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A GAME OF THRONES, by George R.R. Martin

Normally, if someone handed me a book and told me before I read it that some of its key components included gratuitous sex, adult language, a fantasy/mythical world, more characters than I’d care to count, a narrative that employs not one, not two, but actually eight alternating points of view, an excess of violence, gross misogynistic treatment of women, and a plot the main thread of which follows a bunch of testosterone-filled Arthurian wannabes fighting for control of a kingdom… Well, I’d probably throw that book back in the person’s face and walk away muttering about how said person does not know me at all.

So you might be surprised to hear that, at the end of a whirlwind seven-day reading period, during which I averaged the consumption of approximately one hundred pages per day to finish this monstrous book, the following words are some of the descriptors I choose to sum up A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire:

Suspenseful. Edgy. Thrilling. Complex. Realistically fantastical. Gripping. Moving. Heartbreaking. Page-turning. Hilarious. Surprising. A classic waiting to be crowned.

The main reason I can provide these unqualified descriptions is that A Game of Thrones, as a book of mechanics, would appear to have a lot of obstacles to overcome. Everything I list in the first paragraph is true, so the fact that Martin manages to yank me into the story anyway, beginning with chapter one (which is not the very beginning, since the book begins with yet another unnecessary prologue), is a feat unto itself.

This is the kind of book that separates the men from the boys when it comes to authorial talent. I have edited some truly awful books that included everything listed in the first paragraph, all of which subsequently became targets for editorial revision suggestions. But Martin proves that these techniques can be utilized well, when done with the ink of a good writer’s pen. Martin crafts a tale so pregnant with the third-paragraph traits that the issues in the first paragraph either become non-issues altogether or actually become strengths of the narrative.

Our world does not want for fantasy literature, but it is lacking in quality fantasy writing and stories, perhaps because of the nature of the limitations of the genre itself. It’s weird to think that a genre called fantasy – which, by definition, should be the opposite of limited – would have restraints, and yet it does. There are only so many mythical creatures one can dream up, only so many magical qualities a world can have before it’s overkill, or before the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is unwillingly suspended.

That’s why we see so many of the same types of creatures over and over again in fantasy: dragons, goblins, trolls, wizards, giants, birds that carry mail, and – of course – a “normal-world” creature that becomes otherworldly and mythical simply due to its monstrous size. In Lord of the Rings, we see this with spiders; in Harry Potter, with spiders, snakes, and dogs; we even see it in the parody fantasy story The Princess Bride, with rodents. George R.R. Martin’s rendition of the oversized normal animal is a wolf, called – in his book, to differentiate it from the regular wolf – the direwolf.

So what, exactly, does Martin’s writing possess that makes it so devourable, even when the bare components are stripped down and it appears to be a fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy story, if a little (or maybe a whole lot) on the adult side? Honestly, the element that kept me turning pages was the characters. The diversity and complexity of each character simply astounded me. I mentioned that the story is told in alternating fashion from eight different characters’ points of view. But these are not the only eight characters we come to know intimately, nor can these eight characters all necessarily be called the heroes or, to oversimplify it, the good guys. There are also the minor characters, as well as the villains – none of whom, so far, have been given POV rights – to get to know, and the narrative weaves in their motivations and characteristics and personalities seamlessly alongside the principal characters whose POVs we are actually treated to.

The strength of the alternating POV tactic (which is also a huge risk, if an author doesn’t know how to do it right) is the third-person-limited perspective. With each character, the reader is privy only to information which that particular character would have access to. The advantage of being the omniscient reader, of course, is that we get to see how all the limited perspectives work together to create the bigger picture of the unfolding story, but of course the kicker is that we do not have the power to change the course of events, or warn any of the characters of what’s coming. (This is probably as close as any of us will ever get to understanding what it’s like to be God, with the exception that the God I believe in does have the power to change the course of events; he just rarely does it in ways we would see fit; but, of course, that goes back to the big picture and limited perspective issue.) On the whole, these characters feel alive and real, and so do their actions and the consequences of their actions. Martin employs no deus ex machina here. The characters reap the consequences of their decisions; bad things happen to good people; ordinary people make terrible decisions; and nobody is safe or exempt from the forces and obstacles of the natural world, which makes this genuinely fantastical world feel eerily like the world we know and live in ourselves.

The unexpected plot twists are probably the aspects of this book that left me the most frustrated as a reader. I got so settled into the everyday features of the world itself that I had trouble acclimating to the twists and turns the characters have to follow. In remedial writing classes, one of the very first things students learn is that the basic arc of a story involves a character pursuing a specific goal and encountering obstacles that must be overcome on the way to that goal. I hope even the most under-qualified writing instructor would tell students that characters must experience conflict; otherwise, there’s no story. What do TV shows do when their ratings drop? Introduce new and dramatic conflicts. The idea is, nobody is allowed to live happy, peaceful lives if you want your story to be consumed and enjoyed.

The reason I had a problem with this basic rule in GoT was that I liked the characters and the details of the world itself so much that all I wanted to do was follow the Stark family around their castle and the woods and be a fly on the wall in their everyday lives. That’s how well these characters and this world are written. Every time there is a hope of one or more of the characters going back to settle at the family’s castle, I got excited and hopeful that life would resume as it began at the start of the book, and every time a plot twist thwarts this goal, I got disappointed and frustrated. My frustration lasted only momentarily, though, because each diversion and plot tangent is more interesting and exciting than the last, all leading up to a wrenching and emotional climax that I wouldn’t have seen coming if it had not been spoiled for me beforehand. (That didn’t make the event any less emotional for me, though; only less surprising.)

A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996, so you might be wondering why it is just now on my radar. There are a few reasons, the most obvious (and most wrong) being that HBO has started serializing the books in television form. The advent of the HBO series did remind me that the books were on my to-read list, but they were on my to-read list long before HBO took it over. I have a solid group of (mostly) trusted reading friends in Oklahoma who have all torn through the series and pledge loyalty to George R.R. Martin until the end of time, so it has been on my radar since about 2008.

I guess the only reason I decided to pick it up now, allowing it to usurp the numerous other books in line and patiently waiting, is the same reason I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last January: It’s a new year, and I wanted to give my reading life a jump start with something I wouldn’t be able to put down, so why not start with a series people can’t seem to stop talking about? Obviously I didn’t know for sure that I would like either book at all, but luckily both times I did, and luckily – just like last year – it will lead me into a series and a world that will occupy me for the next few weeks, at least.

As with GWTDT, I likely won’t post follow-up reviews about the subsequent books in the series, but you should take my word for it that at least A Game of Thrones is worth reading, and then you can decide from there whether you want to continue. As for me, I will most certainly be moving on to the second book, A Clash of Kings.

As I continue, I hope to find that some of the characters I intensely dislike in the first book will be redeemed later on; I hope that some of the most despicable characters will meet poetic justice, whether in death or torture or slavery or exile; and, lastly, I hope that some of my favorite and most heroic characters will be rewarded with peace and happiness, or, at the very least, fewer tragedies.

As for Martin’s misogynistic characterizations, he’s not off the hook, and I do find it offensive and appalling that the women are so far either one of two extremes: weak or completely evil, with almost nothing in between, but for now, I’m letting him get away with the excuse that the world he’s created is an ancient one, and everyone knows that the ancient worlds did not appreciate or revere women as they should have.

Overall, though, I am pleased with this book, and if you have recently found yourself in need of something to occupy your reading hours, I suggest trying this one, if all the adult aspects of it won’t bother you. It may not be for everyone, and I’m certainly no fantasy expert, but of the fantasies I have read, GoT is certainly the cream of the crop.

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“The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

I just finished reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s classic novella, written in memoir style. The thing is, I was disappointed with it. This was my first time reading it, but I had high hopes because of how much I love the movie. I grew up watching that movie over and over, and I still watch it over and over. It’s such a wonderfully told, wonderfully woven coming-of-age story of love and loss, addiction and gambling, family and fishing and faith (those last two – fishing and faith – being treated as interchangeable in this particular narrative). And if you can’t relate to any of those themes, then hopefully you can at least appreciate a young Brad Pitt early in his career!

