Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Books Update: Quarter 3

Fall is finally here, if only officially (did I mention it's been 80s & 90s in San Francisco for weeks? Not okay), and as we close the book on September without much to remark on running-wise, it is time once again to speak of books.

As you probably already know, I've been reading a classic a month for the last two years. It started as a one-year project in 2014, but I've enjoyed it enough to keep going with it & will probably continue until it starts to feel like a chore.

July: A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (1990, 637 pages). Ahh, John Irving, you got me again! Sweet, depressing, hilarious, & raw. The story follows Johnny Weelwright (1st person narrator) & his best friend Owen Meany (tiny, brilliant, charismatic, & possessed of a bizarrely shrill voice) from their childhood together in a small town in 1950s New Hampshire through early adulthood, while periodically flashing forward to Johnny's middle age in Canada. The relationship between the two is weirdly cemented when uncoordinated, nonathletic Owen somehow manages to hit a baseball at the end of a Little League game that hits Johnny's mysterious mother in the head, killing her. After that, Owen is convinced he is "God's Instrument," with everything & every moment in his life leading to a single purpose. I think it's the sheer audacity & improbability of the whole thing that made it one of the best books I've read in a while.

August: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë (1847, 507 pages). I think sometimes it's difficult to fully appreciate classics because the reason they are classics has mainly to do with the context in which they were written. Reading Jane Eyre for the first time in 2015, I have to admit that I spent most of it rolling my eyes & ready to chuck it across the room. Really? Really, Jane? It's so painfully clear that Mr. Rochester is a dire shitbird, and you are utterly pathetic for not realizing this almost immediately. (Though, I will also admit that she gets a little less pathetic as the book goes on, but he is still a shitbird, and their conversations are honestly kind of gross.) BUT, I do get that it was rather revolutionary and radical for 1847 and (kind of hilariously) was actually lambasted for being anti-God/Church (ie, a woman every once in a while having an original thought and maybe occasionally for half a second not doing exactly what some rando self-important dude tells her to do). Still, a part of me was screaming throughout, JANE, YOU IDIOT! DTMFA!

September: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair (1905, 335 pages).

Welp, I guess I'll go shoot myself in the face now.

The Jungle is about the trials & tribulations of a Lithuanian family that settles in Chicago to pursue the vast riches and endless opportunity that they have heard are there for the taking in welcoming, democratic, class-blind America. Lololololol. No but really, it's one of the most depressing books I've ever read in my life. I get the historical significance of this book and that the fact that it's completely and utterly depressing as hell is the whole point, so three stars for that. But when you have only one color in your palette (shit-color, for instance), it loses its effect real fast & you stop expecting anything else. Most of the other books I've tagged as "depressing as hell" offered at least a few strokes of other colors occasionally, if for no other reason than to provide enough contrast for the horrible parts to maintain their effect (and presumably to stop you from pausing to kill yourself). Not so here. It's shit sandwich after shit sandwich, and any time things start to look maybe-kinda not so bad for the protagonist, you know that a shit sandwich with an extra-crispy cat litter crust is just around the corner.


I have read a lot of stuff lately but here are the titles I most highly recommend:

The Ocean At the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (2013, 181 pages). 5 stars. Beautiful, creepy, imaginative, & sad. Essentially: All things Neil Gaiman. More along the lines of Coraline and The Graveyard Book than Neverwhere / Stardust. Hard to explain any more clearly than that.

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk (1996, 218 pages). 5 stars. I picked this up in the airport because I wanted something short to read on a plane, & having only seen the movie & never read any Chuck Palahniuk, I was curious. Super entertaining & amazingly well-written & well crafted! My only regret is that I wish I'd read it before seeing the movie. I also enjoyed the afterword at the end about how the book began as a six-page short story no one paid any attention to & evolved into an international blockbuster. The question now is, which Palahniuk to read next?

The Blue Girl, by Laurie Foos (2015, 220 pages). 5 stars. A super quick, easy, fairly minimalist read, and at the same time amazingly, gorgeously, breathtakingly written. I'm not sure how you do both of those things at the same time, but somehow Foos pulled it off. A silent blue girl has appeared in an unnamed lake town; after one of their daughters saves the blue girl from drowning, three sad, middle-aged women with sad, middle-aged husbands, teenage daughters, and troubled sons sneak out at night to the cabin in the woods where the blue girl lives with an old woman to feed her the secrets they've baked into homemade moon pies. When the kids catch on, everything changes. Again, I don't understand how she did it, but these 220 dream-like pages weave together some of the most brilliant character development I've read in a while with profound narrative themes & symbolism. Not a wasted word anywhere. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson. (2014, 371 pages) 5 stars. This may be the absolute best modern YA novel I've ever read in terms of teenage characters who are actually believable in terms of how they think, act, and (especially) talk. It's also just a lovely, if bittersweet, story about a set of artsy teenage twins trying to navigate their own & each other's tumultuous lives in the wake of their parents' own issues, and manages to strike a nice balance of humor, heartache, sweetness, and raw teenage emotion without veering too much into melodrama (or trying so hard to ape modern teenage lingo that it's painful). Still a *bit* too much schmoopy in places for my taste, but not so much as to make me want to vomit (which more or less seems to be the norm with YA). A great read for 12/13+, but there's plenty going on for adults to appreciate as well.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay. (2015, 288 pages) The story follows the Barrett family (out-of-work, hyper-religious John, his cynical, frustrated wife Sarah, and their two daughters Marjorie and Merry, fourteen and eight respectively) as Marjorie descends into (severe mental illness? Demonic possession? A desperate bid to salvage the family's financial situation?). John gets the local minister involved, who in turn gets the family a reality TV deal ("The Possession"), which in turn leads to Complications, all of which is narrated by eight-year-old Merry. The real genius of this book, though, is that it's kind of meta-horror. Instead of telling the story purely from eight-year-old Merry's perspective, Tremblay ups the ante by framing it as told by twenty-three-year-old Merry to a bestselling author who is writing a book about the events, and then interspersing those interviews with blog posts about the reality series "The Possession" written by a quirky & mysterious horror junkie. Because of the reality show, a lot of what happened is on film, but a lot of it isn't; there is also the reliability of Merry's memory to take into account. This all adds up to an undercurrent of uncertainty about what did and did not actually happen and to what extent was the situation was medical, supernatural, or faked by Marjorie and/or the exploitative reality TV producers. Brilliantly written, start to finish.

