Books, lately: 2016 so far

At the beginning of every new year, I think about what I want to read in the next twelve months. I usually decide that I want to read “better” books. (Yes, I set reading goals, I’m a dork.) And then I spend weeks devouring some YA fantasy series. This year is no different so far! I’ve read only one thing from my list but lots of random stuff.

I got this edition because I thought Penguin would have the best explanatory notes. Then I discovered that they aren't marked in the text, so I am constantly flipping to the notes to see what is explained for the page I'm on. IT IS MADDENING. Editors, please don't do this.

I thought Penguin would have the best explanatory notes. Then I discovered that they aren’t marked in the text, so I’m constantly flipping to the notes to see what is explained for the page I’m on. IT IS MADDENING. Editors, please don’t do this.

I’ve actually started Moby-Dick, which I said I was going to read this year.  It’s hilarious! I’m not kidding! How come no one ever talks about how funny this book is? I honestly thought I was in for months of reading turgid prose about a man who thinly disguises his overcompensation as an obsession with a whale. Nope! (You may be wondering why I wanted to read it in that case. I have no good answer.)  Ishmael is a gloriously snarky narrator, and so far I’m loving Melville’s random digressions full of arcane knowledge. I hope some of it comes in handy at trivia night. I escaped reading this in high school/university/grad school, and I think it would be a much better sell to the poor students who aren’t so lucky if they knew that Ishmael is a total gossip.  Much like Jude the Obscure, this is the book that I’ll be picking up and putting down for, oh, probably the rest of the year/my life.

The YA fantasy series with which I’m obsessed this year is Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series. Book one is about an assassin, released from a mine where she was sentenced to hard labour, who must face a competition to become the King’s Champion to win her freedom. Oh, and there are elves and witches and magic spells and stuff. Between the charming crown prince and the gruff captain of the guard, and other love interests who pop up in later books, this series certainly fulfills the apparently mandatory “love triangle” component of current YA lit. It’s kind of silly and not very well-written, though Maas’s other book, A Court of Thorns and Roses, wasn’t bad, but I. am. obsessed. Each book is so long, and yet I’ve devoured them in an embarrassingly short time. So, if you’re into silly teen fantasy-lite, check them out.

Eagerly waiting for book 4 in this series to arrive at my library.

Eagerly waiting for book 4 in this series to arrive at my library.

I’ve read three other fluffy-ish books this year: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, which I hated so I won’t talk about it; Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, for my YA book club; and Vintage by Susan Gloss, which I liked a lot! “Books set in vintage dress shops” is a small genre, and due to my love of dresses I’m always happy to find another book to add to the list. Vintage was sweet and tackled some unexpectedly heavy topics (domestic abuse, motherhood, mental illness, teen pregnancy) in a way that didn’t feel awkward or preachy like it normally does in these kinds of books. An enjoyable read if not a super serious literary one.

And speaking of super serious literary reads, I read Laurfatesandfuriesen Groff’s Fates and Furies, a book that everyone was praising to the skies in 2015. I have mixed thoughts. I absolutely loved the structure of the book and thought it was brilliant. The novel is about a young couple, Otto and Mathilde, and their relationship unfolds over about 20 years. The first half is told only from Otto’s perspective (Fates) and the second half only from Mathilde’s (Furies). The differences in their accounts of the same 20 years are shocking and unexpectedly dark, especially Mathilde’s violent backstory. It almost feels like two different books, which somehow works. I think this was what Gillian Flynn was aiming for in Gone Girl, only here the vastly different perspectives of husband and wife are truly surprising and not telegraphed from a mile away. Throughout the first half, I found myself growing increasingly skeptical at Otto’s depiction of Mathilde as the fierce, organized, endlessly caring and stable and nurturing wife, and that was all completely turned on its head in the section from her perspective. Loved it.

Structure aside, though, this book was waaaaaay too long. I often find myself making these complaints about contemporary fiction, but there is absolutely no need for a novel like this to be 400 pages. Otto’s section grew so tedious—there was so much manpain about his family and his career as a playwright—and even Mathilde’s section could have been trimmed considerably. If the book were a bit crisper, with a few sections cut and some internal monologue vastly reduced, it would have a tighter, thriller-esque quality that I think could work very well (much like Gone Girl but smarter and, impossibly, even darker). Maybe it’s me and reading 400 pages about a long-term marriage is not my jam, but how much whining and secret plotting and not having a normal discussion about anything do we need to read about to get the point.

I’ve read three other books this year, all of which I plan to write about later. One I borrowed from a friend and kept for over two years. Now it’s back in her possession. There’s one reading goal for 2016 knocked off the list!

