Monday, June 25, 2012

Always bring your own book

Book: Bleachers

Author: John Grisham

Published: 2003 (Doubleday)

Pages: 163

You know what takes the filed-down nubby little milkteeth out of a high school cliche wrapped up in small town sentimentality? Setting all of the action and tension in the past where it's all been resolved neatly and now all that's left is to bury the Tough Love Coach Who United Us All, which is presented as the main action but YOU KNOW BETTER. 

But not better enough to keep from finishing this off in one extremely boring sitting so you can sleep well when you forgot to bring your own book when you go to your parents' for the weekend. That is all this story is good for.

Friday, June 15, 2012

And so we came to the end (of a series)

Book: Mockingjay

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2010 (Scholastic)

Pages: 390

Let's get straight to the ending! That's all I ever wanted from this trilogy anyway.

I liked it. I thought it was mildly shocking in a way that made sense. I loved how it leaned hard on the theme of "who exactly is the bad guy here?" that this book spent like 300 pages developing. There were enough broad hints about SPOILER ALERT NO SERIOUSLY I AM ABOUT TO DESTROY ALL YOUR SURPRISES District 13 President Coin that Katniss shooting her instead of Snow was an inspired last-minute instinct.
But the lead-up to it reminded me of watching Doctor Who and noticing that they're just now getting into trouble when there's 10 minutes left in the episode. These storylines can go two ways: a rushed ending or a two-parter. Obviously the two-parter scenario is ideal because it means I have a built-in excuse to watch more Doctor Who, but Mockingjay made me considerably more nervous because there was for sure nothing else after I finished it.

And it manages to wrap up in a timely fashion by one of the most annoying tropes I've noticed in this series: Katniss getting seriously injured and whisked away to treatment in the middle of the action. She, and consequently we, hear about the most interesting bits of battles and such through second-hand pure exposition.
I thought the whole point of her being the Mockingjay was that she would be put in exactly the right place to witness and show everything as it was happening. I expect that from all my protagonists, guys.

I did love how the rebels were aware of and could use media manipulation just as well as the Capitol. That's been my favorite part of the series and really put the focus on the ambiguity of each side, like, if they use the same propaganda techniques--if they both use propaganda at all, how can we tell which side tells the truth? How can we tell if there's a truth at all? I totally couldn't, and I never fully trusted those District 13 bastards anyway.
But oh my god did I want there to be so much more of a psychological showdown with President Snow! He showed how good he is at being creepy with flowers--flowers, y'all! And then when Katniss didn't shoot him, I was all, "OH SNAP [regrettably, I really do say this out loud; am trying to train it out of myself] they're going to psyche each other out SO HARD for the COUNTRY!"

Nope. He dies choking and getting crushed like two minutes later, and she hears about this from...say it with me now...her hospital bed. 

Now we get to talk about Peeta and how every time I hear someone say his name out loud, I think of Elaine and her "Stellaaaaaaaah!" He felt plot-device-y in this one. And my apologies; I reread Catching Fire while waiting to borrow Mockingjay, and holy crap is there for sure some teen love angst going on there. I missed it because Collins is so dang good at plot. I forgive her so much for that. And honestly, Peeta and Katniss bonded in blood. Twice. They know the most horrible experiences of each others' lives, and they know what the other went through, and they know just exactly how much they both need a little peace. Gale sounds like he's hotter than Peeta, though.
So what'd you guys think of how this series ended? How'd you think the series worked as a whole?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

