Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading is not Believing

When I look back on my adolescence, I can clearly identify two major historical events that shaped my generation: the 9/11 attacks and the Columbine High School shootings. Both were emotionally jarring and sudden. Both made us feel vulnerable and chaotic. Both changed our country. But since I grew up in Aurora, Colorado the Columbine shooting felt literally close to home. We were 30 minutes away from where it happened, when it happened. I was only in the 6th grade but the proximity made us feel like it could have been at our school. To this day, I find it hard to comprehend. That’s why I picked up this novel, The Hour I First Believed, I thought it was about the Columbine shootings. I knew it was fiction but I was interested to see what details would be included and what approach the author, Wally Lamb, would take. The problem is that this book wasn’t really about Columbine…I think that’s why I mostly hated it.

In this book, Columbine was just an interesting incident in the character’s lives. It’s almost as if the author googled “tragic national trauma event” and chose the one that would best sell his book. I wanted a book that did Columbine justice; a book that dealt with the event and the aftermath. Instead, it feels like Wally Lamb read enough headlines and police reports to do a decent job of hitting the major details of the shootings. Once the shooting was over and his characters had sufficient PTSD symptoms, Lamb moved them back to their family farm in Connecticut and continued with his book. He plugged in a distinctive, book selling tragedy and then moved on to the book that he had really set out to write. Lamb didn’t do Columbine justice. In fact, the first 283 pages and the last 440 pages felt like completely different books. The downside is you are stuck with the same unlikeable characters for both parts of the novel. Both parts of the book were hard to read but for different reasons. Part one was emotionally difficult because of the retold details of the Columbine tragedy. I will warn you right now that chapter eight will especially wreck you; it consists entirely of quotes and excerpts from conversations, journals, and videos that Klebold and Harris left behind. Chapter eight was literally heart breaking to read.

The second part of the book was difficult to read because I was bored and annoyed. I didn’t like a single character in the book and Lamb kept throwing in random issues, histories, and plot twists. So much so that it was overwhelming. It wasn’t enough to have your characters deal with the aftermath of Columbine? You (I’m speaking to Wally Lamb directly here) had to layer in abortion, alcoholism, narcotic addiction, vehicular homicide, hurricane Katrina, women’s prison rights, the history of German beer, suicide…and on and on? The reader doesn’t have a chance to process whatever newest crap Lamb has piled on before he’s on to another, loosely related, issue. It felt like the author has a lot of topics he wants to address, but rather than write more than one book he found ways to layer them into this book. It didn’t work for me. The second half of the novel was extremely reminiscent of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski , except I liked that book much more.

For me it comes down to Lamb’s essential catch 22: I picked up this book because it was advertised as being about Columbine and then hated it because it didn’t deliver. However, if the book wasn’t advertised as being about Columbine I never would have picked it up. Lamb knows how to sell his books. After this experience, though, I will be extremely reluctant to pick up another Wally Lamb novel.

"That's the funny thing about mazes: what's baffling on the ground begins to make sense when you can begin to rise above it, the better to understand your history and fix yourself."

~Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

Monday, January 9, 2012

What do Edith Wharton and Joey Tribbiani have in common? Pretty much nothing...

Am I the only one who is really getting back into Edith Wharton? Oh…I am the only one? Well in that case, I’ll just start this whole thing over…

Let me tell you why you should really be getting into Edith Wharton. I’ll go ahead and start by saying that she was a genius. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and her writing is prolific. In her novels, she explores late-nineteenth century American society with a raw and honestly critical view. Wharton gives us a glimpse into the dysfunction and cruelty that was inherent in upper class men and woman of the time. And why should we care about late-nineteenth century society? Because those customs and those socialites are our heritage; our social stigmas, traditions, and absurdity are a direct ancestor to Edith Wharton’s subject matter. She may just give us a lens through which we can understand ourselves.