My other vague reading plans for this year are: to finish Moby-Dick, of course; to read all of the random books I have about Jane Austen and/or inspired by her and/or starring her as a vampire so I can write a post about her; to read all of my Judy Bolton books so I can write something about teen sleuth fiction and Margaret Sutton’s subtle genre subversion; and to read no more novels about knitting. And if I finish Moby-Dick, maybe I’ll start War and Peace? Ahahaha.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When I first heard that HarperCollins was releasing what people were calling a “sequel” of sorts to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Who wasn’t? On the one hand you have a reclusive, aging author who has avoided the public eye her entire life and doesn’t seem interested in publishing anything else. On the other hand, there’s a big publishing company with this unedited draft someone happened to find in the vault. Okay, sure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most major publishing event of this century so far. This book is going to make HarperCollins a ton of money, which they know. It all sounded like a “quirky” Jason Reitman movie waiting to happen.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_Watchman But clearly, as someone who works in publishing, is interested in writing, and likes TKaM, I was going to have to read Go Set a Watchman. I put it off. I read all the reviews claiming that it destroys the legacy (we’ll get to this in a minute) of TKaM and portrays Beloved Father Figure Atticus Finch ™ as a racist. I read the advance first chapter, published online by various media outlets, and felt my heart sink when I found out that Scout’s brother Jem, so prominent in TKaM, was dead in this version of the story.

Then, I read the whole thing myself. Reader, I finished it in an afternoon. There are plenty of problems with Go Set a Watchman, even setting aside the questionable choice to publish it at all (which you can read about in more detail here). But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, much more than I had expected.

Here’s the thing: Go Set a Watchman isn’t a standalone novel. It’s a first draft of TKaM, and that’s the only reason why it’s such an interesting read. If I were evaluating this novel on its own, I would say that the dialogue is frankly terrible (all speeches, no real conversations), the plot, such as it is, is poorly paced, and the climax doesn’t work. It is very, very clear that this particular draft was never edited and was instead reworked. A short flashback scene was expanded into what would become TKaM. I don’t think that Watchman needed to be published to such fanfare or marketed as a “sequel” or “continuation” to TKaM, because I feel that is quite misleading, but it’s fascinating to read. In Watchman, readers can trace exactly what editing is and what it does.

How does editing change a book? The point is that the average reader will never know. Editing is supposed to be a behind-the-scenes, invisible hand kind of activity. And yet here we are with a record of how one of the twentieth century’s most famous books became itself. Even non-publishing-nerds can agree that that’s kind of cool. You can see traces of TKaM in Watchman, of course. Even in her late twenties, Scout (now mainly referred to as Jean Louise) is all sharp edges and angles. When she visits Maycomb as an adult, she doesn’t fit in any more than she fit in when she was a child who refused to wear dresses. And the flashback scenes where Jean Louise reflects on her childhood adventures with Jem and Dill are the best parts of Watchman—funny, so realistically childlike, and poignant, especially because Jem is dead in this version of the story.

The New York Times has more information on Harper Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff. You can see how she would read this draft and see that it would work better as a novel told from a child’s point of view. When it became TKaM, the book got tighter and less preachy. The dialogue became real dialogue instead of two characters performing soliloquies at each other. As a historical document, Watchman is interesting reading. As a novel, well, it needs some work (which is just what it got). But there are flashes of Lee’s brilliance throughout, especially in her use of details (clothing, quirks) to establish character, and her ability to evoke mood and atmosphere in few words.

So is Atticus Finch racist? Not more racist, and certainly a lot less, than any other average seventysomething white man living in rural Alabama in the 1950s. Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus can only be surprising to you if you a) never got past the stage of childhood where you idolize your parents, or some other parental figure, or b) know nothing about the civil rights movement and what American society was like in the 1950s. Newsflash: all white people are at least a little bit racist, even today.

Jean Louise finds out that Atticus was once a member of the KKK (only to keep an eye on their activities, someone claims) and that he’s now joined a sort of concerned citizens’ group that wants to preserve segregation and keep Black citizens of Maycomb “in their place.” This is a fairly realistic portrayal of the insidiousness of racism. Even someone like Atticus, a lawyer who appears to believe strictly in the law and justice above all else, is blind to the way his cultural upbringing has shaped his beliefs. Prejudice creeps in. Jean Louise, who has escaped to the marginally more enlightened New York City, is horrified to learn all this about her father, a man she idolized. They have a cringe-worthy confrontation that feels a little bit like a scene in a drama major’s thesis project. Jean Louise accuses her father of being racist and inconsistent. He accepts her insults because he knows she has to strangle her idealized version of him in order to finally grow up. There’s something interesting there, but it’s all a little undercooked.

