Saturday, March 30, 2013

Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell)

I got the chance to read this book as an ARC from NetGalley months ago, but I decided not to read it because I realized it didn't sound as interesting as I had first thought. However, I saw a few weeks ago that the book had a ridiculously high Goodreads rating (currently 4.18), plus hype from Gayle Forman and John Green and decided this wasn't a book I should miss.

The book, told in alternating perspectives, goes like this: it's 1986. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus. Eleanor is weird and kind of weird-looking. Park is half-Korean but socially inoffensive. They fall in love ("star-crossed love" is how just about every blurb/review I see insists on referring to their romance). Okay, I thought. I'm down for a good love story.

And to some extent, I got one. Yes, so Park and Eleanor are kind of misfits that fall in love and we all want that to happen since we think we're all misfits who deserve to find love. Some of the writing is a little unconvincing--Eleanor talks about how much she hates Romeo and Juliet but occasionally comes off as a monologue from the play: neither of the main characters can stop talking about how much they need to be with the other, how the moments without them are the worst moments of their lives. It's quite endearing, very sixteenish and a little too dramatic for my tastes.

Underneath the shiny veneer, Rowell's novel is kind of a mess. I'm going to invent a new term here (panic): "YA curse". Eleanor and Park falls victim to the YA curse, by which I mean that we are presented with a totally great book with interesting characters that ends up bogged down by the "obligatory" inclusion of real-life issues (in this case, home abuse and effeminacy) and teen protagonists acting a little too pretentious, worldly and wise. I suspect that John Green may be the biggest culprit here, but David Levithan's Every Day succumbed to it. It's not necessarily a kiss of death, but the rest of the book has to work really hard to cover it up. Eleanor and Park never quite gets there.

The book sort of unravels into a quirkfest and a who's who of the 1980s. The aforementioned real-life issues seem a little forced into the narrative in order to give it some driving force--without Eleanor's mean stepfather, it's hard to imagine Eleanor and Park getting off the ground, and even with it is a central narrative force, the book only awkwardly flings itself at the finish line. In fact, the ending was one of my major issues with the novel. Of course there has to be something that forces our lovers apart (which, as I mentioned, is not as strong as it could be), but what we end up with is an ending that doesn't want to commit to hope or tragedy. And that's always disappointing.

Despite my reservations with the novel, it's something that the John Green set must read. They will absolutely love it, probably for all of the reasons that I didn't. It's not a bad book (in fact, it was pretty good), but my own personal weariness with the YA curse prevents me from rating it higher.

My rating: 3/5
Eleanor and Park on Goodreads
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Friday, March 29, 2013

Super-Review #3

The Island of Dr. Moreau
This was my first H. G. Wells experience--I went in with pretty high expectations, and was impressed with how well these expectations were met. The story, about a man who ends up on the island of a crazed vivisectionist, is rather delightfully creepy. It's a short novel, but one worth reading for fans of science fiction.
My rating: 4/5

Orpheus Descending
Another Tennessee Williams play. I was excited about this play because of the Orpheus-related title. What I got was a play very thin in allusion and myth-layering that was actually kind of dull. The characters seemed flat and I couldn't get myself particularly invested in their story. Not Williams' best work.
My rating: 3/5

Summer and Smoke
Yet another Tennessee Williams play, and this time I was really wowed. My second-favorite of his plays I've read (coming only after A Streetcar Named Desire), this story of love between Alma and John really stirred up some feelings. The characters are vivid and the story engaged me. The ending got to me. What a marvelous work.
My rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cinder (Marissa Meyer)

Another fairy tale-related book! I am a fiend and cannot be stopped.

One of the trickiest things about adapting a fairy tale is deciding how different it ought to be from the original. It has to be different enough to not be the actual fairy tale (in that case, all you've done is written is a fairy tale anthology), but it can't be too different, either--it calls into question why you even bothered using the fairy tale as a jumping point for your story or that you ran out of ideas and started pulling in a bunch of nonsensical ideas to give your retelling some "spice".

Cinder is an engaging story even if you know what's supposed to happen: of course there's a prince and a mean stepmother and a kind-hearted girl who slaves all day and loves the prince. But Meyer is able to so craftily blend what you know about the story with her science-fiction world. Set who knows how far into the future, it would appear that the entirety of Asia belongs to an empire known as the Eastern Commonwealth, a country being ravaged by a plague. Cinder is a cyborg citizen of the Commonwealth, a mechanic whose skill earns her the attention of Prince Kai, first in line to the throne (is that what it's called in an empire?) as his father grows closer and closer to death (himself a victim of the plague).

The prince requests her help repairing one of his androids and also invites her personally to the ball. Of course, Adri the wicked stepmother doesn't want her to go. Instead, she volunteers Cinder (who is technically her property because of her mechanical parts) to be a research subject in plague vaccination tests. That's where I'm going to cut off the plot summary because I don't want to reveal the whole story. It's worth reading.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter)

I feel like I can't talk about how much I love fairy tales in a way that isn't repetitious and annoying. So I shall just say (once again) that I love fairy tales in all forms, including adaptations. I had heard plenty of wonderful things about Carter's The Bloody Chamber and decided to go for it.

