Tartt Round 2: Second Chances with The Secret History

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Giving Tartt another shot.

 

I have an issue with Donna Tartt.

The Secret History, her debut novel and the second novel of hers I have read, is everything I thought it would be: 500+ pages of overly crafted scenes, obscene amounts of references, underdeveloped characters and storylines that go nowhere. Some of these characteristics are not bad in of themselves. Tartt’s extreme attention to detail makes every scene vivid and alive. Her references to literature, music, art, even fashion, show that she is incredibly intelligent and has a keen eye for influence. It is in the last two (poor character development and aimless plots) that she begins to lose her credibility as a writer, to me. Every scene is finely nuanced, but the nuances mean absolutely nothing if the scene goes nowhere. The characters may be brooding or charming or violent, but these become superficial when there is not enough insight into the character’s relationships or personal experience. Quite frankly, one can’t be expected to give a shit about Tartt’s writing when her books become more masturbatory than masterful.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy The Secret History. Unlike my experience with The Goldfinch, I actually looked forward to picking up The Secret History. Especially during the first half of the novel, there was a level of intrigue and suspense that enticed me. It wasn’t quite the same miserable prison, until it was.

So, let’s get to the meat of the thing. This WILL contain spoilers. You have a warning.

The Secret History follows a group of six eccentric liberal-arts college students who become murderers and ultimately self-destruct. If that sounds melodramatic, well, it is. Very much so. The main character and first-person narrator, Richard Papen, is a bored Californian suburbanite who wanders through life with no real meaning and no real friends. He pursues a practical career in medicine until he decides, like most college-aged kids with no real idea of what they want to do with life, that the Classics are what interest him. He finds his “calling” at Hampden College in Vermont, and his middle-class parents are more than happy to see him go (cue the poor character relationship development). Upon arriving in Vermont, he discovers that the Classics program is highly exclusive, and highly discouraged. The Classics department is made up of Julian Morrow, the only professor and of course, a mysterious, intriguing older gentleman with a dignified sense of taste and old-world sensibilities. He only has five students, who are all very much archetypes of the sort of students you would expect to take up the study of dead language texts at a liberal-arts college in the 90s.  They chain smoke and drink like lushes; they dress in high-end designers but wear things like a pince-nez or floppy straw hats. They come from money and say things like “Look here,” or “By the way, love that jacket, old man,” like something out of The Great Gatsby. Richard is taken by them and ultimately convinces Julian to accept him into the program.

The impression the reader gets of the other students as they are first seen walking across the lawn together by Richard, who of course finds them to be magnificent, speaks of the superficiality of their creator. Henry, the incredibly rich, socially awkward, melancholic teacher’s pet; Camilla and Charles, a set of twins with golden, angelic good looks and grace; Francis, the fiery redhead with a distinct black cloak, pince-nez, and flamboyant tendencies; and Bunny, a strong, fashionable young man with floppy blond hair and a lively presence. As the semester moves forward, Richard is brought into the fold. In typical Tartt fashion, the group partakes in a lifestyle that is not relatable to her readers.  They attend school maybe three days a week. They spend weekends at Francis’ aunt’s country summer home, playing euchre or floating aimlessly in a row-boat for hours on end. They have sophisticated dinner parties with an abundance of scotch and cigarettes. But no matter how much Richard is around, he suspects something strange is amok: bumps in the night, periods of no contact with the others, whispers and strange looks. He senses he is still an outsider. The only other person who appears to be a bit out of the loop is Bunny. But Bunny is insufferable, and this becomes important in the story later on. Bunny is a loudmouth, judgmental and rude. He mooches off of the group even though he claims to be from money. He needles everyone about their insecurities, but holds himself to the highest esteem. As the behavior of the group becomes more unusual, Richard comes to find out a horrible truth: Charles, Camilla, Henry and Francis have committed murder (not in conventional, typical murder fashion, either.) And Bunny knows the truth.

The following events could have happened rather quickly, making for a shocking climax and swift conclusion. Tartt would not have it that way. What follows is the long, drawn-out, histrionic fallout. After being threatened numerous times by Bunny to expose the group and Richard ultimately piecing together the clues, the secrets threaten to ruin everyone. To protect the group (or is it his own self-interests?) Henry orchestrates Bunny’s demise (this is not so much a spoiler because you actually learn of this event within the first page of the book). Now keep in mind, this book is 559 pages long and both the first murder and Bunny’s murder occur before page 270. So what the hell was the rest of the book about? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sure, there is an investigation after Bunny goes missing for a week. The police come, the FBI comes, and the group collectively shits itself for several weeks before Bunny’s funeral (a funeral which takes up almost a whopping 40 pages alone). The group turns on each other, Richard turns to drugs, Charles to drink, Francis to chain-smoking, Henry disappears frequently, and Camilla teeters between indifference and utter devastation. But again, this is happening 200 pages after the crimes. And so the rest is all filler. Most of it is Richard’s pointless ramblings about everything happening from day-to-day, down to every minute detail. The rest of the group take turns in and out of hospitals, getting arrested, fighting, smoking, and drinking. Tartt drones on with no destination.

The most glaring issue to me with this book, and The Goldfinch, is that Tartt’s main characters have no sense of purpose, which makes it impossible for the reader to care. They have no substance. Like Theo in The Goldfinch, Richard has zero motivation for life, has no interesting qualities or observations, and they end up passive in their own story, taking up drugs and wasting their days. It is aggravating. It is lazy. Why tell the story from their perspective? Richard was such a non factor in almost everything that happened in The Secret History, he could be entirely removed from the story and it would be exactly the same. Both he and Theo relied on the other characters to make them relevant and interesting.

