Friday, March 29, 2013

Cheap redemption!

Book: Sharp Objects
Author: Gillian Flynn
Published: Thompson Gale (2006)
Pages: 413


Seriously. All the random snark and hostility from Gone Girl? Here it builds actual character, and it cracks to show vulnerability, and the main character has secrets that she totally hints at the whole time and that all builds into a nice giant snowball of a Mommy Dearest sort of ending, and WHY DID EVERYONE MAKE HER SHITTY BOOK HER FAMOUS ONE?

There’s this mid-tier newspaper reporter living her shabby, lonely life in Chicago who gets an assignment to go cover the start of a serial murder in her hometown. She doesn’t especially want to dive back into the place she left for a reason, but she likes her editor enough to half-heartedly want to keep him happy, and she figures maybe her old scares have healed. Boy was she wrong!

And yes, it gets batshit crazy by the end, but dammit, this narrative earns that batshit crazy ending like a champ. Her past trauma is slowly pulled out of her and put to good use, and even as she frankly acknowledges and cringes at her faults, the protagonist shows she’s at least trying to grow out of the bad habits that kept her demons at bay, and when she fails it’s because she’s human and not because the plot needed her to trip up. Yay!

I’m so excited that this second chance has paid off. That doesn’t happen a hell of a lot; I don’t take second chances on authors when I read something shitty of theirs first, but I put all three of Flynn’s novels on hold at my library at the same time because I was something ridiculous like 50th in line for Gone Girl so I figured I’d read whatever came first.

And then Sharp Objects came along and I figured I’d try it anyway because it just seems rude to ignore my holds. Library etiquette wins the day. 

Flocks of good words

Book: Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories
Author: Lauren Groff
Published: 2009 (Hyperion)
Pages: 304

You guys, I’ve been burying myself in short stories because they’re awesome and I’m also trying to write good ones myself. This collection was a good place to dive in, because it has a story about a famous swimmer who coaches an invalid girl during the WWI flu epidemic and they mess around and fall in love and get separated from each other and their love child and then the swim coach becomes a famous poet and the girl becomes a famous lady-swimmer and they keep running into each other’s achievements without ever meeting in person again.

Groff tends to tell the entire lives of her characters, from where they are at the start of their stories to the ends of their lives whether or not that end puts a relevant end to the incident at hand. That works better in some narratives than others:

  • “L. DeBard and Aliette” (the swimmer story), “Sir Fleeting,” and “Blythe” are all about the protagonists meeting and getting tangled up with another person for life and exploring that tangle with a wide-tooth comb. I especially liked how “Blythe” showed the day-to-day drain of how always being there for a melodramatic friend only ever made that friend worse, and how even though it’s after decades of this, the protagonist can still decide she doesn’t have time for this shit anymore. Only classier. I think there was a cocktail party involved in this realization.
  • But like in “Majorette” and “Lucky Chow Fun,” both about scandalous community shake-ups that happen in the protagonists’ high school years and reshaped their towns forever, the ending goes on too long after the actual event has affected everyone.
  • “The Wife of the Dictator” was a collective-first person story about the rise and fall of a dictator’s regime as told through gossip about the dictator’s wife, and “Delicate Edible Birds” was about a group of WWII reporters trying to out-drive Nazis who ended up staying the night in a Nazi-sympathizer’s barn with no food or shelter until their woman reporter slept with the Nazi farmer.

Those were my favorite because their opposite use of voice fit each narrative perfectly: collective gave the gossip a dreamy air so I kept wondering what was actually true until the truth started folding itself and its own wives into cars to get the hell out of the country before the dictator crashed and burned; the tight-knit anxious camaraderie between the reporters made their gang-up on the woman reporter all the more devastating a betrayal when they put their pressure on her. 

Good stuff; goes back to the library by the 26th, but two upcoming teasers: Ann Patchett says read more short stories (yes, ma’am!), and Groff’s novel was less than $4 at Books-a-Million today when an overeager clerk gave me excellent excuse to saunter to the opposite end of the store when he was snagged by another customer. (Hello, bargain books, my old friends. I shall use some real money on you this time!) Stay tuned, dear Reader.

Useful math

Book: The Solitude of Prime Numbers
Author: Paolo Giordano
Published: 2010 (Viking)
Pages: 271

Twin primes are prime numbers that are separated by only one even number between them, like 11 and 13. They’re oddballs that don’t fit in anywhere else and they can almost touch but not quite and they get exponentially rarer as you climb up the number line. They’re also excellent metaphors.

Alice and Mattia have both suffered odd, preventable-in-hindsight traumas that make them just a little out of place in their normal world of high school: Alice had to pee during a ski lesson her dad made her take and when she went to find a bush to squat behind she fell off a ledge and didn’t call attention to herself because she hated skiing so she didn’t get medical help in time to heal her leg right. Mattia had to take his mentally handicapped twin sister to a birthday party but told her to stay on a picnic table halfway there so she wouldn’t embarrass him and she was gone when he came back and was never found.

Alice turns reckless and anorexic to feel alive; Mattia turns to math for its logic. They meet, gradually uncover each other’s flaws, and become friends while they aren’t paying attention. 
They never quite come together, and SPOILE ALERT in the end when they find each other, they find that they don’t fit. And you know what? That’s actually okay. They both realize that it will never be the right time for both of them at the same time, and that’s why I ended up loving this book.

The beginning when the traumas are described as perfectly plausible but just offbeat enough to cause lasting damage, and the ending when they realize they won’t be able to help each other as perfectly as they thought but that they still help each other and that’s maybe enough – both of those chunks are done great, humanistic favors by the quiet prose. This same style kind of makes the middle sag with the weight of everyday life, though it was never a chore to get through. Just more ordinary. 