Even so, Jean Louise’s realization that her father is just a man is moving, and his characterization as a lawyer who still thinks that Black people are “in their infancy” as a people is cringe-worthy, but not inaccurate to the period in which the novel was written. As a novel about race (certainly the last thing I am qualified to opine about, but here we go), where Watchman really fails is in its refusal to allow Black characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. TKaM got away with this, at least in part, because it’s told from a white child’s point of view. Scout is necessarily blind to the deeper forces at work in Maycomb. In fact, that’s the point of TKaM—she learns about the evils of racism through the trial of Tom Robinson.

But as Lawrence Hill points out, except for Calpurnia (who has a very small role in Watchman), there are no “three-dimensional, fully rendered black character[s] in either book.” The brouhaha over whether or not Atticus is racist obscures the larger point: that we’re still idealizing a white saviour from a novel published in 1960. TKaM is a snapshot of race relations at a particular time in American history. It’s written from a white perspective. It’s not a guidebook. If its subject matter, about Black men being falsely accused of crimes and white society turning a blind eye, is still relevant today, that’s a sad commentary on our failure to change, not a sign of the book’s timelessness.

And Atticus isn’t a god. Whose fault is it that Atticus turned out to be a mere mortal? Not his, and certainly not Harper Lee’s.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

You guys, I really wanted this post to just be a list of quotes from this book, because there are so many good lines. How does Lorrie Moore do it?

birds1   birds2   birds3

Some covers. I own the one on the left.

I guess I’ll try to be insightful instead, although I find that I have a hard time articulating what it is I love so much about Moore’s writing. The best way I can describe it is to say that more often than most, her sentences give me that sharp, gut-punch feeling of instant recognition. You know, that moment of wonder when a book seems to be actually, and secretly, about your life, and everyone forgot to tell you. That feeling is what I read for.

All that aside, I did have a hard time getting into this book. Birds of America (1998) is a collection of short stories, a medium that Moore has perfected but also one that I have trouble with. I like very long, plot-driven novels, a preference which I suppose explains my MA in Victorian fiction but makes me not very hip. I always want more at the end of a short story—it seems like I’ve just gotten settled into the thing and then it’s over and I never see the characters again. I kind of hate that.

But Moore is such a good writer that I’m willing to suffer that disappointment. I’ve read two of her novels, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (perfect) and A Gate at the Stairs (not perfect but very good), as well as her newest collection of stories, Bark (dark and wonderful). She’s one of the only writers I can name who seems equally at home writing short stories and novels. (Who else? Margaret Atwood… ? I don’t read a lot of short stories.) But for some reason, the first story in this collection, about an actress who takes a break from Hollywood to move back to Chicago and takes up with a man who doesn’t watch movies, didn’t grab me.

Instead, I’d call this collection a slow build. The last two stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” and “Terrific Mother,” were my favourites. The former is about a mother who discovers that her baby has cancer. Moore’s depiction of a paediatric oncology ward is incredible: realistic (I assume) and detailed with just enough absurdity and sarcasm to cut the bleakness. Equal parts darkly funny and devastatingly sad, the story follows the mother, father, and baby (never given names, although the other characters are) through their time in the ward. “Terrific Mother” is about a woman who is accidentally responsible for the death of a neighbour’s child. After spending a few months locked in her apartment, she marries and travels to Italy with her new husband, where she experiences something transformative in an unlikely place. As Michiko Kakutani points out in her review of this book, these plots seem like they could have come from a Lifetime movie—and yet Moore’s precise writing, sharp humour, and keen sense of the absurd transcend sentimentality.

One of Moore’s many talents is for oddities, those strange or unexpected details that make characters seem more real and also more memorable. Take, for example, the story “Charades,” about a family Christmas gathering. During a game of charades, a brother and sister have a fight about whether or not anyone else has heard of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” It’s such a ridiculously specific argument that it feels exactly like how a brother and sister would interact. After all, the moments we share with those closest to us often seem inexplicable to outsiders. Moore’s ability to create such moments, and in a way that is universal, is rare and wonderful.

Like the birds of the title, we are all rare birds, aren’t we? (Aside: I assume the title was inspired by Audubon’s The Birds of America). Or so we like to believe. Moore knows this, and admires this about each of her characters, even as she skewers their self-importance, their insistence on their own individuality.