Naturally, being the bookworm I am, I started wondering why I liked the movie so much better, and I even felt a little guilty for admitting it at first. It can’t be purely about childhood nostalgia or celebrity crushing. In my brief review of the book on my Goodreads account, I recommended that any readers who love the movie and/or aren’t familiar with fly fishing skip the first hundred pages (the copy I read paginated to 160). I don’t know if I’d stick to this recommendation exactly because, to be sure, there are details (perhaps even necessary ones) in the first hundred pages that the reader might appreciate having access to. That being said, though, reading this book gave me a whole new respect for screenplay adapters and script writers. The makers of this movie took a beautiful concept that, in print, translates as piecemeal, extremely personal, and even a bit amateur, and made it into one of the most profound, complex, touching, and universal stories I have ever experienced. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

For starters, the movie’s plot line is more linear than the book’s. Book Norman jumps back and forth, in and out of various stages of his life from childhood to young adulthood to marriage to old age, and it can be difficult to tell what’s happening and in which stage it’s happening. (This is something we certainly would’ve focused revision efforts on had I been his editor.) The movie, on the other hand, moves pretty much chronologically from start to finish in a way that makes complete sense. The movie script also skillfully cuts out certain digressions detailing the technical aspects of fly fishing, the substance of which are what so bogged me down in the first half of the book.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs. Don’t get me wrong; the book has some great one liners that are certainly thought provoking and deserve to be quoted. But it also has several trains of thought that are absurdly abstract; the kind of abstract that, like certain works of art [most notably the ones that appear to be just errant splatters on canvas, no more impressive than a first grader’s work], make me feel as if I’m missing something for not being awe inspired or driven into reverent and somber silence.

My disappointment with this book and rare (almost shameful) admission that the movie is actually better got me thinking about the other times I have experienced this anomaly. It hasn’t been often, but it has certainly been noticeable each time.

The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the most memorable. I inadvertently bought the abridged version of the book. I had already seen the movie and knew the story and, even with the abridgement, still found the book long, boring, and so tortuous that I couldn’t even finish it (notice that’s tortuous, not torturous; there is a difference). My disappointment was considerable, given that I considered Alexandre Dumas to be one of my favorite authors and I highly revere The Three Musketeers. 

The other main fault I found with The Count of Monte Cristo is that there are too many supposedly important characters and too much time between pickups of their story lines for any reasonable person to be able to remember their pertinent details. In that sense, reading the book felt like the print version of the TV show Heroes. (Remember that show? How awesome was season 1? And even season 2, and then it just got awful after that!)

Brokeback Mountain is my third example of a movie that surpasses its printed counterpart. If you know me at all (or if you’re a faithful reader), you know that I love this movie to pieces. Naturally, I assumed I would also love the short story, but I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I fell in love with the characters as portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film Ennis and Film Jack are excellent and skilled enhancements of Annie Proulx’s Ink Ennis and Ink Jack. Proulx, like Norman Maclean, spins a tale layered with intricacy and a depth that seems almost too much to be adequately unraveled without visual aid or an outsider’s objective interpretation.

It is not a criticism of these beautiful pieces of literature to say that their visual companions did the job better. In fact, better is probably not even the right word. I posit that it’s even a credit to the authors that their works are so layered, so complex, so profound, that they require something more than just black and white words on a page. The fault lies with consumers, perhaps, rather than the authors of these fine works of prose. We consumers have become so detached from the sacred experience of literature that we need the visual stimulation, the third-party, more objective interpretations, to help us connect and engage and receive in the ways these themes deserve and are meant to be received.

That being said, would I take it well if I were told that my masterpiece was better represented, understood, and received in its butchered, doctored cinematic version instead of my own, lovingly crafted original? Likely not. But that’s a hypocritical post for another day.

*If I’m not careful, this could become a post series. I blogged about the 8th deadly sin just over a year ago.

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The Wisdom of French Parenting -OR- Americans Are Doing It Wrong. Again.

I just finished a fascinating book on parenting called Bringing up Bébé, written by journalist Pamela Druckerman. I was drawn to this book for more than one reason, none of them having to do with parenting. First, I appreciated the title’s reference to one of my favorite movies (thanks to my dad’s influence) from when I was a kid. Second, the use of the French word for baby and the book’s subtitle, One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, both appealed to the Francophile in me. Third, anything that suggests that Americans might be wrong is attractive to me.

This book has not been received favorably by all American audiences, a result that is not surprising in the least. After all, no one likes to be told they’re wrong. And Druckerman is subtly and politely but quite firmly doing just that. I appreciate this book because it doesn’t let American parents get away with the pat excuses of, “He’s a child; what do you expect?” or, “They call them terrible twos for a reason.” (I don’t think they do call them that in France, likely because they aren’t terrible.) Unfortunately, I think this book will do what many of the best sermons, speeches, and exhortations throughout history have done: enrage those who need to hear its message the most, therefore disabling their ability to receive it; and be endorsed by those who need to hear it least – people who already practice (and see the positive results of) the suggestions contained within.

Without going into too much detail about why this book should be read by everyone, parents or not, or why the French truly are superior, at least in some ways, I’ll just summarize Druckerman’s main conclusion, which is – to oversimplify it – that American parents are overindulgent and allow their children to rule over them, while French parents have found a way to balance authoritarianism with allowing their children the freedom to express themselves and be who they are. She uses a lot of research and various observed examples to back up her findings, mainly focusing on sleep rhythms, eating habits, and behavioral/discipline patterns.

The part I resonated with most was an underlying thread running through the entire book; an idea that one of the main differences between the French and Americans is that French people view their children as legitimate human beings, capable of knowing and learning and conforming to rhythms from the time they leave the womb, whereas a large portion of American parents tend to coddle and suffocate their children because they view them as too young, immature, inexperienced, etc., to learn or decide anything for themselves; which, of course, becomes a vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that, because American children are coddled and suffocated, they often are too immature and inexperienced to think, learn, or decide for themselves.

The main time I witness this is when American adults (parents or otherwise) speak to children. Regardless of the child’s age – whether teenager, adolescent, grade schooler, toddler, or baby – many adults have gotten the idea that children must be talked down to, patronized, and condescended. Many parents wonder why their teens rebel and disrespect them and act out; my supposition is that a lot of times it has to do with the teens not feeling respected themselves. Unfortunately, most parents don’t wonder anymore why their toddlers and young children throw regular temper tantrums for no apparent reason. Rather than delve into why, they’ve simply come to accept and expect that this is part of raising small children. They assume that young children have no rationalization skills, so why even bother trying to ask why they’re having a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store? It’s better to bribe him or shove some food in his mouth so he’ll shut up and stop embarrassing them, right?

The thing that has probably become my biggest pet peeve when watching adults interact with children is the way they talk to them. Adults assume a certain (low) level of understanding, and when communicating with children, one can witness adults intentionally bringing themselves down to this perceived level. Not all adults do this, mind you. The best and most respected teachers out there – the ones who get the most results from their most “troubled” students – understand the danger of doing this. And some really awesome parents understand it too. But not the majority of the ones I’ve witnessed and observed in my almost 28 years on this earth.

The most intelligent, well-behaved, and articulate children I have met in my life have been children whose parents have never spoken to them like they were halflings. Even from before the time they could understand language and words, these children were spoken to like normal human beings, just the way you and I might speak to each other right now. I have said before that I completely abhor the fact that people speak to children the same way they speak to animals. They change their tone of voice (it immediately becomes high pitched); they start using words they would never use in adult conversations (like boo-boo, teetee, and bwankie); and they talk down to the child (instead of validating what the child has to say, they ask the condescending question, “Oh, really?” which immediately communicates disbelief; or, they over-validate what the child has to say, acting as if this imaginary tale of fantastic proportions involving superheroes and mythical creatures is absolutely, 100% true, when the child very well knows that it is not true and is just trying to have a bit of fun).

Yes, children develop at different paces, and yes, their logical reasoning skills and general grasps of syntax and vocabulary are much lower than (most) adults’, but this does not make them stupid. It means they are at a different place on the developmental journey, and that should not be occasion for condescension from adults. We should not expect children to deliver well-constructed debates or impressively articulated demands from the time they are first able to speak, but we should always encourage them toward attempting to articulate themselves and rationalize their own thoughts. Patronizing them by deigning to lower ourselves to their level sends two messages: 1) I am not worth as much; 2) I have no reason to improve myself.

I have actually babysat upper-grade-school children who knew how to speak and pronounce words properly but still talked like babies. Why? Because they were allowed to and saw no reason to quit. After all, if they continue to act like babies, their parents are going to keep treating them like babies, no matter how old they get. And what child wants the royal infant treatment to stop? Infants have it made! All they have to do is make a single peep, and adults are at their beck and call, ready to carry out their every whim. My theory on why parents let this continue is that they don’t want their children to grow up too quickly because, as we all know, it does happen too fast. When I encounter this type of child in a babysitting experience, I typically refuse to acknowledge the request (whether it be for more pwetzels or a huggy-poo before bed) until they speak to me as properly as I know they can. I admit, some of my disgust for this behavior is rooted in my love of language and grammar. But I also believe that children should be challenged and empowered to mature and grow up, not stay whining little bwats.

