Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Going Greek

Book: Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities

Author: Alexandra Robbins

Published: 2004 (Hyperion)

Pages: 339

Greek life is sort of a chaotic neutral force in my own university orbit. I know it’s there, doing its own thing, and occasionally I’ll read in the school paper about the Dance Marathon they put on or the drinking fines they get, but none of it really affects me or the people I hang out with. I never even thought about pledging for reasons that keep sounding like they insult the system when I write them down (I’m not girly enough, not social enough, not rich enough, not Southern enough), but they’re truly just things I don’t happen to be instead of things I think are dumb in other people.

Naturally, this plus my freshman roommate turning me on to the TV show Greek has made me curious enough about what it’s like to read up on the subject. (That’s not exactly a difficult bar to clear.)

And Robbins’s book is pretty much exactly what I expected from my cobbled-together observations of event t-shirts bobbing through campus, ABC Family’s web stream, and Daily Gamecock articles: people are naturally social, dependent on ritual, and a little bitchy when they live together and are supposed to represent ideals while going through the massive personal upheaval of college.

I’m not entirely sure why this book got a crap-ton of controversy heaped onto it, unless it was all from people who got mad before they read it and refused to read it because somehow they already knew it was blasphemy. She mentioned getting emails about that. Probably because of this cover.

She follows four individual girls through a year in their academic/sorority life, which makes for great anecdotal evidence of actual drinking policies, peer pressure, the restricted dating pool, and the time/financial suck of sororities.  And it’s awesome that she got four completely different points of view on practically the same exact thing during the same school year. Not everybody liked Greek life by the end of the year. Only one of them seemed as enthusiastic as she was meant to be about sisterhood and bonding rituals and junk like that. But they all went through difficult, sometimes rewarding transformations as direct results of going through this process. It was neat to read about those, like case studies from a gossip magazine.

But after everybody got settled in and started talking to boys and each other, that bit turned into every YA novel that has ever dwelt too long on the gossipy dramas of young people.

How did she get all this inside information? She can’t say because the Greek systems she approached immediately went into orange-alert hostile mode when she was open about what she was doing, so she went undercover, I think just posing as a close friend of one or more of the girls who agreed to let her follow them. But she’s got all the dirt somehow, way too much mundane detail for me to keep caring about the individuals for over 300 pages, but thankfully she puts in some interesting factual sections after the girls would bring up a specific topic so it’s not all one gossip train-driven narrative.

Like, the differences between historically white and historically black sororities: the formers are more social-oriented, the latter usually more service-oriented. The former has a set, formal rush week when they grab up new girls, and the latter has much looser, sometimes completely open, rotating applications all year. There are sisters of different color in both types, but it’s a lot rarer than our post-Civil Rights era should be comfortable with.

Also hazing. That still happens, and that still hurts kids; it’s just more underground because now it’s technically against a super-fuzzy National rule.

Basically, Robbins takes the reader on an easy-to-read tour through the Greek system as a pressurized microcosm of college life, binge drinking and lifelong bonds and all.     

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book of the gods

Book: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Published: 2002 (HaperCollins)

Pages: 588

Between this and the Doctor Who episode he wrote for series six, I’m going to start calling myself an official Neil Gaiman fan. He’s a master at bringing the psychological to life where it dances around and swigs whiskey before putting on its top hat to either save or swindle the world.

Shadow is, I think, a great unintentional guide through a reader’s first Gaiman book. Shadow’s not dumb, but he’s quiet, knows how to blend it, and rolls with the weird shit that starts happening to him as soon as he gets out of prison where he’s been practicing coin tricks for the past three years.

When he finds out that he no longer has a wife, best friend, or job from that best friend to go back to thanks to a car crash, he joins with a conman who needs a sort of errand boy. Might as well, right? Nothing else to go back to.

That’s pretty much Shadow’s attitude throughout the first goodly chunk of the book, which is great because we get to go along for the ride as much as he does—up until he discovers all the disturbing dreams he’s been having and all the literally shifty people he’s been meeting and all the places he’s been going and all the TVs that have been talking to him are the preparations of war between old and new gods.

I love how Gaiman builds deities as idea that become incarnate and live where they hitched a ride into America with all the eleventy billion waves of settlers. The old ones (Easter—no, not that one, the pagan one—and Odin and Anansi and the like) are scratching out scruffy existences because no one believes in them anymore. The new ones (mostly technology) are terrified they’ll become obsolete as quickly as the gadgets that represent them.  Basically, there’s no more room for both sanctions, so they’re going to war over America for its faith energy.

OR ARE THEY? (Spoiler alert. Repeat, spoiler alert down below. And it’s a pretty good one, so don’t look if you haven’t read and want to. FOR REALZ.)

It turns out that Loki and Odin are manipulating the two sides into fighting so they’ll all die and release all their energy that Loki and Odin will be able to feed on and get all of the stronger.  And, after figuring out what’s going on and dying and wandering through the underworld and killing his dead wife so she’s finally at peace (in that order), Shadow has to stop it. And he does by pointing out what’s going on.

