Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fever

I really thought Fever was going to blow up this summer, but while it seems to have a respectful following online, I haven't heard that much buzz about it in real life.  It's by Megan Abbott, of Dare Me, which also gets great reviews - I haven't read it yet.  Anyway, I thought it was fantastic, and while I think it's doing well, it's obviously not reaching like, Hunger Games proportions.

Speaking of, I just saw Mockingjay Pt 1 last night and it was, as my friend duly noted, "the Empire Strikes Back of the series" This morning I looked up what comes after a trilogy and apparently it's a ... tetrology?  I think we'd all better learn that word as Hollywood continues to capitalize on trilogies that could stretch out in a movie.  Also, in a further digression about words that sound suspicious, I took this test at work called a "strength finder" and one of my "strengths" is "Intellection".  Which I looked up immediately because I thought it was made up.  It means an exercise of the intellect.  In other words, I think I'm smart, and I may or may not be.  Also useful.

Anyway.  Fever (btw, that COVER, amirite?):  It's actually been ages since I read it, but here's what I remember:  some girls at this school are having these seizures - it starts with one girl, and then slowly spreads.  And the community and the parents get caught up in this idea that there's some environmental or, you guessed it, vaccination factor that's effecting the girls. But the lead character, Deenie, has a sinking feeling it has to do with having sex.  The repercussions of sex weigh heavily throughout the book, and in fact it begins with this conversation between girls (that sounds like it's about sex but actually isn't, but: clever, right?):
      "The first time, you can't believe how much it hurts."Deenie's legs were shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hand hot on her thigh.    Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.    "I heard you might want to throw up even," one says. "I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle."   "It just kind of burns," says another. "You're sore for a few days. I heard by the third time, you don't even feel it."
Fever is something of a mystery, and as you read, you might suspect that the unsolved seizures are related to the very mystery of girls - which, for me, both hit home and was also unacceptable.  Abbott's story is at once a fairy tale and yet 100% possible.  She really ingeniously taps into the sometimes seemingly inexplicable behaviors of girls and their parents - how both might be searching for answers in an irrational world.

Like the best YA, Fever spans genres, raises questions for all ages and would be appealing to a wide audience.  Like Tana French's latest, Secret Place, it's an intriguing and accurate representation of the lives of teenage girls.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Oh, what a great book The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is!  If you thought fun vampire books were SO OVER, think again!

I read some reviews when this book came out over the summer that said how great it was, but I was like, "Vampires? Nothankyou."  But, this is no Twilight, and it's no Stackhouse either.  In Holly Black's YA novel, vampires have been discovered in the human world and relegated to "Coldtowns" - ghetto-ized parts of big cities where vampires and humans are kept behind walls - a self-sustaining and self-governed area that sustains itself on webcasts and black markets.  They're dangerous and perceived as glamourous - some humans want to go there and become immortals, but are more likely to end up dead.

Tana wakes up the morning after a "Sundown party" in which all of her friends have been killed and her ex-boyfriend is "cold" - he's been bitten by a vampire and will turn into a vampire himself if he drinks human blood.  Tana saves her ex-boyfriend and a mysterious vampire named Gavriel.  Gavriel's an old vampire, and he falls in love with Tana because she saves him - the first person to ever help him.  He's dangerous and gorgeous and old-fashioned, hence, he's smokin' hot and irresistible to Tana, but, thank god there's more to their relationship than mere attraction (ahem Edward and Bella!) Black also inserts a little covert Marxism into her story.  Tana reflects on "a bunch of professors talking about monsters" on tv, "The monster is bigger than human. It represents abundance - overabundance, the white-haired man had said, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose. It has lots of eyes, extra arms, too many teeth. Everything about it is to many and too much."  I happened across this great article in the NY Times while reading the book: Dreamboat Vampires and Zombie Capitalists that helped me understand Black's not just shitting around here, I suspect she could talk some deep theory with the best.

But, whether you love Lacan or just a good old fashioned teen romance (with vampires!), this book doesn't disappoint. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a terrific read that's full of excitement, surprises and steamy kissing.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Redeployment

Redeployment, by Phil Klay, was shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award - they haven't announced the winners yet.  After reading a glowing review, I grabbed a copy from the library and, I have to tell you, it was one of the most stunning books I've read this year.

