Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten 2009

The year is over, the votes are in! Here, for your perusal, are the ten best books that I read in 2009, explained for you in easy-to-read, under-140 character Twitter style:

1.) A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul -- This bk abt Indians in Trinidad traces the story of 1 man from birth 2 death, struggling to escape his father’s accidental death and his domineering in-laws. Hefty.

9.) Silence by Shusaku Endo -- Endo’s bk of Christian missionaries in Japan is incredibly bleak, but not w/o glimmers of hope. Scorcese to direct.

8.) Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake -- 2nd bk in trilogy outpaces the 1st in sheer weirdness. Kind of like a cracked-out, sadistic Harry Potter w/ no magic but w/ maneating owls.

7.) Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury -- Sets the bar for creepy circus stories v. high. Bradbury’s contrast of the giddiness of youth and anxiety of age is incredible.

6.) Ubik by Philip K. Dick -- Ubik keeps you from deteriorating backward in time, in handy spray can form. Some space intrigue, frozen talking corpses. Standard PKD.

5.) The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton -- Boy meets girl, girl is fiancee’s cousin and not liked by high society. Boy lives sadly in loveless marriage. Gossip Girl?!

4.) Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier -- Girls meets boy, is overshadowed by the greatness of boy’s dead ex, lives in giant castle. Things are not as they seem. Oh shit!

3.) Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by JD Salinger -- More overshadowing dead folks. B. Glass wants you 2 kno that his bro was totally the shit. So why can’t he show up to his own wedding?

2.) Voss by Patrick White -- Boy meets girl, but they don’t fall in love until he journeys into the Australian outback. Boy and girl develop creepy psychic bond.

1.) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark-- Ms. Brodie controls her pupils like Calvinist God. Under 200 pp, but Spark doesn't waste words. V. small, but powerful.

Honorable Mentions:

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Dishonorable mentions:

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Ludmila's Broken English by DBC Pierre
The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Congratulations to everyone for reading so many books this year! Wherever you are, raise a glass this New Year's Eve for Fifty Books 2010: 2 Fifty 2 Books.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Complete Plays of Sophocles

OEDIPUS: Good son of Aegeus, gentle son,
only to the gods is it given not to age or die.
All else disrupts through all disposing time.
Earth ebbs in strength, the body ebbs in power.
Faith dies and faithlessness is born.
No constant friendship breathes
between man and man, or city and a city,
Soon or late, the sweet will sour,
the sour will sweet to love again.
Does fair weather hold between this Thebes and you?
Then one day shall ever teeming time
hatch nights on teeming days,
Wherein this pledge, this harmony, this hour
will break upon a spear,
slashed down for a useless word.

Oedipus at Colonus

Though he lived well into his nineties, writing and producing plays from his twenties, only seven of Sophocles' 123 plays remain to us, a fact which seems appropriately tragic. In his time, Sophocles was regarded as the greatest that Greek tragedy had to offer, a dramatic Homer, and he won the first prize given to the best dramatist at the Athenian Dionysia twenty times. It is left to us to wonder whether the Greeks of Sophocles' time saw what we see in his plays--a persistent timelessness and depth of spirit--and whether it existed to the same degree in the 116 plays we have never seen.

Each of these seven is great in its own right: Ajax is the story of a warrior driven mad by jealousy, and mocked by the indifferent gods. Philoctetes is about a man who was abandoned by Odysseus on a desert en route to the Trojan War because his terrible snakebite made him irritating, but now Odysseus and Achilles' son Neoptolemus must return and convince Philoctetes to give them his bow, which never misses, so that they might use it to defeat the Trojans. The Woman of Trachis is about Deianeira, Heracles' wife, who struggles to love her husband in the face of his infidelity. Then there is Sophocles' take on Elektra, which to me is the least interesting of the seven, especially when placed next to Aeschylus' and Euripides' versions.

But the best plays here are the Oedipus plays, one of which I wrote about already (although Roche's translation improves on it significantly). It can't be said that Oedipus the King can't be understood without reading the other two in the "trilogy," because they were written at vastly different points of Sophocles' life and were never truly meant to create a unified whole, but I think they're vastly more interesting when read together

In Antigone, the first written, I think that you can see Sophocles' youth in Antigone's headstrongness and willingness to martyr herself. Antigone's brothers (Oedipus' sons) killed each other on the field of battle, one fighting for Thebes and the other against it, and her uncle Creon, the king, refuses to let the latter be buried properly. Knowing that it means she will be punished by death, Antigone buries him anyway, and commits suicide before Creon, having been enlightened by the prophet Teiresias, can come to pardon her.

