Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Books I've Read: July

The Story Thief by Joshua Young. Yeeeeeaaah! It's Josh's book, and I'll say little about it to prevent from spoiling it for all of you, dear readers, or from embarrassing its author. I will say that I loved it, and that it's not only Josh's prolificity (prolificness? prolificiness? I don't know, he freaking writes a lot) that drives me mad with envy, it's also his willingness to cut what he's revising to shreds and rebuild it, expand it, tweak it, and generally turn it from a solid first draft into an actual novel. Nice!

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I picked this up because Jeff and Selena and I were talking about it and I haven't read it since high school and I wanted to see how I would react to it now. Strongly, it turned out. Bear with my huge, sweeping generalizations here: reactions to High Fidelity are pretty strongly divided along gender lines. Women often are bothered by it--Rob, the narrator is neurotic and whiny, the book is a find-the-right-woman-who-will-fix-you fantasy, who gives a shit about all those old soul records, etc. One WWU student I talked to actually had to get rid of the book because she said that having it on her night stand felt like "having a sketchy stranger in her room." Most men (and bear in mind that most men who have reactions to the novel High Fidelity are the kind of guys who seek the book out to read it) think that it is an incredibly accurate representation of the male mind at work. Jeff, in response to Selena's comment that Rob is whiny and neurotic, replied that yes, Rob is whiny and neurotic, but he gives voice to neuroticisms that most guys think about but would never in a million years actually talk about, which I think is a good way to describe it.

I was really torn by High Fidelity, and it's narrator especially. It is a find-the-right-woman-who-will-fix-you fantasy, and the last quarter of the book is mostly about Rob bumbling around and being a douchebag while Laura (the love interest) patiently tries to put his life together for him. Rob definitely doesn't earn points for likability. He's a self-consciously hip narcissistic hypocrite who sees the problems in his behavior and lets it eat at him, then does nothing whatsoever to change it. Unfortunately, Rob is also so similar to me that it's shocking. He's an A.V. nerd, like me and most of my male friends, and if he developed an obsession with twenty-year-old video games, we would probably be besties. This was upsetting for me to realize--I wanted to hate Rob, but I didn't. I couldn't! This needs more thinking about...

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Several people have asked me why I like these books and I have had a hard time explaining why--the plot sounds gimmicky and infantile, the art style is highly stylized (it appeals to me, but I can see how it would drive some people insane), and the narrator's comments often start to feel a bit dictatorial. But then I noticed the blurb on the back of the last book, from Joss Whedon: "Scott Pilgrim is the best book ever. It is the chronicle of our time. With Kung Fu, so, yeah: perfect." Word Joss Whedon! Basically the fact that Joss Whedon is blurbing this book should tell you why I like it--he could have written it. It has that same mix of angst and pop-culture references and ass-kicking that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer so awesome. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, it's a lot like Buffy. Huh. Anyway, I was actually a bit disappointed with the ending of the Scott Pilgrim series. I'm not sure what I expected--it ended exactly how anybody could have predicted it would end all along--but it just felt a little too... easy? Not earth-shatteringly awesome? I'm not sure.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. Ah! A male-coming-of-age novel with a narrator I can really love to hate. The Rachel Papers takes place in the five hours before Charles Highway turns twenty years old. He spends those five hours recounting the previous year or so of his life, with special emphasis on his relationship with Rachel, a girl he sets out to bed but with whom he winds up falling in love. Charles Highway is arrogant, manipulative, hypocritical, elitist, callous, disgusting on pretty much every level (including and especially the level of personal hygiene, his lack of which he spends a great deal of time describing), and is just an all around asshole. There's really nothing good to be said about him, at any point in the novel. That said, I didn't have to like the narrator to enjoy the novel. It was very funny, and much of the pleasure I got from it came from seeing what the hell Charles was going to do next--his willingness to tailor his musical tastes, conversational modes, and even his accent to suit the various women he tries to pick up is rather funny, and the used condom switcheroo is a great moment.

Yes, "the used condom switcheroo." This book is freaking filthy. I honestly have never read anything so crass. I'm trying to think of a good analog to help explain it, since--as my family reads this blog--there's no way in hell I'm going to quote some of it's more filthy passages (many of which run on literally for pages), but I'm having trouble finding one that's adequate. I guess it reminded me a bit of a British novel version of American Pie, only much, much, much raunchier and willing to describe the gritty details of... well, of just about everything that American Pie can only hint at if it wants to keep its 'R' rating. Its several pages dedicated to the symptoms of Charles bad case of gonorrhea were particularly memorable, and terrifying, and I also wondered how many different ways Martin Amis--who is, by the way, a very well-respected, very British novelist--could think of to describe bronchitic phlegm. Yeah, ick, ick, ick. I enjoyed the book, but if you're easily offended or disgusted or embarrassed, this is not the book for you.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This is a book my professors and classmates were raving about all last year and one that I wasn't that interested in. Old people? Stories about grief? Small town life on the coast of Maine? It just didn't seem like there was a lot there that appealed to me. But man am I glad I read this book. It's solidly written and very compelling, and I love how Strout handles Olive. The book is composed of thirteen short stories that all share a setting and a character--cantankerous middle school math teacher Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes Olive is the focus of the story, sometimes she only passes through a scene or gets a mention, but she's always there. Olive is a fascinating character, and I was never sure whether to hate her for her domineering pushiness and cold passive aggression, or love her for her ability to push through all the horrible things that life piles in front of her (or sometimes, like in one of my favorite stories, "Security," love and hate her in great measures, at the same time). The book is definitely a downer, but it's worth it.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. Maybe it's that I came to this short story collection after Olive Kitteridge, which puts its emotions right up front, but Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned bothered me. Wells Tower's name and some of his more successful short stories (like "Retreat," which I read here and in the Pushcart Prize anthology a few years ago) get tossed around a lot in writing programs, because he's young (mid-30s), hip, and regularly places work in places like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Wells Tower also writes like a young, hip dude. I'm curious to see if other MFAers (particularly fiction people) have noticed this, but there seems to be a certain mode that white male writers younger than forty-five tend to fall into. Emotion is hinted at but rarely mentioned outright. Everyone is very, very angry and/or callous. Outright statements of intent or emotion are passed over in favor of oblique images or dialogue. It's all about elision, deferment, and deflection. Think Raymond Carver but more ironic.

This is fine for a while, but after three or four stories in the same style, it gets really tiring. I found myself looking for the huge emotional crescendos in Olive Kitteridge, or the heart-on-your-sleeve angst of Scott Pilgrim. Still, this wasn't a complete waste of time. The title story is excellent, "Retreat," which I mentioned earlier, is flawed but interesting, and "On the Show" gives up Tower's typical narrative structure completely and gives us a collage of workers and guests at a small town carnival that's really, really awesome. Also, this is a good example of what I want not to do in my own writing: reticent white guy lit.


  1. I'm blushing. Thanks for the shout out!

    High Fidelity: I liked the film better.

  2. hey, ian. i'd like your permission to use some of your images from wyoming for a creative cause. might you be able to email me? lisa(dot)beth(dot)anderson(at)gmail(dot)com.