Something Druckerman touches on in her book is the high level of importance the French place on children learning to say not only please and thank you (which are the universal magic words of American culture) but also hello and goodbye. American children are not generally asked to greet anyone upon arrival and departure, and this sends them the message that their greetings are not important to us as adults. It reinforces the implication that they are just accessories, mandatory accoutrements parents are forced to lug around, less important beings than anyone who is more than two feet taller than them. French children, on the other hand, learn quickly and early on that everyone is worth being acknowledged, including themselves.

In my own life, I have conducted a semi-sociological experiment on a favorite child of mine whom I babysit often. We’ll call him Cason because…well, that’s his name. I have known Cason since he was just over a year old. Considering he’s just a few months shy of four now, that obviously isn’t very long (though it is most of his life). But when I talk to and interact with Cason, I do my best not to talk down to him even though his speech capabilities have only in the last year begun to really develop. It can be difficult, at times, to overcome what feels like an instinctive way to talk to children, but it’s not instinct. This is one instance where we can definitively say nurture is winning the debate over nature. I was talked down to as a child (and sometimes am still talked down to as an adult in my late twenties). I grew up in an environment that taught by example that I should communicate with children in a louder voice, using a high-pitched tone, and with an exaggerated and insincere enthusiasm about everything. (By the way, kids can tell when you’re being insincere.)

At some point in my life, I started having encounters with children who seemed unusually intelligent for their ages, and by the time I met Cason, I realized – as a result of observing how his parents talk to him – that these smart, articulate, seemingly precocious children weren’t necessarily advanced for their age; they just seemed that way because they were so far ahead of other kids their age. Why? Because their parents talked to them like they were normal human beings.

So the first time I babysat Cason, I decided to try to emulate his parents’ way of communicating with him. At this point, he couldn’t yet talk. As young as he was, he of course cried when they left, especially since this was his first time to meet me, let alone be left alone with me. After they got out the door, I knelt on the floor next to him and explained what was going on, something to the effect of, “Your parents are going out for a little while, and I’m going to hang out with you while they’re gone. Then you’ll go to bed, and they’ll come back while you’re sleeping, and then you’ll see them first thing when you wake up in the morning.” I had no idea if he understood what I was saying, but he listened tearfully and silently to every word, as if he could understand and was trying to decide whether he could trust me. Then, after a couple of trial sniffles and big breaths, he smiled, held out his arms for me to pick him up, and didn’t cry the rest of the night.

Later that same night, he was running around and playing with his toys. I watched him from a couch with my laptop out. He came over and wanted to look at the computer, so I let him. His hands were sticky, though, so when he reached out to touch it, I told him, “No, please don’t touch that; your hands aren’t clean.” He withdrew his hand and toddled away to resume playing.

Now, it could be that luck was on my side that night and that I just had good timing. But I don’t think so. I think he understood me just fine, even if he couldn’t respond verbally. And ever since that night, I’ve done my best to keep copying his parents’ example and continue to talk to him like he’s a normal person. And, as I’ve watched him grow up, I’ve also watched him make extraordinary progress in his grasp of language, his articulation skills, and his communicative abilities. He speaks full sentences now and (with prompting and encouragement, at times) is able to explain coherently why he is upset about something or other, which is so much easier to deal with than screaming, kicking, punching, or biting. (He occasionally does still shout, but he’s come a long way, and he’s miles ahead of other kids his age, and even other kids who are older [whose parents I hope never ask me to babysit].)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge proponent of the nurture side of the debate. I think environment plays a much bigger role in development than genes do. The reason so many American children are brats is not that Americans are genetically bratty. It’s the mob mentality. It’s their environment. They are taught how to be brats, and they spend their time with a bunch of other brats, and they learn to be that way. If you don’t agree with me about nurture, look at adopted children. Look at military children. Or missionary kids, or other third-culture kids, such as Pamela Druckerman’s pack of Paris-born children who, genetically, are half American, half British. They’ve molded to their sage French environment and have themselves become sage.

I don’t know how J.R. and Jenny are managing to do such a non-American job with Cason (and Jack, Cason’s younger brother, who is no less awesome) in the extremely American culture they live in, but I am gonna stick around them when I have kids, or, if I’ve lost them back to the Great Northwest by that time, I’ll just have to move to France. By the way, I’m not saying that I’m a parenting expert or anything, or that I know any better than anyone else how to raise children. I don’t know the first thing about raising children. But I have spent the last couple of years learning how to talk to children, and that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Not that you have to listen to me; I know every parent’s favorite advice expert is the childless single woman next door, but hey. I was called a baby whisperer recently, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. But seriously. Check out Bringing up Bébé if you have some time. Even if you’re not a parent, it’s really good. I promise. And I haven’t even begun to do its synopsis justice here. She’s got all sorts of statistical proof to back up her claim that France is kicking America’s butt in the raising-children department. Grab a copy from your library. Even if all you do is flip through it to find the italicized words and work on pronouncing them out loud in your best French accent. (Wait, what? Of course I didn’t do that.)

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Classic #5: FRANNY AND ZOOEY, by J.D. Salinger

Even though I wasn’t able to get 12 classics read in 12 months, I liked my original idea of reviewing each classic I read, and I still want to record my thoughts on any I happen to read from here on out. So perhaps this will simply become my first blog-post series: reviews of classics. I can live with it if you can. (PS – This might be my shortest review yet!)

My experience with Salinger is limited. I hated The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect I would still dislike it if I read it again, though I don’t know that I would hate it. A few years have passed since my first reading, and I have experienced different parts of life, so there might be portions of the book I can better understand or more readily identify with. On the whole, however, after finishing Franny and Zooey, it seems that existential crises are Salinger’s specialty and not mine at all. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to have an existential crisis (but we’ll get to that).

In any case, for those who aren’t aware (I wasn’t), this book is comprised of a short story (“Franny”) and a novella (Zooey). The two pieces were actually published two years apart originally, but in the fictional timeline of the characters, they take place within just one or two days of each other. I rather enjoyed (and flew through) “Franny” and was therefore excited to dig into Zooey, but I was less enamored of the novella, even though it did make me laugh a few more times.

F&Z is an excerpt from the life of the Glass family, a family Salinger apparently wrote about a lot, in numerous other short stories and (possibly?) novellas. This family, as seems to the be the case with most large families, is dysfunctional to the highest degree. (Why does it seem that, the more family members you add to the pot, the higher the level of dysfunctionality rises?) The Glass children are a product of a wealthy, privileged, even spoiled existence. They were all radio stars through their childhood years, and now two of the seven siblings are dead; one by suicide, one from war.

The primary focus of the story is Franny’s internal crisis that seems to cover three different dimensions: existentialism, spirituality, and identity. The secondary focus is Franny’s and Zooey’s relationship to each other and to the rest of their family. Zooey and Franny are the youngest of the Glass children, with Franny being five years behind her brother. Both pieces are almost entirely dialogue, and the entire arc of the story begins and resolves over the course of four scenes. There is a lunch, a bath, a living room discussion, and a phone conversation. This aspect is what LF says makes the work brilliant. I disagree because it was exactly this aspect that made it borderline boring for me. Dialogue does propel a story, but so does action. As with everything, there should be a balance.

However, that being said, even though the constant dialogue creates a stream-of-consciousness style that I usually hate, I somehow found it less hateful in this instance than in others. When it’s Faulkner, for instance, you just get this exhausted feeling, drained further by a need to follow a train of thought that isn’t even following itself. The effort it takes to connect the beginning of a Faulkner sentence to the end of one is so tiring and completely infuriating once you finally realize it can’t even be done. However, that’s Faulkner narrating. In Salinger’s work, the stream of consciousness comes directly from the characters, so that makes it somehow excusable. When Salinger does narrate, it’s either to provide some character context that is either enlightening or funny (or both, in the case of almost all descriptions of Mrs. Glass), or to poke fun at himself as an author, which is also funny, but also respect engendering. I can get on board with any author willing to make fun of himself or his craft.

Overall, I didn’t love Franny and Zooey, but neither did I hate it. I didn’t even come close to hating it, in fact. But it left me with the feeling at the end that I had missed something huge, something important and significant, something deeply intelligent. So, even though I can’t say I disliked it, neither can I say I loved it because I feel so unsettled in its wake. And that is why I haven’t ventured a more complicated analysis than I have, as I usually do in my reviews. I just feel so ill equipped to address the complexities of the work that I’d rather not attempt it at all.

A non-surprising fact is that LF loves this book. I say it’s non-surprising because he always seems to love literature that I find to be too smart for me. When he asked me if I had anything to say about the book as a whole, I said no. And then I talked to him for a good 20 minutes about various parts I liked or didn’t like or appreciated or didn’t understand. So I guess I had plenty to say, but I’m not sure much of it was coherent. Suffice it to say, I would recommend the book to pretty much anyone but mostly because it just seems like one of those books that it feels good to have experienced. I will probably read it again someday, since it is so digestible, and I hope I will understand and enjoy more of it when I do.

