Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Love triangle number infinity

Book: The Marriage Plot

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Published: 2011 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Pages: 406

Internet rumblings + my university ID card still checking out books for me after I’ve made the leap from student to employee + Eugenides speaking here this coming spring + Middlesex = me finding and reading this book as fast as I could.

And the only reason I was disappointed was how can ordinary people in a college courtship postgrad marriage love triangle compete with hermaphrodites and a family of suicidal virgin sisters? Eugenides is brave for tackling such an ordinary subject in his unadorned prose, which brings weird things into the real world but keeps its real-world subjects small.

But he made me care about these people and wonder about the plausibility of happily ever after, and while he didn’t break the ground I think he meant to with the parallels of the Victorian novel marriage plot and its application to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s changing American dream, I wanted to know what happened to his fictional slice of it. And the ending was bittersweetly satisfying.

To the rumors!

“It’s Mary Sue-tastic!” I didn’t really get that. The female protagonist is a little empty, yeah, and mostly but not always described as pretty, but she’s in her early twenties and has no idea what she wants to do with her life. That totally happens all the time. And she has interests (Victorian novels!) and flaws (spoiled and indecisive and clingy!). I had more problems believing that her parents paid for her to wander, and get her apartment, and treat her boyfriend/husband’s mental illness, especially since they didn’t seem to like any of the choices she DOES make.

“It’s about David Foster Wallace’s bandanna and depression!” I mean maybe, in the troubled genius of the male antagonist. But I recognized the other guy in the love triangle a lot stronger. He was a lot like Walter from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom—a guy who works hard to make himself good and feels like he deserves something (the girl) for being able to repress his base urges so well.This guy makes better choices, though, which makes for a less brutal reading.

“It’s great!” “It’s terrible!” It’s good.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Everything they say is true

Book: Twilight
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Published: 2005 (Little, Brown and Company)
Pages: 498
This isn’t going to shed any new light on this book, including the book cover, so I’m just gonna answer some lingering questions you might have. I do this all for y’all. And because I feel like it’s only proper to finally confirm what I’ve been bitching about for the last six years.
Is Bella Swan a weak, dependent, whiny, and self-absorbed Mary Sue written as an everyday tomboy who has an unspecified unjustified something about her that makes her amazing? Yes.
Is Edward Cullen a creepy overprotective stalker who’s supposed to be the ultimate romantic? Yes.
Does this book shit all over the traditional vampire legend by picking what it wants and laughing at the rest and adding sparkling skin, flawless hair, and unparalleled baseball abilities? Yes.
Was the writing clunky and melodramatic, like a novel someone wrote in high school? Yes.
Was the plot compelling, though? …Yes, dammit.    
Does it remind me of what my favorite high school teacher said about how he teaches Romeo and Juliet, “It’s a story about two stupid teenagers disguised as a great love story”? Yes. A thousand times yes.  

Is it worrying that this is the only thing a lot of young impressionable kids are reading nowadays? Yes and no. They should read other, better stuff, and lots of it, but if they don't life will soon enough prove that Edward 'n Bella aren't a healthy relationship. I wince for the day of reckoning but it'll happen. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Doctor Who double feature

Book: Doctor Who: The Five Doctors (#81)
Author: Terrance Dicks
Published: 1983 (Target)
Pages: 128

Book: Doctor Who: Fury from the Deep (#110)
Author: Victor Pemberton
Published: 1986 (Target)
Pages: 189

Let’s be honest, I got into Doctor Who for David Tennant and his thousand-yard stare.

But I very quickly stayed for everything else. And these novelizations of the original TV show are just like watching episodes from when all the special effects were spray-painted cardboard instead of cheap CGI; that is to say, rollicking, unintentionally hilarious adventures where everyone is shouting exposition at each other and the Doctor just knows everything somehow and the companions alternate between terrified and indignant that no one believes him and there are monsters.