On the other hand, Oedipus at Colonus was clearly written by a man reflecting upon his own age and mortality; it was one of the last plays that Sophocles wrote. It takes place between the events of Oedipus the King and Antigone, when Oedipus, having blinded himself, wanders with Antigone into the Athenian suburb of Colonus where they are welcomed by Theseus, the King. A prophecy has just told that whoever has Oedipus' favor will win the war for Thebes, and so King Creon and Oedipus' rebel son Polyneices have come to make amends, but Oedipus is too dignified to accede to their demands and for Theseus' warmth and kindness, Oedipus basically ensures Athens' dominance over Thebes in the decades to come.

Oedipus at Colonus is a pleasant reminder that Greek tragedy really isn't as rigid as Aristotle thought it should be, and that happy endings did exist. At the end of their lives, there is something appropriate about the way that Sophocles allows Oedipus--synonymous, for us and for Aristotle, with the spirit of tragedy--to be buried in dignity and love, and to be able to show the justice of a king in his final acts. Oedipus' words to Theseus, which I've copied above, affirm the inconstancy of the world, its chaos, entropy, and inevitable change, but without corrupting their basic truth, Oedipus is able to defy them as much as any human being is able. And though Sophocles could not have known this, the fact that Oedipus' story has survived for 2,500 years as an essential parable of downfall and redemption must temper his words as well.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show by Joy S. Kasson

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is a study of the creation of celebrity and popular memory. The life of William F. Cody is at the center of this study. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his Wild West show enthralled people the world over. Joy S. Kasson makes the case that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was instrumental in creating popular memory about the American West, and ultimately shaping the American national identity.

In 1869, Edward Zane Carroll Judson, writing under the name Ned Buntline, published the first part of his serial novel Buffalo Bill, The King of the Border Men in the New York Weekly. Judson was a writer of dime-novels, a type of publication known for its clichéd characters and “good guy vs. bad guy” plots. Some of these novels were turned into plays. This created a public persona for William Cody that he would not have otherwise had.

American was still divided in the postbellum environment from which Buffalo Bill’s Wild West emerged. The West was a new place where boundaries between the North and South did not exist in the same way that they did in the East. In 1883, when Cody created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the western part of the United States was a place that many people had not experienced first hand. The Wild West show gave them a chance to experience the West in a safe and entertaining way. Audience members who had never seen a real Indian before got to see them, charging around the arena in their headdresses and war paint. Among other things, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West fulfilled the public’s desire for the exotic.

Buffalo Bill could be described as the first, world-wide celebrity. He sold himself and his show to the world, and the world bought both. Kasson equates him with General Philip Sheridan, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Wayne. According to Kasson, “The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a triumph of good luck, good management, and good timing.”

Using a wide variety of sources, Kasson tells an interesting story of the intersection between history and entertainment, frontiersman and showman.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all the 50 Bookers. Thanks for participating and making 2009 the most successful year so far for this little project.

Just a reminder to get any books you're planning on reviewing, plus your year-end best-ofs, before the first of the year. In January we'll be changing the color scheme and jumping into 2010 with some new members, some old members, etc.

Thanks again!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.

I am not sure that the dead of winter was the right time to read Dandelion Wine, as obsessed as it is with the magic of the summertime. The hero of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a twelve-year old boy in Green Town, Illinois (the same town in which Bradbury's much better Something Wicked This Way Comes takes place), who on the first day of summer, 1928, realizes for the first time that he is alive. This realization gives Douglas a new lease on life, and he begins to become aware of the significance of summer's mandatory rituals: the new pair of sneakers, the bottling of dandelion wine (which, honestly, sounds gross), etc., etc. The narrative jumps from Douglas to the other denizens of Green Town, but Douglas' hyper-awareness makes him the fulcrum around which the novel turns.

Though Bradbury is characteristically poignant here, his enthusiasm gauge is stuck squarely at eleven. Sometimes the "aw-shucks factor" is overwhelming:

"The reason why grownups and kids fight is because they belong to separate races. Look at them, different rom us. Look at us, different from them. Separate races, and 'never the twain shall meet.' Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tom!"