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11/22/63, by Stephen King

The first question anybody asks upon finding out that I finished Stephen King’s newest novel is some version of inquiry implying that what they really want to know is whether I would recommend they read it themselves.

Unlike with Unbroken, I could not give it a sweeping recommendation. Nor could I give a sweeping, neon-flashing-lights warning not to read it, as I did with the Twilight series. The best I can do is the same type of qualified recommendation I gave for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book 2 of which I’m currently reading), although I’m willing to be a little more liberal with 11/22/63. (By the way, I’ve had a few questions about the pronunciation of the title, stemming mostly from what I assume to be people’s ignorance [mine included, at first] of what the title actually references. As far as I’m concerned, you can pronounce it Eleven Twenty-Two Sixty-Three or November 22, 1963 or whatever makes you feel comfortable. It is a reference to a historical date, however, and I prefer the former pronunciation.)

If you’re new to Stephen King, 11/22/63 is possibly both the best and worst book for you to cut your teeth on; best because, as far as I’m concerned, this is his magnum opus and by a large margin his easiest read, even trumping some of his shorter ones, such as Cujo and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; worst because, when it comes to getting a good feel for King’s narrative style, this book isn’t going to do it for you. If you’ve never read Stephen King before because of a preconceived notion you have about his typically well-known genre, cast aside your assumptions and pick up 11/22/63. If you love it, do not assume, however, that his other books will be so enjoyable (they might be; but in a very different way).

If you are a Stephen King fanatic, you’ve probably already read the book and therefore don’t need a recommendation, but just in case you’re looking for one, my advice is to be careful. I hesitate to say King loyalists will love this book, only because there is very little in it that makes it similar to all he’s done before. Of course, I’m not an expert and certainly haven’t read the King Canon in its entirety, but I’ve read my share and can speak with a fair amount of confident authority on the matter. I’m not saying loyal King readers won’t love it; I’m just saying it probably won’t be for the same reasons they love all his other stuff, unless a principal reason is his demonstration of diverse talent and skill, which this book certainly reveals.

In an attempt to sum up without actually spoiling the plot (sometimes I care about this and sometimes not; this time I apparently do), those who haven’t already figured it out should know that 11/22/63 is the date in history of JFK’s assassination. The premise of King’s novel, therefore, is a basic (ha! or, rather, anything but basic) time-travel scenario in which protagonist Jake Epping uses a portal to travel to a specific day in 1958. He lives from 1958 to 1963 as George Amberson, a (literally) prescient but basically ordinary-seeming high school English teacher. His aim in spending five years in the past (which, in true Narnia style, always amounts to a mere two minutes of passed time in present-day 2011) is to research and prevent the president’s assassination – a mission that Jake/George isn’t even all that passionate about. He has agreed to attempt to finish the job a friend of his started and died trying to accomplish.

What follows is a delightfully page-turning account of his progress in this endeavor, which is chock full of misadventures spanning a wide range of reader interest, such as politics and plenty of historical context for the poli-sci geeks and history buffs; baseball, horse racing, and boxing recaps for the sports lovers; mafia-related action and violence for the thrill seekers; and a good-ol’-fashioned love story for the hopeless romantics.

For those who are looking for a little bit of consistency, 11/22/63 includes all the Kingian elements that make his writing so unique. The book contains a strongly masculine (and sometimes cynical) narrator; a feel of the mystical, that otherworldly yet absurdly realist quality that is King’s trademark specialty; a dry and brilliant wit; references to his other works (most notably It, in this case); and – book-ending the main character’s stint(s) in Dallas – a Maine geographic setting that includes Derry and the Barrens, those memorable landmarks that show up so frequently in King’s work.

On the other hand, despite all these familiar elements, King has also proven that he isn’t too old to try something new, adding experimental pieces that give the book that special punch – like the obviously well-researched historical backdrop, a romance that takes center stage (not something I’ve ever experienced in a King novel or short story), and a plot that never. slows. down (thereby transforming a monstrous tome into an unbelievably quick read).

The end is predictable in some ways yet somehow still fully satisfying. The book as a whole is a testament both to the largeness and the smallness of humanity. On one hand, it makes the point that one person can have a singular and life-changing effect on history and the world just by performing one small act. On the other hand, there is what I would consider to be an even more significant message that it’s ridiculously arrogant and small minded for one person to presume his opinions and puny existence could leave any lasting impression on the world whatsoever. The thread that reconciles this dichotomy is that you never know which case it will be or when. One person in history will change the world forever while another who stands right next to him will be blurred out of the world’s collective memory forever.

The believability of King’s time-travel scenario is downright eerie and is probably the skill that impressed me most in this novel. Of course, as with any novel that pushes boundaries of reality or borders on magical realism, there are inconsistencies and holes in the plot, some of which finally get explained in the end and some of which do not. But then, I’m not positive that any author has ever been able to cover all the holes and gaps in a given plot. If I had been SK’s editor, there are a few more details I would have pushed him to hammer out, but as they say, writing can be finished but never complete… In any case, King has crafted a commendably better and more compelling read than Audrey Niffenegger did with Time Traveler’s Wife (which was ragingly popular a couple years ago), so for that, he is to be, at the very least, applauded.

So are you convinced to pick it up? If so, let me leave you with this caution: I began this book on a night I intended to turn in early. I crawled into bed, bringing the book with me, and said out loud (ask my dog if you don’t believe me), “I’ll only read for five minutes unless the first page can somehow manage to hook me completely.” Famous last words because that’s exactly what the first page did, and I groaned when I reluctantly turned out the light an hour and a half later. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, By Stieg Larsson

This is the book series I have heard everyone mention but no one describe. It appears to be popular, but I have never found out why. After having read it myself, I think I can explain both the reason it is loved as well as the reason people haven’t said why.

For those who don’t know, Stieg Larsson is Swedish – or rather, was, since he died in 2004. His book was translated to the English by Reg Keeland. There are a number of editorial issues I noticed with this book, and I’m sure many of them are in part due to the fact that I was reading a translation rather than the original. (That being said, though, I must interrupt myself here and say that the book was copy edited superbly, and I, as one of the strictest editors I know, was hard put to find a grammatical or stylistic mistake. Rather, the editorial issues I found are developmental in nature.) For instance, the transitions are often less than smooth, especially when transitioning to a flashback. The use of past tense versus past perfect is, in fact, imperfect, and I am confident this is a translation issue, since tense is handled so differently in different languages. There are times that the author flashed back, but it took me a paragraph or two of confusion to realize it.

There are one or two other developmental issues  I would’ve focused on had I been the editor of this book. Larsson uses some narrative tools that I would’ve discouraged. To start with, he employs an unnecessary prologue. I can stomach prologues if I can find a good reason for them. The types of prologues I usually enjoy take place far, far in advance of the beginning of the chronological timeline of the book (like decades, or even centuries). The prologue to this book, however, begins on November 1, present day, and chapter 1 begins at the same time – just with a different character. Therefore, the prologue should’ve been scrapped and made its own chapter – perhaps chapter 1, even.

As for chapter 1 itself, its existence is the main reason I almost put the book down without continuing. I think I was a good 50 pages in before I decided to commit to the whole book. That’s how slow a start this novel gets off to. I say that not to discourage anyone from reading it but rather to encourage you to keep going, if you feel yourself stuck in those first few pages. The author makes a serious mistake of delving too deeply into a minor character who does not even become a character of interest until the last 90 pages of the book. For 12 pages in the beginning, Larsson describes in detail the shady legal, political, and financial activities of this character who is a corporate scumbag, in order to provide context for why one of the main characters is in the position he is. The problem is, instead of summarizing and leaving the reader with the basic impression that this guy is a bad dude, Larsson goes into long, confusing, unnecessary descriptions of this character’s activities so that the only audience left interested by the end of chapter 1 is likely made up of corporate or financial lawyers or maybe investigative journalists. And perhaps they are Larsson’s target market, in which case I suppose he nailed it. But I know there are ordinary readers who have missed out on a fantastic novel because Larsson lost them in those first few pages (I know one such reader personally, in fact).

But, if you can get past chapter 1, then you may have as much trouble putting this book down as I did. My conjecture is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is intriguing for Americans first and foremost because it’s so entirely different from what we’re used to. This novel is very European, by which I mean that it is rather mature for U.S. standards and more liberal than we’re usually willing to be comfortable with, in many arenas but most especially in descriptions of both positive and negative sexual interactions.