Another huge problem with Tartt is that she gets to choose what Richard “remembers”. So while he can tell you, in excruciating detail, about the time Camilla cut her foot on a piece of glass at the summer home, he cannot tell you what was said between Julian and Henry when Julian discovers that the group is responsible for Bunny’s death. Even though Richard is present for that moment, a most crucial, suspenseful turning point, the conversation seems to elude him. Tartt worms her way out of writing any sort of pivotal dialogue by suddenly giving Richard amnesia, a side effect of the shock and trauma of committing a murder. Tartt would rather write bloated prose supplemented with an arsenal of sophisticated references than give her story the structure and substance it so desperately needs. It’s a cop-out.

Would I recommend The Secret History, or any Tartt book, for that matter? Oddly enough, I probably would. She is well-acclaimed for a reason, even if I tend to strongly disagree with the praise. I know several people who loved The Goldfinch and would probably enjoy The Secret History. I always like a good thriller and this, at times, had potential to be a great thrilling read. I enjoyed it to an extent but my previous experience with Tartt has left me immensely critical of her work, with some issues too glaring to ignore. We become better readers and critical thinkers when we read what we are critical of and understand why we feel so. When we refuse to read anything by a certain author, or in a particular genre, simply because of one bad experience, we are limiting ourselves. How can we know for sure that we truly disagree if we never give that author another chance? I respect Tartt’s talent and knowledge, but can say with great certainty now that I am not a fan of the approach she takes with storytelling. I know because despite my misgivings, I wanted to fall in love with her writing. Unfortunately, Tartt and I must now go our separate ways.

Fahrenheit 451: Asking the Burning Questions of a Not-So-Distant Future

 

 

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It was a pleasure to burn.

“Number one: Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

The last classic of 2016 for me was the classic dystopian nightmare for bibliophiles, Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. In Bradbury’s future, books are now extremely dangerous to own. Society is rotting away in their ever-growing television rooms with their superficial stories, supersonic speed cars, and sleek technology. Critical thinking, logic, socialization and rationale are all out the window. War planes scream across the sky but war is simply an observation, no longer a cause for concern or speculation. Even suicide is a casual affair, where one may take a whole bottle of sleeping pills, have their stomach pumped by indifferent paramedics and then continue on the next day as if nothing happened. Bradbury’s future is terrifying.

The main character and hero of Fahrenheit 451 is Guy Montag. He works as a fireman, which is actually a reverse fireman, an arsonist by trade. The firemen are to be feared. They set fire to hidden book collections, burn the houses of the criminals who own the illegal materials. They ruin lives. Montag has never questioned the purpose of his profession, never wondered why books were so dangerous, until he meets his young neighbor Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse is observant, full of life and wonder. She questions her surroundings and marvels at things as simple as the rain. Her curiosity of nature and humanity sparks Montag’s own intellectualism. Montag slowly becomes aware of how empty modern society is. His own wife Mildred is a shell of a human, permanently consumed by her shows on her enormous and beloved television. Human relationships do not mean anything, independent thinking is discouraged and no one questions why.

Although Montag has always done his job, he disobeyed without possibly understanding his actions. He has his own private collection of books, taken from the houses he has burned. Captain Beatty, Montag’s boss, recognizes what is happening to Montag. He visits Montag at home, although it is unclear whether his intentions are sinister or sympathetic. Beatty is well-read and seems almost disdainful about his profession but ultimately gives Montag a deadline for turning in his secret stash of books. Montag’s ultimate betrayal is served by his wife, Mildred, and Montag eventually becomes a fugitive, hiding from the firemen and the greatly feared Mechanical Hound. He cannot ignore his need for knowledge now that it has been awakened. With help from an old intellect, Faber, Montag is able to escape the city and find a small group of renegades whom have memorized stories, with the hopes that some day they can begin to produce these stories for the world to read.

Fahrenheit 451 is short but compact. Bradbury’s writing is dizzying, almost fever dream-like. Perhaps this is representative of Montag’s grasp on his current reality. Our hero, Montag, is often confused, scared and is learning how to cope with a curious mind. His mind is bound by societal norms he does not understand, with the urges to think, to read, to question and observe struggling against these confines. He may not understand the full scope of what he desires but he knows that he must see it through. Montag knows there is power within the covers of the books he incinerates but he does not understand the magnitude of that power. Are books really so dangerous? Is individuality and rational thought a threat to society?

It’s impossible to read a dystopian novel and not apply the fears to the current world. In Bradbury’s dystopia, individual thoughts, appreciation for humanity and nature and logic are all suppressed. The concept of thinking for oneself is so far gone that no one questions the violence or the coldness of their personal relationships, the shallowness of their entertainment. It makes me think of the issue with fake news sites, which has come to a head with the recent presidential election. Is our society lacking critical thinking? Can Americans no longer think rationally for themselves? Are we unable to read an article and say, “I doubt the validity of this claim. I need to diversify my sources, challenge ideas and discover the truth for myself”? It saddens me to think that our hate and anger can cloud our judgment so much that we are willing to accept anything that supports our beliefs as truth just because it makes us feel justified. I hope that we know better than to spew false information and claim it as gospel. How can we remain open-minded if we don’t question everything? How can we accept each other if we dispel each other’s opinions without asking why? And most of all, how can people spread lies? When did fear mongering become more important than educating each other?

The event in Fahrenheit 451 are still set in a distant future, although how distant is up for debate. It’s easy to take something like literature for granted but when intellect is discouraged in favor of maintaining a status quo, creating a hive mind that is easily influenced and does not question, literature is the biggest threat to society. All it takes is one mind to question why. One curious mind can expose a deeper meaning to life and invoke the change the world needs.

Staying Up All Night With Bird Box

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Don’t read this book in public. You’ll be afraid of everything.

