Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How could you do this to me?

Book: The Love Eaters/The Kiss of Kin dual edition

Author: Mary Lee Settle

Published: 1954 and 1955 Harpers (original editions), 1995 University of South Carolina Press (dual edition)

Pages: 204 and 184, respectively (numbered separate in the volume)
These are technically two separate novels, but they both evoked the same dismal reaction out of me by both being about groups of people brought together by one event (a community play and a will reading), both throwing in one character with surprising secret relation to another (both are bastard sons who just came of age) who don’t actually stir the action any more than it would’ve boiled over if they weren’t there at all, and both being dialogue-heavy when all both of them boil down to is “HOW COULD YOU?” 

That is seriously all anyone says. These are the first two stories I’ve ever read that focuses on showing relationships between characters without getting into the characters themselves, like, at all. I had no idea that was possible to write. The author started out as a playwright, which reveals a reason for all this but doesn’t excuse it.
Both stories revolve relentlessly around the screechy, shallow aspects of human nature that I read to forget about, so I hated this book. It just reminded me how horrible people are when sexual and professional and inherited jealousy get the best of them. If I wanted 185 pages about that, I could just subscribe to Cosmo.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Feeding the higher education trolls

Book: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Author: Professor X (…Charles? Is that you?)

Published: 2011 (Viking)

Pages: 250

So should everyone go to college or not?

Can we just pretend this sidewise thing is symbolic?

Professor X says no. He says telling everybody they should go to college is comparable to telling everybody they should live in a nice house, complete with the financial and existential overextension that caused the housing bubble to explode all over underprepared people’s faces and drag into debt everyone who bought into it.

Okay. I can understand that. I even like this parallel and how he eases into it through deeply personal accounts of how he got sucked into the needless real estate game himself and how that made him start teaching night classes in the first place. And I love how he talks about writing and literature. He must be a hell of an adjunct lecture.

But his passion for teaching his abstract and lovely subject clashes really loudly with his belief that a lot less professions need a class in it. He aims for reform but lands on snobby. He doesn’t have a plan to wean businesses off the need for a degree that’s creeping down the job ladder. He just tells us it sucks, and why. Which is a start.

This book was expanded from a magazine article, and after a short while, it gets repetitious enough to tell. In the back half, he pads with examples that sound almost exactly like his first examples. He also addresses the criticisms he’s received from his article, so parts sound like defensive troll-baiting, which is disconcerting in a physical book.

Don’t feed the trolls, Professor X. Just stick to writing about writing. You’re so much nicer with that. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

You'll never keep love in this dimension again

Book: Apollo’s Song

Author: Osamu Tezuka

Published: 2007 (Vertical, Inc.)

Pages: 541

Oh, Tezuka. You prolific epic slightly sexist genius of myth and life. Holy crap.

See, Shogo is this kid who’s only seen love acted out as transactions between his whore mom and her series of johns (“uncles” described succinctly and distinctly by one facial feature a piece). So he gets all bitter and goes off on all the happily paired animals he encounters, kills them, gets put in a prison where his therapy throws him in front of a goddess who declares that since he’s intent on destroying love he’s doomed to fall in love with the same lady over and over again throughout the whole reincarnations of his existence.

Did you read that? All of the reincarnations. ALL of them. Nazi Germany? Yep. Plane-wrecked on an island? Yeah. Training as a marathon running? Future overrun by synthetic replicate superhumans? One or two others that  I won’t mention to avoid spoiling things? Cardboard David Tennant says “OH YES.”

This thing read faster than the TARDIS, and also through time and space. I got the feeling that if I ruffled through the pages with my fingertip it would jump to life like an animation, complete with shifting camera angles and gradual close-ups.

It’s immersive and dramatic and devastating and doesn’t cop out at the end! Cardboard David Tennant is glaring at me to keep me from revealing anything (I know I seem sporadic about this, but general rule I follow because it’s my blog and I can is I’ll spoil the hell out of anything I don’t care about other people reading), but I won’t make him mad by saying that Shogo does learn his lesson.

Go find out how he does it. He’s kind of a dick, and he switches from gleefully nihilistic to dramatically and tragically romantic at a switch of the universe’s whim, but that means he goes through a character journey and a whole lot of bullets and sketched nudity like no other.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From grey to red and back again

Book: Fifty Shades of Grey

Author: E.L. James

Published: 2011 (Fifty Shades, Ltd—I believe we have our first self-published contender)

Pages: 514

Surely there is a less clunky way to string together good sex scenes.

I think it involves a protagonist who has an actual life and personality, a Dominant who spends more time getting her into his Red Room of Pain (the one brilliant turn of phrase from our resident, you know, English major) than dwelling on the limits contract (sexy!), supporting characters who are there for more than just asking the protagonist about her new mysterious boyfriend, and way less manufactured drama.

Surely there was another reporter on the school paper who would be eager to go interview the famous guy so the editor wouldn’t have to send her inept English major roommate and holy hell, how does the English major and the school paper editor SHARE A LAPTOP? The sheer amount of typing, not to mention the research, dear fuck—

Okay. Sorry. Getting sidetracked. In my defense, the book does too, by having the girl agonize everything to death, no matter what the guy did or said. He was almost as bad, and seriously nobody does anything in here for any real reason, but it all gets to wear it’s going. Eventually. And then in the end SPOILER she walks out, also for no more reason than she’s had the whole time she’s tried this stuff and liked it.
The sex is good. Less…themed than I thought it was going to be, but whatever. It’s hot. I wish they didn’t talk, though. She actually does say “Argh” during sex as an indicator that she's enjoying herself. On separate occasions. Maybe they could adapt this novel (trilogy!) as a mime show.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Modern Greek epic in five chromosomes

Book: Middlesex

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Published: 2002 (Picador)

Pages: 529

I wasn’t going to review this book since I’ve already reviewed a Eugenides book and it was one I hadn’t read before. But then he came to talk at the university I work for last week and so I bought a copy of this book for him to sign since it’s my favorite of his so technically this is a new book and then this happened and I wanted to show it off.

