2011 in Books

December 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

  1. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  2. The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
  3. Sweethearts, Sara Zarr
  4. Paper Towns, John Green
  5. Vida, Patricia Engel
  6. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
  7. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
  8. How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Natalie Standiford
  9. March, Geraldine Brooks
  10. On the Jellicoe Road, Melina Marchetta
  11. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Peter Cameron
  12. The Once and Future King, T.H. White
  13. Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark
  14. My Latest Grievance, Elinor Lipman
  15. A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray
  16. How to Marry an English Lord, or How Anglomania Really Got Started, Gail McColl & Carol McD. Wallace
  17. Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins
  18. The Million Dollar Mermaid: an Autobiography, Esther Williams
  19. Please Ignore Vera Dietz, A.S. King
  20. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  21. The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch, Betsy Caprio
  22. Dark Summit: the True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season, Nick Heil
  23. Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin
  24. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  25. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta
  26. The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, Leah Wilson
  27. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  28. The Magician King, Lev Grossman
  29. Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  30. A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
  31. The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman
  32. A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
  33. Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link
  34. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

A lot of young adult in the first half of this year, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing except that most of the Y.A. I read was less compelling than I’d hoped for. The major exception was Paper Towns by John Green, who is an obvious and perennial exception to the dashing of my hopes. (I’m almost worried that my expectations are so high for his upcoming The Fault in Our Stars that the inevitable expectation-dashing is coming.) Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot was also charming. The later forays into more adult fiction, although equally uneven, were more rewarding.

What I really loved: Into Thin Air continued my tradition of finishing Krakauer’s books in a day. How to Marry an English Lord, the most embarrassingly titled selection on my list (scratch that–that award clearly goes to Anna and the French Kiss), was perhaps the most enjoyable surprise of the year, a really readable account of the Gilded Age trend of American heiresses marrying British lords. And Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, which I read at the continued insistence of Dead Presidents’ Anthony Bergen, was incredible. Clearly I need to be reading more non-fiction. On the fiction side, the book that blew everything else away was Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. While by no means a perfect book (like most people, I’m rationally annoyed by surprise crop-ups of 9/11-related plotlines), it was still addictive, romantic, charming, funny and smart. March, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and The Once and Future King round out the fiction portion of my “loved” list.

The Great American Novel Project: The Great Gatsby, or The Perfect Novel?

December 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

The Great Gatsby is one of those books that I come back to every few years, and every time, it’s like reading a completely different book. When I was fifteen, it was about my nostalgia for a world that had passed, all pretty words and glamorous parties and marrying for money and spending afternoons drunk in New York City. When I was 19 and a brand-new English major in a cold, lonely city, it was all about literary symbolism: the color gold, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, the green light. When I was 24, it was about ambition, about longing, about getting what you want or being forever dissatisfied–all things that, as an about-to-be-minted college graduate, I was preoccupied with. And now, at 28 . . . well, I’m about due for a re-read, aren’t I?

I have no stake in the philosophical dinner party debate over whether The Great Gatsby is a perfect novel, or whether a perfect novel exists at all. If Gatsby isn’t perfect, it’s the closest thing we have to it. The fact that it can be read on so many different levels, the way it has so many layers, how I can find so many different ways to read it–that’s what lifts it above everything else. I can foresee reading Gatsby every five years for the rest of a very long life, and have it be a different book every time. (Huck Finn falls pretty close to that criteria, too, coincidentally enough–I think I could re-read it every ten years and have it be a different book every time.)

And this paragraph, Jesus Christ:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Y’all know I’m a liberal, so my potential for effortless patriotism is limited. But those closing paragraphs of Gatsby get me every time, leaving me in awe of the suddenly illuminated huge and beautiful country we live in, how it must have been to see it through those fresh new sailors’ eyes. I don’t believe in the American Dream, but Gatsby (the man, not the novel) sells me on it in those final lines–at least for a moment or two, before I sigh, savoring them, and slowly shut the book once again.

Previously: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Next: Absalom! Absalom!

The Inn at Lake Devine

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some people read A Christmas Carol every December. For other people, it’s Little Women. Others might page through The Polar Express or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Or maybe you’ve got your own personal little favorite–I’ve still got an irrational attachment to a cute little copy of The Twelve Days of Christmas featuring bear protagonists from my childhood. But the one book I find myself returning to over and over again at holiday time is Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine.

