpts from Cath’s fanfic and the “real” Simon Snow series precede chapters about Cath’s real life, often cannily mirroring what is happening to her. I have but one request: Rainbow Rowell, write a full version of Cath’s Carry On, Simon fanfic and post it to Fanfixx.net, please & thank you. I loved these stories, mostly how they goofily parody Harry Potter. The fangirl aspect itself will be appreciated by anyone who has loved something to the point of obsession. Obsessions are always best when shared with others, and I love how Cath and Company were unabashed nerds about this stuff.And now, the love story. The biggest complaint I can lodge against Ms. RR is her twee writing. Sometimes there are quotes that are cute, yes, but also demand an eyeroll. But I don’t much care because these twee statements are said by BFF-worthy characters. Cath and her love interest Levi are nerds but most importantly they’re kind. It is simply pleasant to read about decently well-intentioned people trying to figure things out but occasionally screwing up. Their romance is wonderful. It builds slowly—I’m talking Victorian style courtship—but because of its pace, everything between them feels earned. When the culminating moments arrive (and there are more than a few culminating moments; that’s the benefit of taking things slow—everything new, even the slightest touch, is a culmination), I was ecstatic. Like I’m-grinning-so-hugely-right-now-I-probably-look-deranged-ecstatic. I just really really like it when two people kiss and it makes them happier.In truth, I am not the type to gush or squee or deem something adorable. But here I am: gushing and squeeing over this positively adorable book.
Orlando - Virginia Woolf Orlando; or, The World’s Most Interesting Premise WastedVirginia Woolf has a wild premise for Orlando: a boy living in Elizabethan England does not die and somewhere near the middle of his life turns into a woman!What a spectacular starting point for an author not only wanting to provide a good story but also wanting to describe the effects of time and gender on a person. Maybe Virginia Woolf did that. Other readers certainly think she did. I do not, however. Orlando is the huge waste of a premise.I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from this reading experience. Its most salient point was the immutability of the human spirit regardless of sex. For although Orlando must change her outward behavior to align with societal attitudes concerning gender, he/she remains steady throughout the text, mainly through his/her devotion to writing. I suppose I don’t find this point really profound. It’s been said before and it’s been said better. My main problem, though, is the writing. I’ve read some of Woolf’s essays and short stories before and was impressed by her prose. In Orlando her writing choices confused me. Her prose lacks any emotion. I read this entire book utterly dispassionate to what was unfolding on the pages before me. For me, it read cold and surgical. It lacked any life. This detachment is exacerbated by the character of Orlando who is very aloof. Who is Orlando? Why should I care about her? Even when events upset Orlando—when the Russian princess leaves, when the critic insults his poem, when her lands and title are stripped from her—he/she continues on like before. Woolf might say, “Orlando was devastated,” but not once did I feel any of Orlando’s feelings.It reminded me of reading a lab report. “Observe closely as our specimen, Orlando, male and aged 16, sits beneath the oak tree. [Six paragraphs of description about his surrounding environment] Now watch as he goes to the Queen’s Court [Nine paragraphs of description about his surrounding environment]…Now observe as he transforms into a woman [Sixty two paragraphs about 17th Century London]” And on and on. Obviously I’m an outlier here. Most people are moved by Woolf’s writing and challenged by Orlando’s metamorphosis. In my goodreads profile under “favorite books” I have written: a book that 1. makes me think 2. features a gripping story. Usually but not always in that order. If I finish a book that accomplishes none of the above, I will be very unhappy. I just finished Orlando and I’m feeling very unhappy.