You know that feeling of fear: the tingle in your spine, the sensation that someone is quietly standing behind you, the uneasiness that something is lurking just out of sight, These feelings can be triggered in an instant. Fear keeps you up at night; it makes you afraid to venture outside for even a moment. You calculate each sound, each creak, hesitantly search every dark corner and shadowy hallway. You think you are being irrational and silly, but what if you’re not? What if there really is something waiting, watching? Perhaps there is something you won’t ever see, no matter how hard you stare into the darkness. And once you see this monstrosity, it will already be too late.

Sound like fun? If you are a horror fanatic like me, you enjoy the thrill of a good scare (after you realize you are safe, of course). Horror season is upon us and what better way to celebrate than to freak yourself out with a good terrifying book? Bird Box by Josh Malerman has all the makings of a fantastic horror story: suspense, fear, a little gore, a lot of paranoia. It has been labeled as “Hitchcockian”, which is pretty impressive for any debut. In horror, sight is a necessary function for survival. Whether it’s running from the axe murderer or scanning the foggy forest for a paranormal predator, eyesight is key in escaping the monster. In Bird Box, Malerman strips his characters of this vital lifeline. In fact, sight is the enemy. For if you lay your eyes on this unspeakable creature, there is no saving you.

Bird Box follows Malorie, one of the few humans left that managed to escape the events. Malorie has two children to protect and she must figure out a way to travel away from their safe haven, to find food and perhaps other survivors. The children were born during the peak of the catastrophe and have never known life outside their boarded-up home. Malorie has trained them to be survivors, to live without their eyes. The children have impeccable hearing, for she has taught them how to rely only on sound. Venturing outside without a blindfold would be a most certain death for everyone. Malorie is desperate and scared but she has no choice but to leave.

The story alternates between the beginning of the events and Malorie’s escape to the river with her two children. The horror begins when there are several reports around the world that people have lost their minds after seeing a peculiar creature. No one knows what this creature looks like, as those unfortunate enough to lay eyes on this monster are driven to suicide, and even murder. As the events get worse and closer to home, a pregnant Malorie must make the decision to venture out and find other survivors or stay alone in her home. As the chapters progress, the intensity picks up at a rapid pace. Malorie’s journey down the river, relying only on the two childen’s sense of hearing and her own intuition, is full of tension and anxiety for both the characters and the reader. What is out there? Will the creature attack, or stand by waiting for its moment to be seen? Just what exactly does the creature even look like?

Stripping his characters of sight only intensifies the agony for the reader. Without the characters knowing what they’re up against, the reader is left with the same dread of the outside world. You are forced to imagine yourself blindfolded, flinching at every sound, shaking with every light touch on the skin. The idea of something so horrifying driving you to madness on sight is torturous; even a quick glimpse of the outside could mean your demise and yet, you don’t even know what to avoid. Just like invisible ghosts in horror movies, the horror in Bird Box takes on no shape, has no description, and your only hope for survival is to live in a world of complete blindness.

I loved Bird Box, even though it gave me a good bout of paranoia for several days. It was a quick read and I could not put it down until it was done. I read it at night alone, windows open, and every noise from outside made me want to shut my eyes. Bird Box kept me awake the first night, as I feared I would wake up and see the thing, just waiting for me to look at it. It made me wary of windows, of walking outside, even though I knew it wasn’t real. It’s hard to find books that really mess with your head and Malerman did an excellent job executing an almost real-life horror. I really hope that he continues to write in this genre and look forward for more scares. There’s no better time than now to pick up this suspenseful little treat.

***NEWS*** I have recently created an Instagram account to accompany my blog. I will feature pictures there of books I am currently reading, as well as the photos I use for my blogs. If you enjoy my photos, please find me on Instagram! @brokenspinescreasedcorners

Blue and Ivory

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“But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

What is there left to say of a classic? Surely at this point there are no theories, interpretations, or studies that have not already been explored, nothing particularly brilliant that I can add to a novel’s legacy, especially one of Slaughterhouse-Five’s magnitude. Any profound revelations or complex theses have probably been composed many times over, and written far more eloquently than anything I could possibly write. So, it’s hard to write about a classic and feel like you have something significant to say. Not to discount the personal experience that comes with discovering why a classic earns that title, because the journey with the book itself is rewarding on its own merit. In the end, what I am saying is that I am just a casual writer and sometimes I am not even sure I possess the means to accurately communicate what we as readers ought to get out of the classics, such as Slaughterhouse-Five. Alas, I will try my best.

So many novels become classics because of their impact, especially when it comes to novels created from the devastation of World War II. Many modern classics — including two I have happened to choose so far this year – were written by men and women who experienced the haunting, traumatic devastation firsthand. In the travesty, these authors have found there is no conventional way to explain such horrors to the world. Nobody had never seen anything like the Holocaust, the war, the dropping of the bombs, and born out of the brutality was the realization of that humanity was capable of such torment. How does anyone begin to understand what to feel, or understand if they are even feeling anything at all? Could anything begin to make sense, or does anything even matter, after witnessing such monstrosities?

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s almost autobiographical retelling of his time in Dresden during WWII. Told in a very untraditional format, (at least for the time, I would like to think this is one of the first novels to use a more modern, nonlinear storyline that influenced contemporary fiction but that is a really rough speculation on my part) Vonnegut uses his main character, an unremarkable man named Billy Pilgrim, to tell of his own experiences during the war. The story often becomes very “meta”, with Vonnegut popping in and out of the novel, particularly during Billy’s time in Dresden. The whole first chapter alone is Vonnegut discussing his struggles in trying to write of his time in Dresden, the horrors of which were not common knowledge at the time.