This was translated from Italian and it’s been on my radar for a couple years, so:
  •        No idea how good/faithful the translation is
  •       I’m sad I have to turn it back in to the library, but I’m very glad I read it once. For free!  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How potted ham makes you a man (even when you don't want to be)

Book: Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger
Author: Nigel Slater
Published: 2003 (Gotham)
Pages: 235

The beginning of this book is perfect to read out loud to old people. It’s about how different foods shaped or described Slater’s childhood. No more, and oh definitely not any crumb of toast left. It’s warm and understated and sometimes bratty and basically exactly like a boy explaining, if unconsciously, how one’s choice of candy bar marks what he is to his classmates who can see his purchase and how hating the preservative jelly on a specific type of tinned ham fails a man test set forth by his dad.

And then he hits adolescence and his mom dies and his dad marries again to a great cook and a lot of food begins to tie into sexual awakening and then you should stop reading out loud to old people and enjoy the rest of it like everything else the author (and you, don’t lie) hides from his parents.

It’s fantastic. It’s specific, detailed, broken into (pun ahoy) easily digestable chunks that by themselves are slight and charming but, like a meringue, whip together into something solid, and frank enough to show how broken or badly cooked or disgusting foods (=bits of life) shape a person even more than the good stuff.

And it never devolves into food porn, so it’s going onto my bookshelf next to my other awesome memoirs. Like a more sincere, more edible David Sedaris.    

IN SPACE (again)!

Book: Plantes Volumes 1 – 4/2
Author/illustrator: Makoto Yukimura
Published: 2004 (TokyoPop in the US)


This manga series about a trash collector IN SPACE and his crew is set in the near-ish future where humans have managed to harness various bits of near-ish space to mine resources. So there’s the main guy who wants to save up for his own spaceship and eventually devotes his life to getting onto the first mission to Jupiter. His little (younger, yes; size, not so much by volume 3) brother builds and sets off rockets in their Earth back yard; his dad is a hard-living astronaut who has made his mother into a feisty contradiction of take-no-shit and resignation.

His captain is a woman who is slowly going crazy not being able to smoke in space. Her son back on Earth copes with her gianormously long absences by collecting every living creature he can get to follow him home; her husband’s kinda bland, he’s in like two panels.

The other guy on crew – oh man you guys, spoiler alert because what makes his storyline so awesome is that the series opens with him and his wife flying on an Earth-to-moon transport and it crashes and he survives but she doesn’t and the vessel becomes debris that explodes into orbit and that’s why he becomes a debris collector (space trash guy), to find the compass she always wore because she was afraid of flying.

Seriously, that character motivation is so elegantly sparse yet easy to see that it’s what made that little great read “click” sound in the back of my head. And it was right!

The story evolves into a war about control and pollution in outer space, and another spoiler alert – it does eventually get to Jupiter. It centers around the characters but since they’re all space people, the politics affect their whole way of living, so it’s high personal stakes anchored in a bigger turbulent world. And the art reflects that, too; it’s not photorealistic, but it’s detailed enough to show endless personal character/emotional details and contrast the straight intricate lines of space stations to the more unpredictable flexibility of humans and Earth.

My only problem with this series is that it’s too short, because you never see what actually happens once they actually land on Jupiter, i.e. achieve only the first part of a much bigger mission they’ll be on for seven years, and the evil bureaucrat was just warming up with his shady priest friend by the last few pages. 

Bookshelf and I demand more manga! Where’s our Volume 4/3?

The big disconnect

Book: The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You By Pop Culture
Author: Nathan Rabin
Published: 2009 (Scribner)
Pages: 339

Ugh. Okay, so AV Club writing + crazy life + Friends of the Library book sale = the perfect $2 storm of a reading experience, right? Not so much.

Rabin’s really good at writing about pop culture and showing how everything from The Great Gatsby to gangster rap shapes culture and relates to and builds on and influences and saves and reforms each other and its audience. He’s also got a hell of a turbulent early life that clung to pop culture as an escape to better things that became his real life. Unfortunately, these two things are not combined. In a memoir where that’s supposed to be the whole point. That is a problem.

Each chapter’s headed by a title, a subtitle of the pop culture work that’s supposed to have something to do with the chapter’s subject, and then – and THEN a second subtitle that’s no more than another zinger. And oh sweet mumbo jumbo there are zingers. ALL. OVER. I’m not going to take Rabin’s depressed dad, runaway mom, stay in a disturbed teenage home, or exploding supernova of a terrible first relationship seriously if he’s trying his standup act all in this.

I love sarcasm and it’s the best emotional shield/bonding device ever, but especially in personal prose like oh I don’t know a memoir, it keeps dear readers at arms’ length at the exact moments when you need to draw them close to give them anything more than a shallow experience.

And beyond a paragraph or half-page at the beginning of each chapter, the particular pieces of pop culture are never mentioned in the kind of soul-saving life-molding specifics that I was so looking forward to hearing about. Dude, I am basically a pile of books and CDs and Seinfeld and Star Wars and Doctor Who quotes built in the rough shape of a human being; I understand this shit and I survived high school exactly like this, but there weren’t nearly enough personal connections between the narrative and the material to make me feel like I know Rabin any more than his naked commune neighbors.

I’d been looking forward to reading this, too. The AV Club podcast has spoiled me on pop culture connection storytelling, I guess, although Rabin has always been my least favorite speaker for the reasons as state above so I should’ve known. Such high hopes are going into the donate pile.*
*Actually a trash bag I will have to haul out to my car soon before it gets too heavy.