"Doug, you hit it, you hit it! That's right! That's exactly why we don't get along with Mom or Dad. Trouble, trouble, from sunrise to supper! Boy, you're a genius!"

Oh boy, Davey! There's something slightly disingenuous about this, I think, and it's true for a lot of books about children. Children may be innocent, but it's not because they lack vices; it's because they don't know any better. In fact, children are typically vapid, selfish, cruel and prone to anger. Bradbury wants us to believe, as many do, that children occupy a purer state, but I'm not sure I buy into that, even in 1928. Not to mention my inherent distrust of the saccharine and overenthusiastic.

But Bradbury successfully tempers these tendencies with a grim streak: As in the beginning of the summer, Douglas realizes that he is truly alive, he later realizes that he, too, must die. This realization is brought on by the death of several elderly folks in Green Town, as well as the re-appearance of a serial strangler known as The Lonely One. At the book's climax, Douglas takes ill and nearly dies, saved finally by a traveling junkman with vials of exotic air. At his happiest, Bradbury is an above average prose stylist, but I think it's these darkest moments where he truly excels. When Douglas is lying prone in his bed, on death's door, Bradbury writes:

Inside redness, inside blindness, Douglas lay listening to the dim piston of his heart and the muddy ebb and flow of the blood in his arms and legs.

His lips were heavy and wouild not move. His thoughts were heavy and barely ticked like seed pellets falling in an hourglass slow one by falling one. Tick.

To Bradbury's credit, he seems to take death seriously but not morbidly; that Douglas' excitement at merely being alive and his awareness of death can coincide is the book's message and its triumph.

Call for 2010

I know it's relatively early, but I thought I'd go ahead and say this: If you are a reader of this blog (and I know we have readers outside the handful of contributors), I'd like to open up to you the possibility of joining us in 2010. We love doing this, and we plan on doing it for a while, and we'd love to have others join us as well.

If you're interested, leave a comment below or e-mail me at

EDIT: Bumped!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Franny and Zooey / Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction - J. D. Salinger Mega-Post

In spite of Chris's insistence that I read more Salinger than just Catcher in the Rye, I have to admit that the deciding factor in reading Salinger's oeuvre this year had more to do with time management than peer pressure. Now, having read everything Salinger wrote that's still in print--thought Nine Stories is due for a re-read--I wish I'd read it a lot sooner. Like, the day after I finished Catcher. The reason, as you know if you've read Salinger's lesser known novels, is that the four slim volumes and nine short stories that make up Salinger's bibliography are connected. Read together, they paint a panoramic picture of one unique family, the Glasses, and their various psychoses and musings.

The Glasses are made up of the parents, Les and Bessie, and their seven children, Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey, and Franny. The stories focus primarily on the children, especially Franny, Zooey, Buddy, and--though he rarely appears in-person--Seymour, whose monk-like demeanor and inexplicable suicide make him an ever-present figure in the minds of his siblings. In addition to being related, the Glass children also share another bond: all seven of them appeared as panelists on a quiz show called It's a Wise Child, where callers would quiz the abnormally bright children about whatever was on their mind.

Franny and Zooey, the first chronologically of the books I'm reviewing here, is split into two sections of unequal length. Section one, Zooey, follows Zooey Glass as she arrives home from school and meets up for lunch with her beau, Lane. Zooey continually subverts Lane's conversation--he wants to talk about a philosophy paper he wrote for class--to talk about a book she's reading called The Way of the Pilgrim. The Way of the Pilgrim (a real book, incidentally) centers around a monk traveling on foot over Russia, repeating the Jesus Prayer--Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner--and teaching it to others in an effort to get closer to God. The second half takes place at the Glass's house, were Zooey antagonizes his mother before going into the living room to antagonize Franny who, by the way, passed out in the bathroom at the end of her date for less-than-obvious reasons.

Franny and Zooey is tough to break down. There isn't much plot and there isn't an easily extractible message. Zooey thinks Franny's obsession with the Jesus Prayer is silly and possibly dangerous, and she, naturally, disagrees. The second book is composed primarily of two arguments, one between Franny and Zooey, and one between Zooey and his mother, and they both reveal essentially the same facet of Zooey. That is, he's selfish, sometimes cruel, insecure, and that, underneath that, he values his family, illustrated in both arguments, first subtly by a few conciliatory words toward his mother and secondly more overtly by calling Zooey pretending to be Buddy, who is second only to Seymour in the esteem of his siblings, and eviscerating himself in the guise of his brother.

Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenter is the second Glass story I read, and it's probably my favorite. Although it seems like a John Grisham novel plot-wise in comparison to Franny and Zooey, it's pretty spare as well. It follows Buddy, narrating in first-person, as he attends the event that would be Seymour's wedding if Seymour had shown up. As it happens, he doesn't and Buddy unwittingly ends up in the car with the bride's family, including her sister, who's livid, and a deaf-mute uncle, who's one of the best minor characters in all of Salinger. They drive around town, trying to figure out what to do, until Buddy finally, perhaps unwisely, suggests that they go to the apartment that he shares with Buddy while not away with the military. They arrive to find the apartment empty, and the day passes by until everyone is gone but the deaf-mute uncle, happy and thankful just to be out and about.

Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters is essential in the Glass chronology primarily because it sets up Seymour's honeymoon suicide in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, but it also seems to me that the old uncle is one of the most important symbols in the Glass series. He's portrayed throughout the story as existing on the fringes, clear on the general ideas of what's going on but fuzzy on the details. He's also constantly, relentlessly happy, always smiling and even extending a silent camaraderie to Buddy--notably, the only non-Glass shown to have a positive relationship to a Glass. Perhaps Salinger is drawing a contrast here, placing the uncle as a counterpoint to the Glasses, whose grasp on the details is impeccable but who can't seem to see the bigger picture. Franny, Zooey, and Buddy are all fixated on something: Franny on himself and his family, Buddy on Seymour, Zooey on the Jesus Prayer, but they all see things in microscopic vision, and are all, for the most part miserable.

Seymour seems to be the odd exception to this rule, which leads neatly into Seymour: An Introduction. Seymour: An Introduction probably has the least plot of any book I've ever read. In fact, saying it has a plot at all is a bit of a stretch. It's narrated by Buddy, but rather than following a linear timeline, Buddy moves from anecdote to philosophical theory to personal reminiscences, all in an ultimately vain attempt to understand the inscrutable Seymour. Seymour, who memorized Sappho, who never got mad, who loved everyone, who seemed like a Zen master to his siblings. Seymour, who killed himself in his hotel room on his honeymoon. Seymour is presented as a unified person, the one Glass where all the pieces fit, and yet, when it all comes down to it, he's as much a cipher as the narcissistic but caring Zooey or the kind but condescending Franny.

In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy talks about the only non-Glass book Salinger ever published, Catcher in the Rye, claiming to have written it himself, so many critics have understandably picked Buddy as Salinger's avatar. I, on the other hand, tend toward Seymour the inscrutable. Salinger, the student of human nature who doesn't like people. One of the most famous authors alive who hasn't published anything since Vietnam ended. What could be more interesting, more tempting to spill ink on? Perhaps when Salinger finally dies, the works he's said to have color-coded and prepared for publication will be made available. Maybe we'll finally know why Seymour killed himself, why Salinger stopped publishing, and if the Jesus Prayer worked. But maybe we won't, and that's OK. Everyone should read Salinger anyway.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

After breaking his leg on a 20,000-foot peak in the Peru during a blizzard, Joe Simpson was given up for dead. Without food or water or a tent, he spent six days crawling off the mountain and back to camp. How did he do it?

As the skipper of a sunken yacht slipped over the side of his life raft into the Atlantic night, his four horrified crew members heard him calmly explain, "I'm going to get the car." Then they listened to his screams as he was eaten alive by sharks.

This book is pretty BAMF. You can tell just by looking at the cover - it has two subtitles in addition to the main one - "True Stories of Miraculous Endurance and Sudden Death" and "Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why." Too much much bad-ass-mother-fuckery for just one subtitle. If the two subtitles don't suck you in, the hook on the inside cover, excerpted above, certainly will. This book reminded me of paging through my grandmother's old Readers Digest magazines, looking for the story every month that featured lightning strikes or killer crocodiles. I used to eat those stories up. An entire book of those stories, compiled into one nifty volume for the pleasure of my vicarious excitement? Man eaten alive by sharks? Sign me up.