The characters of this book are edgy. The author is open and unapologetic with his references to sexual interaction, which again points back to that European flair I love so much. Inasmuch as I don’t really agree with the characters’ worldviews on sexuality (multiple partners, sex in and out of wedlock, no commitment, casual is the key), I found it easy to forgive these actions and sympathize with the characters anyway, if for no other reason than that I appreciate reading a text that is unafraid to address the subject. (Side note: This is actually something I appreciated about Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife too, though on a smaller scale.)

In some ways, even though the sex is treated more casually and openly than it usually is in any American literature (“smutty” novels notwithstanding), the descriptions feel less offensive and less like they are breaking some sort of decorous rule. Perhaps that’s because the author knows that (in Europe, anyway) he isn’t. Or maybe it’s  because there are no secrets about who is having sex with whom, and there is really no judgment about it either. (I suppose that is because there are no Christians in this novel.)

But on the other hand, Stieg Larsson also (unlike American authors) doesn’t feel the need to describe positive sexual encounters in detail (the definition of positive being consensual, in this context; for there are plenty of descriptions of non-consensual sex as well). There are no awkward descriptions involving throbbing or quivering or thrusting. I think this is where American authors fail, and fail miserably. What is the American obsession with describing sex in such detail? We’re adults. Most of us have experienced it firsthand. There is really no need to attempt a raunchy description.

Without giving away too much of the plot detail, I will say that I think Larsson is brilliant in setting up the contrast of positive, consensual sexual encounters against a counter plot of a series of sex crimes. I think this was absolutely intentional, and I think it brings the two types of interaction into sharp (sometimes painful, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes enraging) contrast, even functioning as a subtle and more convincing argument for both commitment and abstinence than any church program I’ve been subjected to. Unfortunately, because of its inability to get past the surface when it comes to societal issues, the church would never be able to acknowledge or understand this particular element.

Moving away from sex but sticking with cultural stigmas, this book is set in 2002, I think. This detail is never stated explicitly, but there is a 9/11 reference in there that made me think it was supposed to be 2002. It was first published in 2005 in Sweden, not making its way to an English version until 2008/2009. And, since I didn’t pick it up until the end of 2011, that means I have read it almost a decade after the intended setting. So it is to be expected that some of the pop-culture references are a little outdated, and some of them went straight over my American head anyway.

In addition, the title itself seemed outdated. As I got further into the book, I discovered that the significance behind the title is that it is a cultural oddity for this girl to have as many tattoos as she does. Again, in late 2011 (now early 2012), it just is not – at least in the United States – unusual for anyone (young or old, male or female) to have six or more tattoos. I kept getting momentarily confused and having to remind myself that this was 2002 Sweden, not 2012 United States.

It gave me a dose of culture shock, in a sense, to realize how quickly and drastically things change. In my post-adolescent life, tattoos have always been trendy. If I read this book 20 or 30 years from now, it might be easier to say, “Oh yeah, this was written back before it was popular or common to have tattoos.” But to be within the same decade and experience such a difference feels a little unsettling. However, I suppose it’s just incontrovertible proof that trends, culture, and society change as time marches unceasingly on.

After I finished the book, I looked up a little about the history of the book, the author, and the translation, and I learned that the Swedish title of the book translates to: Men Who Hate Women. Though I’m not entirely impressed with such a title, it does completely fit the narrative and progression of the plot and is even a repeated phrase by one of the characters (incidentally, the girl with the dragon tattoo, as it turns out). So that is an interesting consideration.

I will say that, as far as suspense and mysterious intrigue go, this novel utilizes chapter breaks perfectly. In contrast to many mysteries or action novels, the chapter itself is used as the tool for narrative propulsion, rather than the chapter break. I dislike authors who use chapter breaks as opportunities for cliffhangers (Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games noteriety, is the most recent abuser I have encountered of this technique). Instead, Larsson uses visual breaks within the chapters to switch scenes and point of view, rather than ending the chapter smack dab in the middle of a scene or sequence of action. Therefore, when the end of a page-turning chapter is reached, I as the reader am able to take a breather, put in the bookmark and count to ten, recharge, collect my thoughts, and prepare for the next 10 or 15 pages of action. As an attempted novelist myself, this is how I use chapter breaks too. However, perhaps this confession only reveals where my bias lies and not which technique actually belies the superior skill. Whatever the case, it’s clear I have a preference, and Stieg Larsson caters to that preference masterfully.

Overall, despite the slow start, I greatly enjoyed my read of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I am eager to start the second book. However, I would recommend this book only sparingly and in particular circles, and there are definitely certain people I would specifically and actively encourage not to read it. I suspect the reason these books are popular and the reason people don’t explain why has a lot to do with the elements I have discussed without apology in this review. Americans are afraid to say they like the subject of sex in literature, for fear they will be labeled sexual deviants, and Christian Americans are just plain afraid to admit they even know what sex is. Therefore, proceed with caution, and if you have found any seeds of discomfort or discontent in my review, then I strongly urge you not to pick up the book. If you haven’t, go check it out tomorrow and enjoy!

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In Which I Had a Month-Long Lapse of Judgment

At the beginning of October, I allowed myself to be goaded into a reading race. Sounds like fun, right? Reading and athletics should go hand in hand more often, right? Wrong. It wasn’t fun. I lost for the same reason that I always lose at Scrabble: I wasn’t willing to play dirty. And my conscience-less opponent was. Which is why this same, heartless, unfeeling man also always wins at Scrabble. However, my boyfriend’s competition ethic is neither here nor there. Maybe that’s best saved for another post. (And then again, if I want to stay in the relationship, maybe not!)

As it were, the book we raced to the end of (against both our better judgment) was that unfortunate pillar of young adult fiction, pride of bored housewives, propaganda of (and for) teenage girls, and paragon of poor prose. Yes, you’ve guessed it. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. And, rather than go into the details of how it happened that I spent the rest of October reading through the other three books in the series (rest assured in the knowledge that this was a solo endeavor; thankfully, the boyfriend stopped after his cheap victory with the first book), I will just skip to the part where I tell you how far I will go (I’m thinking the ends of the earth) to keep this particular set of books out of my daughter’s hands, should I ever find myself to be the mother of a teenage or pre-adolescent girl.

So let’s start with why I hate Bella, the pathetic (not to be confused with tragic or romantic) heroine. To name a few reasons, she’s self-deprecating, co-dependent, obsessive, a wallower and self-pitier, and completely devoid of self-respect. Someone ought to explain to Ms. Meyer that there’s a rather significant difference between self-loathing and humility. Bella is not humble. Bella is merely a sycophantic, relentless self-denier, and the charade gets old fast. Bella spends the entire first book alternating between hating herself, hating small-town life, and drooling embarrassingly over Edward and his beautiful, perfect body. How I was able to pull a single thread of plot out of the tangle of obsessive yarn that is the first book of the series, I don’t know. (And, if I might linger here a moment longer, since when are a deathly pallor, dark circles under the eyes, an ice-cold touch, and skin so hard “it was like cuddling with Michelangelo’s David” the marks of an attractive man? Oh, right. Since never.)

However, I’m torn as to whether it was the first or second book that was the worst, in a literary sense. It is in the second book that we get to know Jacob (the shape-shifting wolf) a little better, and, though ridiculously immature, he is likable at first. But then Edward comes back (wait – he left? yes; he leaves, on purpose, claiming he doesn’t love Bella, never has, and will never return; this, of course, sends Bella spiraling into a six-to-nine-month-long depression that Jacob sort of helps her emerge from but not really). Where were we? Oh, yes. Edward returns, and Jacob morphs into a character I had trouble liking through the remainder of the series. He whines (literally, since he’s a wolf, at times; but also figuratively, in the teenage-boy-doesn’t-get-what-he-wants way); he’s a sore loser; he tricks Bella into kissing him (which, in my book, is certified cheating), even after she declares her unwavering, undying love for Edward; he uses threat of his mortality to persuade Bella to tell him she loves him; when Edward manages to retain Bella’s fickle-seeming loyalty (though it’s unclear why he still wants it, other than that whole your-blood-smells-better-to-me-than-anyone-else’s-and-I-can-barely-keep-myself-from-sucking-you-dry-and-killing-you thing; however, that does seem more an issue of free will [or lack thereof] than of love) and it looks like Jacob won’t get his way after all, Jacob resorts to juvenile name-calling, referring to the vampires as bloodsuckers and leeches; and finally, he falls irrevocably in love with Bella and Edward’s daughter on the day she is born, which, considering the fact that he’s seventeen (and she’s less than a full day old), is incredibly disgusting and creepy.

If I must be forced to choose a team, I suppose I’d align myself with Team Edward, though he’s not without his faults too. He’s annoyingly melodramatic, jealous, possessive, and territorial of Bella, treating her as a possession rather than a person to love. He does well at hiding his irrational emotions some of the time, but in an intimate tent scene with Jacob, the reader finds out that all these emotions have boiled just below the surface the entire time. Edward makes feeble attempts at proving he loves Bella, claiming he wants to marry her before he’ll have sex with her and that she deserves to live as much of a human life as possible before he turns her into a vampire (and yet, he still does turn her into a vampire). He does stick to his guns about the marriage and sexual purity issue but only because Stephenie Meyer clearly had an alternate agenda and less than subtle message for the Mormon youth of America.

