Monday, June 30, 2014

On YA, Dickens, and Schadenfreude

There have been a few articles that have shaken up the book world lately - first was this silly article in Slate by Ruth Graham titled Against YA that sent most of the writers I follow on Twitter into a veritable firestorm, not to mention the gals in my book club. We read about one YA book a year, and our next selection is Eleanor & Park  - one of the examples she uses to support her claim that YA books aren't serious literature. Graham goes so far to say "I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."  Listen: I don't feel embarrassed about ANYTHING I read when I'm reading a fucking book, and neither should you.

So, everyone knows that Graham's article is little more than click-bait, but she does express a common opinion, which is that YA literature isn't serious and that reading YA isn't exactly something to be proud of.  When 1 in 4 Americans don't read a book in a year (and the other 75% average at only 5 books a year) I don't give two shits what people are reading as long as they're reading something.

So, to what does Graham think adult readers should turn their attention?  Why, Dickens and Edith Wharton, of course!  Ignoring the irony that Dickens is perhaps the first YA writer (who else read Great Expectations in the 6th grade?) it's pretty hilarious that the example of high literature that she pulls out are two dusty old Victorians.  Which brings me to article #2, which was published in Vanity Fair July 2014: It's Tartt--But is it Art? whereby the runaway success of The Goldfinch is examined.  While it did win the damn Pulitzer Prize there are plenty of purveyors of high Art (with a capital A) who would like to remind us that it wasn't actually that great.  To tell the truth, I myself like to say that The Goldfinch was merely good, but that's kind of beside the point.  James Wood, book critic for The New Yorker, told Vanity Fair, "I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter."   Oh SNAP!  Additionally, plenty of critics are lining up to say that Tartt, who is frequently compared to Dickens (this is where it all comes together) is not really that much like Dickens after all.  Not only is an honest-to-God, "adult", Pulitzer Prize winning novel getting dissed for being too "YA" by The New Yorker but her very Dickensian-ness, generally acknowledged (not by me, but that's beside the point) as the very Bastion Of High Art and Literature is being called into question.

Actually, I think the Vanity Fair article is fantastic - I love a good old fashioned scrap about the very nature of art and literature as much as anyone.  It's true I do find the abject loyalty of Tartt fans a bit curious, which is why I say that books like The Secret History and The Goldfinch are merely good because her fans, and, yes, the Pulitzer committee, seem to go absolutely ape-shit for her work.  That's where Evgenia Peretz nails it in It's Tartt--But is it Art?  when she writes about the "writer's best friends, Schadenfreude and his twin brother, Envy" and the critical reaction to Tartt's work.  Despite the fiscal and literary success of The Goldfinch, it's still fun to sit around and make snide remarks about it because I suppose when we do, what we're really saying is that we have the highest, more pure and excellent taste in literature - higher than Pulitzer-Prize-winning Tartt, higher than Dickens himself.

You know how there are connoisseurs - who eat fine food -  and then there are gourmands - who like fine food AND county fair food? I like to read like a gourmand and I honestly think everyone should.  If I were such a snob that I couldn't read anything but old classics like Dickens and Wharton how would I ever have discovered my great love for mysteries, or apocalypse fiction, or YA?   I'm certainly not going to make fun of someone, or, God forbid, tell them they should be freaking ashamed for reading something - not even my sister-in-law, who exclusively reads Amish romances.  Which are probably full of steamy side hugs.  But I haven't read one yet so I'm not going to judge (that much).

Do you know why people don't read?  I've asked friends who confess not to read - it's generally because it's hard for them - it's hard to concentrate, or they find it boring, or they actually find it painful.  That's a person that never learned to love reading, or maybe has eye problems, or even a learning disability, or maybe got ridiculed all through school, and definitely hasn't found their genre yet.  And I'm certainly not going to poke fun at them when they do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Compound

The Compound was recommended to me by my sister.  She and I are really close and value each other's opinion, but, it's fairly often that she loves something (book/movie) that I don't love, and vice versa.  But, we keep reading each other's recommendations and watching each other's movies because it's just too terrible to admit that our tastes are pretty different.  And, everyone once in a while, we hit it right on the mark.

Anyway, she totally loved The Compound but I thought it was pretty stupid.  It's a YA book about a young boy, who, at the very beginning, is whisked to an underground bunker with his family, minus his twin brother and his grandma, because there's been a nuclear event or something in the world.  Right from the get-go, it's pretty obvious that there's been no explosion and his dad's off his nut, but it takes this kid five or six years to figure it out.