This might strike most people as an odd choice. A bare-bones plot of The Inn at Lake Devine goes something like this: Natalie, a recent culinary school graduate, runs into an old friend from camp. Her camp friend, Robin, invites Natalie to her upcoming wedding, only to be tragically killed in a car accident on her way to the inn where the wedding will be held. Natalie is thrust into the position of caretaker for Robin’s family and her would-be in-laws, developing a friendship with Robin’s fiance and his younger brother. In what is probably the peskiest detail to take into account when trying to consider this a “Christmastime novel,” Natalie is Jewish. There’s a framing device to the novel, where Robin’s future mother-in-law is an anti-Semite who once turned Natalie’s family away from their hotel on the basis of their religion–and this has dramatic pay-off later in the novel as both of her sons become romantically involved with Jewish women (one Orthodox, one Reform). The entire novel’s thesis statement, so to speak, involves the Jewish experience in America. How does it make good Christmas reading, then? Natalie captures the feeling I’ve felt so much as a lifelong agnostic–loving the trappings of Christmas, finding it beautiful, but feeling like an outsider nevertheless.

The other problem with considering this a holiday novel is that only a small portion of the action takes at Christmastime, and it’s the most tragic part of the plot! Those who are looking for cheery Christmas morning scenes of families singing carols and drinking eggnog in front of the fire should look elsewhere. But still, the book just feels so Christmassy, so lighthearted and warm, full of food and romance and family, that it fits in perfectly during the holiday season. In fact, I think I’m going to pull out my copy right now . . .

The Marriage Plot

December 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is written in the style that prompts many critics to use the words “dreamy,” “evocative,” “meditative.” In it, a group of boys watch as their neighbors, a quintet of blonde stair-step sisters, kill themselves off. As the dreamy, meditative, depressed 16-year-old I was when I read it, it should have spoken to me . . . but it didn’t. I was frustrated by the presence of the boys, who served to distance the reader from the Lisbon daughters. Who cares about the stupid boys? I kept thinking. I want to know more about the girls! But they remained frustratingly elusive.

Later, in college, I found out that there was a name for this: the male gaze. That distance was a stylistic device that Eugenides had, apparently, employed on purpose. But its purposefulness didn’t make it any less annoying. In fact, the fact that he had intended to discount the more interesting girls’ narrative in favor of giving us the blander boys’ perspective made me even more irritated than when I thought he’d done it by accident. No matter how beautifully the book had been written, I couldn’t get past that, and I’ve avoided Eugenides since then, even after all the praise for his second novel, Middlesex. If he couldn’t get women right, how was he going to handle a character who was intersex?

Reviews of his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, piqued my interest enough to hesitantly come crawling back, though. Starting out on graduation day at Brown University in the early ’80s, the book covers a love triangle between the brilliant-but-bipolar scientist Leonard, the romantic, book-obsessed yuppie Madeleine, and the globe-trotting religious scholar/seeker Mitchell. And I really enjoyed it, despite not wanting to enjoy it. I flew through the book’s 400 pages in three and a half days, a feat that–at least with literary fiction–usually takes me much longer. I liked the books’ parallels between religious ecstasy and madness, the heroine’s preoccupation with Victorian novelists, the voyeuristic travels in the world of 1980s WASPs. But the entire time, I just couldn’t shake the idea that Jeffrey Eugenides was really benefiting from being Jeffrey Eugenides here–had the book been written by a female author, especially an unestablished one, it wouldn’t have gotten a crumb of attention. Women who write love stories–no matter how self-aware, no matter how good–are treated as silly, unambitious, feminine. Eugenides only gets away with it because he’s a Serious Writer and a man. Not his fault, of course, but it still hampered my ability to like the book without reservations.

And the problems I had with The Virgin Suicides still existed here. Even when we were supposed to be in the heroine’s head, his descriptions of her still felt disturbingly male gaze-y. Her character development largely seems to exist in the form of a first-page listing of the contents of her bookcases (a writing device I hate, for the record). Even the two men who want to marry her consider her a bimbo. (In an early scene, Mitchell actually says to her face, “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”) And the book’s most revelatory scene is one that she’s excluded from entirely–it takes place between the two male leads, who have, up until this point, not been able to stand each other. Leave the serious plot to the menfolks, honey, is the takeaway message here. Madeleine is just a contrivance–one we can use to compare the religious Mitchell with the scientific Leonard, one that can force them to talk to each other and relate to each other when they’d have no reason to otherwise. She’s not an individual, just a plot device.