No matter that Laurence Gonzales writes like a high school newspaper reporter - replete with cursing, exclamation points, and useless adjectives like "stupid" to describe harrowing situations - the stories he tells make up for it. Mostly. There's the story of Joe Simpson described above, whose climbing partner actually cuts his belay rope and lets him fall off a mountain to save himself. And Simpson survived. There's the story of Steven Callahan, who set out to cross the Atlantic in his boat and was struck by a whale just a few days out. He spent 65 days adrift crossing the Atlantic on a life raft, catching fish and drinking 1/2 a pint of water per day until he ran into a Caribbean island on the other side. He lived too. And finally, there's the story of Gonzales' own father, who was shot down over German territory in 1944, survived having every limb broken and his nose cut off, and then survived being a POW for several months until liberation, losing over 50 pounds in the process. There are also stories about the people that didn't survive - people like the poor guy above, deluded by a sodium overload in his brain (caused by drinking seawater) into thinking he was back at the dock when he was really in the middle of the Atlantic.

Okay, Gonzales also has this rather annoying habit of inserting stories about himself into every other paragraph. Dude's done some crazy stuff. He flights plane acrobatics; he's been to Ranger school; he dives, he climbs, and he once sensed a major jet crash was imminent and got off the plane, Final Destination-style. I think he wrote this book partly as a vehicle to talk about the stuff he's already done and partly to have an excuse to do more stuff like go to Mountain Survival School and interview extreme alpinists.

The thesis of "Deep Survival" is that some people have it in them to survive and some do not. The question is largely mental, but can be affected by experience and emotional stability too. The book is broken into two parts: How Accidents Happen (systemic failures; accidents exist as a key part of any system and there is nothing to do to stop them - but you can make sure you are not involved when they happen) and Survival. The second half was definitely more engaging and interesting to me. It had all the stories I had been waiting for when I first read that glorious teaser on the inside book cover.

I'm really into disasters and survival stories, so I was willing to overlook this book's obvious flaws. If you are easily angered by overzealous writing, don't read this one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Another book where I couldn't find a worthy passage to put up here. That said, I have much different feelings about the first installment of the "Millennium Trilogy" than I do the Twilight books. In fact, I owe a debt of gratitude to Larsson for getting the taste of soft-core-vampire-pornography out of my mouth. I'd write the guy a letter to thank him, but he went and died before this book (and its two sequels) were ever published. I had no idea that Larsson was dead going into it, and I'm sure that his death played a part in the popularity of the novel, but it stands on its own as a crime procedural.

The story is pretty complex. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative journalist who earns his living exposing the seedy underbelly of the Swedish stock market. (I found it interesting to know that Swedish people can, indeed, be seedy and that they do, indeed, have a stock market. I'll no longer look at Sweden as a large country filled with more realistic versions of that muppet chef.) Blomkvist finds himself convicted for libel after printing an exposé that went after Erin Wennerstrom, a Swedish industrialist with a reputation for dishonest business tactics. After taking a sabbatical from his financial magazine, Millennium, he is contacted by Henrik Venger, another captain of industry who wants Blomkvist to investigate a family mystery. Blomkvist is asked to find out anything he can about a 40-year-old missing persons case in which Venger's niece, Harriet, went missing and was never heard from again. From here, the story focuses on Blomkvist's inquiry into the matter, interviewing family members and other present on the day of Harriet Venger's disappearance. We're also introduced to Lisbeth Salander, a waify twenty-something computer hacker with a knack for gathering information and a serious problem with authority. The two investigators eventually find themselves victims of threats and physical attacks while they begin to unravel the twisted, murderous secrets of the much-revered Venger family.

The conclusion of the mystery is essentially satisfying, and I enjoyed reading the book. I wouldn't say its anything special, but if you like mysteries, thrillers, or books about corporate intrigue then you should definitely pick this up. I'm not dying to read either of the sequels but I probably would if given the chance. Blomkvist and Salander are both interesting, vibrant characters and I could stand another thousand or so pages of them.

Highlights: Seeing the way Salander's mind works and watching her get what she wants in the most brutal ways possible.
Lowlights: So many Swedish names... Half the time I didnt know if I was reading about a suspect or an Ikea wall unit.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner

"...according to the Tlingit, 'people must always speak carefully of them, since bears (no matter how far away) have the power to hear human speech. Even though a person murmurs a few careless words, the bear will take revenge.'"