That is how Gaiman is going to draw me back into sci fic/fantasy exploration. He’s so excellent at fitting pieces together so their internal logic holds true even in paranormal situations like getting his heart weighted against a feather on the underworld scale.

It’s just such a cool blend of exploration, slowly dawning revelation, and anticipation that makes a super compelling read.  

The American worst-case scenario

Book: House of Sand and Fog

Author: Andre Dubus III

Published: 1999 (Vintage)

Pages: 365

This one was intense.

So imagine that you’re an Iranian immigrant, someone who was really rich and important when you fled your country’s rebel fighters and someone working three menial jobs at a time to keep up appearances in America. You happen to see a good house for sale super-cheap by the county and on a very impulsive, possibly stupid whim, you buy it to move you and your family into until you can find a buyer who will pay retail for the whole shebang. It’s a giant risk, but if it works (and it will work, it just has to work, you can feel it almost as bone-deep as the weariness from your road work day job as it sinks into your gas station night shift), it will save your family’s fortune, spirits, and reputation all in one pile of cash, until the former owner starts harassing you about her house she didn’t give you any sort of permission to buy.

Got that? Okay.

Now imagine you’re a junkie just getting your life back together in your dad’s old house. After he died and willed it to you and your brother, your brother let you use it because hell, it’s not like he needed a whole frickin’ house, and the whole family’s worried enough about you to give you a second chance. You’ve slowly gotten settled into a routine that’s building your new life around stuff that actually matters and doesn’t kill you, when suddenly the county seizes the house for unpaid taxes addressed to your recently ex-husband. You fight with what little resources you have, including a pro bono attorney who gets more and more difficult to contact the more she learns about the case and a sheriff you seduce at first for reasons so practical you won’t even admit them to yourself. Later you really do fall in love, but by then it’s too late and there’s nothing anyone can do without the new owner’s permission.

So you’ve got these two people in your head. They hate each other, they clash violently with each other, and they doom each other into a Gorgian knot that tightens past bureaucratic annoyance to vendentta all the way to personal understanding that breaks your heart because it’s too late. They’ve cut the knot down the middle, each taking their own great hack, and everything falls apart.

Details like the Iranian’s excellent but formal construction of English and the flashbacks that revealed just enough at a time to drive the recovering junkie’s motivation only where it was needed kept the voices unique while drawing parallels to the growing helplessness on both sides.

I wanted the sheriff to have sections from his own perspective because he gave up his entire family life to help the recovering junkie, and you really only got whatever he told her, which was not much. Bare-bones enough, though, and maybe the author didn’t want to stray off the plot, but the sheriff’s unraveling marriage did play a pretty big part in the action.

Wait until you’re fairly emotionally stable to read the end. I went from cringing at the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other to gaping at the sacrifice some are willing to give to atone for those horrible things even though nothing will erase them.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Looking for cash in all the wrong places

Book: Shopaholic

Author: Sophie Kinsella

Published: 2001 (Bantam Dell)

Pages: 350

Sigh. I'm not going to get shouty with this review. I feel like I should, because the protagonist is a very stupid woman who thinks her money problems (VISA bills and bank letters) will go away if she literally ignores them and buys more stuff in order to stop buying more stuff. Yeah. Her reasoning is just that sound the whole way through.

But I've been volunteering at a used bookstore, and they wanted their romance section caught up to date. What happens when I spend three hours at a time shelving mass market paperbacks with actual ripped bodices on them (and the highlander plaid, my laird almighty) is that a young professional's adorable financial ruin starts to look almost sensible. 

I bought it with my book credit and started it because I wanted to read something that didn't make me think too much (goal achieved). I kept reading it because she's really good at explaining her impulses, why they feel like needs, why it makes her feel better to shop, and how utterly helpless she feels against them because whenever she tries to face her problems, they get stupid overwhelming and she has to go buy something because it'll make her feel better. Which just keeps the cycle spinning and makes her feel even more helpless. The leaky pipe in my apartment bathroom made me feel that same "I've no idea what to do, so let's...ignore it and hope it goes away? Sure!" 

Both of us were stupid for not immediately going to someone who would probably know and asking "How do I fix this? How do YOU help me fix this if it's too much for just me?" And both of us got our deux-ex-machina endings in time to not drown.

For the Shopaholic, her "career" as a financial journalist (and she's the one that's snide about it, frank about the part where all she really does is attend press conferences, copy stuff off PR material from banks her magazine does advertising business with, and balk at giving actual advice that might affect someone's real-time green money) gets her on a TV show after she write her one and only legit story , about how a bank merger tricked their customers to switching before they could get a payoff. 

Even that story is printed in a tabloid, with the facts and quote massaging that implies. Anyway, on air she manages to start pulling out all the finance talk she's subliminally absorbed through halfway sort of paying attention at her job, and so she gets a regular TV advice gig that pays enough to get out of debt free. Whee! Oh and while all this is going down, she's dodging her flatmate's cousin's advances and unwittingly (very skeptical "uh huh" goes right about here) hurtling towards the rich billionaire she's been locking horns with the whole time.