William Deresiewicz, in his review for the New York Times, articulated a number of the concerns I felt but didn’t put words to while I was reading:

“As for Madeleine, she is given nearly half the novel, including its longest, opening section — not surprisingly, considering her creator’s fascination with female experience — yet she somehow recedes behind the screen of Leonard’s needs. Her character is almost wholly reactive; even the ways she resolves her relationships with Leonard and Mitchell are reactive. To put it in Hollywood terms, she doesn’t have a “journey” as the others do. You could see this as the point — it’s how young women often are [Editorial comment: ew.]— but the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of what it’s doing. In fact, Madeleine is the one character who does discover her vocation and, even more ironically, it’s to be a feminist scholar of the Victorian novel. Yet despite the topic’s supposed thematic centrality, we hear very little about this development. (Among other things, we never do find out what those “thoughts on the marriage plot” are.) “They didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend,” Madeleine happily thinks about a couple of fellow aspirants who befriend her at an academic conference — yet it is all the novel asks. “

The treatment of manic-depression is equally shallow. The character of Leonard–who many view as a thinly veiled ode to David Foster Wallace, although Eugenides swears this was not his intention–displays basically every textbook symptom of bipolar disorder, each in the most textbook way possible. Yes, I know this was the early ’80s. I know treatment of bipolar disorder was not what it is today. I know plenty of people with bipolar disorder do display similar symptoms to Leonard’s. And yet it seemed that Eugenides had done most of his research by reading an article in a ladies’ magazine about how horrible it was to be married to someone with the disorder, because Leonard displays every horrifying manic symptom that could possibly exist, often simultaneously: binge-drinking, gambling away huge sums of money (and giving away the rest), molesting teenage girls, proposing marriage, jumping off balconies. It all just devolves into one long bipolar caricature with no nuance.

But like I said, I finished the book in three days. So I guess that, despite what I think, I just really like sexist books about love triangles.

Hugo

December 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

When people talk about “the magic of the movies,” they always talk about film’s ability to take you away from your life and transport you somewhere else for a few hours. To live in another world, to see it through someone else’s eyes. This is always the go-to argument for why movies’ popularity peaked during World War II–people just needed to be distracted from their problems, preferably with a cheesy Technicolor musical starring Betty Grable. And although I love the movies, that’s something I’ve rarely ever experienced. Even with movies I like, I almost never feel swept away, transported somewhere else, not wanting the experience to end. Even with movies I like, I still check my watch.

But Hugo did it for me. I bookmarked the movie this summer, when I saw a preview for it and was immediately enchanted. You know how I feel about Cute Kids in movies? The way I feel about Anguished Kids is just about the exact opposite. So take one Anguished Child, put him in a romantic historical setting, have him create a new family from scratch (one of my favorite plotlines, especially when it involves previously Anguished children) . . . throw in some beautiful clocks, shots of a snow-encrusted Paris, and a puppy or two, and I’m yours. And when you take into account that Hugo revolves around the art of storytelling–mostly in the form of movies, but also with a book or two–of course I was going to fall in love. I had to.

Hugo, based on a novel called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows a young orphan who’s in charge of winding the clocks at a 1930s Paris train station. The one reminder he has of his father is a broken-down automaton rescued from a museum. Hugo makes friends with a girl named Isabelle, the two of them sneaking into the movies and tricking the train’s boorish inspector. But when they realize that she holds the key that unlocks his automaton, the two of them are entangled in a curious mystery that involves a toymaker, Hugo’s father, and the early history of cinema . . .

Unfortunately, the film’s marketing is pretty much killing it. While its previews depicted a high-energy children’s film, this isn’t really a film that caters to children’s tastes. It takes a while to get going, and even once it does, it’s still never particularly zippy. The slow pacing, combined with a historical focus and a lack of one-liners, means that some children will have trouble sitting through this one. Hell, so will some adults. The fact that a film has a child protagonist and no swear words does not necessarily mean it’s a children’s film, and that’s true of Hugo.

As of now, Hugo has only made $33 million at the box office, about a fifth of its very generous budget. Of course, the critics are loving it. They have a tendency to adore anything that celebrates the magic of film, as Hugo does in spades. And if it can pick up some steam through awards season, enough buzz may build to keep it going into January. The chances of it recouping its costs, though, look slim, and that’s unfortunate, because this is a wonderful movie–one during which I didn’t check my watch even once.