Yeah. Plus it’s worth contrasting this experience with the long-ass road trip to Indiana during which I read a library copy that was falling apart the whole time because I didn’t have my driver’s license yet and thus couldn’t share any of the driving.

So! It’s still a story about a big, extended, inbred Greek family that produces our hermaphroditic protagonist Callie, who is raised a girl until puberty when her male characteristics push through and freak everybody out. Her parents take her to a clinic in New York to get “fixed,” but she runs away and joins a seedy sex joint out West until her dad dies in a car accident while he’s chasing down a family friend who pretends to be Callie’s kidnapper.

But, but, before all that, her grandparents are brother and sister in the Old Country. Not long-lost, not raised apart in the same village, not even well-there’s-no-one-else-alive. They love each other, they lust after each other, they pretend to meet and then actually get married on the boat they ride to America to flee the destructive Turks. It’s never played for symbolic or hopelessly romantic. And a couple generations later, it produces Cal and her problems.

Eugenides is even more of a straightforward writer than I remember. The paperback I bought this time looks/feels a lot smaller than the giant unraveling hardback I read first, but there are over 500 pages so I didn’t get shorted any story. The Old World saga of that recessive chromosome took up a lot more of the story than I remember, rendering Callie’s Western trek and homecoming to a couple chapters. But I am very fond of Old World sagas. That explained Callie more thoroughly than her own fifteen years could by themselves, though they were laid out in detail, too.

It’s not decorative. The most poetic he gets is describing Callie’s development as a stalk and frankly, I don’t think there’s a better word for it the way he described how it grew and felt in her. But the lack of lyricism really brings the subject matter down to earth, especially when all Cal really wants is to be a normal human.

I would recommend reading this first if you want to get into Eugenides, then The Virgin Suicides, then The Marriage Plot. Sort of in descending order of his subjects’ sensationalism to land yourself gently back on the regular ground of lit fic angst.  

Friday, April 6, 2012

Stories from the Delta (lots of them)

Book: Mississippi Writers Reflections of Childhood and Youth Volume 1: Fiction
Authors: various
Published: 1985 (University Press of Mississippi)
Pages: 753 (of story)
I took a photo at this angle because I wanted to show how thick this mamajama is.

It’s enormous and probably contains at least a paragraph from every Mississippi writer who sold over ten copies before 1985. Most of these overtly refer to the specific state and/or river; only a little over half are actually about childhood or youth, which I found weird considering what the series is called. A lot dealt in Southern dialect; a lot dealt with race, poverty, and collision of the two. A few dealt with war and its weary broken causes.
Everyone writes well in here but it honestly blends together until I got lost in the cotton fields and accidentally tracked mud from the delta into white ladies’ tea rooms while trying to find my coon dog. That’s not me making fun of anything except how much like one big giant meandering journey this read like.
A couple favorites did stand out: Faulker, “Barn Burning,” for his impressionistic style of repetition and stream-of-consciousness which was much easier to follow and therefore more elegant than The Sound and the Fury. (I think everything, maybe even Ulysses and David Foster Wallace’s footnotes, are easier to read than The Sound and the Fury.) Elizabeth Spencer’s “A Southern Landscape” for her country nostalgia turned sharply against itself. Mildred Taylor’s excerpt from Roll of Thunder Hear Me Cry for capturing helpless fury of a fourth grader, Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” for its pitch-perfect overly indignant voice, Tennessee Williams’s “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” for its neat tragic twist.
I feel half kin, half stranger to these writers. Technically, I’m part of their long, complicated, sweaty history of Southern writers, seeing as how I’ve never lived anywhere but a couple states over and almost as far down. But I’ve never felt Southern, and I don’t write about Southern things, which may just mean I should work on my descriptions more but mostly makes me read this like a field guide to my own people.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Psychopathic destraction

Book: The Silence of the Lambs

Author: Thomas Harris

Published: 1988 (Yazoo, Inc)

Pages: 367

No, it hasn’t taken me like three weeks to read a paperback thriller. I blew through most of this over a weekend at home, where I become distracted from my official reading pile by all the books I decided to not take with me when I moved out. When I go back, I’ll start reading something to remember why I left it.

Sometimes I get caught up enough to bring it up here, which is what happened this time.

The police chase serial murder main plot line going on here is great. Tense, teased out so the reader knows just enough more than the feds to groan when they scoff at a weird (right) theory or head in the wrong direction. Short but thorough explanations about procedures and weapons that work well with third-person omnificent (and would be the stiltiest of all stilted in any other point of view). Convincing psychopaths and characters who are, if not fully rounded out, at least recognizable as real people.

Clarice Starling is within a centimeter of being a Mary Sue but gets away with instead having a relentless driving perfection that comes from a bad childhood. Harris almost gets away with his occasional lapses into poetic streams of consciousness and grandiose life pronouncements, too, but those lean just on the other side of ridiculous. He’s best at compiling evidence and stringing it out so its reveal becomes its own drama. And why the flips between present and past tense, usually during an explanation or description of setting? Those were confusing.

But kudos for letting Lector slip away. Of course he won’t get caught; he’s far smarter than anyone who was chasing him. The smart ones of them knew that.

I read it for the plot thrills and was rewarded thusly.     

Although--one more thing. My copy has a blurb from one Roald Dahl saying this is the best novel of the year. This does not compute.