While we’re on that subject, we might as well segue into why I hate Stephenie Meyer (not as a person; just as an author). First of all, and arguably most important, at least from a literary standpoint, there are no characters I can root for. By the end of the third book, when people asked what team I was on, I replied with, “Team Nobody. Team I-hope-someone-slips-up-and-accidentally-devours-Bella.” I knew Bella wouldn’t die, but still, I have never hoped more for the death of a main character (except, perhaps, in Book 7 of Harry Potter, although that was for an entirely different reason; that was a hope to see J.K. Rowling be brave and shock her audience; a hope to see how well she could spin the narrative if she killed off the wonder wizard everyone loved best; a hope for her to make me cry really hard; in Bella’s case, I was just sick of her).

Second, Meyer paints Bella as the clear heroine of the series, and no matter what I say to dissuade them, teenage girls are going to love Bella, admire her, envy her, and imitate her. I cannot forgive Meyer, therefore, for essentially championing unhealthy, isolated, co-dependent relationships as not only normal but right. Ms. Meyer is doing the same (though a far more egregious) disservice to the current generation that the beloved Jane Austen did to the women of my generation (and beyond). My peers are either still searching for their perfect Mr. Darcy, or they are chastising their settled-upon mates for not being more like Mr. Darcy. It would behoove the entire female race to remember that just because a couple ends up together does not mean a) that their relationship is good or healthy or b) that they should be together. I’d also like to remind anyone reading this that Mr. Darcy is kind of a DB. He ridicules and insults Elizabeth repeatedly before finally (and somewhat begrudgingly, if I remember correctly) admitting that he loves her. Maybe it’s just me, but I am not a fan of hard-won love. Not that I think love or relationships are or should be easy, but chasing after a guy who treats you like garbage? Come on. At least have the dignity to admit you deserve better than that.

Back to the Twilight series: At one point, Charlie (Bella’s dad) does try to talk some sense into Bella and convince her to spend time with people other than Edward. I could laud Meyer for using such a reasonable argument and at least pretending like this is sage advice; however, it comes from Bella’s bumbling, knows-nothing-about-women-or-raising-children chief-of-police, completely out of touch father, and the reader is led to feel as if he’s being ridiculous and Bella is doing nothing wrong. So that’s a pretty big fail on Meyer’s part. She gave herself a gleaming opportunity that she then proceeded to blatantly ignore. (How can anyone respect an author who does this?)

Third, as I mentioned earlier, her message on the importance of abstinence before marriage is nothing if not screamingly clear. No reading between the lines necessary here, as Meyer appears to have a lot to learn about the art of subtlety. She goes to such lengths to harp on the idea that a couple must be married before sexual interaction can take place that the message becomes more about the legality, the piece of paper, the letter of the law, than it is about the spirit behind the covenant of marital commitment. Which is preposterous because Bella is ready to commit to Edward for eternity – and, in these books, when they say eternity, they mean it, since most of them (and finally Bella too, in the last book) are immortal. So it’s ludicrous and completely inconsistent with her character that Bella is willing to make such a hefty promise but is so adamantly opposed to an official wedding and the idea of actual matrimony.

I understand that Stephenie Meyer either received pressure from Mormon circles about the importance of stressing pre-marital abstinence or perhaps feels strongly about the issue herself. However, she went a little overboard here, to the point of disbelief (at least, for me). For the sake of the story and character consistency, how bad would it have been to just let Bella consent to be turned into a vampire (heck, even make a ceremony out of it, for all I care!) and let that stand as the symbolic significance of marriage? After all, if she’s willing to pledge herself to Edward for the entirety of forever, doesn’t that seem to send the same message – a stronger one, even? I’m disappointed that Meyer let her obsession with legalism cloud her literary discernment.

One brief comment on Meyer’s technical skill. I’m making this brief in part because it pains me to mention it (but of course, you knew I would; my profession bounds me to it) but also because there is an entire blog dedicated to chastising her errors adequately and plenty humorously. I suppose that if I could only choose one grammatical issue to plead with Stephenie Meyer to take some sort of class on or get some rudimentary or one-on-one tutelage for, it would be commas. Oh, the commas. I have never seen so many poorly placed commas in all my life, and that’s saying something because I was a writing tutor in college. By the time I was halfway through the series, I could feel my own commalating tendencies declining (yes, commalating is a word of my creation; no, you may not use it), and I’ve had to fight extra hard to be sure I remained at the top of my punctuational game these last few weeks as a result of the osmosis-induced poor-grammar plague threatening to do me in.

Having reached the end of my short but torturous journey through the Twilight series, I will say (as atheists do about their reasons for reading the Bible) that I’m glad I made the trip, for now I am at least adequately prepared to argue against it point by painstaking point. However, I must also assert that I would never, ever recommend this particular series to anyone but the most stalwart and healthy lovers of literature (and then, only for the same reasons I read it – to arm yourself with the knowledge necessary for battle against it). Weak-willed readers, those who are less well read, and the under informed are not advised to read these books. You are not strong enough to stand against Meyer and her attack on good literature* (as is evident by the fact that these books were all bestsellers – proof alone that the world is more full of morons than anything else and also that mob mentality works).

If you want to spend your time in a series and you’re adamant on reading young adult fiction and you’ve read the entire Harry Potter canon seven times over, I recommend The Hunger Games trilogy. You won’t be sorry. If you’ve already discovered and devoured Suzanne Collins’s wonderful three-part narrative about Katniss and her struggle against the ever menacing Capitol, start over and read them again. Or go for an eighth round on Harry Potter. Your time will still be better spent than it would be with Twilight. That is a guarantee.

*Those who recognized the (very) loose allusion to Hebrews 5:12-14, I commend you.

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Classic #4: THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus

Wow, I’m zipping through these classics. Getting through eight more in three months should be a cinch.

The Stranger I was familiar with in name only before picking it up. And my only familiarity with Camus was with the pronunciation of his name (which I’ve always found to be fun). So I felt a little intimidated at the prospect of reading this book that is so well respected and yet so foreign to me. However, even though the matter of whether Camus is a true existentialist seems to be one of some debate, it cannot be denied that he is often linked to existentialism, so I felt it was only appropriate that I read something of his, since my dog (Soren) is the namesake of one of the world’s leading existentialist philosophers.

When I was close to being halfway through the book, someone happened to ask me what I was currently reading. When he asked how I was liking it, I said it was okay but that I was mainly frustrated by the main character (Mersault)’s ability to experience or express emotion of any kind. This is so completely opposite of how I operate that I just couldn’t help but be irritated with his passivity and lack of ambition. On one page, in short succession, there are two things he refuses to do out of dislike for them. One is call the cops, and the other is go to a whorehouse. In the margin, I wrote a note expressing appreciation for him finally having some solid opinions.

I continued to be irritated by his passive attitude through the rest of the book, although, given the circumstances and plot twists, I noticed it less often in Part 2 than I had in Part 1. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, The Stranger is set in French-colonized Algeria and follows Mersault, who doesn’t so much intentionally live his life as follow a course he may or may not deem pre-plotted but that he definitely seems unable to veer from, nor does he appear to possess the desire to veer from it. A series of fairly unrelated events leads him to murder a complete stranger on a beach for no reason other than that, to loosely paraphrase the narrative, he either could pull the trigger or not; it didn’t mean anything either way.

There is the obvious connection of the title to the narrative – Mersault kills a stranger. However, I have been trying to figure out what other meaning I could glean from the title, and I came up with a couple of things that are far more abstract than him simply killing someone he doesn’t know. In a way, that is such a small part of the larger story that I have trouble seeing it as the significance behind the title. Initially I was trying to figure out who exactly the stranger in the story is. I am fairly comfortable saying that the reader doesn’t get to know anyone too intimately, so in essence, everyone remains a stranger to some degree.

But I think Mersault himself – as a result of his passivity, his complete lack of ambition, his ironically intentional avoidance of being intentional about anything – is the stranger. He is as much a stranger to himself as he is to anyone else. He is a stranger to his mother; to his mother’s fiancé, Perez; to the girl he expects to marry, Marie; to his boss; to the owner of the restaurant he patronizes regularly, Céleste; to his neighbor Salamano; and to his “pal” Raymond.

During his murder trial, all these people whom he has kept at arm’s length (even Marie) are interviewed as witnesses of some kind, and all of them are only able to give vague answers that merely drive the nails further into his coffin. (What is the appropriate metaphor when the method of execution is beheading? “Vague answers that merely serve to sharpen the blade of the guillotine”? Rhetorical speculation only.)