Prep: A Novel - Curtis Sittenfeld When I went to college I was shocked to meet kids who had actually attended boarding school. I had grown up on a steady diet of boarding school literature, but conceptually, it seemed so preposterous. You went to boarding school if you were European and from the 19th century, not if you were American and born in the early 90s. I befriended one girl who attended a Massachusetts boarding school as a day student. When I asked her about the experience, she shook her head and said, “Never send your kids to boarding school. It fucks you up.”As I came to know more ex-boarding school students, her generalization gained credence. The boarding school kids knew seemingly every possible way to consume alcohol, with some methods so ingenious I couldn’t help but wonder if their education truly was of a higher caliber than mine. They were fully formed adults who behaved like they were in their late 20s. Meanwhile, the rest of us floundered about, worried about breaking dorm occupancy rules. After reading Prep I understand them better. I know how they came to be this way at the mere age of 18. In Prep Curtis Sittenfeld presents an authentic portrait of boarding school life that, for any sane parent at least, should serve as a massive flashing warning sign before sending any child away to school. Our protagonist Lee Fiora decides to apply to an East Coast boarding school in a fit of precociousness and derring-do at the age of 14. She leaves her parents and calm Midwestern existence for a more exciting life at Ault School. Again: at the age of 14. It goes horribly, of course. She must face the gender, race, and class discrimination that props up the ivy-covered brick façade of Ault. She navigates loneliness. She struggles to answer this question: do I want to change myself, peel away my me-ness in order to fit into this archaic institution or do I want to alienate myself from everyone by becoming a conscientious objector to this lifestyle? She narrates her four years at Ault after the fact as an adult, and it is clear that even after maturing outside this fishbowl, she has no good answer to this question.Two disclaimers: 1. This is not chick-lit, despite the title and pink belted cover. 2. It is an uncomfortable read. If we’re supposed to read this book as chick-lit, it’s ridiculously marketed. It has too much bite to be considered chick-lit, with its extraordinarily detailed narration and its casual indictment of its wealthy and waspy characters. Lee’s perspective is devastatingly realistic, apparently so authentic that some have questioned how biographical this story is. The goodreads reviews for this book are atrocious. Most people seem to hate Lee because she is always a bystander and never an actor. I must admit that even as an introvert, I found Lee’s introversion and resulting passivity infuriating and occasionally painful. She cannot decide how she wants to participate in this ridiculous life she’s accidentally chosen for herself at age 14 and thus she’s listless. She moves nowhere, being careful to make no obvious mistakes but because of that, truly making every mistake. As she says, I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.Teenagers live in state of metamorphosis and high school is their chrysalis. Imagine if your chrysalis is inhabited by the spoiled offspring of Manhattanite bankers and national senators. Imagine if the floral pattern on your bedspread determines whether you are popular or not. Imagine that if you pine after a boy, you can never approach him; he will pursue, you will be pursued. Imagine if your chrysalis cannot be cracked open at the end of each school day when you return home; you live among your peers in this extreme environment for four straight years.Actually stop imagining that because it’s horrifying. It’s obvious how such a life could ruin a mere child. How can you decide who you want to be in such conditions? I loved Sittenfeld’s largely plotless but wholly profound depiction of these conditions because it allowed me to vicariously live them without suffering their consequences. And after the melancholy final page, I was forcefully reminded me of three things: 1. we can only hope we have good parents 2. only by being rich, white, and male can you live your life effortlessly 3. boarding school will fuck you up.
