I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My famI grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My familiarity with the landscape added to my experience as a reader of Wild, seeing the trails and little towns I know so well through the eyes of a novice hiker with zero backpacking experience.
Due to extreme weather conditions, she made the wise decision to skip over the highest passes with the most spectacular vistas, along the John Muir Trail. I have backpacked along bits and pieces of it myself. (Don’t be impressed; my dad was the outdoorsy sort who dragged me along and carried all the water and food.) Bypassing this section of the trail was a disappointment for her and me, the reader who now prefers to get her dose of wilderness adventuring through books.
It took me a good fifty pages to acclimate myself to Wild. Strayed’s prose style verges on melodramatic, with many, many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines:
I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.
It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.
Her writer’s hand is too heavy, her sentences cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. This isn’t my favorite style of writing, but once the trail scenes picked up, the prose became less distracting, and I was able to immerse myself in the story.
When we’re not on the trail, we’re excavating Strayed’s past. Four years before her trek, her mother died, and Strayed self-destructed. She lashed out, made questionable decisions, and left her doting husband. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came years later. Much of the book digs back into the past, unearthing Strayed’s demons. These sections lagged; I longed to get back on the trail. To not appreciate this part of the book is to not appreciate Wild at all, you may be protesting. How she lost herself after her mother’s death and found herself again on the PCT was, after all, the entire raison d'être of the memoir. But I was there for the nitty-gritty survival details: rationing food and water, counting miles and blackened toenails.
Strayed came to the trail only half prepared. She hadn’t broken in her boots and her pack had to weigh more than fifty pounds. But was she playing up her incompetence for the sake of the story? She had practically memorized her guidebook and knew how many miles she’d be able to hike and when she needed to pick up each box of supplies. If you were really spontaneous and impulsive, you’d botch that up. Or you wouldn’t arrange to get supplies mailed to you along the trail at all, imagining you’d nourish yourself with birds and lizards.
Some people can’t stand characters like this. (And I know Cheryl Strayed is not really a character but a real person—we have fourteen mutual Facebook friends, as a matter of fact!) It can be a challenge to root for characters who do stupid things, who act without considering how awful it would be if they died of thirst or fell off cliff. Strayed reminds me of another character/real-life adventurer, Christopher McCandless. People ask the same questions about him: was he a free spirit, someone to romanticize and admire? Or just selfish and possibly mentally unstable?
I am a romantic—but also a very practical person. I would never do what they did. I wouldn’t venture “into the wild” with ten pounds of rice and a rifle, like Christopher McCandless. Nor would I set off on the longest and most difficult hiking trails on the continent after reading a few guidebooks and a buying some cargo shorts at R.E.I.
But who is going to read a memoir about the summer I didn’t journey into the wild or try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Who is inspired by the time I didn’t do something dangerous and somewhat crazy . . . and instead stayed at home and worked a minimum wage summer job? I love to read about people like Christopher McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. They can be foolhardy and sort of inspiring and—here’s the main thing—compelling characters—all at the same time. ...more
All About Sam was recommended to me by my first grader. "I just love this book!" she said. Obviously I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Lois LowAll About Sam was recommended to me by my first grader. "I just love this book!" she said. Obviously I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Lois Lowry is perhaps most famous for her dystopian Y.A. novels The Giver, The Messenger, and Gathering Blue. However, as a child of the '80s, I knew her for her heartfelt books about ordinary family life. I cried over A Summer to Die and Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye and laughed my way through the entire Anastasia Krupnik series. Well, it turns out that there is a Sam Krupnik spin-off series, too! It all started in 1988 with All About Sam. I must have been off reading Flowers in the Attic or something by then and missed it altogether.
Lowry makes the bold narrative choice to tell a story from a newborn baby's point of view. Many have tried to pull off an unconventional point of view character like a dog or a pig or a four-year-old trapped in a windowless room, but not many succeed. (Side note: I gave Room two stars.) Lowry manages to make baby Sam sound cute but never cutsie. Even as an infant, he makes interesting observations, struggling to make sense of the world around him.
He grows up a bit and gets into scrapes along the way. Lowry gives us a rare (and surprisingly welcome) glimpse into the mind of a busy preschooler. Audrey kept interrupting my reading to ask me what part I was on. "The part where he doesn't know what to bring to show and tell."