I've heard different things about the manner in which Carter adapted the stories, the terms "modernized" and "with a feminist twist" being thrown around a lot. I think that both of these terms, however, don't do the short collection justice--it's easy to hear both of those words in conjunction with "fairy tales" and groan inwardly because it all just feels done before (though this collection is from 1979 so I suppose at the time the idea would not have seemed so overused).

My advice about reading The Bloody Chamber is to stop thinking about how the familiar stories have been updated or shifted in regard to gender roles and perspective. Give them space to breathe and grow because they will ensnare you if you let them. For example, I made it entirely through the titular story--was totally wowed and dazzled--without realizing it was a Bluebeard story. Isn't that marker enough of the author's talent, that she was able to make me forget these were supposed to be fairy tales? I generally don't reread fairy tales for the story (I already know what's going to happen), but rather to see how the familiar content has been used and retold, and very often during this Carter collection I forgot that I already knew what was supposed to happen.

The author takes us through Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Puss-in-Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and a few stories that don't seem to correspond to one particular tale. There are ten tales, and each of them is distinct and beautiful. Carter's writing is thick and enchanting; I once heard a way of describing a really good book as "feeling suspended in a jar" while you read the book, and I never understood what that meant until I read The Bloody Chamber. I became so fully wrapped up in each little morsel of story and it is moments like those that make reading such a delight.

Normally I like to praise the book and then throw in any negative statements I might have to say about it, but I can't find anything bad to say about it. I was never once bored. There's not a weak story in the bunch (although you might get a little confused if you try hard to pair up some of the stories with fairy tales you already know and expect a one-to-one correlation), though my favorites were "The Bloody Chamber" and "The Company of Wolves".

If you like (or love) fairy tales, then Angela Carter's collection is one to absolutely not be missed. Even if you aren't a fan of the genre or try to avoid retellings, I still think you ought to give The Bloody Chamber a chance. You might be surprised by how pleased you are.

My rating: 5/5
The Bloody Chamber on Goodreads
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Monday, March 11, 2013

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)

How exciting! One of the big ones in the Quest for Great Literature. What a shame, then, that I didn't like it. Am I a slob for not enjoying Faulkner (or my previous experience with his rival, Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises)? I like F. Scott Fitzgerald, though! Does that count?

The Sound and the Fury is highly experimental in its set-up. We are tracing the history of the Compson family in Faulker's famous, fictional Yoknapatawpha County over the course of Easter weekend, plus a jump back to a day eighteen years previous to that weekend. There are four sections, three of which are narrated in the first person by the boys of the Compson family (Quentin, Jason, and Benjy/Maury), with the fourth section taking place through an omniscient narrator.

One of the reasons I didn't like the book was how difficult the opening is to work through. Benjy has a complex set of mental issues that have left him stunted in his ability to perceive and interact with the outside world. His narrative slides in and out of time, moving through about thirty years of his life seamlessly and often without signal. It's nearly impossible to keep track of all of the changes or even the people or the events being discussed (again, so difficult because Benjy's understanding of the world is so different from our own). This is the book at its most experimental and its most frustrating. As I have mentioned lately, stream of consciousness and I are not friends, and this is that technique driven to the extreme. I'm not saying that I'm opposed to working for an understanding (sometimes denser is better), but the amount of work Faulkner expects of the reader is ridiculous.

The second section follows Quentin, and is the portion of the novel that moves back to 18 years before the beginning of the book. This is generally more comprehensible, but it's clear that Quentin is also suffering from some mental instability (he kills himself on the day of his narrated section) and has moments of Benjy-like stream of consciousness. Faulkner uses it more interestingly and understandably in this section to communicate to us something about Quentin's character--perhaps that he is externally stable but internally wrecked? The way the author uses his technique here can make for some very interesting lines of thought and discussion without feeling as hopeless and frustrating as the first section.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tenth of December (George Saunders)

I don't think of myself as a short story reader. I am not a fan of their length; I think it's too often an excuse for the author not to develop his characters or premise into enchanting, realistic things. So what happens when I read a collection of short stories whose goal, it seems, is to repeatedly drop me into situations without a lot of context or explanation and see how fast I can grasp what's going on? That's George Saunders at work.

About a year ago, I read my first Saunders collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and was awestruck by how such minimalistic (and that is really the perfect word for what Saunders does) stories were able to inspire in me such devastation and heartbreak. Tenth of December is just as sad, filled with storyworlds that are at turns hyperrealistic and at other times are slightly different than our own.

The short review is that the book overwhelmed me with sort of unhappy feelings; for me, this was not a bad thing. Saunders is able to precisely capture human misery and distill it in 20- or 40-page installments that it feels like I myself am actually in a bad mood, and any book that is trying to get me to feel an emotion and then succeeds in making me feel that emotion is a victory in my mind.

The long review, in which I talk about each individual story, follows.