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff This summer I started doing more fitnessy activities not in an attempt to lose weight or clear my prematurely blocked arteries but in response to the plethora of Young Adult Dystopian Novels that led me to question whether I could a) win the Hunger Games b) jump from a moving train with my Dauntless buddies c) take out an alien with a swift kick to the face and then evade their hot spaceship pursuit. The answers to these questions are a) no b) no c) no. Young Adult Dystopian Novels forced me to stare fate straight in the eye: if removed from my cushy existence by a twist of apocalyptic fate, I would die. I would die every single time. Refusing to accept this, I began a workout regimen to guarantee my survival. But then I read How I Live Now and my resolve is weakening. Because Daisy, who charmingly narrates her experiences during a world war, is no Teen Action Hero. She reacts how the vast majority of us would in dire circumstances: not by staging a coup or leading the resistance, but by surviving as best as she can. Now I’m left wondering if my pushups and jogs are even worth anything—if the world fell apart, I’d probably just stay in my basement trying to stop my towering piles of canned goods from toppling over. And face it: so would you.So that’s what’s so refreshing about this novel. It’s about normal people. The people that most of us would be during all out world war. The people simply trying to survive. That’s Daisy’s story. It’s a story of survival in extreme circumstances and then learning to accept those circumstances as her life forevermore. After finishing the novel, I can’t help but wonder whether humankind’s immense adaptability is a strength or a weakness. It’s wonderful how Daisy and so many others find new ways to live after catastrophe, but isn’t it sad how quickly we humans adapt to a less than perfect world? How easily content we become with nothing?Meg Rosoff is an excellent writer and demonstrates her skill most readily with Daisy’s voice. The novel is first person with Daisy recounting her experiences after the fact. The most incredible thing? Daisy actually sounds like a teenager. Aside from one too many SAT words, How I Live Now truly reads like a teenager talks. Daisy’s narration is witty (suggesting that we can find humor even in the darkest moments) and her experiences are recorded in the same way she might have submitted an essay to her English teacher on the first day of school titled “What I Did During Summer Vacation [When Bombs Hit Britain and This Manhattanite Was Stuck On the Wrong Side of the Atlantic During World War Three With Her Very Hot Cousin].” I’ve seen many reviewers object to the novel’s incestuous relationship. The incest is quite secondary and it’s included in the plotline to show how something scandalous in normal times is entirely irrelevant—even laughably unimportant—in times where people care more about 1. dying in a nuclear attack 2. dying by gunfire 3. dying from starvation 4. dying from infection 5. DYING. "I guess there was a war going on somewhere in the world that night but it wasn’t one that could touch us."How I Live Now may have destroyed any motivation I had to go running tomorrow, but I’m glad I read it. I want to read more books—especially in YA—about the people who aren’t overtly special, who aren’t the Chosen Ones. Daisy is a normal teenage girl facing an extraordinary situation. She is a reminder that life persists even in epochs of death.PS There is a film adaptation coming soon starring the lovely Saoirse Ronan (trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSaxm68PPT4). The movie Daisy seems to be more badass than she was in the book, but it was the film’s approaching release date that urged me to read this sooner rather than later and I’m happy I did.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the best book I’ve read this year because it made me think and then it made me cry. For a book with such a coarsely straightforward title, it’s remarkably beautiful; a love story (in a book whose third chapter title instructs: “Don’t Fall in Love”) about the power of connections between people. That sounds rather trite, non? Yet this book made it seem like the most novel idea in the world. Mohsin Hamid chooses to write his simple story under the guise of a self-help book. We readers are addressed as “you” but “you” is also the main character, an Asian male we follow from birth to death as he becomes filthy rich. It’s an inventive method of narration that will likely fail for many people, but I found it inspired in the way it both separates and unites the reader and protagonist. As both the protagonist and an outsider, we can observe the protagonist’s failures with the detachment of someone who knows better, all the while suffering, and occasionally rejoicing, alongside him. We are complicit in his choices and thus, after reading, we feel compelled to evaluate our own choices. In tone, it reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day. Both novels feature men who devote their lives to an occupation and realize, too late, the unworthiness of their chosen lives. Hamid’s writing is less formal though no less moving. It’s clever—Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?And beautiful—He whispers a benediction and breathes it into the air, spreading his hopes for you with a contraction of the lungs. He uses lots of appositives to pack complex asides into otherwise short and simple sentences. It’s masterful, simply some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Hamid also has the most fascinating things to say about the relationship between a writer and a reader and the importance of writing and reading to our lives. Do you read this and nod so deeply your skull grazes the nape of your neck? …When you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm. I do. He just gets it. He profoundly understands the importance of stories to our every day lives: We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create. He accomplishes so much in so few pages, poking the most thoughtful parts of my brain and pushing me to change the way I approach life. Before reading How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia I would see all the people around me and feel crushed that their stories will never be told, that upon death their stories will dissipate into the air like the morning dew rising from their graves. Mohsin Hamid reminded me that everyone has a story that should be remembered. He made me want to travel the world with a butterfly net collecting stories so that peoples’ lives—peoples’ immense and tragic and brilliant lives—do not die with them. He made me realize that empathy is not only the fruitful consequence of good literature but also the motor of the human spirit.