I did enjoy the descriptions of their underground bunker, or compound - it's huge, with like, hydroponic areas and a gym and big bedrooms for everyone with mood light and mood scents and a huge library and dvd collection and there's even a place for cows and chickens, but they all die right away.

Eventually the kid is effing around on a computer, finds a wifi signal, and for some reason the first thing he does is IM his supposedly dead twin brother, but he answers the chat and immediately they're like, OMG, DAD'S CRAZY AND HE LOCKED US IN A SECRET BUNKER FOR SOME REASON!!  And then the kid goes to tell his family, and with each family member, he's like, DON'T TELL DAD WE KNOW, but the minute his dad walks in, he's like, WTF, DAD?!?!

But, that's not even the stupidest part.  The absolute stupidest part is that his mother is pregnant, and she and everyone call the baby a "supplement".  And, it turns out there's a whole room full of supplements that the kid has somehow managed to completely avoid in 5 years.  And, supposedly they will eat the supplements if they run out of food.

Well, I'm sorry, Sis!  But, I look forward to your next recommendation!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Burning (spoilers!)

I am always following the scent of a good mystery written by a lady from the UK. I can't remember where I saw The Burning by Jane Casey advertised, but, there it was on my Kindle.  It's about this lady who is killed - Rebecca - she's burned to death, actually.  And there's a serial killer who is out there burning ladies to death!  Arg!  The police are working with Rebecca's friend, Louise, to figure out what happened, and it's not quite clear whether Louise is in danger because maybe Louise's boyfriend is actually the killer or something?

Anyway, it wasn't really that great.  I'll go ahead an spoiler! now, because it turns out that smart, capable Louise actually killed her friend for some reason but mostly because she was a sociopath.  I find it very boring when a mystery is solved by: OMG, they're a damn sociopath!  Because, like, sure, anything's possible if we're talking about sociopaths.  It feels like cheating.

One thing I did find interesting was the phrase, I'm not sure how commonly used it is: Poets Day.
"Hmm? Oh, them. Not on a Friday, my dear.  Poets Day, innit? Shame it doesn't apply to the police."  Piss off Early, Tomorrow's Saturday.  I smiled ruefully, thinking of my abandoned plans for the evening...
I'm not ready to write off Casey - The Burning is one of her first books and reviews seem to indicate that the series (Maeve Kerrigan) gets better with time.   Please let me know if you've read and enjoyed her work and which ones you recommend!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Tame a Willful Wife

I've read some amazing books this year - All the Birds, Singing, Americanah, Be Safe, I Love You, The Tenth of December, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves... sometimes when I read something incredible, I need to cleanse my palate with a little sorbet.  The sweet interlude was a romance novel called How To Tame a Willful Wife by Christy English.  I am not above reading a bodice ripper, we even read one for book club and had one of our most stimulating conversations.  This one was based, as you might guess, on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.  I was interested to see how English did or did not subvert the message of The Taming of the Shrew, which has some very unpopular and old-fashioned gender roles.  Some say a good performance will include a wink by the actors that Katherine is complicit in her "re-education" which makes the story more acceptable to a contemporary audience, so I was anticipating that this book would have a wink too.

Caroline Montague is married to Anthony Carrington against her will.  Her habits of wearing pants and fighting with a sword aren't allowed by Anthony, who buys her beautiful clothes and sets some ground rules.  They're both insanely attracted to each other and have some crazy, consensual, and frequent sex. I thought for sure there was going to be classic romance-novel sex that started out as rape but somewhere in the middle the woman is overcome by desire or whatever but that surprisingly never happened.  There is plenty of "throbbing member", you may be pleased to hear.  What could be more of a turn-off than the phrase "throbbing member" I ask you, and yet romance novels are riddled with the term.  Anthony's always telling her she can't play with swords and stuff but she really wants to because she's good at it and she wants to be able to protect herself.  Eventually Anthony does something really nice for her family in a Mr-Darcy-kind-of-way and she somehow convinces him that she can and should protect herself and then they have a bunch more sex. 

As romance novels go, it was pretty good.  There's the usual nonsense re: fathers and husbands policing women's virginity/"purity" - I wish I could just attribute that to the time period but of course many women's sexuality is governed by men today. 

As Shakespeare's Katharina points out, however, this is due to her circumstances of passing from one protector (her father) to another (her husband) and finding that keeping peace is a small price to pay in exchange, quite literally, for safety:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.