To make the novel even more unconventional, Vonnegut adds a science fiction element to the story with his Tralfamadorians. Tralfamadorians are aliens who come to Billy Pilgrim after he has returned stateside several years after the war. In his so-called “abduction” Billy learns that time itself is non-linear and that instead, free will is actually an illusion, time and events are already pre-determined and moments throughout one’s life can be accessed and re-played infinitely. This explains why throughout the novel, Billy is transported through many events over and over again, always out of order. The Tralfamadorians accept that there is no changing of events and memories, things happen because they do but they can choose to experience their good memories. Humans, with their ignorant belief in free will and lack of perception of the 4th dimension, are forever dwelling on their bad memories and never take accountability for their actions. As we see from Billy’s experience after the war, he floats through life, finding some success as a businessman, a house with a wife and child but forever reliving the horrors of the war. Whether the Tralfamadorians are real or a means to cope with post-traumatic stress from the war is left to interpretation.

At first, I felt a bit lost trying to keep up with Vonnegut. His first chapter was dizzying, chaotic with ideas. In finishing the book, I understand why his ideas are impossible to gather on the subject. In knowing that Billy’s war experience is actually Vonnegut’s, it is heartbreaking. The destruction, poverty, unsanitary living conditions, the starvation, the carnage, the smells, the blue and ivory of death, were all very real to Vonnegut. I can associate his disjointed introduction to the use of the Tralmafadorians, where something so bizarre ends up being the only way to begin to explain and process the obliteration of innocent lives. Billy Pilgrim is not a hero; he is just another casualty of the utter destruction, trying to make sense of how cruel the world can really be. Slaughterhouse-Five is as honest as it can be, funny at times, sad the next, silly then traumatizing, hopeful and hopeless. Even so many years later, Slaughterhouse-Five is a reminder of the horrors humanity is capable of. Even scarier is that sometimes those horrors do not feel so far off.

A Smattering of Reviews

It’s the middle of the year and I must admit I’ve lost my way a bit. I’ve been reading a lot but lost sight of where I wanted to be. True to my goals, I have added classics and nonfiction to my repertoire but the draw of contemporary fiction was impossible to stave off. My book count is already almost at 10, which is satisfying considering 10 was the total number of books I set for the entire year. But although I am plowing through books left and right, I feel a bit empty. I haven’t read many novels this year that I couldn’t set down, couldn’t walk away from. Nothing to feel passionate about. This distresses me greatly.

This time around, you’ll find a brief summary of the books I have read and mostly enjoyed thus far but couldn’t justify giving each their own entry. There are a couple books that will get their own reviews soon enough, if I can find the motivation to get around to them. I am in a funk and desperately want to get back on track. So I am in pursuit of that perfect summer book that fills the long days with anticipation, anxiety, love, mystery, sadness, happiness, the one that thrills and pleases on all levels. And one that inspires me to write again.

Here are some short and sweet reviews on what I’ve conquered so far this year:

The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

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In staying true to my goal, I did take up some nonfiction earlier in the year. The first nonfiction work I read was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Written in a style more like a fiction piece, Larson tells of two stories: The creation and development of the World’s Fair, or the World’s Columbian Exhibition, in Chicago during the late 1800’s, and the story of one of the first American serial killers, H.H. Holmes, who was living, murdering, defrauding and “medicating” Chicago residents during this time. While architects were planning, building, sculpting and landscaping what would become a modern marvel in Chicago’s Jackson Park, Holmes was building his infamous “murder castle” just a few blocks from the fair’s location. While more heavy on the Fair portion of the story, Holmes’ criminal activities help paint a picture of Chicago’s grittiness during this time. Larson is a great storyteller, giving life to all the central figures and to the city of Chicago. He does well in portraying Holmes as the despicable and sadistic murderer who took full advantage of the Fair to prey upon young female victims. I enjoyed how Larson referred to various historical events and name dropped famous people throughout the story. It helped to put the time into perspective and I felt I gathered some interesting facts I didn’t know before. Overall, it was an enjoyable read. My only gripe is that I wish there was more information on Holmes, as the fair is definitely more of the main focal point. This was my first experience dabbling in true crime and I can’t wait to read more.

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

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This was a strange little story. One day, poor old Gregor inexplicably wakes up as an insect, his whole family becomes ashamed and scared of him, keeps him locked up in their house, and when Gregor-bug dies, they are relieved and just carry on with their lives. Am I oversimplifying? Maybe. Is there a deeper meaning to this tale? Most likely. However, if there is a political or social statement to be gathered from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I surely could not read through it. I liked the story well enough; it was interesting and undoubtedly unique. Kafka’s reputation precedes him, as he is obviously known to be influential in 20th century fiction. However, I think I’m just missing the bigger picture here. In researching the further meaning of Gregor’s transformation, I can understand how the theme of isolation is very present, but perhaps the social, political and psychological metaphors just don’t apply as well for the modern reader. Although there are many ways of interpreting it, I felt The Metamorphosis was too short of a story to really make any huge, revolutionary impact. My overall feeling after completing it was simply just, “meh”.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

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I veered off my nonfiction/classics path because the pull of this one was too strong. I kept seeing review after review discussing how violent and gory and dark this book was, which naturally caught my attention. I had to know what they were talking about. The Vegetarian (mostly) delivered and any shortcoming may result from the depravity I imagined this book would hold. The story follows a wholly unremarkable woman from three perspectives: her dickhead of a husband, her washed-up artist brother-in-law and her devoted, emotion-suppressing sister. We follow the woman as she spirals from submissive housewife to defiant vegetarian in the meat-centric food culture of Korea. This would not be so odd if it wasn’t for her simple explanation: I had a dream. The full contents of the dream are never fully revealed, although many of the graphic and disturbing sections are glimpses inside this dream. Slowly, she becomes more unraveled, more unchained, and eventually shit starts to hit the fan. There were definitely parts that made me feel squeamish (I tend to push my blood aversion to its limit time and time again) and all-around uncomfortable. There were also parts that I felt tend to drag, specifically in the brother-in-law’s tale, which is the good hefty middle portion of the book and centered more around sexual desire. If the goal was to feel revolted after reading, I would say that feels manageable. Was it as disgusting, depraved and violent as I expected? Almost. Some say there is an overarching political statement Kang is making with The Vegetarian but again, those often go over my head. I chose to read it for the possible darkness to be experienced but it just didn’t totally impact me in the way I hoped it would.