Fury from the Deep occasionally read like a PSA because the main monster was this giant sentient seaweed that tried to choke everybody and control their minds on this series of oil rigs, so “evil weed!” and “vile weed!” (heh, shot of honey mustard, stat!) were sprinkled in there. The characters were all pretty flat, of course, but I was disappointed this included the Doctor. And one of the companions, Jamie, was a Highlander only when the author remembered. Seriously, y’all, he said “Och!” and “duna worry” in between speaking like an American high schooler. And they got rid of the seaweed by amplifying the shattering sound waves of companion Victoria’s screams. And then afterward she decides to stay behind on the oil rig because she’s homesick and tired of almost getting killed by traveling with the Doctor.


Haha, I told y’all this was good.

The Five Doctors was better writing, more complex plotting, and more distinct characters. All five regenerations of the Doctor get pulled from their time streams back to Gallifray to play this deadly game buried deep in the timelords’ planet so they unwittingly spring the traps so the president chief timelord dude can get to the ancient ring that promises immortality. Which he gets, only in living stone instead of life like he thought.

I liked watching the Doctors interact with each other. They were each distinctive in appearance and temperament and I never mixed them up. This book brought together all the feistier companions, too, and including a brief cameo from Jamie that revealed he WEARS A KILT AND TAM O’SHANTER. ALL THE TIME.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still all terrible writing. So many adjectives and adverbs, y’all. So very many. But I feel like Cardboard David Tennant approves. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Book: 11/22/63

Author: Stephen King

Pages: 842

Published: 2011 (Scribner)

Whatever else there is to say about him, Stephen King can tell a damn fine story when he concentrates and somebody gets brave enough to remind him that he still needs an editor. This book on time travel used to stop JFK’s assassination is proof I will drop upon his head if he ever lets something like Under the Dome out of his writing drawer again.

This one’s giant, meaty, compelling, and straightforward. Straightforward! In over 800 pages, he doesn’t make any unnecessary side trips, physical or philosophical, and the only reason I’m not calling that a miracle is because it didn’t feel miraculous. It felt—simple.

I won’t give away the whole plot since this is a brand-new book (for once), but basic outline: protagonist discovers a time travel portal in the back of his friend’s diner. It always leads to the same September morning in 1958. Diner owner uses it to buy meat super cheap and bring it back to the future. (One of my favorite details.) Diner guy is dying and wants protagonist to go prevent JFK’s assassination. Protagonist does and comes back to see how that’s affected 2011. Now between those last two sentences, add massive piles of well-intentioned lies, skipping towns, sporting bets, runs from the mob, using money to solve problems, murders, notes from the diner guy, shitty apartments, falling in love, sacrifices, consequences, Russian ex-pats, cigarette smoke, the Cuban Missile Crisis, blood, broken bones, and a past that DOES NOT want to be changed. Bam. You got yourself a long satisfying glut of Stephen King plotting.

His writing ticks (repetition, heavy reliance on exposition-tastic and unhumanly “hip” dialogue, overextended use of metaphor, defanged climax) are kept at a minimum, but he does do that thing where the protagonist is a bland everyman hero and the girl he falls in love with is even less sketched out. WHY AND HOW DO THEY LOVE EACH OTHER? I DON’T KNOW, and it’s the driving force for the novel’s full back half. Her major trait is she’s tall and clumsy and although she gets upset about the protagonist’s lies, she eventually just accepts him without any further explanation. I don’t know why she changed her mind. SHE doesn’t know why she changed her mind. Manic Pixie King Girl, right there.

And I so, so wish he would’ve written more deeply into a villain. He’s absolute best when he’s describing a psychopath unraveling. But from a characterization perspective, I do appreciate his ability to keep Lee Harvey Oswald a fully rounded human and not a cardboard holder of evil and guns.

It didn’t take me nearly as long as it should have to read this book because I kept wanting to know what happened, and the ending paid off my ignoring other things to read for a couple more hours. Which was awesome.    