She would start chuckling knowingly. "Oh yeah. He gets in big trouble for that. Now what part are you on?" ...more
At the beginning of Almanzo and Laura's marriage, she makes him promise he won't be a farmer. Farmers have a hard time making it work, especially on tAt the beginning of Almanzo and Laura's marriage, she makes him promise he won't be a farmer. Farmers have a hard time making it work, especially on the brutal South Dakota prairie. Almanzo asks her to give him three years to at least try to make a success of himself. She agrees. So in three years everything is horrible and miserable, but they're in too deep to quit. It makes sense to try one more year. In that last year everything goes up in flames. Literally.
The First Four Years was much bleaker than the others. I read it out loud to my seven-year-old, and she listened with interest, but I hated leaving the series on such a grim note. These Happy Golden Years makes a more satisfying end to the Little House books....more
Tao Lin is like a robot who is trying his hardest to understand human emotion. Or maybe a wooden puppet who yearns, more than anything, to turn into aTao Lin is like a robot who is trying his hardest to understand human emotion. Or maybe a wooden puppet who yearns, more than anything, to turn into a real boy. Paul, the point of view character in Taipei, tries to feel, but he has a hard time pulling it off. He and his friends buy groceries, go to movies, have conversations, do drugs, have sex, get married, go on trips, and film themselves with their Macbooks. No matter what they’re doing, it’s all flat and bloodless. Dramatic emotions, Paul feels, are something you might read about in a book or see in a movie, but not something to expect from real life.
Paul is constantly taking his emotional temperature, trying to gauge how he feels. He’s never simply feeling, completely lost in the drama of his life; his emotions are “vague” (a word that must have appeared more than fifty times in the book), but still, he struggles to identify them:
. . . he calmly turned his head a little and asked if Erin was bored. “I don’t know. Are you?” “I can’t tell,” said Paul. “Are you?” “Maybe a little. Do you want to go?” “Yeah,” said Paul, and slowly stood.
Some might argue that writing is about finding the story: a good writer needs to take his observations of ordinary life and craft them into a narrative that allows us to make sense of the world around us. Tao Lin doesn’t subscribe to this idea. If his literary influences (the 1980s minimalists like Lorrie Moore, Anne Beattie, and Raymond Carver) taught him anything, it’s that life does not have narrative structure. Life is a series of moments, most of them mundane. (It’s funny and almost impossible to imagine his characters engaging in high-stakes drama: a car chase, a murder, an emergency tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, a flash mob wedding proposal.)
Tabitha Blankenbiller, in her review of Taipei on Spectrum Culture, says, “In the end, I felt as though I had refreshed my Facebook wall for 260 pages, waiting for a real story to come along. But aside from some grainy selfies and viral videos, nothing ever quite shows up.” The pages of Taipei are bleak and empty, yes. But as repetitive and mind-numbing as it is to refresh that Facebook page all day long, you have to admit it’s addictive. It becomes a way to pass huge chunks of our time, a way to experience life. Unlike, say, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Super Sad True Love Story, or The Circle, Taipei doesn’t present us with a hazily dystopian future, where technology has replaced normal human emotions and interactions. Taipei is trying to show us how we live now. Tao Lin’s vision is depressing, sure. But not altogether inaccurate. ...more
Two years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this book. Finally thatTwo years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this book. Finally that day arrived. The beginning (and by beginning I mean the first seven pages) was just as good as I remembered. The novel opens with a checked-out husband and frustrated wife on their way to marriage therapy, explained to their eye-rolling daughter as "date night." Dee's writing is crisp and I always enjoy bummed-out-in-the-suburbs stories, so we were off to a promising start.
The subsequent pages don't pack the same punch. A Thousand Pardons feels a bit underwritten, almost like an early draft of a novel before it gets fleshed out with atmosphere and characterization. The biggest element missing throughout was a believable emotional landscape. The characters act like robots. Within the first couple chapters, Helen's husband engages in a public scandal with a younger woman and the couple gets a quick divorce--and Helen doesn't have any sort of emotional reaction. She's not angry or sad or embittered or . . . anything. And their daughter's response is bizarre, too: she figures her dad and the younger woman were both adults, so she doesn't blame them. What kid understands when her dad does something like that?
I did enjoy Helen's career trajectory, even if it wasn't entirely believable that she could go from housewife to "crisis management" genius in a matter of months. The final plot thread has Helen coming to the rescue of an old acquaintance, an A-list star who finds himself in a troubling predicament. The resolution to this thread--which serves as the conclusion of the entire book--doesn't ring true.
