Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Conclusion: Can being run over by a truck make you a happier person?

Remember when I was talking about memoirs and how they seem to fall into two categories: self-indulgent and…not as self-indulgent? Well after reading a pretty self-indulgent one, I found one in my huge to-read queue that is taking over my work desk that seemed to have a more interesting premise. And that’s what usually draws me to memoirs in the first place—the setting or circumstance has to sound like it can just naturally make for an entertaining story.

So I settled down with Heather Lende’s second memoir, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friends, and Faith in Small-Town Alaska. [Apparently you’re allowed to write more than one memoir, seeing as how Rachel Shukert did the same. I should start writing my own series of memoirs.] Her first one—If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name—introduced the reading audience to the tiny Haines, Alaska, where Lende lives with her husband and children (though it didn’t introduce me, because I haven’t read it). Her newest one chronicles various aspects of small-town life after a serious accident, namely, her own—getting run over by a truck while out for a bike ride.
I liked this. It’s kind of a “mom” book, one of those that’s thoughtful and inspiring. And despite my aversion to religious brouhaha in literature, I actually didn’t really mind the Bible quotes and references, because…well, I guess I just tried to view it from her perspective. She was giving her own account of an incident and what helped her, personally, get through it. Who am I to shrug off religion in that case? And she threw out the word “fuck” a few times when talking about her “fucking broken pelvis,” so I really enjoyed the balance there. I kinda want to hang out with her now.
But that whole bike incident thing…yes, MAJOR deal, but it didn’t, by any means, take over the novel. Lende uses it as a jumping off point to highlight life and faith in a very small-town…a very small-town way the hell out in Alaska. Where life is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT and TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE to me. Like how she kills a freaking bear from a treetop, preserves fish and stuffs them in jars (…yuck?), and makes her own jam (ok, that one may not be that strange…). And how the community is strongly tied to tradition and custom (which is really interesting), as seen in her anecdote of townspeople raising a ginormous totem pole carved by a local Chilkat (Native Alaskan). And how people come from different places but feel the same range of emotion. Dealing with shit—it’s kind of a community builder.
Alaska. Jesus, I can’t imagine living there. I’m glad someone can handle it with aplomb.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reading Notes on Cloud Atlas, Pt. 3: Discuss

Just as I expected, this book made for great book club discussion. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone preferred certain segments over others. Everyone had a unique experience with the book.

But figuring out how to sum it all up is proving more difficult than I thought.
In fact, the publisher clearly couldn’t even sum it up, as the back cover blurb reads:

“A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles and genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokvia love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwice, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.”

Have you ever read such a summary that says absolutely nothing?
So it may just have to come down to this: Cloud Atlas cannot be summed up. To get something out of it, Cloud Atlas requires a discussion or analysis or maybe a re-read if you have no one to discuss with.
The one thing most of us could agree on is that Mitchell used a unique format to tell the story (some found it more appealing than others; some found it gimmicky). Because each story is told in a different genre of literature, chances are you’ll find one that is appealing to your reading tastes. Historical fiction, noir thriller, sci-fi…it’s quite the variety. To me, splitting the stories in half increased the appeal, as each was left as a cliffhanger begging me to finish. And in my experience, I was much more interested the second time around, when things started to come together.
While pieces of individual stories came together, they never really came together as a whole. We were left questioning, “OK. What was the point of all that?” While I understand his overall point to the novel, why did it take him 509 pages to say what he pretty much concluding on the last page? Mitchell apparently isn’t one to blatantly point things out; it’s subtle and somewhat open to interpretation.
Like this comet birthmark I mentioned earlier. What was the point of that? Not much, except to hint that this one soul reincarnated. But that was apparently a literary reference to a Japanese (?) work, of which I would’ve had zero clue. See why I say this is too smart for me? And I still have to question why things like that are necessary. So that pretentiously smart people can discuss and impress themselves and each other when they catch a literary reference?
One conclusion we seemed to come to was that this was a book amount moments. It’s a collection of stories where we don’t necessarily get an entire picture of the characters and situations. We can’t say we really know all the characters Mitchell created. All are faced with decisions; some choose the high moral ground and some don’t. It doesn’t necessarily tell us their character, instead merely how they reacted in a certain moment. And we see how these moments and decisions affect the future, even in the tiniest ways.
There are a lot of themes thrown around; things like power (though I would like the woman who said that to please explain rather than throw around the word “power”) and greed and morals and human behavior and, essentially, the self-destruction of the human race. Pretty big, discussion-worthy ideas. But is this book going to be considered a master work of literature in ten years? Eh. As someone noted, it’s very a much a work of the early 2000s. Whatever that means.

[Read my earlier thoughts on Cloud Atlas: Part 1 and Part 2.]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In Conclusion: But really…IS Everything Going to Be Great?

Oh, Europe. Your beauty and allure mask the epic amount of trouble you hold in store for young American travelers. We pack our bags and book our hostels with complete confidence that since you are also a developed, Western continent, we will have no problem with your languages, your people, or your customs. What deceit. At least in the experiences of Rachel Shukert.