The Longest Date: Life As a Wife, by Cindy Chupack. (2014, 212 pages) 5 stars. I picked this one up after hearing a podcast interview with Chupack & finished it on a single plane ride. It's pretty short, and manages to be funny and entertaining even when she's writing about some pretty heavy stuff. Even so, she pulls absolutely no punches, laying bare just about every facet of her relationship with her husband, from their courtship as late-thirty-somethings to raising an adopted child at fifty. And I think it's that completely candid openness that makes it such a compelling read. It's not, "Marriage is hard work but if you pick the right person and really love each other and practice gratitude or whatever you'll make it through the tough times." It's more like "I'm the luckiest person alive!" on some days and on others "SWEET JESUS WHAT HAVE I DONE," and for her getting married was agreeing to stick it out, even on the SWEET JESUS days. (That, and coming to terms with the fact that she was a control freak & now had someone permanently in her life that she couldn't control.) If you've ever had a moment when you're like, "Oh god, why can't we be like all those nice, normal people who are super in love all the time & never have any horrible moments together???," this book is a great reminder that nobody is those people, because we are all real, live humans with strengths and flaws and history and baggage, and that's what you sign up for when you marry a real, live human.

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli. (2015, 303 pages) 5 stars. What a sweet, wonderful, (sadly) subversive book. The last twenty pages or so actually had me kind of weepy (in a good way), and if you know me at all you know how rare that is for a book. This and I'll Give You the Sun have reaffirmed my belief that yes, there IS, in fact, really excellent YA left in the world. Like all the best books (I'm discovering), the marketing copy just really does not capture what makes this one so great. Come down to it, it's basically about gay-but-not-out 16-year-old Simon negotiating all the usual sixteen-year-old orders of business (school, friends, family, extracurriculars, crushes, feeling generally awkward & out of place), but with the added wrinkle of an anonymous email penpal about whom he knows nothing except that said penpal is a fellow gay-but-not-out junior boy at his school. Hijinks, turmoil, laughs, and all the feels ensue. (Also, mad props to Albertalli for a) writing a gay protagonist (1st person) who is just a normal kid and b) handling the whole teen boy coming out / figuring out how to relationship in such an earnest, thoughtful, brilliant way, particularly for someone who, as far as I know, has never been a gay boy)..

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. (2015, 392 pages) 5 stars. Oh, man. I don't even know where to begin with this book except that it was amazing. I actually think the marketing copy included a pretty decent summation: Every relationship has two perspectives, and sometimes the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. The relationship in question is that of Lotto & Mathilde, madly in love and married at the tender age of twenty-two after knowing each other for all of two weeks. The first half of the book tells the story of their decades of marriage from Lotto's point of view, and though the writing is utterly gorgeous and the characters dynamic and multi-dimensional, it's on the darker side, without much in the way of comic relief. The second half, though, is Mathilde's story, which fills in a lot of blanks. The genius of this book lies in the juxtaposition of the two voices, addressing issues of destiny, creative potential, and the nature & meaning of marriage. Not a light read, but the complexity and cleverness offers enough relief from the darker nature of the story to make it brilliant.

* * *

Currently Reading: The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Currently Listening To: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Up Next:

Taking future suggestions as always. :)


  1. I actually enjoyed the Jungle - something about gross descriptions of meat I find entertaining! I'm reading a disastrously long novel now that I've long ago totally figured out and thus holds no charm/interest for me whatsoever, but I feel like I have to finish it.

  2. Ah, you're reading, or rather listening, to Middlesex! Can't wait to hear what you think. I loved it. A bunch of these sound intriguing, but especially A Head Full of Ghosts, mainly because I'm a sucker for books that use "mixed media" to narrate.

  3. I really liked Chuck Palaniuk's book "Haunted". It was a cross between a writer's retreat and a reality show and completely bizarre, but it was brilliantly structured, if bizarre.

  4. I heartily recommend* A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One of the best, most engrossing, well-written books I've read in AGES.

    *Warning: it's extremely depressing and could be triggering for some people.