may + june!
twenty. the emperor’s children, claire messud.
“you mustn’t idealize, that’s all. that’s all i wanted to say. you’ll marry a man, not an idea of one.” (annabel, 252)
three things about the emperor’s children:
one: to be quite honest, i wasn’t as enraptured with the emperor’s children as i thought i would be. i don’t know why my expectations were so high, but i almost stopped reading halfway through because i found i couldn’t connect very well with any of the characters and found them all a little annoying and patronizing but in ways that people are annoying and patronizing. which is a pretty good testament as to messud’s writing — she’s a good writer, there’s no question about that.
two: i think i got frustrated mostly with how the story is told. the novel hops amongst the characters, resting briefly with one then another, and it was like watching a slideshow, being given a few minutes with one slide before being zipped on to the next. i liked it at first but then rather quickly found myself wishing i could reach into the book and hold us with a character, let us dive deeper, get more time with danielle or marina or any of the other characters, and really get acquainted with them — but the novel never gave me that and kept hopping along like a little bunny eager to get to everyone.
three: that said, messud does a great job at tying all these story threads together and bringing them to a climax with the towers falling. the build-up is pretty satisfying, and i liked the aftermath, how 9/11 affected all these characters’ lives, in ways that i didn’t quite expect. that said, though, i did find the ending a bit incomplete.
idk. it wasn’t one of my favorites.
twenty-one & twenty-two. annihilation and authority, jeff vandermeer.
that’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you:from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.(annihilation, 108)
a girlfriend who had gleaned some sense of his job had once asked, “why do you do it?” — meaning why serve such a clandestine purpose, a purpose that could not be shared, could not be revealed. he’d given his standard response, in a portentous manner, to poke fun at himself. to disguise the seriousness. “to know. to go beyond the veil.” across the border. even as control said it, he had known that he was also telling her he didn’t mind leaving her there, alone, on the other side. (authority, 195)
ohhhhh these were SO fabulously creepy. i inhaled annihilation on a flight out to california because i couldn’t put it down, then made good headway into authority before the plane landed and finished authority while in portland over the next few days. i couldn’t get enough, and now i’m impatiently waiting for it to be september because acceptance will be published then.
one giant thing i love about the southern reach trilogy is that the three books aren’t written in the same voice. (or ok these two weren’t; i don’t know how acceptance will be told.) i’m not a big fan of trilogies because i find that very few stories actually need to be told in trilogies (extra length = sloppier stories) (this is a generalization, yes), but vandermeer went about the southern reach trilogy in a cool way — the biologist narrates annihilation, and authority focuses on control — and it’s great, not only because it changes things up between books, but also (and maybe more importantly) because the different narrative voices add to the stories. like, annihilation works so well because it’s told from the perspective of the biologist, and it’s a very narrow, limited perspective because the biologist is new to area x, too.
but, then, as we go into authority, we, as the readers, have a slight edge on control (the main character of authority) because we’ve already been privy to the biologist’s experiences while he hasn’t— but, at the same time, there’s all this bigger picture stuff we don’t know, and it’s nice to get a more expansive view of the southern reach and area x through a wider third-person narrative. i know i’m sitting here being super excited about narrative form, but it’s just done so well, and i loved both of these books and cannot freaking wait for september to roll around and spit out acceptance. i want to know what happens!!! and why things have been happening!!! i want answers!!! vandermeer, don’t go lost on me; don’t you dare!!!
also, charlotte strick did SUCH a rad job on the covers and end pages. these books are GORGEOUS. i wish they’d been released in hardcover. T_T
(in general, FSG’s amped up its book design game in the last few years, and i am fucking loving it.)
twenty-three. the interestings, meg wolitzer.
but, she knew, you didn’t have to marry your soulmate, and you didn’t even have to marry an interesting. you didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. you could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting. anyway, she knew, the definition could change; it had changed, for her. (524)
yup. i read this for the third time in nine months. couldn’t help it. i was in california when i felt an overwhelming need to read this again, so i went out and got it and plowed my way through it again.
sigh. i love that the interestings is many things at once. it’s a story about friendship, and, more than that, it’s a story about female friendship. it’s a story about envy. it’s a story about talent and potential and how talent and potential can go many ways — it can blossom and grow, nurtured through hard work and discipline, or it can fizzle out, turn out to have been nothing much at all, or it can be put aside and replaced with something else. it’s a story about families and growing up, but my favourite one this time around — it’s about marriage.