This book was awesome. Not because it was particularly well written (it wasn't; it read more like an 11th grader's term paper) or because it was educational (it wasn't; I'm pretty sure a good 70% of the tidbits in this book were refuted observations by centuries dead scientists or various indigenous tribes). No, it was awesome because it was about BEARS. And bears are the best.

The book has several recurring themes, most notably that lots of ancient people thought bears were related to people (either through magic or evolutionarily) and that people don't really understand bears, I guess. Like I said, the author gave so much clearly erroneous information and sprinkled in so few actual facts about bears that after awhile I pretty much assumed everything was made up. Brunner even concludes one story with, "Like most stories that sound too good to be true, however, this account is pure invention."

But in the end I still loved this book, because it also had passages like this:

Waxing truly euphoric, he (some dumb 19th century "science author") even rhapsodized that a bear, out of principle, will touch nothing that is dead and likewise harms no innocent beings. 'He is known to have approached young girls hunting for strawberries and stolen the fruit right from their baskets, and then went on his way - we can almost dare to say - laughing,' he wrote. 'At the very least, he was surely laughing in his heart.'

Now that is awesome. I fault Brunner for not believing that, in fact, the bear was laughing in his heart, because as you and I know, he surely was. Although, to be perfectly honest, that particular bear (unlike most bears) sounded kinda like a dick (I mean, who steals strawberries from innocent little girls) and someone should have called him out for it. However, Brunner also included a picture of a bear and a little girl picking strawberries, so I let this one slide.

There were other fun stories, too, like the Roman who would stage fights between a thousand bears at once (can you imagine all those bears!?) and the guy who trained his bear to sit down and position itself so that the guy could sit on its knee like an easy chair. (For those of you who haven't gotten me a Christmas present yet, you can add "bear that will let Billy sit on it like an easy chair" to the list.)

I definitely recommend this book to everyone who likes awesome things. More because it's short, has pictures and is about BEARS than for any actual merit, but whatever, BEARS are awesome.

You might want to think twice before you disagree with me. I'd hate for you to murmur something that would make the BEARS take revenge.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards

"What was it?" I asked.

She fingered the corners of her mouth, speaking while she contorted her lips. I hope I understood her, for maybe it was one of the last lucid things she might ever say. Or maybe I hope I didn't understand her because it was hard to think these were her last clear thoughts. "I learned my hopes for how my life was going to turn out were not going to be."

I waited a few moments. She didn't say any more. "What does that mean, Mother?"

"The trust was supposed to be deep," she said. "The smiles were supposed to last forever."

In the above passage, Elizabeth Edwards reflects on the secrets within her own parents "perfect" marriage. Edwards watched as her mothers' suspicions of infidelity on her father's part tore her mother up for years. That experience prompted Elizabeth to ask her new husband for one thing on their wedding day: never cheat. Leave me, she said, and I'll be all right. But do not become unfaithful; do not lie. The passage above leads into one of the chapters of Elizabeth Edwards' life that wasn't covered in her excellent memoir, Saving Graces - the news of her husband John Edwards' affair.

This will be a short post for a short book. Elizabeth Edwards' follow up is autobiographical only in that certain stories provide a background for the advice she imparts to readers. This book would probably be a great comfort to someone facing a loss or the infidelity of a spouse, but Edwards also speaks generally to any adversity. Just for the record, Elizabeth lost her son when he was 16, was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, found out her husband had carried on an affair with another woman in 2006, and then learned that her cancer was back, and terminal, in 2007. The poor woman knows adversity.

If Saving Graces was Edwards' memoir, this could probably be called an inspirational self-help book. The focus is less on Edwards' own life and more about how people deal with adversity in general. I finished it in a day (full disclosure: I had to sit in a waiting room all day or this book probably would have been dragged out longer). While I didn't care for it I'm sure someone will get a lot out of it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Increasingly Repulsive Garbage by Stephanie Meyer

This review is going to have spoilers. I'm sorry. But you shouldn't be.

I don't have a passage for my review of the four books of the Twilight "saga" because I couldn't find a single piece of writing that stood out in a good way. Let's get that straight right off the bat. There's nothing about Stephanie Meyer's writing in these books that indicates to me that she's particularly talented. Nothing at all. She can string words together as well as any English major, to be sure, but the popularity of these books doesn't come from the prose.