Defending Jacob – William Landaydj

Defending Jacob is a book I read for my first book club meeting. A murder of a young high school boy shakes a small, well-to-do, East Coast town and the prime suspect in the case is the assistant DA’s son, Jacob Barber. I’ve never really been drawn to crime fiction and this one didn’t really change my mind about that. Sure, it had some twists and turns but nothing ever really felt like a surprise. Plot twists revealed themselves without rocking my world and the ending really fell flat. My biggest problem was trying to figure out what in the fuck Landay is about. I am not sure if Landay is a sexist, or he meant the father, Andy Barber, to be one, but man, do the poor women get ripped to shreds. Not only could I not connect to the father because of this, but it made it impossible to like or even understand the female characters, as they became indistinguishable archetypes. Overall, not impressed. At all. Apparently this book got a lot of hype several years ago (thanks to good ol’ Oprah’s Book Club) but I really didn’t get it. I don’t understand Landay’s motivation for treating the female characters the way he did and I will probably not read anything else of his ever again.

I hope to feel inspired to both read passionately and write fervently very soon. I have been reading multiple books at a time, searching for the unforgettable novel, in vain. Summer is almost in full swing which means stretching lazy bones in the warm sun, reading for hours. Here’s to the pursuit of the perfect summer novel.

Yossarian Lives!

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“I’m a real, slam-bang, honest-to-goodness, three-fisted humdinger. I’m a bona fide supraman.” -Yossarian

At the beginning of this year, I decided that I would add more classics to my reading repertoire. My first endeavor into this goal was Joseph Heller’s WWII satire Catch-22. To be honest, I had no idea what the book was about prior to reading it. I had a vague understanding that it had to do with World War II but I can’t say that I was really drawn to the book based on its subject matter. I had found Catch-22 at a thrift store and scored a really pristine copy for 99 cents last summer but it sat on my bookshelf while others that came after it were quickly finished and replaced. I would flip through it occasionally, skim the back cover description and ultimately it return it to its place. Devoting this year to classics finally gave me the proper motivation to power through it.

I was a bit over my head going into this book naively. The first chapter had my head spinning so much I’m pretty sure I said “Wait, what?!” out loud the first time the story veered in a different direction. I thought maybe my copy was faulty, like perhaps my pick-up from the thrift store was missing a few pages. I’d come to find the  narrative of Catch-22 to be non-linear, sporadic, sometimes repetitive and oftentimes very confusing. Heller’s writing was much more sophisticated than I expected (no offense to Heller!) and humor was abundant, if not a little dark. I actually stopped reading somewhere in the second or third chapter and decided I needed to get some more background before I continued my endeavor any further. I did some research and discovered that the story is, indeed, complicated and generally more difficult to read than your average classic novel. After prepping myself with a notebook (to keep track of the numerous characters and the many ridiculous plot lines), I again tried my hand at Catch-22.

What follows is my understanding of the story. The best summary I have read of Catch-22 is, “It’s funny until it’s not.” This could not be any more accurate. Early on, the story is quite humorous. The protagonist, John Yossarian, is a captain in the Army Air Corps, and he is deathly afraid to die in the war. He will try just about anything to get out of flying, from faking sick to moving bomb lines to fool his superiors into thinking their missions had been carried out. When we first meet Yossarian, he is laid up in the hospital with his buddy Dunbar, both of whom are avoiding their military duties. We learn of Yossarian’s antics, like how he redacts other soldiers’ personal letters over-abundantly and then forges the signatures on them. From here, the story breaks into many smaller stories but all center around Heller’s point that war is brutal, unnecessary and absurd. Each chapter is named after a character but oftentimes that chapter does not just focus that particular character. The chapters are more like out-of-order vignettes, leaving us often to wonder where these stories fall during Yossarian’s time in Pianosa. The plight of Yossarian’s life as a soldier is the fact that he is constantly dealing with absurd military concepts, the most prominent being “Catch-22.”

“Catch-22” is a military rule basically saying if a man is insane, then he should not fly. However, if the man can reasonably ask to be grounded, then he must be sane and therefore must fly all missions assigned to him. Yossarian desperately tries to get out of the ever-increasing amount of missions assigned to him by the overambitious Colonel Cathcart, one of the many absurd and irrational characters he has to deal with on a daily basis. Along with Colonel Cathcart, we meet all sorts of interesting people, from Milo Minderbinder, the mess officer who runs a black-market syndicate with an illogical profit system, to Hungry Joe, the tormented soldier who only stops screaming in his sleep when he is assigned to fly more missions. Although the characters are unusual, exaggerated and infuriating, Yossarian comes to loathe them but also despairs when he loses them to the brutalities of war.

