Sunday, July 14, 2013

I really should've seen the feels coming on this one.

Book: The Fault In Our Stars
Author: John Green
Published: 2012 (Dutton)
Pages: 313

Goddammit, John Green.

Here I was boppin’ through this Kids With Cancer book that is smarter and more delightfully cynical than most of the others but still just a variation on a very recognizable theme, albeit with more impromptu trips to Amsterdam. (Was anybody else convinced the whole time that Augustus was going to reveal that he had been writing those letters from the author all along? I totally was even as the author guy opened the door and got cranky at them.)

The protagonist is your basic smart, wry everygirl who falls in love with the love interest even faster than usual but does manage to use her own practicality to convince herself of otherwise for a bit. He, of course, is perfect, and promptly goes about doing his witty best to convince her that she’s the perfect one. Normal YA tropes with slightly elevated banter. They meet cute in a cancer support group, immediately click, and then inevitably have to deal with their diseases and SPOILER his death, which they do with more playful dignity than I ever knew anybody to have at sixteen.

But! Nothing bad. Still good writing, nice insights gleamed from everyday details, fully rounded if not completely present support cast, believable emotion. I was coasting at about 75% of the feels because come on. Likable kids with cancer dealing with it in smartass ways.
And then I read this last bit and sort of lost it: “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”

FUCK. I had forgotten all about that line until it reached into my chest and squeezed my heart sore again. THANKS, GREEN.

Back to the Library (in its shiny new Teen Space!) with this one. 

Your basic journey across American and its parallel fantasy land

Book: The Talisman
Authors: Stephen King and Peter Straub
Published: 1984 (Ballentine)
Pages: 735

Reading this book made me wonder what parts King wrote and what parts Straub wrote. It’s a very King-esque travel narrative with a lot of his tropes, but they’re noticeably reigned in. I wonder if King wrote, and then Straub edited. It’s more even than King’s own prose about slowly going crazy over the course of a road trip when the only thing that keeps a shred of sanity is the moral convictions of your ideals, but it’s also not as interesting. Lowest lows and highest highs just sort of level off into a slog you can feel with the poor kid.

The boy who goes on a cross-country, cross-dimensional trip to find a cure for his dying mother and the other dimension’s queen is pretty bland. The only things that make him interesting are what’s given to him in the end, physically and psychically along the way. His friend’s got a whole fiercely self-protected logical fallacy to grapple along with the fact that his dad’s the main bad guy, so that makes the friend’s heroics more complex than just the good-vs-evil the protagonist has to clearly guide his way.

And they can jump from this world to a magical parallel one but the magic rules aren’t consistent enough to get a good hold on why and how this started. There’s a lot of talk about their two dads discovering and trying to start a business in the realm (corruption ahoy!) but it quickly gives way to a sort of Geneva Convention weapons debate that doesn’t get resolved before the good one is killed, turning all that debate into a moot point that could’ve better been spent exploring or convincing me of its half-ass, selectively working magic.

Anyway, I’m not really a fan of fantasy. This is like the lightest fantasy you could read in adult fiction, probably, including the Dark Tower series, and my attention kept wandering. It just didn’t feel as immediate as a lot of King’s writing, so it was sort of boring. I guess I’ll donate it.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Sometimes, y’all, I just flounder around and drag my reading with me. That’s what happened to these guys, although my putting them down is ultimately (mostly) their fault. They allow themselves to be flounderable, so I reserve the right to not finish them.
Still feels a bit like a defeat, though.

The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner
I fall for this every time it’s raining on a Sunday when I don’t have anywhere to go after dinner – I wanna read something that feels good instead of thinks, because I’ve been thinking all week and a fat lot of good it’s done me so far. (It has, in fact, done me at least moderate good, but tell Sunday Melanie that and she will just demand more paperbacks with brightly-colored spines.)
Jennifer Weiner doesn’t go deep enough to feel good. Her dialogue’s clever but her characters are too supported and her stories are lacking any actual conflict to get the mildly invested I need to be to feel vicariously awesome at her inevitable happy endings.
But every time, you guys. Every. Time. I think it’ll be different. I blame her author interviews which are totally more self-depricatingly inspiring than anything her “smartass” narrators ever come up with.

The Corrections, by Johnathan Franzen
These all go back to trying to find the perfect comfort read, which sounds perverse with this one, but seriously. I wanted a big chunk of family angst that was familiar enough to not lose everything if I couldn’t pay as strict attention as usual to all the details and real enough so I could delve into someone else’s pain, and damned if Franzen isn’t like the best dude currently for that. I mean like excruciatingly realistic. Reading as, like, exfoliating with that bathroom sandpaper-on-a-washcloth kind of stuff.
I read The Corrections awhile back, as a random pick from my NA library when I still lived there, and it wasn’t the book’s fault this time because it’s exactly as described above and worked just as well as I thought it would; only turns out I didn’t need it nearly as long as it was taking to read the book. So I’m taking it back about half-read but actually sort of happy about that.

Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, by Tad Friend
My Franzen craving flared up real hard at a branch that didn’t have The Corrections at the moment, so I picked this up as sort of the memoir-equivalent of what I remember The Corrections being about. It’s not; it’s a gentle poke at WASP culture that never gets wry enough to offer any real insight, and at least once a chapter (of the couple I read) devolves into a list of historic names and places that are dizzying and, again, not presented with near enough context as to why we’re supposed to care either as honest admirers or smug derivers.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (audio book version), by Brock Clarke
I checked this out for the ride to and from NA when I went to visit my parents last month because I can’t handle music right now. So, words! Words of a book I’ve been curious about for awhile! But oh geez this turns – not depressing, but extremely repetitious about the depressing parts of the story. Like, seriously, this is a really good argument for that editing trick of reading your stories out loud, because it circles back around to the same point so many times I just couldn’t do it. And it pairs that oddly with that trick of telling great chunks of time – seemingly important time to character/plot development, I mean you gotta be picky about this, I know, but a little more how-did-we-get-here and a little less oh-shit-what-have-I-done, okay? – in single paragraphs or pages. (Well, like I know how long a page sounds. Whatever.)
Maybe I’d like it better if I read the words myself, but for now I’m handing it back in and listening to Sports Talk.