Let me take a step back. I just had to laugh at myself out loud, sitting at the keyboard because of how pissed off I was by these books. I'm pretty exhausted and I wanted to write this review in the morning. Upon finishing the fourth book, though, I was so happy to be done with the series and angry at what I'd just read that I wanted to write this all down before I forgot anything.

I read the Twilight books to try and understand why they were so explosively popular. After the first one, I thought I understood*. They read like Goosebumps. It's like popcorn. I read the entire series in six days, though admittedly after book 2 I was so dead set on being done with these awful %$&*ing characters that I wasn't stopping until I was completely finished. You don't need to think while reading them. I understand the concept of escapism. Really, I do. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books as much as the next guy. That's why I said I understood the popularity of the series... With an asterisk. I understand why your average 12 year old could enjoy these books. I do. Vampires and werewolves and dumb shit like that, kids eat that crap up. I know I did (Again, Goosebumps).

What I do not understand, is how any self-respecting adult could read these books and not walk away hating all of the main characters, the author, and all the themes of the series. I'm gonna focus on women here because its pretty clear men are not the target audience. My sister and lots of my female friends love these books. Before reading them, I would kid them about because I'd heard how bad the writing was and how over-the-top romantic it was. But even then, I can understand the appeal of some brainless gumball romance novel, much in the same way that I enjoy watching Die Hard for the 437th time whenever it comes on FX. After reading the books, though, I realize that these books aren't just brainless gumball romance. They're misogynistic, pedophilic, and really... Just ugly.

All I read on the internet these days is this 'TEAM EDWARD" or "TEAM JACOB" nonsense. Are you girls kidding me? Hmmm... Lets see: "Team Breaks-Into-Your-Home-At-Night-And-Watches-You-Sleep-And-Blatantly-Stalks-You" or Team Forces-Himself-Upon-You-Sexually-And-Then-Develops-An-Infatuation-With-Your-Infant-Daughter?" WTF. The main character, the woman the audience is supposed to identify with, is completely useless in every way you could possibly imagine. She depends ENTIRELY on her man to not only keep her safe and alive, but emotionally stable as well. Once he leaves, she falls to pieces. She's so distraught at her beau's absence that she takes to suicidal behavior because it makes her imagine his voice. Seriously. But don't worry... She gets better! As soon as another man swoops in to save her again. The only other (human) female characters are: 1) Tw0-timing "friend" who turns on Bella for popularity's sake and, naturally, to get herself a boy 2) Another friend who is left completely undeveloped until she finds a boyfriend to play against 3) Bella's mother who is an airhead who clearly cares more for her new husband than she does her daughter. I also really enjoyed the part where Jacob grabs Bella, grabs her by the hair and forces himself upon her while she struggles and fights herself off (to no avail, because she's oh-so-weak) and then when Jacob later tells Bella's father about the incident, he applauds him. It's okay though, because like 200 pages later Bella realizes she really wanted it the whole time. This is what we want young girls reading. Right.

Everyone knows about the whole abstinence allegory. It should be noted that Bella only becomes a strong(er) character after she fills herself up with Edward's... venom.

The whole pedophilia angle is almost so mindbogglingly sick that I can't believe I haven't seen anyone talk about it. First let's start with the less obvious case. In what way is it okay for Edward (like 90 years old) to be going after Bella (17)? In what universe do people read this story and go, "Ohhhh that's normal, he looks like he's 17!" How does that make sense? Just because he's not a wrinkled old pervert doesn't mean he's not an old pervert. A 30 year old man and a 16 year old girl are essentially on the same level of sexual maturity. Would a relationship between the two get any less disgusting if he suddenly aged 60 years but looked exactly the same? Hell no!

The more blatant example comes from the werewolves and their imprinting. It's no big deal when a full grown man falls in love with a toddler (or later, an infant still covered in afterbirth) because, hey, he doesn't have any sexual feelings for her. That's Meyer's explanation. And I bet there are fans out there who would defend it. Guess that. That's still twisted. Think about that relationship and its nature. Exactly when does that paternal love become sexual love? It's a gradient, and at one point on that gradient things are going to inevitably be disgusting. Go read Lolita and then come back and tell me H.H. doesn't talk exactly the same way about his little nymphettes in exactly the same way that Quil and Jacob talk about theirs.