An appropriate title

Book: Farther Away
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Published: 2012 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Pages: 321
These essays disappointed me. They all feel a lot more distant than those he collected for his first, um, collection.
I think “collection” is a good word to focus on—not because I can’t find my thesaurus (I mean, I can’t, but that’s not the point) but because it illustrates the functional differences between his first and second goes at book-length artful nonfiction: the first was a genuine collection, something that grew organically from his writings that weren’t novels but still of interest; they were all written for specific outside purposes and then brought together as an inspired afterthought.
This book, though, feels like it has a substantial amount of filler, especially the couple of short tossed-off bits of literary analysis fit between recurring themes of David Foster Wallace, bird-watching, hating on technology, and his failed marriage.
Big stuff, right? Weighty emotions to get through using the catharsis of nature and writing and the legacies of suicidal friends and everything?
I mean, I guess. Yes—the answer is yes, but Franzen held me at arms’ length to tell me. He explained, I understood, but I never felt. And his opening act, his commencement speech at the same college Wallace spoke at a few years earlier, sounded very much like the commencement speech Tom Brokaw gave at this past December graduation of my alma mater, the University of South Carolina. They both made good points. We shouldn’t ignore real people and real relationships for technology no matter how shiny.
These essays are full of good points, full of interesting tidbits both personal and factual, full of good straightforward writing, but nothing read new or especially insightful or even cranky. I was hoping at least for some cranky, but everything had this sort of flat affect that made me a little depressed because I couldn’t bury deeper into someone else’s life like I wanted to.
Selfish, I guess, but he's got to meet me at least halfway here.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sleeping with my dog

Book: Dogfight and Other Stories

Author: Michael Knight

Published: 2007 (Grove Press edition)

Pages: 162

Literary fiction could use more dogs. Not as, like, metaphors for our animal nature, or the fleeting fragility of life, or whatever, but just as normal hangers-on that occasionally assist the plot in moving along, like in these stories. 

I appreciate the realism of these stories' emotions while finding their plots too slight to carry all of it. Notable exceptions are "Smash and Grab," about a burglar who gets caught and tied up by the teenage daughter he didn't realize was still at home (but even in that one she shows no reason for her whimiscally changing moods about whether to let him go or not) and "Amelia Earhart's Coat," which has nothing to do with dogs and everything to do with a little girl's 1930s delusions of grandeur about her family and their friend Earhart. It was the only one that felt like the author stretched himself beyond his own experiences and managed to surprise himself with how genuine he could write from someone else's perspective. 

So the whole thing is going on the bookshelf mostly for that one story and the strength of the author's resistance to animal sentimentality.


O my brothers

Book: A Clockwork Orange

Author: Anthony Burgess

Published: 1986 (this edition--Norton Paperbacks)

Pages: 212

There's nothing to fear about this book; the slang is omnipresent but easily penetrated, while at the same time enough to keep the violence at an abstract distance. Which I guess is one facet of the point, another of course being the extra chapter that  was originally left out of the American edition (and, consequently, Stanley Kubrick's movie adaptation).

(Side note: After reading this, I want to watch the Kubrick movie to see how it stacks up to The Great Shining Debate, which is when Liberry Tom says Kubrick's The Shining is a great movie because it's shot so well and I say it sucks because it completely misses the point of the source material.)

I wasn't super shocked by anything in here. It's a fairly straightforward plot: brutal young man gets off on doing violent things to people, gets caught, gets put into mind-altering therapy that gives him visceral reactions to violence, tries to get right back into it, gets depressed and tired of it. 

That's not to say I didn't like reading about all that. It's still a fascinating journey, and it's all in the narrator. This book is one of the strongest arguments I've read for the importance of unique character voice. Alex goes from simple to sick to existential, all his confusion wrapped in his comforting blanket of slang whose familiarity isn't nearly enough to protect him from the changes forced on his emotions. He remains a sympathetic character in a way that makes me feel like a terrible person for saying that, which means he's very well-written. A well-written sociopath.

The last chapter--I don't see how it's such a controversy. It's the logical, if somewhat muted, continuation of Alex's life. Leaving it out could be seen as approving such violence that he's gotten back into, or at least saying that it's an inevitable part of decaying society, but it's made clear that even though he's pushed past his conditioning, Alex won't be able to sustain his sociopathic behavior for much longer without it taking an even more crushing toll.

Anyway, go read this and see if you can tease out the metaphor for clockwork oranges. I didn't get that bit.

Blood and roses

Book: Catching Fire

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2009 (Scholastic)

Pages: 391

I read this entire book in one non-moving Sunday when I woke up at 7am without any provocation. To compress the frustration I feel at my body for adjusting to an early-bird work schedule, I made it sit still and plow through this second book in the series. 

As far as punishment being something unpleasant, this failed miserably.