Sibling/food rivalry

Book: Big Brother
Author: Lionel Shriver
Published: 2013 (HarperCollins)
Pages: 373

This is the first full-priced, new-release hardback I’ve bought in I can’t even remember. But it’s a new Lionel Shriver about food and sibling relations, y’all. She’s covered both of these so well in books where those weren’t even the main focus.

And I was mostly happy with my purchase. It’s about a lady who discovers her brother has become, like, triply-morbidly obese in the couple of years since she’s seen him when he comes to crash with her and her late-life husband and stepkids.

I was surprised at how blunt the brother’s grotesquery was described. There was some underlining concern about his health, but seriously, their big problem with him was just him being fat in general and all the undisciplined, sloppy life choices this indicated. There was also some general politicking about fat people in America and how they became the norm and how that indicates the decline of our country, and it was at the same time less frequent but slightly less story-justified than some of Shriver’s other books (only some, though).

The brother-sister relationship of a rich, independent sister whose feelings of obligation to her broke-ass bohemian relation is complicated by her hard-earned personal love to her husband, who can’t understand why she’d even consider choosing helping her brother over the family she chose herself. She can’t articulate it, either, but she knows it’s some complicated knot of want/have to, and once she makes the first leap of major investment into helping him lose weight, she’s in too deep to decide anymore.

It seems like she throws her whole life into helping her brother with the Herculean task of getting him to lose all his excess, moving in with him and going on a crash all-liquid diet alongside him, shoving him until he starts sprinting to his goal himself and turns his life around – only to shove it all back in and break her heart right after she helps him celebrate meeting his goal.

But that last half of the book turns out to be a guilty fantasy harbored by a sibling who lets the problem go instead of actually trying to do anything about it. It was more illuminating about sibling relationships than it was narratively satisfying, but I still appreciate what it showed, and I still like Shriver’s baroque internality, and I still want her to be the lady writer who glares at me when I start whining at how hard this all is.  

It's a sickle! It's a dictator! It's a kid with a famous name!

I’ve never really been interested in Superman. A friend says that Superman’s his favorite because of his unambiguity, but that’s exactly why I think he’s boring (Superman, not the friend). And by the time I started getting into comics – like, less than three years ago – there were and continue to be SO MANY heroes with SO MUCH MORE complexity. And complexity is what makes good stories.

But with a superhero’s age also comes variations on a theme, and my library system sent two of them to my place on the holds shelf, and let me tell you; they’re not bad.

Superman: Red Son
Mark Miller, Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett
2003 (DC)

Superman lands on a collective work farm in Poland/the USSR instead of a Kansas cornfield in America during the Cold War. Becomes symbol of the people’s Communism instead of truth, justice, the American way. Bam. He’s still the same basic dude – he still uses his powers for good, which doesn’t look all that different than American good, which might be meant to say something about the universality of basic heroism. I can get behind that.

But it also means that he questions the party line more than I think he would if he had truly grown up getting all that drilled into him. It did create good tension between his ideals of purely representing the people and realizing well, shit, socialism needs a leader too. I liked how he made all the little compromises of a person in power until he became overprotective (like, think one-man 1984) gradually enough to be genuinely surprised when people rebelled. 
Also, Lois Lane marries Lex Luther, who is a famous US scientist who makes a Gollum-Superman for America to fight the Red Son, and the ending is a neat little Moibus strip that points to its beginning.

The art is colorful with bold lines. Yay.

Superman: Secret Identity
Kurt Busiek, Stuart Immonen
2004 (DC)

This series explores Superman’s emergence/discovery/shaping of his powers as a sort of going-through-puberty thing. It’s not an exact metaphor, but Clark (Kent) starts out as a regular kid who’s name has gotten him teased ragged about being Superman, because in this world superheroes are only in comics too.

And then one day Clark figures out he has powers. That part didn’t impress me, since it was literally a panel of Clark in the air going, “And then I could fly.” The end. However, what he does with that discovery…really isn’t all that surprising, as he attempts to do as much good as he can without anybody figuring him out. But he’s so human, and teenager-y about it, that it feels fresh. Bullies still push him around until he uses his superspeed to punch one out. Yeah! Plus he saves his crush from being crushed by a pole at a Halloween party that he wanted to make his coming-out party.

A last-second community emergency makes him re-think that, and he goes on to live life and keep his secret from everyone except his eventual wife, twin daughters, and a certain government scientist he’s been working with in disguise. The government scientist totally calls him out on that in the last pages, too, which I really enjoyed. I gotta say, Superman’s “disguise” has always been too much for my suspension of disbelief to, you know, suspend. He works at a top-notch investigative newspaper and dates one of its best reporters, and nobody ever finds out his secret before he tells him? Yeah, right. I bet the entire office has known for so long it’s just not worth mentioning anymore. There’s probably more tension about the “I’ll be my Pulitzer on it!” timing bets.

Anyway, so this turns out to be a pretty decent tour of Superman’s life and how heroism passes to the next generation but never truly changes form.

Batman is still cooler. But I did enjoy reading about the Man of Steel more than I have before. Back to the library with these.