Shukert’s newest and second memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, logs her experiences and misadventures in Europe (though “European Grand Tour” may not be the most accurate subtitle, as this book is 90% about her time living solely in Amsterdam after an acting gig fell through).
So how is Rachel’s life across the pond? Well, she’s living on the couch of her gay-couple friends; she has no visa; the only work she can get is as a promoter at an American club, but she’s still absolutely broke. Rachel certainly attracts drama and not really the kind that she instigates. Shit just happens to her, and apparently, it always has (alcohol may or may not always be a factor). Naturally, she’s got a few good stories to tell—Like the time she dated an older man whose father was probably in the Gestapo. And the time she almost got three-way date-raped by a couple of Italian dental students, simply to get a crown replaced.
Here’s my thing about memoirs—my opinion of them is changing. I’ve always enjoyed them while my boyfriend hates them, claiming they’re too self-indulgent. I guess up to this point, I’ve mostly read ones that are more than just an individual’s personal experiences. Instead, they seem to be one’s personal account or observation of something bigger than themselves—maybe a poignant historical moment or a unique setting/environment. And I like those, because it’s not all “ME ME ME!”
This one is a more on the “ME ME ME!” end of the spectrum when it comes to memoirs, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its merits. It is funny. Shukert’s storytelling ability leads you quickly from beginning to end with ease, sometimes causing you to laugh out loud and sometimes just to shake your head. But it’s also overly crude at times, which I’m not particularly a fan of, and a lot of the time I was wondering, “Ok, what is her point?” What did she learn from all these experiences? What is all this “me me me” stuff leading up to?
The whole time, Shukert is working under the notion that Europe is the place to go in your early twenties to find yourself and discover how to live in the real world and deal with real adult things after college. That is a rough time, believe you me. And I’m sure that if I wrote a memoir about my own experiences after college, no one would read it because it would certainly have the whining but without the humor or crazy stories. The last couple of chapters, for me, redeemed a novel that could have easily veered in the “entertaining but empty” category, because Shukert does have a “what I learned” moment that is so ├╝berly coming-of-age.
I certainly enjoyed Shukert’s book more than the-queen-of-self-indulgent-memoir-writing Julie Powell garbage. I certainly liked her more than I like Julie Powell. She thankfully lacked the incessant whining of Powell, and had a more, “Well this is what happened,” angle than one that begged for empathy. She told things as they were without any kind of self-reflection, which was actually pretty refreshing and made the story more entertaining because I didn’t have time to decide whether I really liked her as a person or not—I just “listened” to her story and laughed along with her. But at a certain point, it’s like you’re talking with a friend who won’t shut up, and you just want to get a word in. And in this case, that word was, “Put down the bottle and pull yourself together!”
I think the true moment of crossing over into adulthood—and what may have been the aHA! moment for Rachel, as well—is when you take action to do what you need to do instead of what you think you should be doing. Like, sure, you want to live in Europe and have this great journey of self-discovery and be able to tell everyone in twenty years about the wonderful time you spent living abroad. But the world may just be telling you no—go home, regroup, and deal with what is. And luckily for Rachel’s health and sanity, she listened.
Review copy provided by the publisher at BEA.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reading Notes on Cloud Atlas, Pt. 2: A Quick Conclusion

I finished it, all 509 pages. It only took me an absurd ten or so days. My process of reading this book can best be illustrated by two different graphs:

A) Reading speed in relation to pages read
B) Interest level in relation to pages read
It was that dead zone in the middle there, which you may recall consisted of dystopian and post-apolyptic sci-fi, that killed me. However, quickly after I got past page 326, I was into it again and finished the rest of the book in a night. I most enjoyed stories 2, 3, and 4. Number 3—”Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”—was a thriller that kept me interested just by the fact that it was a thriller. Number 4—”The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”—involved a crazy old man and his escape from a nursing home, so that was just humorously entertaining. The author from story number 2—”Letters from Zedelghem”—amused me. The picture in my head was of Tom Hulce’s bat-crazy Amadeus from the 1984 movie of the same title.
Once the sixth story—”Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”—ends, Mitchell goes back through the other five stories and wraps each of them up with a pretty little bow.
[That’s not sarcasm; he actually does conclude each of them to my satisfaction.]
The intent of all these stories, I think, is to say something to the effect that souls pass through time, and all of these characters are linked, both physically (as I discussed earlier in telling how the stories link together) and metaphysically. Though, Mitchell does tell these stories as a storyteller, and you’re kinda (or at least I was kinda) left trying to rummage through all you’ve learned and figure out what was fact and what was fiction.
The final pages of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” are actually pretty poignant, and I think get Mitchell’s entire point across—Human nature doesn’t change, and we can only take things so far before they explode and we have to start all over again. Like, we started out as lawless primitives and eventually we’ll drive ourselves to that again (?).
Who knows. That’s what I got from it. Once we discuss in book club, I’m certain my thoughts will be much better articulated.
But until then, there were a couple passages that both seemed important and that I enjoyed:

“Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back…We—by whom I mean anyone over sixty—commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight” (p. 361).

“Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic

[Go back to Part 1 of my Cloud Atlas journey or continue to Part 3.]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

My epic love for Anne of Green Gables

Last weekend, to rest up and save money before the epic upcoming weekend I will be spending in Chicago at Lollapalooza, I spent a good portion of my time sitting in my bed watching the Anne of Green Gables miniseries on DVDs. Ah, Anne. My love began circa 1989 when the CBC miniseries was aired on PBS Ch. 8 (yes, I still remember the local channel number). As a four-year-old, I’d curl up on my big sister’s bed when she was out (she was 17, so that was often), in her room that was painted pink and full of high school memorabilia, and watch Anne of Green Gables on her little portable black and white T.V. with an antenna and a channel dial.
At least, that is how I remember it. It’s very possible that I’m crossing memories and didn’t actually first watch the Anne of Green Gables movies while in my sister’s room, rather at school or daycare, but that is how I like to think of it.
Regardless of how the introductions actually happened, Anne of Green Gables and I have been friends for a long time. [I’ve wanted to go to Prince Edward Island for as long as I can remember.] But after my initial childhood viewing of these movies, we didn’t meet again until late high school when I saw the VHS tapes at the library and decided to take a walk down memory lane. Despite having seen Anne of Green Gables and its sequel, Anne of Avonlea, numerous times before, it had been a while. And I can remember feeling more affected by a story than perhaps I ever had (might also have something to do with the fact that I watched all three of them in a row, so that’s over 10 hours with these characters).
There are few stories that we encounter that really hit us hard and stick with us forever, but this is one of them for me. And though I’ve read all the books, it’s really the movies that I love because of their visuality. The landscape is gorgeous. The historical setting is endearing. The entire style palette is just perfection. I gushed about this a couple weeks ago with Betsy-Tacy, but when you read or see a story from a time before TVs and phones and computers, everything just seems more human. It’s raw emotion that sucks you in without distraction, and I love and appreciate how real it all is.
But no need to go on a spiel against modern technology again. Anne of Green Gables is one of those movies that will never get old, that I will never be too grown up for, and that will cheer me up until the end of time. I’m sure every one of you has your own favorites that will never lose their magic.
It’s stories like these that make me excited to have a kid with whom to share great books.
But not yet. Most definitely not yet.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Reading Notes on Cloud Atlas, Pt. 1: Suffering

My book club’s pick for our August meeting is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Published in 2004, Mitchell’s third novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which apparently means people are supposed to revere it. Right now, I do not.

So far, I am on page 326 of its 509 pages. And I am just sitting here, struggling through absurd language, screaming, “WHY WON’T YOU END???”
This book has an interesting format. I’ll give it that. The “story” (if you can call it that) is told through six separate novellas of sort. The first is the diary of a man crossing the Pacific on a ship in the 1850s; the second is a series of letters from a young composer in the 1930s who headed to Austria to escape debt; the third is a thriller about a journalist in the ’70s trying to expose a corrupt energy company; the fourth is about a publisher who escapes from some rough extortionists and ends up in a retirement home from which he can’t escape; the dystopian fifth story interviews a Korean clone bred for work in a fast food joint who has gained consciousness; the sixth takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii where…well I’m not really sure what happened there.
So that all sounds like a mess of things that are unrelated. Except for brief mention of the previous story in each story…and I mean very brief. As in, the Composer in story B finds the journals of the man in story A. He finds them, and Mitchell mentions that fact, and nothing else. Nothing else gives you a hint as to how these stories all connect, except that this comet-shaped birthmark keeps appearing, and I’m not sure at all where that fits in.
And because we’re spanning centuries of time here, Mitchell uses different language for every story. But I don’t get why people (ie: on Goodreads) are so impressed by that. It doesn’t take much to make up a language for dystopian robots and post-apocalyptic savages. Because it’s made up. If anything, it just makes the story really confusing and hard to read. Robotic sentences like,

“The amnesiads in my Soapsac were reduced, accordingly, and ascension catalysts instreamed,” (p. 197)

or incoherent sentences like,

“Windy mornin’ it was, yay, I mem’ry well, sand’n’dune grass whippin’ an’ bloodflower threshin’ an’ surf flyin’ off scuddin’ breakers” (p. 258).

I’m not impressed.

Oy. I was doing alright with stories B, C, and D, perhaps actually enjoying them, and then we get to crap in the future, and I hit a wall. It’s just not my style.
The book is structured A B C D E F E D C B A, with the sixth, post-apocalyptic story being the only one told in full in one sitting. Having just finished this one, I still don’t see the point. I mean, maybe I can gather that it’s about souls drifting through time, but if that’s the over-arching theme that ends up tying them all together…well, COME ON [insert Gob Bluth voice here]! I’m just not understanding why all this is necessary to make that point. Because so far, it’s not made very well.
I’ll write an update once I finish the second half (once I revisit the previous five stories and once I am happily far away from the much hated sci-fi sections) to see if my opinions change. And once more after book club, when hopefully, a group discussion will add a lot to it. But for now…
this book is far too smart for me.
Has anyone else read this?

[Read the rest of my Cloud Atlas experience: Part 2 and Part 3.]