It's a great ratcheting up of the tension that was sometimes lacking in the first. It's a good, paced-out reveal of the governmental underpinnings and the revolutionary unease that I wanted to see more of in the first. It's an awesome rebuilding of the Games--remember my complaint from last time that the first described Games arena could've been in my old back yard? Yeah, well, they fixed that. With water. And specifically sectioned torments. And really effective use of--how much can I reveal without giving the whole shebang away? I sort of assume that everyone's read this before me, because that's generally just how these things work in my reading habits of waiting until entire series is out/at the library/in really cheap paperback. 

Mild spoilers ahoy, okay?

Anyway, the arena is amped UP to Death by Tropical Island and they manage to punish Katniss for her rebellion by pulling some convoluted strings in the next Games to get her in them and of course Peeta jumps in there with her, somewhat unnecessarily, but whatever, they work well together in a survivalist way. 
They are still each a little bland for me to care about his declarations of love and her confusion, but like I said about the first one, at least when Katniss's thoughts go around and around, it's about survival and not manufactured torment over something that won't matter in a week. IN A WEEK SHE COULD BE DEAD.

My absolute favorite scene is when President Snow comes to visit Katniss at her winner's house and he pretends it's to congratulate her but it's really to intimidate her and she notices he smells like blood and roses. That is her first whiff of a rebellion that's raging out of control and that he holds her responsible for and oh shit, she's going to have to nut up or shut up in a huge, world-changing way.

...And then the rebellion kind of puts her up as a martyr without asking first, and it's sort of awkward and terrifying to her to see mockingjays flashed all over the place out of her control, and neither one of us (her as a character or me as a reader) ever gets even a quarter picture of the rebellion, which is annoying but I think will be address in Book 3 after the return of Gail and his announcement at the end of this Book 2. 

Side note: Still no annoying love triangle angst! Woo! But, again, I think that is going to get segued the hell into it in Book 3. Sigh. BUT I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS (to everything else).

Paddling my own canoe

Book: A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

Author: Elaine Showalter

Published: 2009 (Random House)

Pages: 512 (not counting end notes)

After reading this book, do I remember all the obscure women writers who paved ways but have gotten little historical credit?
Erm. No. Not really, no.

But do I get a sense of how their contributions pushed women writers forward in general?
Yes! Totally internalized that. They were badasses just by picking up pens when their societies were looking at their ink-stained hands and were all, "You're wasting perfectly good baby-holders there."

Did I discern any real change in women writers' progress to get taken seriously as artists through the centuries/decades?
Yes and no. Women have made it to "real people" status now, and their contributions to the canon are taking at least 85% [personal estimation] as seriously as men's. Yay. But according to this book, since the first colonial ladies, the conflict has always boiled down to art vs. domesticity, with variations of compromise, praise, and scorn of one or the other, which didn't depend so much on the era of the ladies as the determination of individual ladies themselves. There's been major progress in what details are no longer taboo to mention, but whatever a woman writes still does and has constantly commented on her stance. Even when she pointedly staying quiet about the argument, that's a statement about it too.

What did I think about the women writers who refused the label of "women writers"?
I think they had/have the right idea because the label still confers a condescension of sorts, and what group wants their work all lumped in together just because they happen to have one thing in common that affects their art in wildly different ways to super-divergent amounts? But I do think it's worth mentioning the perspective a writer is coming from on material and to what degree gender/sex affects this view on an individual basis. That'd be a pain in the ass to use for bookstore and library displays, though.   

How worried was I about the word "celebration" in the subtitle?
Fairly. It made this book look a lot more fluffy and uncritical than it actually is. But, again, this is one of my 90% finds from the dying Border's in my hometown last summer, and once I got to the part where the author rips Gertrude Stein a new one, I knew the author wasn't here for an unconditional love sisterhood meeting.

Which--okay, I tried to read 3 Lives and no, I didn't understand it. Postmodernism is one of those things I'm comfortable not understanding. But this author really, really hates Gertrude Stein and showed it by putting aside objectivity long enough to criticize so personally I started wondering if Stein had ever spit on her or something.

Bookshelf, donate, or trash: Bookshelf. It's a good reference book, inspiring without getting sentimental, and a good abbreviated history lesson. But ultimately, it works best as a very springy jumping off point to go find out more about the more interesting yet less covered ladies of the pages.