I bought this book after my first semester of graduate school, in the University of Victoria campus bookstore. I was mistakenly convinced that I was about to spend my entire Christmas vacation reading for fun, so I took this book back to Toronto with me. Instead, I’m pretty sure I watched a lot of Christmas movies and ate chocolate. Then I took it back to Victoria—then I lugged it home again when I left B.C. and it moved with me, still unread, into a new apartment last summer. It’s funny, the things you’re willing to take with you when you travel long distances. What do your possessions say about you? What kind of rare bird do you think you are?

And now, for fun, some of the best lines in the book:

“He bought her a large garnet ring, a cough drop set in brass.” (from “Community Life”)

“In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.” (from “What You Want to Do Fine”)

[a character reflecting on a movie she’s just seen, about a woman who falls in love with an alien disguised as a man] “To Ruth, it seemed so sad and true, just like life: someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet.” (from “Real Estate”)

“When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries—a fibbing fruit, a story store—and now she had a job in one.” (from “Community Life”)

“She remembered it had made any given day seem bearable, that impulse toward a joke. It had been a determined sort of humour, an intensity mirroring the intensity of the city, and it seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had.” (from “Agnes of Iowa”)

I’ve got three books by Dickens on my list so I’d better get started on him. Next up: A Tale of Two Cities.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I finished a book! Only 48 to go. Unfortunately, this was the easiest read on the list. It’s all 800-page Victorian novels from here on out.

sharpobjects     sharp-objects1    Sharp-Objects2

A survey of the available covers. I love the middle one with its creepy house and bloody tree. 

Gillian Flynn is pretty hot right now. She’s a bestselling author. Not only that, she’s written three novels and has sold the film rights to each. Pretty good odds! Gone Girl, which took bookstores by storm when it came out in 2012, stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike–perfect casting–and is in post-production now. Dark Places, a straight-up disturbing, nightmare-inducing read, stars Charlize Theron and comes out this fall. And Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, has been optioned, but no other details are forthcoming just yet. My favourite of these three is Dark Places because it is so twisted and awful that it will “mess you up” (to quote my coworker).

It’s easy to see why Flynn’s novels are making the transition to film: they’re atmospheric and suspenseful, with legitimately twisty endings. Okay, I did guess the big twist in Gone Girl, but I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie over the years. I have enjoyed each of Flynn’s novels, if enjoyed means “lost all peace of mind after reading,” and Sharp Objects, although probably my least favourite of the three, was also a fun, quick read. If you are inclined to just read books and then stop thinking about them, you’ll enjoy Gillian Flynn and your resulting nightmares.

But! If, like me and other recovering English majors the world over, you feel the need to analyze every detail of everything you read, you’ll also enjoy Gillian Flynn. All three of her novels are a masterclass in exploring and exposing the dark undercurrents of contemporary femininity, with mixed results.

First, a synopsis of Sharp Objects. Reporter Camille Preaker, who’s recovering from a stint in the psych ward, is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a horrifying story: the murder of a nine-year-old girl. Police suspect a serial killer is on the loose, since this new murder fits the profile of another murder from a year before. Being home again with her mother Adora, stepfather Alan, and half-sister Amma brings up all of Camille’s insecurities and deepest fears. The memory of her dead sister Marian is everywhere, her high school buddies have turned fake and mean, and Camille worries that her mother’s neuroses are having an unhealthy affect on Amma. The longer she’s in Wind Gap, the closer Camille comes to finding the killer–and the closer she comes to losing her own grip on reality.

The twist ending here is not super shocking (bonus points if anyone can guess who done it just from my synopsis!), but it’s effective. Flynn excels at building the dark, dank atmosphere of Wind Gap, a hick town filled with hybrid midwestern/southern stereotypes. It’s a town of old Victorian mansions, slaughterhouses, and secrets. The odour of the local pig factory hangs over the town’s less attractive neighbourhoods. One of the murdered girls is found stuffed in a narrow alley between two businesses on Main Street–as if the town’s dirty secrets are literally bursting out of the cracks in its facade. (Aside: My only other pop cultural frame of reference for Missouri is Meet Me in St. Louis, which is a lovely film featuring Judy Garland at her most winsome and loveable, and those characters also live in a big old Victorian house, so I had some fun imagining Judy Garland as Camille.)

But I have a problem with how Flynn characterizes women, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Admittedly, in Gone Girl she eviscerates the phenomenon of the Cool Girl in one glorious chapter, and I admire her hugely for that. You know that girl, the one who never gets mad when her boyfriend comes home late, who doesn’t mind if he makes fun of her friends, who likes sports and beer and eats tons of junk food but still looks beautiful and boyishly slim at all times? She hangs out with the boys. Maybe she doesn’t have any female friends because she just can’t deal with their drama. She never nags her boyfriend about picking up socks or proposing. Yeah, that’s the Cool Girl. This woman does not exist, says Gone Girl‘s Amy. And Gone Girl is certainly an amazing send-up of all of those Cool Girl tropes that fascinate us so.