Me, I just answered the knock on my door and it turned out it was my building's matenince trying to find a leak and tracing it to my apartment before I could convince myself to put my big-girl tenant pants on and go ask to get it fixed before I have to pay my next rent. 

Both endings were much easier than either of us deserved. Except there are like four more Shopaholic-themed sequels, which I am definitely not reading because I'm sure they're filled with enough manufactured drama to pull us both back under again.

Collection of gentle weirdos

Book: Speaking with the Angel

Author: various (edited by Nick Hornby)

Published: 2000 (Penguin collection)

Pages: 231

For the first time in about two books (as I read chronologically and don't give two figs about publishing schedules), Nick Hornby didn't disappoint me. Possibly because he wrote one of the stories here, made it a touchingly quirky reflection on how art can forge unexpected bonds with its audience, and gathered a bunch of his British-y friends to write similar incidences about life's details from interesting points of view.

Hornby's story takes an ex-bouncer looking to get out of the nightclub business and put him in charge of a controversial work of art. After a few days of fending off the crazies and staring at the canvas, the guy feels like he and the picture understand each other, which makes him feel all the worse when someone finally manages to sneak in and do some damage. What the guy can't understand is that the artist actually wanted that to happen; the guy thinks the work itself was so much better a statement of finding something sacred in weird places. But what does he know? He's just an ex-bouncer they hired to keep people from smearing sandwiches into the carpet. 

That tied very closely with Giles Smith's entry, which is a prison cook talking about how she prepares last meals for the prisoners who are to be executed. The cook illuminates the absurdity of it by treating it as all very matter-of-fact and ruminating on why more of the condemned want hamburgers and fries instead of proper home-cooked meals, and the ending quietly brings home the horrifying truth of the whole process without any melodramatics. The cook forgets something, runs back in, and sees the plate come back without anything eaten from it. It made me wonder how much this happens and if the cook's just realizing the implications of it herself.

Colin Firth, surprisingly, also does a really good job of going meta but staying literal about how fanciful stories can form bonds and help people get through hard times. I salute his refusal to take this into the literal fairy world because that would be a cop-out. As it stands, the boy who's survived school by listening to his grandma tell stories and now has to face her death has to face real life with the tools he's given and can't just step away from it all. 

And lessee here...Melissa Blank's relationship ultra-realism stands up a lot better in short format where it can bump over that small climax without needing to carry the extra weight of another 190 pages; Irvine Welsh has a fierce, savage sense of justice; Zadie Smith parallels physical and emotional growth while demonstrating how they never seem to stick to the same pace. Oh, and if you want to know the career trajectory of a mime, John O'Farrell tells you all about it from a "superstar" of the art.

Read more short story collections that manage to forget about Literary Aspirations and get down to the interesting characters in normal settings or weird characters in normal settings. Get to it!

I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Book: The Commoner

Author: John Burnham Schwartz

Published: 2008 (Doubleday)

Pages: 351

Slight confession--I'm trying to hack my way through a jungle of a hard sci fi collection, and the underbrush has swallowed me whole for about a month. It's made me too twitchy to deal with it AND real life at the same time. Last week I caved at the sight of the free book table in the Irmo branch library. FREE BOOKS, y'all. Free books that didn't try to explain string theory to me (well, not if I didn't want them to). 

I declared a break from the hard sci fi and dived right into my favorite subgenre of lit fic, the Cross-Cultural Relative and/or Significant Other Transplant. And I admit my opinion of this book might be colored by being my first gasp of familiar air in awhile, so I'll start by complaining.

The main problem with The Commoner is how big a deal everyone makes about Crown Prince of Japan marrying a commoner...who is not actually nearly as far from his social strata as warrants that kind of implied gaspings behind fans. Haruko's a beautiful young girl from a family wealthy enough to send her to private school and let her play enough tennis to meet the Crown Prince and get in the orbit of his social circles like that. Guys, this isn't Cinderella. 

And the Crown Princes have traditionally chosen Princesses from finishing schools very similar to Haruko's, even if she's the first one from hers. She doesn't do any scheming except whaling him in tennis, on accident because her people are like, "Don't insult the dude who's lined up to rule us by beating him as a girl!"

I do love their courtship. Their phone calls are the only alone times they get and they're so awkward, just like normal people who want to say so much but don't know how. 

But once they get hitched, the narrative gets general to the point where it feels like listening to an older relative tell a story rather than like actually being in the daily action of Haruko trying to grasp the magnitude of her duties. Which, okay, all she really has to do is produce a male heir, but before she does that (quite easily, really), I wanted to see her stumble on ridiculous robes or accidentally pour tea on the wrong leaf or just screw up a bunch of minor court rules until she begins to find her own inner royal. Like the Princess Diaries with way more dignity and subcontext between the passive-aggressive complisults from her mother-in-law. Haruko does get reprimanded, and often, but we only hear about the generalities in a diary-type listing of what she did wrong and how she eventually managed to get better with, it's implied, not more and probably less of a problem than a real, used-to-farm-dirt commoner would've had.

It's still a cool story and would make a kick-ass story to hear from a great-aunt or grandma or someone unexpected, but there are way too many details left out to make it a compelling triumphant struggle or living slice of history.