In The House of Mirth specifically, it’s the cruelty that strikes the reader. Wharton’s characters (Mrs. Dorset, Mrs. Trenor, Mrs. Fisher, etc.) are the original Mean Girls. Each chapter provides you with at least one opportunity to utter the phrase, “Oh no she didn’t!” Their gossip and aptitude for stepping on people to advance themselves literally ruin the main character’s life. This cruelty is set among social traditions that were intact over a century ago, but it’s not at all difficult to translate them to today’s world. People still gossip. People still use other people as means to an end. People still ruin other people’s lives without considering the consequences. In fact, if I could make this novel a required read for every teenage girl in America, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. We need to learn from our history and shed light on what we do to each other in the name of social advancement.

The main character, Lily Bart, was easy to relate to (for me anyway); a single 20-something woman who is feeling the pressure to marry rich. Landing a rich husband will mean stability and a constant flow of the finer things in life. However, she feels the pull of her more intellectual, independent side as well. Lily gets so close to happiness (either with a rich husband or the intellectual love of her life, Lawrence Selden) so often in the book but manages to ruin it in one way or another, every time. She’s not a stupid character. She understands the implications of her actions. It is the internal struggle that keeps her from achieving her goals, because she can’t be sure what goals are the most important to her. Of course, having the “Mean Girls” (and men) completely ruin her reputation multiple times throughout the novel doesn’t help. Poor Lily just wants stability, but she’ll either have to settle in a loveless marriage or settle for a frill-less life.

As a 21st century reader, you want Lily to stand up to those ho-bags , get them back with the gossip she has, tell her man that she loves him, and live her life above it all. But there are social conventions (and a lack of resources) holding her back. That’s the part we struggle to relate to. Most of us grew up as empowered women who are encouraged to stand up for ourselves and not tolerate injustices. In many ways, we may just have Edith Wharton to thank for that kind of thinking.

Having already read The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome (both Edith Wharton novels), I knew better than to expect a happy ending to The House of Mirth. I also knew that this novel was written in the vein of The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy which pretty much told me where things were going. Without ruining it more than I already have, I will just suffice to say that I consider this novel to be what I call a “freezer book”. A book which reaches a point (or many points) that is so frustrating/upsetting/sad/etc. that you just have to put it in the freezer to get some space… à la Joey Tribbiani:

And now, a social tip from Mrs. Edith Wharton:

"It is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful"
~Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Friday, January 6, 2012

2011 -- A Year In (Literary) Review

Now that we are well established in the month of January in the new year of 2012, I can confidently say that the count is in. I officially read 21 books in 2011 (complete list below), not including the numerous textbooks/articles/journals/etc. that I read in conjunction with my graduate classes, of course. Sadly that count is lower than my 2010 number, which was 23, but it’s still a reputable number. Let’s face it, if it weren’t for education and employment the list below would be much longer. I am constantly looking for a way to rid myself of those burdens but am having little success (the graduate school issue will fade in time but the employment thing looks like it is here to stay). So here is my 2011, a glimpse at me past year in books:

1. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon ---January 13, 2011
2. Day After Night by Anita Diamant ---January 22, 2011
3. Night by Ellie Wiesel ---January 23, 2011
4. World War Z by Max Brooks --- February 25, 2011
5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens --- April 17, 2011
6. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel --- April 23, 2011
7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot --- May 8, 2011
8. American Gods by Neil Gaiman --- May 27, 2011
9. Born to Run by Christopher McDougal ---June 10, 2011
10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling --- June 24, 2011
11. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway --- August 3, 2011
12. Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares --- August 7, 2011
13. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas --- September 7, 2011
14. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins --- September 11, 2011
15. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins --- September 14, 2011
16. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins ---September 16, 2011
17. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts --- November 12, 2011
18. My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares – December 4, 2011
19. The Social Animal by David Brooks --- December 15, 2011
20. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – December 17, 2011
21. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen --- December 22, 2011

*Dates reflect the day I finished the book

I’m not the resolution type, not even a little bit, but I hope to read more in 2012. I have a few books on the near horizon but I am always open to suggestions and cannot wait to see where my reading list ends up. Happy New Year to all, and to all a good read!

(no need to comment on how corny the last sentence is, I am fully aware)