 Throughout the novel, the characters experience many forms of the “Catch-22” phenomenon, as it is a prominent device Heller uses to demonstrate his view on war. It’s illogical and yet no one seems to question its rationality except for Yossarian. He becomes increasingly panicked as the event central to his neuroses finally comes to light later in the novel. The humor eventually becomes more bleak and the  tragic events Yossarian and the other soldiers experience become more frequent and brutal, hence the meaning of “It’s funny until it’s not”. One particular flight mission in which Yossarian experiences his most traumatic moment with a man named Snowden is referenced to frequently, although vaguely. We eventually learn of the horrors Yossarian faced on that mission and his behavior then seems more rational. The end of novel takes on a layer of surrealism and the tragedies become ghastly, bordering on almost hallucinatory. Eventually, Yossarian must face a choice of becoming a war hero (under more irrational circumstances) or deserting his duty to finally become free of his paranoia.

There were moments when I struggled with Catch-22. The ridiculous scenarios Heller creates, mixed with his smart writing style, can be overwhelming. Milo’s black market syndicate often gave me headaches, as I wasn’t sure if I just couldn’t figure out its inner-workings due to my lack of mathematical skills or if it truly was so absurd that there was no way it could exist (I’m pretty sure the latter is true). Toward the middle-end portion of the book, the Catch-22‘s become repetitive and exhausting. However, much of what I read left an impression on me. The catastrophes that Yossarian and the other men experience are haunting and those scenes will undoubtedly stick with me, just like they stuck with men. Many of Yossarian’s one-liners had me laughing out loud and he fast became one of my favorite characters ever. Heller definitely has some impressive writing chops and I appreciated my experience with his story. He can write one of the most humorous interactions in one sentence and create an utter devastation in the next. Although it has its moments of difficulty, I can understand why Catch-22 is, at the very least, considered polarizing and at best, considered a true classic.

Infinite Jest: 20 Years Old and Still Important

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How to survive Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest turned 20 years old this month. I completed the journey through its 1000-plus pages several years ago and there has not been a day since that I haven’t thought about some aspect of it in one way or another. I will very suddenly remember a snippet or a character’s story and I will savor the memory. It’s very much changed me. It’s influenced the way I read now. It’s powerful. It’s David Foster Wallace. It’s one of the most complex storylines I have ever endured. Its brilliance cannot be captured and explained so simply. It’s beautiful and haunting and depressing and funny and tortured. To write of it, you need to pay respect to DFW’s genius. You need to honor the genius of the novel: every character, every place, every punctuation mark and page-long paragraph. No matter what words I use, I will never come within even a mile of the justice it deserves. I will try my best anyway.

The first time I tried to Infinite Jest, I was ill-prepared.  I checked it out of the library and just decided to dive into it. For those who plan on reading it, I strongly advise against this. You need a plan. You need organization. You definitely need a dictionary. The two-week check-out period at the library does not give you ample time. You must commit. Although my first attempt at it was short-lived, I always knew that one day I would conquer it.

My second go at it was successful. I researched. I needed to know what I was in for. The only way to even understand all the plot lines, all the relationships, all the strange words and endless footnotes, is to read about the book first. You must understand that everything is interwoven, nothing is linear, that irrelevant topics may become important later. You need to remember the story of Hamlet (Sparknotes, my friends). The time devoted to Infinite Jest will feel like a short-lived romantic relationship. After months of getting to know it, one day it will be gone.  You will have hundreds of questions.

You don’t want to rush. In fact, there is no way you can rush. If you are rushing, don’t even bother. You are wasting the experience. Yes, you will re-read pages over and over again. You will have to stop and look up every third word. You will turn a page and see nothing but big blocks of type with no end in sight. It will feel like you writing a research paper, although all that will be left when you are done are the neon remnants of your thought process sticking out through the pages.

So what is it about? Is it fair to say that even I after I read it I cannot begin to tell you? In a shallow sense, it’s about a tennis academy and a drug-addiction center. It’s about a film so addicting it will kill you. Make sense yet? Under the surface, the topics become more complex: depression, addiction, society, the entertainment industry (this book pretty much predicted Netflix, FYI), Canadian assassins. Yes, Canadian assassins. Everything is interwoven; Wallace was a genius in the way he constructed his masterpiece. The emotional range throughout the novel is intense. Wallace was always great with humor but after his suicide, I can’t help but look at Infinite Jest and see just how much sorrow might have been hiding within his words. There are moments where you will laugh a good hearty laugh, deep down in your belly and out loud.  There are moments where you will become horrified at what some human beings have to endure. It’s not just complex in storyline; you will be taken for a journey through your own emotional spectrum.

For those who want to take the plunge, of course I support and strongly encourage that you do. If I may make some recommendations: sticky notes and flags, a dictionary app, 2 bookmarks (one for your place in the book and one for your place in the “Notes and Errata” section) and perhaps a notebook, at a minimum. I also used a chapter summary guide (I unfortunately can no longer find it, but Infinite Summer is a good site to follow along with, find resources, etc.).  Take your time; re-read sections as many times as you need to. You might hit a wall, or several walls. You might feel like you’ll never quite understand a section. It’s overwhelming. To give up on it, however, is truly depriving yourself of a literary experience you will not get from any other novel.

To end, I would like to pay my respects to David Foster Wallace. He was brilliant, insanely smart, a true genius. It is a tragedy that his demons were too much, his darkness too heavy, despite all his success. I wish I had even half the talent, imagination and knowledge he possessed. No one inspires me to write as much as he does. He lives on through the pages of his stories and for that, we are all very lucky.

 

Resources:

Infinite Summer – past Book Club with lots of info

Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

Infinite Winter – Infinite Jest Book Club currently happening

 

All the Birds, Singing: Sheep Guts and Prostitution

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Mood lighting.

“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” All kidding aside with the title, the opening line to Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is one that captivates from the start. All the Birds, Singing tells of one woman’s experience through guilt, punishment and the search for forgiveness. How long should one punish themselves for their past? How much must one person endure in the search for a clean conscience? Maybe those who have punished themselves have suffered enough, or maybe they should have never suffered at all. Emotionally haunting and grotesquely beautiful is the only way to describe Jake’s story.

