Monday, August 26, 2013

Fiction | Madcap Motherhood

I’m not sure how Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages ended up on my Goodreads “to-read” shelve; I just know it’s been there for years. The author may sound familiar to you; Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” one of the most famous short stories in American lit. [Have I heard of it? Yep. Have I read it? Nope.] Life Among the Savages has quite a different tone of voice. It’s funny. It’s a voice you can picture Myrna Loy playing on the silver screen. It’s sarcastic and witty in a time when sarcasm and wit from a woman are rare.

Apparently, Life Among the Savages is memoir-esque. The time is the early 1950s. The place is rural Vermont. Our main character and her husband (neither of which are ever identified by name, only first-person identifiers and “my husband”) move out of their city apartment to rent a big house in Vermont. With it comes a way of life they’re….unaccustomed to—more space, more things to break down, and oh, who’s going to learn to drive a car? Also, there are kids. Three kids later and it’s easy to say the home is no longer as peaceful as it once was. Our narrator’s life is now filled with keeping peace between her three energetic progeny and basically making sure the house doesn’t fall apart.

Jackson must have a gift for story-telling, because it’s not so much what’s happening but rather how she tells it. The life chronicled here is pretty simple, pretty ordinary. You could finish the last page and say, “Well ok, that’s it?” because there’s no plot or rise and fall to action. Rather, it’s the voice of Jackson that makes the story something because it’s so unique. She’s untraditional in that her words lack sentimentality; like I said, she’s witty and a little bit ridiculous. She’s painting a picture of a life familiar to so many at the time (and so stereotypical to us now!), but what makes you want to actually read it is how she paints that picture.

Just one example of a humorous passage:

“I do not know what the official world’s record might be for getting out from under a blanket, flying across a room, opening a door and a screen door, and getting outside onto a porch with both doors closed behind you, but if it is more than about four seconds, I broke it. I thought the bat was chasing me, for one thing. And i knew that, if the bat were chasing me, my husband was aiming that gun at it, wherever it was….Inside, there was a series of crashes. I recognized the first as the report of the air gun. The second sounded irresistibly like a lamp going over, which is what it turned out to be.”

I don’t think there was enough of a story here to make this read a really memorable one, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It was an entertaining read and an amusing voice (and author) to discover.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reading Roundup: Eternal Summer

When I read Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty a while ago, I had just grabbed it from the shelf at the library because I recognized the title and needed a light summer read. I didn’t realize it was the first in a trilogy, and I also didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did. I’d decided to space out the reading, so as not to totally binge, and I picked up the second in the series about two months later. Well, after speeding through that one, I just threw out my pacing plan and finished the last one about a week later, reading it all during one bus ride home from the Jersey shore.

I won’t give any spoilers away in this post, because these books are like an angsty WB teen drama with the constant “will they or won’t they?” tension keeping you guessing how it’s going to turn out in the end. I will share my thoughts, though, because these books gave me some feelings.

The second in the series, It’s Not Summer Without You, starts off where we, unfortunately, kinda knew it would (based on the first book and this one’s synopsis)—and it’s not very joyous. Susannah has passed away and Conrad’s gone distant and AWOL. Belly is miserable at the prospect of spending her first summer away from Cousins. She’s going through the motions at home, but nothing feels right. Belly, being a 17-year-old girl, is prone to melodrama, but this time even the cynical adults like myself can see justification in her moodiness—she’s lost everything most important to her and, in a nutshell, is having to grow up. That harsh light of day is tough, and Belly’s having to experience it without her security blanket.

What I like about this one is just that, how actual drama takes the place of melodrama and forces Belly to move beyond the inconsequential angst that has defined her for years. She’s held onto this fantasy of Conrad since she was a kid, but real life is teaching her how to handle new situations and how relationships with those you love should be. We see a lot more of Jeremiah in this one, which I love, and I love seeing how Belly changes as she experiences the dichotomy between the two brothers. Han’s use of changing perspective and flashback moments paints a thorough picture of Belly’s world that helps the reader feel totally immersed in it.

Jump forward to the last in the series, We’ll Always Have Summer, and all hell broke loose for me. The story jumps forward about two years, finding Belly in college and happy in a relationship with [highlight for spoilers] Jeremiah. But of course, because it’s Belly, the past has its way of surfacing and making her head spin. [Spoilers] Of course, it’s Conrad, because she just can’t quit him.

Here’s my very serious issue with this third book: I feel like I was taken for a ride. Over the last two books, we’ve gotten to know these characters very well; their personalities have been very well defined, to the point that we believe the “growing up” you do in adolescence can’t possible change their roots because we have seen their backgrounds, we know what’s engrained in their very souls, and we know what is true to character.

And the author, excuse my language, just shat all over that. It became very clear that she wanted a certain ending, and she manipulated her characters to reach it—leading them to actions that are 100% opposite of what we’ve felt to be so true about them. [Spoiler] THERE IS NO FREAKING WAY JEREMIAH WOULD SLEEP WITH SOME FLOOZY ON SPRING BREAK. NO. WAY. It’s like she wrote the two books and then started the third and said, “Wait, I want it to end like this but I’ve already led it to this opposite direction….well SCREW EVERYTHING I ALREADY WROTE, I’ll just switch it all out of the blue and BOOM, happy ending.” More than anything, I felt insulted, because she abandoned these characters that we’ve grown to root for to achieve this ending that felt totally unauthentic.