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Talking with the ladies

Book: The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work

Authors: various (and lots of prizes); edited by George Plimpton

Published: collection in 1998 (Modern Library)

Pages: 451

Interviewer: So, you're 22, have had two short stories published in a random university quarterly, are just coming off depression from not getting picked for Machine of Death Volume 2, will include the phrase "apple pie-scented box of shame" in your next writing, and just finished reading over 400 pages about ladies who accomplished more literature than you'll be able to catch up with even if you give up your day job and Mad Men addiction. How does that make you feel?

Constant Reader: Er. Can I quote Peggy Olsen?...

Interviewer: No. That just exposes how much you've been procrastinating.

Constant Reader: Fair enough. Well, I feel very tired after reading about all this awesome literature production. I feel like I've written all 70 of Joyce Carol Oates's novels while wearing the wrong prescription in those groovy giant glasses she wears in her author photo. But in a good way.

Interviewer: Is that possible?

Constant Reader: If I have enough caffeine in me, then yes.

Interviewer: What's it like reading about other writers' work habits?

Constant Reader: Addicting. I--hell, everybody--always think there's some sort of magic lurking just past their murmurs about early morning and longhand versus typewriters and various shades of seclusion. But it's not magic, and that might just be the most magical thing about it.

Interviewer: Is that encouraging at all?

Constant Reader: Encouraging and scary, yeah, but definitely doable. "I can work like this. Let's get liberated." HA.

Interviewer: You're going to turn into Peggy Olsen before you get to the end of season four.

Constant Reader: You say that like it's a bad thing. I just don't want her bangs. 

Library stash

In honor of my new day job, which involves writing for that letter-counting enforcer Twitter, I’ve decided to write one-sentence reviews of each of the library books that are due in two days.

Tyrants by Marshall N. Klimasewiski: Muddled stories that don’t really have anything to do with tyrants unless you count a sick mother (which I totally don’t, because, good fuck the lady couldn’t help it that she needed care) and Stalin (which I sort of do because he’s Stalin but even he’s softened in this one from the point of view of a maid who loves him).

Alternatives to Sex by Stephen McCauley: A middle-aged gay real estate man has a midlife crisis while trying to break his random hookup habit and reconciling his secret love of his flight attendant best friend, and it’s boring because all emotional points are repeated endlessly in breezy mental dialogues riddled with rhetorical questions that never get answered.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald: A thick juicy novel about child abuse, murder, a falsely convicted young man, and how family secrets fester and mingle on a Canadian air force base during the Cuban missile crisis and space race age that ends on the first truly emotionally shocking twist I’ve read in I don’t know how long.

House of Meetings
by Martin Amis: Interesting premise about a love triangle in the post-WWII Soviet work camps gets RUINED (RUINED I SHOUT-TYPE) through a rambling memoir style that confuses the whole plotline until I had no idea what the narrator was trying to say and stopped reading.

The only one I really got lost in was Ann-Marie MacDonald's. So go read that one and ignore the rest. You'll be fine.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Blade Runner the book

Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Author: Philip K. Dick

Published: 1968 (Del Ray)

Pages: 244

I’ve been wanting to read this book since I heard about the movie Blade Runner and that it was based on a book. Fortunately, I’ve just moved a very walkable distance from the main branch of my new county’s library system and had a disconcerting lunch that drove me in search of a giant pile of emotional reading. While I initially wandered in to idly check the sci-fi section, I got excited when I saw they finally had this one in and went a little apeshit in the rest of the general fiction. You’ll hear about the rest of those by November 19.

But! I digress! Unlike Mr. K. Dick, who cuts great swathes of plot about a bounty hunter who chases down androids to pay for a new, real animal in a world where that’s like buying a new car. He gets caught up in a tangle of questions about reality, empathy, and identity that pulls apart his world view. The book ends after he goes back home to his wife, before he can reconstruct anything, which didn’t bother me but did leave me wanting to know a little more.

The whole story was like that; it introduced a lot of metaphysical difficulties that I wanted K. Dick to explore better. I think another hundred pages of that and character distinguishing would have elevated this good read to excellent. He can’t improve a bit on that title, though. It’s magnificent.