Written before Gone Girl, though, Sharp Objects relies a little bit on that Cool Girl. Camille isn’t easygoing enough to be “cool,” but she is effortlessly beautiful (so many characters tell her this, and I rolled my eyes anew every time), and doesn’t seem to care. She has casual sex with both a murder suspect and the main detective on the case. She drinks various men under the table. She tells the story of what was pretty clearly a gang-rape as just another wild night out on the town. And lest you think this is just because she was so damaged by the experience that she has learned to see it that way, the man to whom she’s telling the story gets very upset and even raises the r-word, and she brushes off his concern. That’s just how teens encounter sex here in Wind Gap, she says (more or less). I think we’re supposed to admire these traits in her–while recognizing that she is deeply traumatized from her childhood, of course. There’s a running thread about her past as a cutter that feels a little obvious. But why do we admire her? Because she’s the only remotely Cool Girl for miles. Every other woman in Wind Gap is a mess of pink and girlish stereotypes.

Camille’s mother Adora is definitely a candidate for Worst Mother of the Year. She’s so overly feminized, with her brightly coloured dresses and girlish voice and motherly concern for her daughters’ health, that she’s really just a nightmare portrayal of the perfect wife and mother. Ideal femininity taken to its terrifying extreme, like a Stepford wife. Camille’s 13-year-old sister Amma is described alternately as a sex kitten and as a beautiful, innocent young girl who’s being corrupted by her mother (and this is why Flynn can be so disturbing: she crosses and recrosses that line between titillating and inappropriate over and over). Camille’s former high school friends are all stay at home moms who glorify motherhood and shoot dirty looks at Camille because they assume she’s a feminist. Flynn draws a pretty stark connection between “traditionally feminine” and “mean or straight-up evil.”

But are there any normal women in this world? No, there are not. There is the quasi-Cool Girl, perpetually drunk on bourbon and up for a good time, and there are the Mothers, sinister and guarded, judgmental and mean. Cool Girls, of course, don’t have time for traditional femininity–dresses, makeup, having children, even being married. They don’t want any of that, they’re too cool. It’s sort of a Madonna/Whore complex, but the Whore is the heroine and the Madonna really doesn’t love her kid as much as she claims to.

There’s also a fascinating subplot where Flynn pathologizes traditional femininity, much like some of the best Victorian novelists. Adora is a hypochondriac whose obsessive mothering and nursing of her daughters masks her own sick need for attention. In many Victorian novels, women fall ill with nebulous, unnamed illnesses because their lives are so narrow and repressed. Illness is the only form of self-expression open to them. At the same time, though, being ill–pale and delicate–really just reinforces the very femininity that makes these characters so powerless. In Sharp Objects, it’s similar–illness is how Adora asserts control over her family, how she finds her purpose, sick and twisted though it may be. I really loved that thread in the novel and I wish Flynn had fleshed it out a little more instead of making Adora such a cartoon villain. (Aside #2: In grad school, I researched and wrote a lot about femininity and illness in the Victorian novel, so that is my Number One Literary Obsession and it’ll probably come up again and again on this blog.)

Flynn once wrote that she herself “was not a nice little girl,” and Sharp Objects is very preoccupied with this idea. The two little girls who are murdered are not “nice little girls,” either. One shoves a pen into another’s eye, and the other likes to bite when she doesn’t get her way. Camille likes this about both victims because it means she can relate to them. As if a murder victim who was a “nice little girl” would be less worthy of her investigative skills, less interesting, too conventional.

Flynn has been accused before of relying on misogynist tropes in her writing, and she’s defended herself. I definitely don’t think that all portraits of women need to be flattering in order to be feminist–I don’t think that’s what feminism is about, nor is it what I want to read about, nor is it even what I’m saying here. But feminism also isn’t about the freedom to make women into villains or hate on other women for liking pink things. For one thing, there are plenty of female villains out there already, and not just, as Flynn says, soapy vixens who are “merely bitchy.” Let’s see–we’ve got Mrs. Bates, Baby Jane, Kathy Bates’s character in Misery, even a character like Nellie Oleson (she was the worst!), the narrator (Judi Dench’s character) in Notes on a Scandal, the list goes on.

But also, and I think we all know this, it’s okay to like things that are traditionally feminine, and it doesn’t mean that you’re boring, or less worthy of some investigative reporter’s attention after you’ve been brutally murdered, or whatever. And creating complex female characters is not just about acknowledging that women have a dark side. It’s more about the fact that women can have as many sides as they want.