The Troop - Nick Cutter I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the queen, and to obey the laws of the Eagle Scout troop.That is, unless a crazy tapeworm epidemic invades the Scout camping trip. Then all bets are off!The Troop is a delicious horror novel combining my two biggest fears: genetically modified tapeworms and teenage boys. Five whippersnapper scouts head to a small island off the coast of Prince Edward Island for a camping trip but some evil tapeworms decide to ruin all the fun! For the scouts and their leader, that is. For us readers, the tapeworms are very very fun.For a story whose main draw is its high gross-out factor because: WORMS!, it’s really well-written. Nick Cutter incorporates external media like laboratory reports, military orders, and court records to show what happens off the island while the scouts are fighting for their lives on the island. The characters are interesting too thanks to well-chosen flashbacks. They are not merely walking bodies waiting to become corpses. Their personalities, though overly reliant on archetypes, i.e., the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, interact well, leading to wild clashes as their situation grows more dire. Cutter’s prose is surprisingly elevated for this type of story. I like his writing better than Stephen King’s (whose Carrie inspired the external media approach), but it was perhaps overly poetic in places for a story about evil tapeworms. Cutter is great at maintaining the ick-factor throughout and continually pushing the plot forward. Most of the time I was thinking, “ewwwwwwwww!” but the good type of Ewww that glues your eyes to the page. To recover from The Troop I treated myself to a big dose of this:Prince Edward Island and environs, you are not dead to me. But if Mr. Nick Cutter ever wrote a sequel to this story, you might be.
Night Film - Marisha Pessl I feel like I’ve just had my brain matter sucked from my skull through a straw, whipped vigorously by a whisk, baked into a quiche, and then returned to my head. Like six times. That’s Night Film in a nutshell. It’s an engrossing read that is less of a book and more of an experience. Marisha Pessl is one of those rare authors who brings life not only to a story but to a world. Her world in Night Film is similar to our own, plus a single distortion: Stanislas Cordova, the enigmatic and acclaimed director of cult psychological thrillers. She makes Cordova, his films, his fans, and his family seem so real, like if you checked Wikipedia to see who won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Director, you would actually see Cordova’s name instead of Robert Benton’s for Kramer vs. Kramer. Mostly she accomplishes this with her impressive use of visual media. The book features TIME articles about his work and Vanity Fair investigations into his daughter Ashley’s suicide, the event that kickstarts the entire book.So you start the reading by living, by living in this fabricated world. It’s all very fascinating but it remains a rather traditional—if wonderfully immersive—mystery until, midway through, the tipping point is reached and everything goes crazy. Once the story tips, it’s almost suffocating to be living in this incredible but dangerous world. It is a story that makes you doubt your grip on reality. You will—or at least you should--question everything as you read. For example, one gripe about Pessl’s otherwise effusive prose is her tendency to italicize several words in a single paragraph. It’s ostensibly for emphasis, but at a certain point, I was tracking which words were italicized in the belief that they encoded some important secret. My excuse for this paranoid reading is the overwhelming sense that in Night Film every word is meaningful, that nothing is wasted. Night Film is about fathers and movies and magic. It not only asks, What is Truth? but also, Is there such a thing as a Truth?In his famous 1977 Rolling Stone interview, Cordova says: Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out? Do you want to know what is there or live in the dark delusion that this commercial world insists we remain sealed inside like blind caterpillars in an eternal cocoon? Will you curl up with your eyes closed and die? Or can you fight your way out of it and fly?Recommended for the fighters and the fliers.