I won't go too much into how shitty of a writer Meyer is. Even the people who somehow like these books seem to agree that she's not much of a wordsmith. But there were a few technical things that really pissed me off:
1) When you're trying to make allusions to other great literary romances, be subtle about it. Don't spend pages and pages spelling it out to the reader that this character = Romeo and this character = Juliet and this character = Paris.
2) When you inevitably DO decide to make the dumbest decision possible with your main character (Making Bella a vampire), come up with something more interesting to propel the plot than suddenly introducing a bunch of X-Men like characters with lame super powers.
3) If you're going with suspense, maybe don't name the last chapter of the final book (listed clearly in the Table of Contents) "The Happily Ever After"

I could go on but I think you catch my drift. These books are disturbing and send all the wrong messages to exactly the audiences that are consuming it at the fastest rate. It's really a shame.

Lowlights: Knowing how many people have read this trash and not picked up on how instantly unpleasant it is.
Highlights: I liked Seth. That's it. This book has like 100 characters and I liked one.

PS - All this being said, there's no way I won't be paying my $11 for tickets to the film version of Breaking Dawn just to see Cedric Diggory give his Keanu-Reeves-Acting-Academy co-star a Cesarean with his teeth.

PPS - After this, if I don't finish with 54 books I'm going to feel like I cheated myself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

The news was delivered by my mother, across the kitchen table as my dad leaned against a nearby counter, fiddling with his hands and looking tired. "Your father and I are separating," she informed me, with the same flat, businesslike tone I'd so often heard her use with students as she critiqued their work. "I'm sure you'll agree this is the best thing for all of us."
Hearing this, I wasn't sure what I felt. Not relief, not crushing disappointment, and again, it wasn't a surprise. What struck me, as we sat there, the three of us, in that room, was how little I felt. Small, like a child. Which was the weirdest thing. Like it took this huge moment for a sudden wave of childhood to wash over me, long overdue.

As a holdover from high school, I have a weird loyalty to Sarah Dessen. North Carolina has more than a few bestselling authors to its credit, but Dessen has been my favorite since a friend passed me a copy of "Someone Like You" in history class junior year. I've seen her speak at my favorite local bookshop in Raleigh, Quail Ridge Books. I've seen her speak at the Bulls Head in Chapel Hill. It was only my limited writing ability (and limited interest in creative writing) that kept me from taking her creative writing course at UNC. My love of Sarah Dessen is well-enough known that an my high school boyfriend's mom, who managed Quail Ridge, used to save the proof copies they received for me long after her son and I had broken up.

The last few Sarah Dessen books have been disappointing for me. I was beginning to think I had perhaps outgrown her as a writer. I probably have; all of Dessen's main characters are in high school, or have just graduated. The summer before college is one of her favorite motifs. Maybe I had been away from that point in life too long to appreciate a book written from the point of view of a high school girl.

That being said, I loved "Along for the Ride." This was the Sarah Dessen that I remembered. For some reason the story was more engaging and the characters were more likable than in the last few novels. The story begins when Auden, a perfectionist who spent her high school years studying rather than socializing, moves to the beach to live with her dad, stepmom and baby sister for the summer. Auden leaves her perfectionist professor mother at home, and in doing so opens herself up a world she has never allowed herself to see - a normal teenage summer.

In between her new job managing the accounting at her stepmother's store and helping out with the baby at home, Auden internalizes her father's selfish behavior towards his wife and baby, and blames herself for their resulting separation. But there is another, happier side to the summer: a boy. There is always a boy, isn't there? Auden meets Eli, manager of the local bicycle shop, who is battling his own demons after the death of a friend. The two, who both suffer from insomnia, set out on a nighttime quest to allow Auden the experiences she has missed in her cloistered upbringing: bowling, going to a dance club, food fights, etc. Along the way, predictably (but not disappointingly) they fall for one another.

I don't know what about this particular novel made it so much better in my opinion than the last few by this author, but I did get some insight from a video she posted on, A new mom herself, Dessen hadn't planned on writing another novel so soon after her baby's birth but said this novel mostly wrote itself. She was happy while writing it and it didn't feel like work at all - so maybe that explains the difference.