Jake Whyte, the story’s protagonist, has isolated herself on a remote British island. Resolving herself to a lonely but contented life raising sheep with her dog, creatively named Dog, Jake has found a safe haven from the past she has outrun back in Australia. Recently, something has slowly begun to pick off her sheep and like anyone with a past full of demons, this begins to make Jake uneasy. The sheep are killed in a gruesome fashion and even Dog senses something is wrong. Jake has her suspicions: The bored and vulgar teenagers of the island looking to have a little fun? Someone from her past finally caught up with her? Could it be the drunken man who stumbled his way onto her farm? The events Jake experiences become more invasive and frightening, almost supernatural and evil in nature. We begin to wonder, like the other sheep farmers and townspeople, if Jake is losing her mind. Why doesn’t anyone else see it? Why just Jake’s sheep?

Interlaced between chapters of the present are glimpses of the events leading up to Jake’s eventual isolation. The past chapters begin with more recent events down to the most traumatizing and sorrowful tragedy of her childhood. Jake is a damaged woman, both physically and mentally. We begin to understand what the scars on her back mean, her reluctance to trust, her fierce independence. From violence to prostitution, the miserable path chosen after that fateful day back in Australia has been one of penance for Jake. The escape to seclusion is the only way she can begin to let go.

Wyld uses nature as a way to tell Jake’s story. She is deeply intertwined with her natural environment. From the background noise of birds, whether singing or otherwise, to the primal fear of the sheep, to the daft rambunctiousness of Dog, each emotional event is accompanied by its own animalistic response. Jake moves from the hot, sticky, suffocating heat of Australia to the lush, damp farms of Britain, the latter providing more promise and relief than her home ever did. Jake herself seems to have embraced her primal instincts, favoring suspicion to social niceties.

Wyld writes with precision and grace, making even the goriest of details sound poetic. She builds a slow tension with the movement through time but never rushes. The transgressions of Jake’s old life are told through a slow unraveling rather than a big reveal. As the book comes to close, Jake may finally get the chance to face what has been haunting her. The ending, although somewhat abrupt, shows promise for Jake; in the face of the unknown, Jake may not only become a survivor but can maybe even begin to live.

2015 – A Year in Review

It has been about a year now since I started this blog and I have to say that I have enjoyed it very much.  I was not sure if I would find the time to sit down and write but this blog has given me a purpose, a goal.  It has improved my self-confidence as a writer and has sparked my creativity and passion.  I used to struggle finding the right descriptive words and explaining ideas that were intangible. With a lot of practice, I feel I have found a voice in writing about my love of literature.

Pushing myself to write about the books I read makes me not only trust in myself more as a writer but also gives me new ways to enrich my reading experience.  Before I started writing, I would read the book, decide how I felt about it and not really give it a second thought.  Nowadays, I stop and savor parts of a novel.  I will re-read sections because it gives me pleasure or makes me think.  I highlight quotes.  I study character relationships and explore how they move the story along and how they make me feel as a reader. Writing about books has essentially improved every aspect of how I experience them.

2015 was the year of the long novel for me. The Goldfinch, The Pale King and City on Fire were all well over 500 oages long, but each so uniquely different. I read some really life-changing books, like The Handmaid’s Tale, and had some disappointments, like Mr. Penumbra. I finished the year with two relatively short novels, All the Birds, Singing and Sula, and have to still write my reviews on those. I had set my goal for 15 books and accomplished it with a week or two to spare. Overall, 2015 held an interesting veriety of stories for me.

This year, my reading goals become less about quantity and more about exploring genres and authors I have never really touched on. It is pretty clear my genre of choice is contemporary fiction but I don’t want to limit myself anymore. There is no better way to understand where modern authors draw influence than from reading the authors that paved the way before them. Novels like Catch-22 (currently reading), Slaughterhouse-Five, The Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying, Lolita; classic books that have really left an impression on the literary world.

Non-fiction is another genre that I tend to overlook. I have become really interested in true crime podcasts and shows so it only makes sense to continue the journey into true crime novels. I would also like to check out some memoirs and perhaps even venture into history.

Before I finish, I would like to say thank you to anyone who read my blog this year. Even if it was one entry, it’s greatly appreciated. I have received some positive feedback and have even inspired a couple people to pick up some of my reviewed books, which makes me feel really good about doing this. I hope to bring some fresh perspective to my reviews and find interesting ways to create discussions. In the end, I just want to find ways to connect with my fellow bookworms.

City on Fire: The Two Million Dollar Mystery

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Set it ablaze.

“It seemed impossible that he’d chosen to live here, at a latitude where spring was a semantic variation on winter, in a grid whose rigid geometry only a Greek or a builder of prisons could love, in a city that made its own gravy when it rained.”

― Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire

If you haven’t heard of City on Fire, let me update you on how all the hype around this 900ish-page novel came to be:

City on Fire ‘s Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel (yes, his debut novel).  The manuscript for City on Fire began circulating and became the object of a bidding war between publishers, fetching Hallberg an unheard-of advance close to two million dollars.  The rights to the film were bought even before the book became published.  And this all happened two years ago.

It’s rare to find a highly-anticipated debut novel that receives that much publicity.  Naturally, this piqued my interest.  How good must this book be if publishers are willing to risk millions on an unknown author?  Why all the hype for an unfinished, unpublished work?  Two years was a long time to wait and find out.  Articles written on the matter provided little to no information regarding the plot.  Yet, I still would look it up, if only to make sure I didn’t imagine the whole scenario.  Finally, City on Fire was released in October of this year.