September Girls - Bennett Madison Sexist? Feminist? Blah, who cares? September Girls has inspired some extreme opinions for a book that that is the literary equivalent of a sigh. I definitely don’t consider it sexist as so many reviewers have. The characters use coarse and objective words to describe women, but it shows how this type of language and thought is indoctrinated in men and women alike. The whole book uses a sexist mermaid legend to critique patriarchy. So if the claims of sexism are deterring you from reading it, do not fret and give it a chance.But.It’s boring. And I think that also may have been intentional. My favorite part of the book is how it’s an ode to summer. Especially a summer lived in the prime of youth. How time melts during June, July, and August and the lines between days disappear—is it Wednesday or Sunday? no matter, we’ll do the same things anyway: swim, sleep, TV, walk, talk. Madison captures this languorous feeling but because of that, nothing distinguishes itself here. The book is a melancholy melody of sunburnt days and firework nights. It’s realistic to those youthful summers, but the thin and often confusing plot disappears behind the limp setting. Mostly September Girls is too subtle. I agree with many of things it says about identity and love and gender, but they are woven in so lightly that I finished the book without taking much from the experience. So I’ll throw a third opinion into the September Girls goodreads circus: well-written with realistic characters and important themes but ultimately uninteresting. Good quotes!Starting to understand her was less like learning and more like forgetting. I was forgetting the DeeDee I created in my mind. Now, outside Ursula’s, in the grass by the highway, she was just DeeDee. She was only herself.All we want is to break the curse. Like any good curse, it is breakable. Like any good curse, you lose as much in the breaking as you gain. Perhaps more. But what’s the alternative?I had to think she and I were different not because of any curses or enchanted items or magic spells, but just because of who we were. Who we had made each other and who we would still become.
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton Love? Or money? You’ve read this story approximately 3,472 times before. But I encourage you to read it again. Lily Bart, a Manhattan socialite at the beginning of the 20th century, must choose between love and money. It’s a seemingly tired plot, though truly it is not. Because nowadays the question is not love or money? The question is both please? in extra large quantities if possible? Somehow in the past hundred years, love and money have been concatenated. Simply consider recent trends: the greatest romance of the 2000s was that of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, a romance that convinced many women to fight for it all—a man that can both capture your heart and wallpaper his 20,000 square foot mansion with dollar bills, if he so wishes. Love is money; money is love.But for Lily Bart, that is not so. It is a choice, a crucial choice, and not as easy as any romantic would make you believe. The most interesting part of the love/money dichotomy has always been what these choices represent. Love is not just throbbing hearts and flushed cheeks; love is morality and goodness. And money is not just an estate on Long Island, a mansion in Newport, an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and a yacht harbored at Monte Carlo; money is corruption and superficiality. So Lily is actually choosing who she wants to be. And for her, that’s incredible. The fact that this impulse to consider love in a marriage still remains is impressive since her parents tried to beat it from her brain with silk dresses and fifteen course luncheons galore. But Lily is a deeply frustrating character. Wharton thwarts her at every turn; whenever it seems that she might recover, that she might make a good decision, she is thrown back to the wolves, that is, the shallow and noxious New York socialites. Her struggle for love, faith, and freedom figures heavily on fascinating gender dynamics. As a woman, her choices are already constrained, but she admirably works as hard as she can against the opposing forces. She’s heroic but far from a hero.Lily is brilliantly characterized, which is no surprise since Wharton’s greatest strengths seem to be characterization and writing. Her writing is dense, every word placed so carefully in order to complicate these characters (For instance, this description of a tertiary character: ...Young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles and later, in a delightful dispatch of depressed youth, Ned Silverton was probably smoking the cigarette of young despair in his bedroom.) It’s hilariously pithy, especially about money: “I know there’s one thing vulgar about money, and that’s the thinking about it; and my wife would never have to demean herself in that way.” Wharton’s words require some sifting through, but they are beautiful. Depending on interpretation, The House of Mirth answers, somewhat answers, and doesn’t answer the question of love or money. It’s romantic while being completely unromantic. If you read it, do tell me what you think of the ending. I still can’t decide what I think about it.