the interestings is awesome because it’s one of those rare portrayals of a healthy marriage. it’s not a perfect marriage (but there is no such thing, is there), but jules and dennis have a good marriage — and, though i am someone who has never been married, i find it realistic and encouraging. they have their conflicts, and, at one point, you think they’ll separate because they won’t be able to overcome this conflict, but they get through it — and i like that wolitzer doesn’t gloss over the mundane or the less glamorous aspects of marriage but paints an honest picture that is, yes, optimistic but has integrity in its portrayal.
i also love how the interestings really is about jules and ash’s friendship, and part of me loves that as a woman because women’s friendships are often shafted, reduced to petty competition or jealousies. and i’d say that it really is jules and ash’s friendship that makes me continue to come back to the interestings because i love the evolution of their friendship, how it keeps going even after they’re married and have kids and are living vastly different lives. and it’s not in a way that’s passive on their end — jules and ash both have to commit, in a sense, to the friendship, to let it grow and change as they do, too. friendship isn’t passive; it’s a relationship; and, like all relationships, it requires sacrifice and work and commitment, too — and i like that wolitzer portrays that so deftly in this friendship.
one of my favourite quotes is one from ash as she’s toasting jules and dennis at their wedding: “i’m not losing you. marriage, i don’t think, is like that. it’s something else. it’s a thing in which you get to see your closest friend become more of who she already is.” (269) i think that’s so beautiful and what i’d hope from my closest friendships if i ever get married.
also, here’s my obligatory “i love ethan figman.” i swear, i’m not going to stop saying that whenever there’s any mention of the interestings because i’ve never felt about a fictional character the way i feel about ethan figman.
twenty-four. still writing, dani shapiro.
the writing life is full of risk. there is the creative risk — the willingness to fall flat on our face again and again — but there is also practical risk. as in, it may not work out. we don’t get brownie points for trying really hard. when we set our hopes on this life, we are staking our future on the contents of our minds. on our ability to create and continue to create. we have nothing but this. no 401(k), no pension plan, often no IRA, no plans — god knows — for retirement. we have to accept living with profound uncertainty. (179)
i don’t typically (or ever?) read books on writing, but i picked up still writing when i was going through a really rough time writing. (i blame it all on netflix. no joke. which is why i cancelled netflix two weeks after restarting my subscription … and i’ve been 150% better since.) still writing basically was like shapiro had taken everything the illustrator friend and i have been discussing about the creative life and put it into a compact, dense little gem of a book, which was exactly what i needed earlier this month.
i liked it. i’ll probably come back to it and revisit when i’m in need of encouragement. still writing didn’t necessarily shed new light on the creative life for me, but it was great in that it made me feel less alone. sometimes, this whole creative venture can feel horribly isolating, especially when you’re in the writing phase, so there was a sense of solidarity to be found in these pages, like, hey, you might feel alone right now, but you are actually indeed part of this community of people who just know deep down that they must write or draw or do music, etcetera etcetera etcetera.
i’d definitely recommend it for any creative being, too. shapiro doesn’t try to glamorize anything, and neither is she dire and cynical — simply very pragmatic and honest and encouraging.
twenty-five. how to read a novelist, john freeman.
now he [eugenides] and franzen are at the top of america’s heap of novelists. it’s a position eugenides doesn’t guard, and he knows that eventually there will be a new wave. he can even in some ways see it coming. “now and then there’s a literary party and i see these guys looking at me, guys i used to be, and i’m sure that they are in that same ferment and state, and ambitious and talking, showing their work to their friends, and i’m sure it’s still going on. the look in their eyes that i see is the same i expect my eyes looked like back in 1992.” (334-5)
ok truth? i didn’t actually read all the interviews in this book. which wouldn’t have been difficult to do because there are only fifty-five interviews and they’re all pretty brief (but no less good for being brief), but i still didn’t read them all. i read the ones of all the authors i’ve read/like, so there’s definite bias there, but i’m still sticking this on here because this is how i roll with non-fiction collections such as these, and how to read a novelist is going to be one of those books that i come back to over and over for inspiration/encouragement/blah blah blah. i can feel it.
