Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)

Why We Broke Up is a book that I have thought about reading over and over--as soon as it came out, I was drawn in both by the author (I had never read something of his not written under a pseudonym) and the concept: the novel is a catalog of all the things held special in a relationship, explained one-by-one. It's the sort of book 16-year-old me would have bought and devoured immediately. I continually put it off (even after it won a Printz Honor!) because I saw a lot of lukewarm reviews

And then I took the plunge anyway. Min is 16 and basically a misfit--she loves classic films and thrift stores and genuinely doesn't understand or like basketball. But for some reason, Ed, the king jock, has begun to pursue Min...and she likes it. Their romance is whirlwind in the way that 16 year olds do, but we know even before we start the book that it's going to fall apart, so we buckle in and we watch.

I wasn't really a fan of Why We Broke Up. The most pressing issue with the book is just how annoying Min is; she constantly references classic movies, films that are not real, which frustrates me so much--there's no way we can possibly catch allusions to things that don't exist, so why bother? I might have been into the technique if I could watch the movies she's talking about, but no such luck. She's quirky and different but hates when people tell her so. Min loves coffee and she needs it and she loves this one out-of-the-way store that's only open one day a week in the early morning for a little bit.

What I mean is this: Handler has done such a good job writing in the voice of a high school hipster that it was as annoying as the real thing. Just like I wouldn't be able to be around someone like Min in my real life, I didn't want to be around her. So it's praise but also a problem. In the opposite direction, however, is Ed, who doesn't feel nearly so well-made. He's annoying to read about, but mostly because he doesn't seem to be more than a parody of a collection of stereotypes: he likes sports, he's dumb, he doesn't talk to girls who are smart, he's in it for sex. There's not much to work with in Ed.

As for the narrative gimmick...it gets old. There are a lot of items and quite a few very short stories that go with them. I would have liked to have seen "top ten things from our relationship and why" or something, because the vignette feel of so many objects is tiresome. There's a rubber band that Min uses in her hair, for example, and it's a tiny episode that I didn't want to read about. The strangest thing, however, is that the book doesn't need its crutch--if the book were just a straightforward narrative, it would function exactly the same way (and perhaps might have been a little less annoying).

So how do I sum this up? Why We Broke Up is a book that gets everything right about that time in your teenage years where you look back now and want to smack yourself for being so annoying, and it's not necessarily a pleasant experience. It relies heavily on a technique that wears thin rather quickly. But if you're 16, maybe you'll think it's the greatest thing. I don't know.

My rating: 3/5
Why We Broke Up on Goodreads
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Hundred-Year House (Rebecca Makkai)

This is one of those books I'm going to have difficulty describing, isn't it? And it's delightful that that's the case, really it is. I loved this book dearly, so thanks to NetGalley and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read it in exchange for an unbiased review.

Laurelfield is an estate in the Chicago area owned by the Devohrs, an illustrious Toronto family. At the beginning of the novel, in 1999, it's owned by Gracie, who has lived there for about forty years, and the servants' quarters are occupied by her daughter Zee and her husband Doug. Zee is a Marxist theory English professor and Doug is...in progress. He's been working on a thesis about the fictional poet Edwin Parfitt for years, but he can't seem to actually get it done. He finds out that Laurelfield used to be an artists' colony, one visited by Parfitt several times before his suicide, and he becomes obsessed with the idea that there might be undiscovered manuscripts or early drafts of poems that he could use for his biography. For Doug, the secrets of Laurelfield could make his career.

Gracie's second husband, Bruce, invites his son and daughter-in-law to live in the servants' quarters, too. Miriam, the daughter-in-law, is an artist who specializes in what I guess could be called "junk art" if you're being cruel and "works made from recycled materials" if you want to be nice, collages of old fabric and things lying about the house. Doug and Miriam form a fast friendship (is it more?) and he initiates her into the mysteries of Edwin Parfitt and Laurelfield. They band together to investigate the mystery of Laurelfield's (potentially haunted) past while Y2K rushes ever nearer and their tightly-wound relationships begin to unravel.

And then halfway through the book, we're 40 years earlier, and before the novel has ended, we've jumped twice more. Of course, the cast of characters change from jump to jump. Perhaps that will frustrate some readers, but Makkai is more than capable of using the technique: each section features characters fully realized, so lifelike that you'll want to hug them and slap them for being so silly and stupid and human. I am in awe of the author's power here, because I have read too many books with a single cast of characters that is paper-thin and annoyingly unrealistic, but Makkai chews her way through several, all to the same dazzling effect.

Life Drawing (Robin Black)

Thanks to NetGalley and Edelweiss for an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review!

Ah, so these are the times we live in. A post-Gone Girl era where everyone wants to read more books about relationships that are filled with secrets or bad feelings, a renaissance of books about people being people. I have gotten sucked into it as much as any other person, I'll admit it, because I love soapy drama if it's done right. Alas, it seems as though that's harder to come by than one might think, given the proliferation of books in this vein.

Life Drawing is about a married couple, Augusta and Owen. Some years ago, Augusta had an affair with a man named Bill, and Owen, though devastated, worked through the problem and the couple stayed together. They live on a fairly isolated farm. Gus, as she calls herself, is a painter, and Owen is a writer, and the two of them enjoy their lives of solitude. Suddenly, however, they have a neighbor, Alison, a woman who comes with her own familial baggage, including a daughter Nora who occasionally visits and never fails to keep things interesting.

The novel really heats up in its last third, and for that third, it's stunning. Seriously. It's painful and precise and perfect, and I am giving you absolutely no details about what happens because that would destroy it. Black carefully plots this part, and it feels so high-stakes and surprising and sharp--in fact, the last third is the part of Life Drawing that reminded me most of Gone Girl, so that probably explains why I liked it so much.

But what about first two-thirds? It's not dreadful--clearly, since I wouldn't have finished the book if I was bored with it--but it's...frustrating. Black is clearly a good writer, because the opening of the book sketches her characters so exactly and so quickly. It's almost startling how closely I thought I was to these characters, like I was an invisible third person that had lived with them for years.

Unfortunately, after introducing them once, the novel stalls out; we have to learn and then re-learn all the details of Owen and Gus's past and personalities, which I didn't enjoy because I felt like I knew them so well already. The book is also slowed down by Gus's frequent philosophizing, which half the time was excellent and the other half not fun.

So I suppose what I'm trying to say, then, is that the books feels like it only really gets started about 67% in. I would have loved to pick up the book for the final third and followed it after the point in which the book chooses it end--certainly it would have been a different novel. Of course, all of this more reflective of my own tastes in a book: I am more for the intrigue and the bad choices than I am for the regret and the thoughtful dwelling about it later.

My final statement: Life Drawing is a good book. If you want pensive thoughts about cheating and moving on, you're definitely in luck. But if you're looking for a drama that's a little juicier, you'll get it here, too, even if it's not instant gratification.

My rating: 3.5/5
Life Drawing on Goodreads
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