Too Much Happiness: Stories - Alice Munro Favorites in the collection: Wenlock Edge, Free Radicals, Face, and Child's Play

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell Eleanor & Park made me want to return to high school. I KNOW.That is an achievement I would have previously believed impossible. But this book made me feel the way I suspect everyone feels falling in love for the first time: giddy and confused; hopeful and anxious. It’s so deceptively simple; Rowell alternates between Park and Eleanor’s perspectives as they navigate their first intimate relationship, using sparse, poetic language to spotlight their emotions.I read this with a smile crinkling my face. I tried to turn down the corners of my mouth when a character blurted “I love you” too soon. I tried to dismiss effusive descriptions like “Park was the sun” as trite. I tried—I tried so hard—to channel my inner cynic, to view this story as standard humdrum teenage romance muck. I failed. I read this story with a smile fixed on my face.From the moment Eleanor and Park fatedly meet on a yellow school bus and commence their relationship, their story is impressively realistic. They start by talking about everything for every hour of every day. That leads to the touching, beginning with accidental nudges and proceeding, slowly so slooooowly, to purposeful brushes of the fingers. By the time they’re in love, they barely even recognize it. It’s too late for them to wonder if the eventual pain will be worth it.Once the protagonists’ hearts are stolen, my excited heart flutters mostly stopped and my anxiety increased because I knew there would be an end to their story; I knew it couldn’t stop with them holding hands, reading comics, and laughing together on the bus.I was right. Eleanor and Park capture the sweetness and purity of first love and try to hold it as tightly as they can. They fail. And there is so much beauty in that.

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith Can you imagine how hard it is to write a good mystery novel? Every reader who cracks open a detective story is trying to prove himself more capable than the actual detective. How bothersome for the author then, who must not only figure out how to have her protagonist outsmart the fictional criminal but also figure out how to outsmart legions of armchair detectives reading at home. Galbraith, however, is a clever fox. I had no idea who pushed bright young supermodel Lula Landry over her balcony on a snowy London morning until it was revealed in the final chapters. Either I am just unnaturally obtuse for an otherwise decently intelligent individual or everyone else is lying about being able to finger the killer within the first 100 pages because The Cuckoo’s Calling is intricately plotted, to the point where I had to page back and puzzle through who did what and who knew what and who knew who did what. Lack of knowledge is always a big motivator for me, so I turned these pages as fast as my skinny little fingers could without inflicting myself with a papercut.Even more important than a twisty plot in a mystery novel, however, is compelling characters. Creating a good detective is tricky business. I’m not partial to arrogant genius PIs à la Sherlock Holmes who solve cases effortlessly, dazzling the reader with their seeming omniscience. But I also don’t like dumbed down detectives like those in CSI who dully follow cookie cutter protocol until the (usually very obvious) criminal is discovered. For the most part, Cormoran Strike, the physically and personally damaged private detective, is to my satisfaction. He is not unquestionably brilliant; he must painstakingly track leads and try to make sense of muddled witness testimony like the rest of us. But he is also not formulaic, mostly because his past—an absent rockstar father, a deadbeat mom suspiciously dead of a drug overdose, a leg blown off in Afghanistan, a coldly posh on and off again girlfriend—keeps him unbalanced and interesting. The numerous other characters are equally impressive. The structure of the novel is straightforward. Strike is presented with a case, identifies persons of interest, and slowly hunts all of them down for interviews. Truly, the characterization is incredible. Each person of interest is described with such precision that you can imagine their inner lives even though these inner lives are of no significance to the story. That’s plainly good writing because it shows, quite realistically, that the world is bigger than this single case and the few major characters. My absolute favorite character is Robin, Strike’s unwanted personal secretary. She’s the type of girl who grew up idolizing Nancy Drew (aka me) and when she fortuitously finds a temp job as a PI’s assistant, she’s in paradise. She’s smart and kind and ambitious, and I cannot wait to see how her and Strike’s relationship develops, both professionally and personally. Move over Batman and Robin, because there’s a new dynamic duo in town: Strike and Robin. (I’ll admit that lacks the same ring to it, but I love this Galbraith Robin so much.)I have only one complaint about The Cuckoo’s Calling and it’s about the narration. Occasionally, Cormoran would allude cryptically to discoveries he made concerning the case without including the reader. I don’t like being dangled in the Halls of Unknowing for longer than necessary, and I especially don’t like when a character flaunts his knowledge in front of me. I often consider the relationship between an author, a POV character, and her readers as predicated on mutual trust. A reader knows the author knows how the story will end, which is fine. But if an author has decided to write from a character’s limited perspective but then fails to disclose certain information when it is solely to the author’s benefit, I feel cheated. It’s the cruel antithesis of dramatic irony—the character knows more than the audience—and I don’t like it one bit.Altogether The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great mystery novel and I haven’t even mentioned its insights into celebrity culture supported by fantastic classical epigraphs and its deft handling of mixed race and adoption. You heard it here first: Robert Galbraith is a promising author to watch. What a wonderful debut novel! I can hardly even believe it’s a debut!!!!!**Usually when I use copious exclamation points I’m being sarcastic. Usually.