To try to explain the story within City on Fire’s gorgeously designed red dust jacket is difficult.  It is of many stories, centered on one event, involving many people. The story is set in late ’70s New York City.  The HIV epidemic was on the horizon, police brutality and corruption were boiling over into protests, the economy was in the tank and the punk scene was coming into fruition.  As we meet each character, the story switches from narrative to narrative.  These different narratives advance the timeline along, bringing us closer to both discovering who committed the crime at the center of the story as well as how the intertwining relationships resolve, or end.

From here on out, I cannot guarantee there won’t be any spoilers.  In trying to explain the complexity of the relationships, I find it incredibly hard to avoid important pieces of plot.  I am not sure I can even begin to outline the intricacies of the character relationships.  They are thick and abundant, and to write of all of them will give away parts of the story I enjoyed discovering on my own.  I am not a fan of spoilers; vagueness is part of the intrigue for me.  I can only try my best to encapsulate the important parts, to give a sense of the story without going overboard.

The characters in the story are intensely weaved together on various levels. The people we meet in the book are seemingly from totally different worlds and backgrounds, yet tied together by the shooting of a young punk girl by the name of Samantha Cicciaro.  Samantha Ciacciaro is involved both directly and inadvertently with the rest of the characters we are introduced to.  Charlie Weisbarger is Sam’s friend from suburban New York.  Sam introduces Charlie to many things in the city: drugs, alcohol, and punk music.  Sam and Charlie are fans of Ex Post Facto, a NYC punk band led by Billy Three-Sticks, or William Hamilton-Sweeney III.  William has removed himself from the real-estate empire that bears his last name and from the punk scene altogether.  Instead, he lives in Hell’s Kitchen, sometimes making art, sometimes not, hiding a drug habit and a broken past.  He lives with Mercer Goodman, a Southern transplant, aspiring writer, teacher and lover to William.  Mercer finds Sam the night she is shot and becomes a person of interest in the case, really for no reason other than he just happened to be there.

On New Year’s, Mercer was with William’s sister, Regan, at the Hamilton-Sweeney New Year’s soiree, unbeknownst to William.  Although Sam and Regan never meet on paper, their knowledge of each other involves Regan’s husband, Keith Lamplighter.  Keith works for the Hamilton-Sweeney company, for Regan’s nefarious “uncle” Amory.  Amory is a dark figure in the novel, constantly orchestrating disastrous arrangements.  His influences include the gang of kids, self-labeled the Post-Humanists, whom Sam and eventually Charlie become involved with. The story centers around punk music almost as much on Sam herself and with it comes a group of kids on its fringes.  The PH is ruled by Nicky Chaos, a somewhat-delusional and untrustworthy anarchist who commandeered Ex Post Facto from Billy Three-Sticks and eventually led to the band’s demise.  The activities the Post Humanists are involved in come to a head toward the end of the novel, when unlikely characters pair off in the darkness of the Blackout.

I could go on for paragraphs.  We also follow Detective Pulaski, as he investigates Sam’s shooting, which leads him to the doorstep of the Post Humanists; the journalist Richard Groskoph, who finds the perfect story in Carmine Cicciarro, Sam’s father, and ends up getting too involved with Sam’s life; Jenny Nguyen, the art gallery assistant who develops a relationship with Richard and attempts to finish the story Richard intended to write.  Although all this takes place in New York City, the stories that are told are so vast that they feel like they take place in entirely different places.

The writing itself is phenomenal.  Hallberg showed showed he was worthy of all the hype; flexing his vocabulary muscles, brandishing his eloquence, virtually pulling out all the stops in terms of talent.  It was a pleasure to read City on Fire, for the way Hallberg can unravel a character’s motivations, emotions and intricacies is stunning.  He can construct a scene with color and smell, capturing the feel of a place with just its nuances.  He develops not only relationships between people but relationships between people and their environments, from the feelings Charlie has in his basement bedroom to the disheveled and broken-down brownstone the Post Humanists reside in.  Everything in Hallberg’s work takes up space, has a life of its own.  Every sentence feels as though it was written with care, as if it was meant to be exactly in that place.

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The first book and photograph.

The physical book has its own beautiful merits, design-wise.  It is divided into seven books (not including the prologue, interludes, or postscript) and each book begins with a photograph of some obscure snippet of the city.  Sandwiched in between books are interludes which feature documents, letters or in one case, a handmade zine by Sam, that tie into the story.  You can tell Hallberg took care not only in the words that fill the pages but also with a visual authenticity that enhances the reader’s experience.  The books leap forward and jump back in time, giving us a glimpse as to why the characters are they way they are.  The twists in plot are not jaw-dropping or stunning but do add dimension and intrigue to the story.  As we draw closer to solving who shot Sam, Hallberg uses the length of each chapter to draw anticipation and anxiety.  The jumps between characters control the pace.

For the most part, City on Fire stays cohesive and on-point.  In the last book, during the climactic blackout, Hallberg’s writing becomes a bit esoteric as characters begin partnering off in unlikely pairs.  The blackout feels more surreal than the rest of the novel and whether that is intended is open to interpretation.  However, I feel this was where Hallberg lost himself a bit, becoming a bit repetitive and lackluster.  A conclusion to a story of this magnitude is difficult to tie off in a precise fashion.  Although the characters do find their own versions of resolution, I am undecided on how much satisfaction I find in them.

Overall, I loved City on Fire.  Hallberg proves that he will become a prominent, if not polarizing, contemporary author.  For his first novel, it is quite the feat but I feel he was successful in pulling it off.  I enjoyed reading his work very much.  City on Fire is many things: a bit of a period piece mixed with social commentary, a fiction laced with hints of reality, of humanity, an out-of-focus mystery.  Would I say City on Fire was worth two million dollars?  I would say read it and let me know.