Despite the problems I had with the book, I still zipped right through it. Dee's prose is so expert and engaging, he makes even the long (and frequent) expositional passages go down smoothly. A Thousand Pardons is a disappointing follow-up to The Privileges, but still contains enough of that Jonathan Dee magic to make it work....more
Philip Roth is a great admirer of his mentor, Saul Bellow. Roth said that Bellow, along with William Faulkner, made up "the backbone of 20th-century APhilip Roth is a great admirer of his mentor, Saul Bellow. Roth said that Bellow, along with William Faulkner, made up "the backbone of 20th-century American literature." Vladimir Nabokov, on the other hand, declared him a "miserable mediocrity." After reading The Actual, I have to say I'm with Vlad....more
Henry books are not as endearing as the Ramona series. Through Henry's eyes, Ramona is nothing more than a pest. I admire his pluck and his work ethicHenry books are not as endearing as the Ramona series. Through Henry's eyes, Ramona is nothing more than a pest. I admire his pluck and his work ethic, and I'm happy to report that Henry is not as sexist as he was in Henry and Ribsy. Once again, though, I was bothered that a 1962 book got re-illustrated in 2007. So a kid who rides in a bathtub tied to a trailer hitched to a car . . . wears a bicycle helmet on his paper route?! Either make the drawings historically accurate or strive for a kind of vague agelessness! So many details tie this story to its era; I'm not sure why the drawings can't reflect that.
I started reading this out loud to my seven-year-old, but she ended up reading the last chapters on her own. (I then had to finish it myself, so I could review it in good conscience!)...more
At first I thought I was reading about millennial hipsters, riding their bikes around snowy Chicago, defacing public property with paint pens. (I likeAt first I thought I was reading about millennial hipsters, riding their bikes around snowy Chicago, defacing public property with paint pens. (I like this book's alternate title: "Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things." It suits the story much better, as only a fraction of the book is from the "office girl's" point of view.) Soon I realized I wasn't reading about millennial hipsters at all. The story takes place in 1999, making them . . . GEN-X hipsters!
The first section of the book (Odile) didn't quite captivate me. Parts felt like creative writing exercises. Long passages of internal monologue, chapters in list-form, quirky line drawings, and a Tao Lin-esque writing style felt contrived rather than original.
It all pulled together once the point of view character switched to Jack. Finally, the contrivances fell away and the story and characters began to emerge. Odile and Jack ride through the snow on bicycles. They've semi-ironically started a new art movement. I was no longer annoyed with them at all. I liked them, I felt for them. I even enjoyed their fake art....more
Due to certain social advantages, I have already read this, and I can attest to its greatness. If you always wished you could read the entire Bible--wDue to certain social advantages, I have already read this, and I can attest to its greatness. If you always wished you could read the entire Bible--whether for religious or possibly sacriligous purposes--but found yourself mired in long lists of so-and-so begat so-and-so, then you need to read God is Disappointed in You....more
The Shelter Cycle is best read as a companion piece to My Abandonment. They exist in the same universe, and some of the story lines and characters oveThe Shelter Cycle is best read as a companion piece to My Abandonment. They exist in the same universe, and some of the story lines and characters overlap. I lovedMy Abandonment. The Shelter Cycle wasn't nearly as intricate or captivating, though I did enjoy it. I would give it 3.5 stars....more
The Stud Book is about how greatly we humans have complicated the simple biological process of reproduction. We’re long past the days of mating in theThe Stud Book is about how greatly we humans have complicated the simple biological process of reproduction. We’re long past the days of mating in the wild and giving birth out on a soft pile of decomposing leaves. Nowadays we can have kids young or time parenthood along with our careers. We can avoid reproducing altogether if that’s what we want. And sometimes our bodies don’t cooperate with our plans: We get pregnant when we don’t want to, or we can’t get pregnant no matter how hard we try.
Four friends, all in their late thirties, have each approached the decision to reproduce in different ways. There is a distinct female subjectivity in Stud Book, which I liked. The core of the book is made up of these women: Sarah (who is trying to have a baby); Dulcet (who never wants a baby); Georgie (who has a brand new baby); and Nyla (who has two older girls). We hear from the men, too, but they are less sympathetic than the women. Ben, Sarah’s husband, is almost clownish. Humble, the new dad, spends all his time in bars playing drinking games.