To venture slightly deeper into the realm of the abstract, I also want to assert that, beyond being a literal stranger in relational ways, he’s a stranger to emotion; to life; to love; to all the pursuits that most of humankind deems worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. What is Mersault dying for? Certainly nothing noble. He’s headed for execution simply because it doesn’t make any difference to him whether he lives or dies or whether anyone else lives or dies. He is a stranger to everything the rest of us get so violently passionate about.

Part of me wants to be on his side. Part of me thinks he’s uncovered something absurdly poetic and calming in his relative non-participation in the vivacity of life. Part of me wants to think there isn’t actually another component – one of void, of loneliness, of depressing isolation – to make his non-choices (which end up being choices in themselves) not negative. But only part of me. All of me cannot quite get there yet. Maybe I’ll read it again in another fifteen years and see where I’m at then.

There was one place, however, where I found myself able to identify wholly with Mersault. It was the place where he says, “after a while, you could get used to anything.” I say this all the time. So often, in fact, that I have a representation of the very idea tattooed on my arm. Of course, he says this after experiencing prison life, so it’s somewhat absurd that I felt able to relate to him in that place, since I have certainly never had my belief in that adage tested by anything so extreme.

But the fact that it’s absurd is so appropriately Camus. I did not realize, until I did some reading up on him after I finished the book, that one of the principal traits of Camus’s writing is an exploration of the absurd. I’m glad I didn’t know this beforehand because I would’ve been on the lookout for it and might have found it in places that were really sort of a stretch to make fit. As it was, I wrote “this is absurd” in more than one margin on my journey through The Stranger. And, in fact, my response to the very last line of the book was, “how absurdly depressing.” So, if absurdity was one of Camus’s goals, he certainly accomplished it here and assuredly with much more dramatic effect in Part 2 than in Part 1.

My last specific comment is that I wish I knew enough of the language to be able to read it in the original French (L’Étranger). On a cognitive level, I know I missed some nuanced detail and linguistic touches simply as a result of reading a translated work (even if I don’t know exactly what I missed or where), and I also recognized a few details that seem to have been Americanized for a U.S. reader’s benefit, which is theoretically disappointing. And there was one specific instance when I felt that knowing French would’ve been infinitely beneficial.

In one scene, the judge calls Mersault “Antichrist,” but it doesn’t quite seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the passage and seems unnecessarily cruel. So I wondered if perhaps whatever word was used in the original French that got translated to Antichrist – if perhaps that word sounds strikingly similar to Mersault’s name so that, if hearing it in French, it could be passed off as a clever pun. However, wondering is of course as far as I got.

On the whole, I made my way through the book slower than I would have liked, I think for the same reason I have had trouble getting into Crime & Punishment – that being, there is so much psychological action and so little stepping outside the main character, that it was difficult to maintain interest. Part 2 did go much faster than Part 1, so keep that in mind, if you’re thinking of picking up the book yourself. If you can make it to Part 2, you’ll want to finish. In the end, I’m glad I exposed myself to it and would recommend it to pretty much anyone, with the aforementioned qualifiers. It’s good to step out of your literary comfort zones, and I certainly did that with this book.

Am I going to read The Plague next? Likely not. But maybe someday. I’m more open to it now than I would’ve probably been otherwise.

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Classic #3: A CHRISTMAS CAROL, by Charles Dickens

I finished this one a few weeks ago but have been avoiding the review because I have felt inadequately equipped to do justice to such a well-known, well-loved, and well-respected work – especially since I claim to dislike Dickens so much. For once, I don’t want to offend anyone who may (like me) harbor fond childhood memories of hearing, reading, or even watching this story each year at Christmas and maybe each summer too. Furthermore, it’s just such a short piece that it’s difficult to find much at all to say.

However, I will begin by saying that I’m glad I read it. I know I was able to identify one or two differences between the original and the Muppet rendition, which is the version I am of course the most familiar with. (Without Gonzo narrating, it really is a different experience. And it was difficult to imagine Tiny Tim as a human and not a mini-sized Kermit the Frog.)

In hindsight, as I look back through my written comments in the margins of the book, I find that what I wrote most often, by a long shot, was “haha.” Comments that come in a close second, at least as far as their frequency of appearance, include “well written” and “I like this.” Beyond these, I made notes on the progression of the story and truly seem to have enjoyed myself and the read.

I discovered a newfound respect for Dickens and his skill that I didn’t know I could possess. I think I am willing to concede at least that he’s a good writer and had a pretty good sense of humor. However, prevalent in this narrative too are the telltale descriptions of poverty and brokenness that are so characteristic of Dickens, so I did have a proper measure of sorrow and depression through the read as well. (Thanks, Charlie. Wouldn’t have recognized it as your work without that stuff.)

My one complaint is actually double sided. On one hand, I like that the book is so short. It makes Dickens digestible and manageable for the first time ever. On the other hand, I’m not sure the progression of character development and Scrooge’s extreme maturation are entirely believable. After all, we’re merely glimpsing snapshots of his life but are also getting the impression that he has been angry, grouchy, and miserly for many, many years now. And for all that to change in one measly night? Stretching it. But again, since it is such a beloved story, I’ll say only that and hold my tongue against further lashings.

One surprise I encountered is in the portion of Christmas Future, when we witness the looters going through Scrooge’s stuff. I wrote in the margin, “I don’t think I’ve ever known this part of the story.” I’m not sure if it’s been left out of the re-tellings I’m familiar with or if I have just ignored it every time and somehow blocked it from my memory. In any case, it was certainly nice to be confronted with a detail I didn’t feel like I already knew backwards and forwards.

Other than these things, my final three notable margin comments were as follows:
“I had no idea Dickens could be so funny.”
“I know the dang story, yet I find tears in my eyes still! That blasted Dickens…”
[upon finding a word in all caps]: “All caps! Good. I need something to keep hating Dickens for.”

That last comment was written in the margin of the very last page, after I had filled the rest of the book with praise, laughter, and warm words about the story, the style of the narrative, and the author’s skill. So even in my final, defiant stand of hatred, I find myself admiring and feeling grateful to Dickens for throwing me one last bone so I can continue my persistent effort to dislike him. It’s noble and rather old world of him. Which I guess makes sense.

To sum up – read A Christmas Carol. It’s short and it’s great.

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Classic #2: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, by Ernest Hemingway

For the last ten years, Hemingway and I have had a complicated relationship. That is to say, I disliked the first work of his that I read (A Farewell to Arms) and vowed from that point forward never to open the pages of something he’d written ever again. I was disconcertingly stubborn in this resolution, despite positive reports over the years about his superb literary skill. I know I should probably give A Farewell to Arms another chance because I was only sixteen when I read it, and is it fair to keep a decade-long resolution based on a teenage whim? Perhaps; perhaps not.

I suppose it depends on the maturity of the teenager, and while I can’t speak volumes about my teenage maturity, I will say that, as a buddingly independent young woman trying out the world for the first time, the misogyny I perceived to be dripping from the pages of that book really rubbed me the wrong way. I’m no feminist, to be sure, and I can even be said to be a bit on the traditional side now and then when it comes to male-female interaction, but the overt anti-feminist vibe I got in 2001 from A Farewell to Arms left me with a lingering lack of respect for Hemingway. My disdain extended so far and so long that I even spurned an opportunity to take a Hemingway tour of the city while I was in Paris one summer – a tour I now, of course, wish I’d taken.

And I will admit, the main reason I chose to read The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s short (well, that and, I have a boyfriend who is determined to see me succeed in my resolution and has therefore embarked on a quest to find the shortest books possible that can still count as classics). The Old Man and the Sea was the first in a stack of three he sent me home with a couple weeks ago, and I’m pleased to say that I finished it a few days ago within twenty-four hours of picking it up.

It is the story of an elderly fisherman who sets out for a regular day of fishing and ends up attempting the biggest catch of his life. As the story progresses, so does the old man’s frailty, not to mention his resolve, and the reader is pulled irrevocably in to a slow-moving yet suspenseful and endearing narrative that turns the pages surprisingly quickly.

It’s man versus nature, the ultimate test of willpower and strength of both body and mind. I think what I probably liked most about the book was its introspective quality. I sit around and think a lot about my actions and motivations and personality and goals, etc., etc. So I like that the old man pretty much has nothing to do other than sit around in his boat and think about stuff while he waits for the giant fish on his line to get tired of swimming. One thing I found interesting is that, even though the old man spends most of the book alone, either talking to himself or thinking, there is an implicit but strong focus on relationship throughout the entire narrative.