i find myself thinking of interviews along the same veins that i think of writers who write in first-person; there are many who are good at it, but there are very few who are great at it. with interviews, maybe part of that falls on the editor of the publication, too, because there are few publications that consistently turn out good interviews (e.g. the paris review is indisputable king when it comes to awesome interviews; interview generally has good ones; and i’ve loved the ones i’ve read on guernica) (btw apparently guernica is planning a print publication, wahoo!).
freeman’s pretty great. i wish these were longer, though, because they’re really only a few pages each, and they were a little too bite-sized, which made me sad because i wanted more. they’re very full bites, though, and it’s a good collection from a great spectrum of authors. i’ll be holding onto this for a while.
twenty-six. the silent history, eli horowitz, matthew derby, kevin moffett.
without names they’d be gone. (francine chang, 492)
the silent history was absolutely incredible. i spent all weekend doing nothing but reading it because i didn’t want to stop, and i absolutely loved it and was sad when it was over, even though it was dark and i was reading outdoors (by the light spilling from a cafe), so it was probably good for my already-nearly-legally-blind eyes that i finished it.
one. the voices — the silent history is told in the voices of at least 24 different people, and i say “at least” here because i stopped writing them down at 24. and, yet, these 24 different people sound like … 24 different people. that’s bloody incredible.
two. the silent history feels very contemporary. you have a premise that sounds sci-fi-y — a bunch of children born without the ability to speak — but it presents this phenomenon in a way that’s very timely and relevant and also in a way that represents the width of the human spectrum. in that way, the use of multiple voices served the novel incredibly well because we’re presented with all these different perspectives and fears and motivations. it felt like a documentary (which i suppose was the point) and, as a narrative, as a novel, like a social commentary done in a way that doesn’t really read like one.
i feel like the silent history would be loads of fun to read as a book club. different readers would take issue with different things, and i’m aware that that’s pretty true about all books — as readers, we have our own complex histories that inform our reading — but there’s a lot in the silent history that could be picked at and discussed. like, for me, i was taken with the mass inability to see beyond the knowable and the familiar and the ways that the dominant society tries to override and force the minority into the familiar — generally, this terror of the Other where the Other’s happiness or contentment is inconceivable simply for being different. the Other doesn’t have to harm the “majority;” it simply has to exist for the majority to feel threatened and react defensively, most often by forcing conformity.
also, as i was reading the silent history, i kept thinking about how sometimes it’s surprising the characters you find yourself sympathizing with most. i was all for theodore (flora’s father) and had little patience for nancy (spencer’s mother). i couldn’t really stand patti but found her laughable and a more than a little pathetic, and i was largely indifferent towards francine. i couldn’t stand burnham and was rooting for calvin all the way, but i didn’t feel much for flora (she was too good) or for spencer or even for their kid. david vaguely annoyed me. i remember reading a criticism of a criticism once and how the criticism (that was being criticized) focused too much on how the reader felt, and i laughed a little because i think that a lot of reading really is about how we feel while reading. it’s how we feel about these characters and their stories that takes a piece of writing and gives it a charge — it’s what makes us care and gets us invested — but, yes, on the other hand, i suppose one should be more objective when one is an official reviewer.
which i am not, so i get to sit here and talk about how a book made me feel, and the silent history made me feel nice things inside, even while being a sort of dark novel that raises lots of serious issues. very good. highly recommended. go for it.
twenty-seven. the isle of youth, laura van der berg.
their parents didn’t seem to know they’d been gone, or catch the strange smells they brought home. the farm was more than two hundred acres, and dana figured they thought their children were out on the land, like they’d always been. but their children were learning quickly. they were learning that the outside world and the pleasures it held weren’t so bad. they were learning that they had never really believed in God; they have only ever believed in fear. (“lessons,” 78)
i thought i’d like this a lot more than i did. i don’t know why; i just expected a lot more from it when i started it. the writing is good, and i loved that they were stories about women in bad/messy situations and how they not necessarily overcame them but dealt with them. i did appreciate that. maybe it was just that i got to the second to last story and was just like, “damn, this book is just bumming me out.” i don’t know. i don’t really have many things to say about it?
in case you hadn’t gotten the memo, i’m currently obsessed with FSG originals.
went to mcnally jackson today and picked up gong ji-young’s our happy time, hwang sun-mi’s the hen who dreamed she could fly, and francoise sagan’s bonjour tristesse. excited to start them, yey yey!