Serena: A Novel

Serena - Ron Rash Never has a titular character deserved her title as much as Serena in Ron Rash’s Serena. Because Serena Pemberton is everything. She’s intelligent, ambitious, not exactly beautiful, unconventional, and daring; but mostly, she’s ruthless. It is rare that a book physically affects me, but Serena did. As I rocketed towards the finale, my heart pumped faster and my palms started to sweat. Turning each page felt like the long and low creaking of a door opening in a horror film. There is a suffocating sensation, a feeling, nay an absolute certainty, that terrible events are approaching. But while the plot chugs with refreshing speed, Ron Rash writes in restrained yet beautiful prose to create a rather thoughtful story. Serena is almost universally recommendable because it bridges commercial and literary fiction in the best way; it’s an exciting thriller that questions standards of femininity, the dangers of ambition, and the lengths of love. Serena will destroy anyone if it helps herself, her husband, and their lumber empire. Because of the early 20th century society Serena lived in and the society we still live in, it’s tempting to interpret Serena’s character as a jealous and unhinged harpy, a woman gone mad following her failure to produce a child, her one true purpose on Earth. But that’s an unfair and sexist designation. Serena is simply ambition magnified a thousand times. In fact, her qualities would likely be admired if she were a man. She’s both awe-inspiring and reprehensible and certainly one of the greatest characters I’ve read about in a long while.While the main conflict plays out between Rachel, the mother of Serena’s husband’s illegitimate child, and barren Serena, the surrounding Appalachian landscape is ruined, logged until it too rests barren. Serena is thus also a proto-environmentalist tale set in the 1930s. The most alarming part is how so little seems to have changed since that era. Unbridled avarice and unthinking apathy towards the wonder and precariousness of the natural world are still common today, an unfortunate fact that only heightens the novel’s relevance and appeal. With a fantastic touch, Rash includes a Greek chorus of lumberjacks to discuss the personal and natural destruction around them. At the end of the novel, one worker states solemnly, “I think this is what the end of the world will be like.” And he’s right. As the forests fall, leaving scarred and empty lands, along fall the characters’ facades until only the ugliest scraps of human nature remain, deformed and laid out to fester in the sun. (N.B. Do not read if you suffer from lumberjackophobia. After the sixty-seventh person gets impaled by falling timber, you might die yourself from fear.)Also! I read this book with Cecile, who is notoriously stingy with her ratings, and she gave it
11/22/63 - Stephen King I am a person who struggles to accept when she is wrong, yet I am so happy to be wrong about Stephen King. After toiling through King’s The Stand, I was prepared to dismiss him. In The Stand King never stretched his storytelling skills. Everything escalated to the climax as one would expect and everything fell from the climax as one would expect. Ho-hum. But in 11/22/63, I had moments of pity for Stephen King, since he wrote himself into character dilemmas and plot conundrums that defied conventional resolution. Nothing unrolled as expected in this book. So I pitied him. I pitied King because I knew he must have passed days and weeks struggling to extract himself from these self-created authorial quagmires. At the same time I admired him because he had actually done it: he had taken chances; he had pushed the story to uncomfortable places, places where a 10¢ resolution and a bit of deus ex machina wouldn’t suffice.The novel is a true behemoth with over 800 pages dedicated to multiple genres. And although every genre element adds to the book, its greatest weakness is how it is simultaneously so many things. Sometimes King didn’t seem to know what the book wanted to be. Was it a simple time travel tale? a straight thriller? a revisionist piece of historical fiction? a small town love story? It is all of these things, but occasionally he lingers too long on one element, leading to some