It's a group of short stories about the war in Iraq, with each story told from the perspective different figures in the military.  Klay was a Marine (who earned an MFA from Hunter College after his service) and brings a sense of immediacy to each story making the conflict all the more real for someone like me, for whom the war is really just sort of an abstract reality.  Reading books like Redeployment and the breathtaking Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, provide a way for me to make the war more real and better understand the daily reality for soldiers.  It was interesting, having read those two books this year, the dramatic difference between gender roles presented in each author's book.  Hoffman's story is about a female veteran with PTSD - her story is fairly universal, however she certainly had a unique story as a woman at war.  Klay's book is definitely male-focused.  There are very few instances of women characters in his stories, and their appearances are full of meaning.  Treated mostly by his male characters as mere concepts or receptacle, Klay's integration of women comes as a shock - helping the reader realize what a male-dominated arena most soldiers live in.  In one story, for example, a woman makes a short appearance, first smelled by the narrator.

That sort of thing would normally infuriate me if it wasn't so obvious that Klay's treatment of women in his stories was so thoughtful and specific.  In "Psychological Operations", a returned soldier in college wants to unload his stories on a female classmate.  A she struggles to avoid being his emotional receptacle, he pointedly ignores her, undeterred in his new mission of relief.  Finally she gives in and listens, as if choosing to paying the price for his service - allowing herself to be the vessel he's looking for.

For me, one of the more powerful stories was "Frago", a story full of military lingo and acronyms that I could barely understand.  It further exemplified how soldiers lives are so different from civilians - so much that they have their own language.  It must be so difficult for a soldier to simply talk to someone without a military background.  "I'm across from PFC Dyer, and he's not eating much. I'm next to some Navy O4 from the BOS, and he's chowing down. when he sees we aren't exactly FOBbits, he starts talking.  I don't tell him what we're here for, I just say a little about our COP and how it's good to eat something that's not an MRE or the Iraqis' red shit and rice."

I feel fairly confident that Redeployment will earn a spot next to The Things They Carried and Catch 22 in the annals of war literature.  It will be exciting to see what Klay writes next - I would love to see a long-form novel from him.

Here's a last quote from the book which I think beautifully summarizes this incredible group of short stories:
He would have gathered all the personal effects and prepared the body for transport. Then it would have gone by air to TQ. And as it was unloaded off the bird, the Marines would have stood silent and still, just as we had in Fallujah. And they would have put it on a C-130 to Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Germany, and silent and still at Dover Air Force Base. Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen, where the silence, the stillness, would end.


Sunday, October 05, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris impressed everyone with his debut novel Then We Came to The End - an astonishing book told in first person plural about a group of people that work in an office in Chicago.  I LOVED it.  His second book, I must admit, I forgot I read until I found, ahem, my own review. Looks like I liked it...

I just finished To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and I have mixed feelings.  While I thought the writing was superb and exciting and innovative, I must admit I skipped many a page in the second half because the plot moved so slowly.  There used to be a time in my life where beautiful prose was really all I was looking for, but, I have to say I'm pretty plot-motivated these days.  This book actually reminded me a LOT (in tone) of David Foster Wallace and John Kennedy Toole (Confederacy of Dunces) but not in a good way.... Those two writers initially blew me off my feet but also I quickly tired of them after about 50 pages.  It's like their superlative, effusive prose can't sustain a novel.  With each of these three writers I always start out like, "This is the greatest thing I've ever read!" and 50 pages later, I'm like, "Jesus Christ, give it a fucking rest!"  Causing me to look deep inside myself:  Can I not "handle" a massive prose machine or is it really too much?

The main character in To Rise Again is a fairly successful dentist in Manhattan, Paul O'Rourke.  He's from a poor family in the Midwest - in fact, his father was mentally ill and committed suicide - details of which eek out slowly in unexpected moments.  He has two ex-girlfriends that he's kind of fixated on - one was a Catholic girl from college and another is his Jewish dental hygienist, Connie.  What he loved perhaps the most about each girl was her extended family, but, as an atheist, he was never really able to allow himself to be part of their clan - he felt separated from them as if by an impenetrable barrier, and often put his foot in his mouth when trying to ingratiate himself.  I should mention that the book is really hilarious, and make me laugh out loud a lot.  He's just such an idiot.
Poet are a ponderous bunch. (Connie's a poet.) They're hypocrites, too. They'd never step foot in a church in America, but fly them to Europe and they rush from tarmac to transept as if the real God, the God of Dante and chiaroscuro, of flying buttresses and Bach, had been awaiting their arrival for centuries.  What thrall, what sabbath longing, will overcome a poet in the churches of Europe. And Connie was Jewish!
Anyway, eventually what happens is someone claims that Paul is part of this long line of peoples that have been persecuted since time immemorial and the book becomes this sort of mediation on how a person might practice or be a part of a religion without belief and whether and how couples can or should share the same belief system.  It's ambitious and messy but really admirable.  I love that he tackled this huge theme, even though it got pretty slippery.  I'm not the only one - it was short-listed for the Man Booker this year and was a National Book Award Finalist.