The redeeming factor of Taming of the Shrew and How to Tame a Willful Wife is that the couple is at least perceived to have arrived at a place of mutual respect and equality in the marriage.  In any event, it's a fun exercise to read romance novels critically and this is a good book to try it with.

Thursday, June 05, 2014


We read Americanah for book club - I thought we were going to have this amazing conversation about this book because it's brilliant and wonderful, but I accidentally got everyone really drunk on cocktails the minute they walked in the door and we barely talked about the book at all.  That was sad.  But also really fun.

Anywho, it was a great book and would lead to a fantastic discussion, I think.  It's written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who is my new hero.  If you haven't heard of her, check out this great Ted Talk she did a few years ago called We Should All Be Feminists (hell yeah we should!) and definitely watch this interview of Adichie by Zadie Smith, but maybe after you read the book because there are a few spoilers. I think it's great that she was interviewed by Smith because I think their work has a lot of similarities - both approach the issue of people of color in predominately white areas similarly - with humor, honesty and insight.

Much of Americanah is told from the perspective of Ifemelu (pronounced ee-FEM-elu), who's going through the laborious process of having her hair braided in a salon in New England.  Adichie got a bit of shit for saying, I like to say that this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair." I guess because hair is considered a feminine topic and therefore not serious - but, let's face it, hair is a pretty important topic and it has huge implications for the black women in the story - how they style their hair impacts what types of jobs they might get.  It's also a huge financial investment and a time investment - I mean, Ifemelu's sitting in that salon all day having her hair braided.  Hair is not insignificant in Smith's work either - in White Teeth the main characters gives herself chemical burns trying to smooth her hair.

Ifemelu, like Adichie, is from Nigeria, and goes to school in America, at Princeton.  She writes a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by an Non-American Black.  Differences between herself - a non-American Black - and African Americans, who she calls American Blacks are glacial.  Having grown up in Nigeria, race was not a part of her life or identity as she discovers it is for many African Americans.  What Adichie's careful, specific language choice does is point out how loaded even our "PC" language is in America - what it's generally getting around to is what color people's skin is.

Ifemelu's childhood boyfriend is Obinze, who doesn't have anything near her success in terms of education.  He moves to London and works terrible jobs illegally and has a hell of  a time getting by until he goes back to Nigeria and finds himself working for an unscrupulous person.  It was hard for me to connect with Obinze because he makes some weird choices and doesn't seem nearly good enough for Ifemelu.

During the course of the book, Obama is elected president and Ifemelu and her friends are thrilled and excited.  It was interesting to read that, 7 years after the election, because, as excited as I was back then myself, I read it quite cynically.  But I do think she really captured how truly exciting and promising it felt to have elected our first black president.

Americanah is one of the best books I've read this year - it won the National Book Critic's Award in 2013 and it was short listed for the Women's Fiction Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2014.  I thought it was funny, insightful and eye-opening.  This year with all that terrible stuff happening in Nigeria -those girls getting kidnapped and Boko Haram - I felt an immediacy and a connection for that country that I've never felt before simply because I read this wonderful book.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line

Veronica Mars' Fan Alert:  The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is just what you need to overcome kickstarter/VMmovie excitement!  However, it IS meant to be read after the movie.  If you read it first, there are a ton of spoilers on the first page.  Would non-Veronica Mars fans be interested in this solid mystery?  I have to think no - it assumes a knowledge of all these characters and what's come before.

If we're all being honest, we'd all admit that the number one thing we love about Veronica Mars is LoVe, right?  Just like the best thing about the movie was that Kristen Bell had just had a baby and had a cute little belly pouch, amirite?   I'm thinking to myself, oh, wow, I bet there's a bunch of steamy LoVe in the books, the likes that are not shown on cable television or PG rated movies!  So, I have to tell you right from the start that Veronica and Logan make absolutely no physical contact in this book.  They like, Skype a lot.  Because he's a war hero and out on a boat in the middle of nowhere or whatever.  If you want to eternally rectify your Bad Boy, put him in Navy Whites.  Touché, Rob Thomas, touché.

But, what I really loved about the book was it totally captures the voice and tone of the whole series, and when I was going through VM withdrawal, it hit the spot.  Do you really care what it's about?  If you're a VM fan, just go read it, you'll enjoy it.  It's got tons of Veronica, Mac, Keith Mars, a little Weevil, texting with Logan, and plenty of Neptune.  AND, have no fear!  There will be more, there's already one slated to be published in October 2014.