The Great American Novel Project: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

When I first started this project, Huck Finn was in the news for reasons you wouldn’t expect: publishers had put out a new copy of the book where all of Twain’s usage of the n-word was replaced by the word “slave.” It reminded me of a 1955 movie made out of the book, where producers, hoping to avoid offense, omitted any references to slavery and turned Jim into a white man. To a modern audience, the problems with that approach are obvious, but apparently the word-replacement approach–just a less egregious version of the same thing–was less overtly troubling, because this isn’t the first time it’s been tried.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer–temperamental about my words, protective of them–that the whole thing sets me off. To a serious writer, the difference between one word and another is big. If Twain used the n-word, that’s because he meant to use the n-word. If he meant “slave,” he would have written “slave.” Don’t think it’s happenstance: Twain used the n-word repeatedly on purpose. He used it to make a statement about the society Huck Finn takes place in, that it’s so racist that even the characters we’re supposed to like use it over and over without regret, right up through the last chapter. Even minor changes to the text of the story can affect the author’s intention, and in the case of Huck Finn, those “minor changes,” the alteration of one word, seriously alter Twain’s intent: it makes Huck less ambiguous than he’s supposed to be, putting more emphasis on the “high-spirited scamp” side of his personality and less on the “product of his society (even though he would claim otherwise)” side. (It also shows that Jim is either patient or oppressed enough to put up with it, both significant aspects of the book.) The fact that Huck considers himself a loner, Dottie, a rebel is a major focus of the book; by changing the n-word to “slave” we significantly undermine the idea that this isn’t strictly true. At the end of the book, Huck claims that he’s planning on heading out west to rid himself of the burden of polite society, but since the ambiguous nature of his character has already been made clear, we can imagine that his future will end up quite a bit differently than he does. By changing just one of Twain’s words to something less offensive, we also change our conception of the book’s setting and characters. It’s not just a minor change.

Yes, Adventures of Huck Finn is a problematic book. Maybe as times change, we should examine the role it plays it the classroom–as a “classic” example of an anti-racist text–and look at other options that could fulfill similar functions. Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson and Toni Morrison can cover similar ground and allow black writers to speak for themselves rather than relying on a white author to interpret for them. Maybe because of Huck Finn‘s complexities and controversy and capability to offend, it’s a book that should wait until college, where lit courses are largely optional and everyone in the class is there by choice. And certainly we should think about the way teachers present the novel, how their use of (or their allowing their students to use) the n-word in class can implicitly condone the same prejudices that Twain was hoping we’d react against. But changing an author’s words–their story, their intent–and wiping away a tiny chunk of history is never an acceptable option.

Previously: Moby-Dick

Next: The Great Gatsby

Stranger Things Happen/St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

December 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Reading short stories is a different experience from reading novels. Short stories are digested all at once; I generally don’t form an opinion on them until I finish them. Because of that, the short story ending counts for a lot. It can make or break the story for me. The ending of a novel won’t do that, because I’ve already begun to form my opinion of the book long before we get there. If I’m liking a book, the ending can elevate that to a “love,” or downgrade it to an “eh,” but it isn’t going to reset my entire opinion.

I was reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen and Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves basically simultaneously, and it began to strike me how similar they were–a comparison that I’m certainly not the first to make, I discovered after googling. It really hit me in Russell’s “Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration,” in which the narrator’s father is a Minotaur who chooses to pull their family’s wagon westward himself. Link, of course, cannibalizes fairy tales and fables with aplomb, especially in Stranger Things Happen. Her later collections are a bit more restrained in their allusions, but in her first collection, essentially every story has some bit of reworked mythology, ranging from the pantheon of Greek gods to Donner party lore to Nancy Drew. Both authors, of course, are known for their slightly off-the-walls brand of magical realism, but their approaches to it are quite different: Link usually starts us out in a world that resembles our own, then gradually takes us further and further down the rabbit hole until we’re left stranded in a wonderland we don’t recognize (see: “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back,” “Vanishing Act,” and “Survivors’ Ball, or The Donner Party”). Russell’s more surreal stories, on the other hand, generally start off with their improbable premise stated outright, daring us to believe it and see where it takes us (“Children’s Reminisces,” “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”).

While I could appreciate everything Russell and Link were doing from a technical standpoint . . . I found their story collections a bit of a slog. I had the same experience with Kelly Link’s second collection, Magic for Beginners, which I read a year or two ago. The stories were technically, imaginatively great, but lacked the heart to pull me in. Russell’s in particular felt formulaic when read all at once. But therein lies the magic of the short story: even when I was having trouble pushing myself through one story, sometimes the ending in the next one was enough to electrify me with all of its possibilities.

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