Fans of Clown Girl will find much of the same absurdist humor in Stud Book. In Clown Girl, the main character was always in costume; she was most herself as a clown, most at home in her make-up and wigs. The characters in Stud Book—and all of us, really—are the same way. We all struggle to separate our costumed selves from our true, essential selves, a theme Drake explores over and over again to great effect.
Dulcet is like Clown Girl in a way, except that she has married her authentic (naked) self with her public (costumed) self: She wears a skin-tight latex suit with “an anatomically correct illustration of a woman’s internal organs made to cover a woman’s body, with the vulnerability of the inside lacing the outside.” She uses this costume to teach teenagers about human anatomy and reproductive health. Unlike Clown Girl, though, she is equally at home in her naked body.
Other characters have a harder time in their own skin. Georgie tries to get accustomed to her postpartum body with vaginal rejuvenation spas and nude photography sessions. She looks to the tattoos she got as a younger woman, trying to remember who she was before the life-changing event of giving birth.
Near the end of the book, we see Sarah, who has struggled to get pregnant (it should be so simple! The animals she observes in the zoo do it every day!), strip down. She’s prepared to follow her biological urges and let nature take its course: “These clothes had been a costume, hopeful and civilized, hiding and holding back her animal urge.”
For readers who didn’t quite connect with Drake’s first book—found it too surreal or abstract, perhaps—I’d recommend reading Stud Book instead. Stud Book has the same run-down urban setting (a seedy Portland under a constant raincloud), but it is more grounded in reality. The absurdist elements are more subtle, which makes them even funnier in contrast to the real-life issues the characters are dealing with. One of the later scenes (not a spoiler: the kickboxing Barbie scene) made me laugh out loud.
I would give The Stud Book 4.5 stars. I have to take away half a star for the Humble storyline. (view spoiler)[ Humble got a redemption arc, which surprised me. I didn’t feel he earned it at all, nor was it satisfying. I wanted Georgie to see him for what he was and dump him. I didn’t understand that relationship or why Humble got away with what he did. Was he just overwhelmed by being a father? He really messed up. What he did is grounds for divorce. (hide spoiler)] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book isn't even available to the public until later this year, yet I have already managed to read the whole thing and review it. How is this possThis book isn't even available to the public until later this year, yet I have already managed to read the whole thing and review it. How is this possible? That's not important. The important thing is that this book is the only book about the history of breakfast you will ever need to read. Did you know eating breakfast was once considered a low-class or even immoral act? Do you know how cornflakes were invented? Do you wonder what Quentin Tarantino is doing on the pages of Breakfast: A History? If you want to know the answers to all these intriguing questions, you know where to find them....more
I don't normally read books like this (a literary crime thriller?), so I may not be the best judge of its merits. But I really got into it! I've now rI don't normally read books like this (a literary crime thriller?), so I may not be the best judge of its merits. But I really got into it! I've now read all of Gillan Flynn's novels, and this may very well be my favorite. It's disturbing and fast-paced, and it kept me guessing. Of course I couldn't help but be reminded of In Cold Blood, which also features a slaughtered family in a lonely farmhouse....more
**spoiler alert** Camille is a crime reporter sent back to her home town of Wind Gap to get the scoop on the recent murder of a young girl. Other revi**spoiler alert** Camille is a crime reporter sent back to her home town of Wind Gap to get the scoop on the recent murder of a young girl. Other reviewers found her completely unlikable, but I liked her. I liked her tough noir-journalist voice and her no-nonsense way of discussing all the horrible things that had happened to her—and she had done to herself. There are several twists and reveals here, and I fell for most of them.
When she said she was a cutter (a bit late in the game—page 60 or so), I was surprised. I don’t know if I’ve seen cutting done quite like this. She’s not an angst-ridden teen anymore, she’s all grown up, and she hasn’t cut in six months. Also, her entire body is covered in words she carved into her skin. Creepy.
Early on, I guessed that the mother committed the crimes. It all seemed to fit. So it wasn’t a surprise when Camille guessed this as well, and we learned the police were in on it. But how could she be the killer—we still had quite a few pages left to go! The story got weirder, and the backstory caught up with the present narrative. The mom had poisoned and killed Camille’s sister all those years ago! I guessed that, too.
But then! After all the dust has settled, it turns out . . . she wasn’t the murderer! What?! I did not guess the twist at the end at all. Other reviewers did.
As you can tell, I am not a very savvy mystery reader. So it was a wild ride for me. I enjoyed it. ...more