duller parts, especially around the middle. Yet it comes together splendidly in the end in the spectacular final 200 pages. By that point, the intrigue is staged, the characters are fully endeared to the reader and to each other, and King’s daringly bold plot strands have knotted into an unsolvable mess. In the final chapters, every other page or so punches you in the heart. While the time travel bits keep you turning the pages—from the outset, you know that changing the past can only go poorly; the question is how it will go poorly—it is the character relationships that endure. For all of the bluster surrounding Stephen King as contemporary literature’s most famous horror writer, 11/22/63 is achingly romantic. It is gentle tale, which means it is King at his harshest.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline Have I mentioned before how much I loathe bloated action scenes? I loathe bloated action scenes. What fun am I supposed to find in reading about characters attacking each other? Unfortunately, the last quarter of Ready Player One descends into a massive battle where the wholeheartedly good draws virtual weapons against the unabashedly evil, which led my eyes to skimskimskim since: I loathe bloated action scenes.Casting aside this disappointing ending, however, I found Ready Player One to be fantastically entertaining. It’s not high literature, but on a popcorn level—where once you take a bite, you can’t stop—it’s excellent. It’s about a young guy living in a dystopic future where everyone lives inside a virtual video game reality. This young guy faces off with a Big Bad Corporation that is trying to take control of the video game by winning a scavenger hunt contest created by the game’s deceased creator. Winning the contest requires an encylopediac mind crammed with 80s pop culture trivia, early video games lore, and famed fantasy and science fiction knowledge.Now my familiarity with the 80s is limited. Beyond playing Duck Hunter and listening to Tainted Love on a loop, that decade does not exist for me, mostly because I did not exist. I would have loved a 90s version of this with challenges based on Beanie Babies, Tamagotchis, Pokemon cards, the Backstreet Boys, The Lion King, and Gameboy Colors, but alas…(though, whoa, I need to write that book pronto before I succumb to ND—Nineties Deprivation.) I was worried about not enjoying this due to my lack of 80s knowledge, but it’s absolutely secondary. Some of the references triggered no neural impulse, yet I still understood what was going on.The main problem is that Ernest Cline is obviously a debut novelist. His prose is constructed almost entirely with simple sentences. A subject verbs something; then the subject verbs something else; next the subject verbs a new something else, &c. His characters are flat too. Wade, the protagonist, has no flaws and miraculously succeeds at everything he tries to do. The choice of Wade as the main character is disappointing actually. Another main character in the scavenger hunt, Art3mis, is a geek girl and would have been more interesting than your typical pimply white male hacker geek extraordinaire. There is also no depth. There is a chapter near the middle of the book where I could tell the author suddenly tried to add some deeper themes for pondering, but it failed since it was the opposite of effortless. Yet strangely, I didn’t want to be challenged in my reading. I was enchanted enough by the creativity of the virtual reality world designed and by the scavenger hunt challenges themselves. The challenges are the best part. In a nice parallel fashion, the book is a virtual reality for us readers, a bit of personal escapism where we can put ourselves in the characters’ places and try to solve the puzzles. So when Cline made a clumsy attempt at profundity, all I wanted was for him to return to the game so that I could get back in the zone. When you’re looking for a few hours of fun, definitely read this. I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy it in the basest pleasure center of your brain. For now, excuse me, I need to hunt down my family’s original Nintendo set and watch every John Hughes movie ever.

Currently reading

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré
Vladimir Nabokov