So whatever. I adored the first two books in this series and am just sorry the last one disappointed me so. It’s like how I’ve heard the 3rd season of Veronica Mars is terrible—that it’s not even worth viewing because it just makes you so mad and almost ruins the entire experience—which is why I just watch Season 1 on repeat.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Tour: In the Land of the Living

If “women’s lit” can be considered a legitimate genre of novel, then Austin Ratner’s In the Land of the Living falls into its counterpart, what I am calling “dude lit.” Here, we’re given insight into the way the story’s male characters think and react in the situations they encounter. As a woman used to all the connotations that come with women’s lit, it was refreshing to read this different perspective.

Ratner’s story is one about family. We start with Isidore who grew up with a distant and abusive father but made his own life—graduating Harvard, attending med school, marrying a wonderful and supportive woman. But Isidore has got a lot of anger, stemming from his unbalanced childhood. He’s impetuous and flies off the handle, but his life feels a whole lot better than it once did. Of course, that doesn’t last forever, and shortly after his two sons are born, Isidore is plagued with an incurable form of cancer.

The boys, Leo and Mack, grow up haunted by the events of their early lives. They’re a textbook psychiatric case—consumed by a past they can’t change, hindered from healthily moving forward. Their anger—at each other, at the world, at themselves—consumes their lives and ultimately destroys their relationship with each other. The story mostly follows Leo as he navigates through his adolescence and young adulthood, experiencing all the “firsts” that a young man should experience but with an insecurity about himself. Though his relationship with Mack is tenuous, at best, they’re really the only people who can truly understand each other. In the Land of the Living focuses on these complicated relationships that are destructive yet indestructible. It’s the dark side of strong, familial bonds—very “you can’t live with it, can’t live without it” sort of thing.

I’m not sure how much I actually enjoyed the process of reading this, for a couple reasons. The voice was unfamiliar; I felt a disconnect from the characters and never really felt there with them. And, it’s dark. It shows the worst in people and how family doesn’t always make everything better—sentiments that are far different everything I experience and believe to be true. But actually writing down this reflection on the book is helping me understand exactly why I felt somewhat uneasy while reading it. I said the voice was unfamiliar, and a lot of that may be just because the perspective was so new. I’m not used to reading about men’s inner turmoils. It’s a completely thought process, completely different attitude. Though the voices may be different from gender to gender, the troubles are universal. Ratner writes a complicated story on past and present shaping a person, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience a familiar story through a new voice.

This post is a TLC Book Tour stop—and this is only the beginning! The tour for In the Land of the Living continues through September 12th. Visit the tour page to learn more about the book and its author and follow the discussion on many more wonderful blogs.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reading Roundup: Maybe If I Were Older…

Despite my love of Southern lit, and despite Lee Smith being a preeminent author of modern Southern lady lit, The Last Girls is actually my first encounter with any of her books. This story reunites a handful of college friends on a Mississippi River cruise, decades after their first trek down the river on a makeshift raft as young, idealistic co-eds, at the request of the husband of their recently deceased friend, Baby. It’s one of those situations where completely different personalities come together because of a common bond. We meet four modern-day characters from the original gaggle of girls [there are like a dozen of them, so why do we meet only four?], and these women all have their flaws. They’ve lost touch; they’re mostly cynical; and none seem too pleased for this reminder of their pasts.

I didn’t like a single character in this book. And as a result, didn’t really like this book at all. It felt like all these people had been dragged down by things in their life, when nothing really bad had happened to them to warrant such a negativity. [They’re all middle class and white and probably just bored.] I think the author was trying to say a lot about life and friendships and secrets and how these things shape the person you eventually become. Maybe I just not old enough to understand and appreciate that kind of reflection, but I find it hard to believe that every single character had somehow morphed into a shell of her former, youthful self. There was such an aura of negativity that I wondered why any of them agreed to this trip in the first place. So maybe The Last Girls was not the best intro to Lee Smith. [It is, by far, her lowest rated on Goodreads.] We’ll have to try again.

Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary was this month’s book club pick, and while I was neutral towards it [mostly just thought it was boring], I was excited for the discussion; we have such a range of ages in our group that I knew others would be able to provide insight I never saw.

The story follows two characters—two strangers—whose lives are pushed together by the most random of situations. William G. and Neaera H. are both adults living fairly quiet, lonely lives. William was once married but now lives alone and works in a bookstore. Neaera writes children books and self-describes as a spinster without cats. They’re both drawn to the turtle tank at the London zoo and become obsessed with the idea of freeing the turtles. The short chapters alternate in perspective, but their thoughts are often so similar that you forget whose thoughts you are reading.

I think that’s much the point of this story. It’s about these two people who feel utterly unconnected finding a connection in an unlikely place. It’s not a cute story; it doesn’t follow the expected trajectory of a romance. It has a lot of thoughtful musing on life and relationships; the sea turtles represent something to each of them, and that’s why they find a connection there. As I was reading this, I felt too young for it. And older members of our group agreed. I think the right kind of reader can grab onto a lot in this story. There is a lot that can be taken away; maybe I just need to save it for a re-read in 2043.

[PS: You may recognize the author’s name; Russell Hoban is the author of the “Frances the Badger” children’s series. True classics!]