First, there is the relationship between the old man and the boy. The reader is not given a lot of information about their relationship or why they are so close, other than that they have gone out fishing together several times. Their closeness is revealed mostly through dialogue, most notably when the boy says, “‘I remember everything from when we first went [fishing] together.'” To me, this speaks to the deep and long-standing friendship they have shared over the years. Other dialogue and interaction they share serve to provide the reader with a fuzzy feeling that there is a mutual respect between them, each offering and being willing to care for the other, each maintaining a humble independence, and each respecting the other’s right to that independence. This is, in short, my relationship utopia (boyfriend, I hope you’re taking notes).

From the time the old man hooks the giant marlin to the time that he gets back to shore in his boat with the catch, he repeats over and over this sentiment of wishing the boy were with him. It seems a double desire to have the extra strength, help, and fresh ideas (and perhaps even someone to talk to) as well as a pure longing just for the boy to have the experience of being involved in such a monumental catch. He seems to know that none other than the boy would appreciate the adventure itself and understand what it means to the old man so that, by the time the old man gets back to shore with the tale of a lifetime, the reader searches for the boy on the horizon and cannot wait until the old man gets to see him and recount the adventure in such excruciating detail that eventually the boy will almost feel as if he had really been there.

The second notable relationship explored in the book is the one between the old man and the fish he catches. He speaks to the fish often during his great endurance struggle. Two of the more amusing statements he makes are:

“‘Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.'”
“‘Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.'”

There are other instances when he calls the fish a brother and his equal. He often laments his resolve to kill the fish, solely because the fish has proved itself such a worthy nemesis. The old man eventually apologizes to the dead carcass of the fish on the journey home because he is unable to pull it into the boat (because of its size) to keep it from being mangled and eaten by the scavenging sharks they meet along the way. The old man feels this is a disgraceful destiny for a fish that fought as valiantly as this one did, and he regrets that he cannot prevent it from happening.

It seems to me like this is the type of dominion God intended man to have over the natural world when he put Adam in charge all those years ago. Killing for the purpose of eating and surviving rather than for sport. Respecting the qualities that make each component of creation what it is rather than assuming inherent superiority. But the old man really gets it. He considers it a privilege to be towed along, farther out into the ocean, in the wake of this enormous marlin; a privilege to have the chance to participate in what turns into a battle of sheer will with the fish.

The third relationship Hemingway invites the reader to explore with him may not be evident in everyone’s reading, but it was certainly so in mine. It is the relationship between the old man and the reader himself, a connection I was surprised to find existed between the pages of this book. I did not expect to be able to identify so easily with a character who is so different from me, but there are so many universal truths in the book that it was nearly impossible not to. For instance, the way that the old man eats only because he knows it’s necessary and not really because he enjoys it anymore. “For a long time now eating had bored him.” I tend to feel this way about sleep from time to time, and I’ve noticed that my feeling only gets stronger with age. It seems like sleeping only serves to get in the way and waste my time and efforts toward realizing my dream of experiencing as much of the world as possible before I die.

“He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.” I especially resonate with this idea, though I think here it is more of a nod to superstition than anything else, whereas for me, it is a conscious attempt to guard my heart from becoming too hopeful about its deeply rooted desires. And even though, for the old man, this is purely about fishing and for me, it’s almost exclusively about love, I still find that there is something beautifully common about these beliefs – something that bonds the old man and me in our shared caution.

On page 84, the old man asserts, “…Pain does not matter to a man.” After reading this, I wrote my reflection thus: Perhaps not in the moment, but it might later. At least, that’s how it is with me. Then, near the end on page 117, the narration says, “…From his pain he knew he was not dead.” With this idea, the old man’s experience merges with my reflection from several pages earlier – later, rather than in the moment. And I love the latter quote here. There is something morbidly raw about needing to feel pain to be sure that life goes on. It reminded me of that lyric from the popular Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris,” from back in the ’90s: “You bleed just to know you’re alive.”

As a fourteen- and fifteen-year-old singing along to that song, I had no idea what pain was or what it meant to need such a paradoxical assurance of life. But something about the honest exposure of those words spoke to me, if only for the fact that I was your stereotypical, angst-filled teenager, awed by the idea of emotive pain and all-consuming brokenness.

And now, as an almost-twenty-seven-year-old, I still don’t know that I could claim true solidarity in having experienced such intensity of feeling as Hemingway’s old man – at least, not physically. But I do know that I have been broken, and I have reached into my brokenness and my deep wounds and have juxtaposed seemingly opposing words in attempts to describe my pain – the kinds of phrases that only make sense to others who have experienced the same, irrational-feeling levels of pain and have tried themselves to make sense of it. I can honestly say that I have willingly poured (metaphorical) salt into my numbed wounds in an attempt to stir things up and convince myself that my heart is still beating and that good days will surely come again. Haven’t we all done this at some point? If you haven’t, I dare say you will. And when you do, you’ll be able to identify with Hemingway, with his old man, and with John Reznik.

Finally, I can’t end a review of my first-Hemingway-since-2001 without some mention of his attention to women in this particular work. The first time a woman is mentioned is near the beginning, and it is a reference to the old man’s late wife. “Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” Besides the obvious indication of affection, there is something even more poignant underlying this glimpse of the old man’s former life and love. I love the seemingly insignificant detail that it is kept “under his clean shirt.” To me, this implies it is not forgotten in a box somewhere. It’s not collecting dust, and it is not under a pile of his dirty clothes. The picture (and the woman in it) are still worth remembering, but the memory is also still painful, so it stays hidden but in a respectful place. There is also the suggestion that he would see the picture every time he removes or replaces his clean shirt. I was encouraged by this one detail, this one sentence. It made me think, Maybe Hemingway isn’t the misogynistic old codger I thought he was.

A few pages later, I reached this description of the sea: “Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.” It seems to me like men tend to anthropomorphize in feminine ways the things they love and the things they find unpredictable or unexplainable or indescribable and the things they cannot give up or live without. Again, I have to give Hemingway some credit for this comparison because it does, in fact, feel like a rather high compliment. It acknowledges and respects this strange sort of power that women seem to be able to wield over men and have done since the beginning of time. I know many would argue that the power has sexual roots, but I am unwilling to give men such little credit because, speaking from experience, they have certain power over us too. Perhaps, in a perfect world, it is the mere manifestation of pure equality – a perfect give and take, a perfect partnership and likely what God intended all along. But we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in a broken world, where this supposed-to-be-beautiful relationship gets reduced to a psycho-sexual power struggle because we are all just helpless idiots. And maybe, deep down, Hemingway knew that too.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the lack of anti-feminism in the book and was willing to reconsider my opinion of its author. And then, just a few lines after this mature insight about the sea, I encountered: “…If she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them.” Excuse me? This is not nearly as flattering! This is the type of line that hearkens back to my old argument a decade ago about how poorly Hemingway understood women. This makes women out to be helpless, inanimate, unable to choose our own actions, and not to be held responsible for reckless decisions. This removes an enormous amount of credit conceded in the previous description, almost as if Hemingway felt he had to have some sort of antipathetic balance, lest any female readers’ egos get too puffed up by his perceived generosity.

But then, after I calm down a little from my rant, I find that I am willing to concede that perhaps Hemingway held these opinions of women because these are the only kinds of women he knew. After all, he did have four wives. Any jerk who can convince that many women to marry him is either an impressive charmer or choosing incredibly daft women. I suppose both are likely. However, if this is the case (not that he didn’t understand women but that he kept the company of silly, unintelligent, ridiculous women who perpetuate all the stereotypes the rest of us are desperately trying to shed), then I still must admit that I have trouble respecting a man who avoids the company of independent women. I have a pretty strong personality myself, and I prefer to deal with secure men who are neither threatened by my confidence nor too weak to handle it; men who let me do my own thing but know when (and how) to stand up to me. I don’t think I would’ve gotten along with Hemingway. Then again, I don’t know the circumstances of why he was married four times. Maybe he married four confident women who all left him (though I don’t think that was the case).

All in all, I can honestly say that The Old Man and the Sea did not leave me with as bitter a taste in my mouth about Hemingway as A Farewell to Arms did. And when I look at publication dates, I can see why. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and Old Man and the Sea in 1951, and I could feel a maturity in his writing and perspective that is consistent with this timeline. There is still some chauvinism (after all, would he be Hemingway otherwise?), but it also feels like there is less naivete and a subtle (very subtle) respect for women, and I can dig that.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea, would recommend it to anyone, and am glad I decided to give Hemingway another chance. My only regret was that I had to take notes and keep my reflections in a notebook. I would’ve preferred immensely to write in the margins of the book, but considering whom the book belongs to and our historical disagreement on how books should be treated, it seemed like a no-brainer to keep my indiscriminate and irreverent ink markings outside the book’s pages.

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