Bookworming, Randomosity

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Fun Home

I’m catching up on some comics I managed not to read so far, like

er-funhomeFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Category: Comics

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Alison Bechdel (yes, of the Bechdel Test) tells an autobiographical story of growing up with her distant, closeted father and of his suicide. She also describes how she discovered her own homosexuality.

How I found it:
Very deliberately: I went through an NPR list of best comics to find something interesting I hadn’t known and came up with a really long list of stuff to read.

Summary judgment:
It’s a worthy addition to any list of good comics.

Best things about it:
This is one of those graphic novels that prove the medium goes beyond silly pictures and is a true literary genre (if anyone still needs a proof in this day, I mean). It tells a complete, sombre, unflashy story, using the medium to its fullest capability, creating a collage of words, drawings, quotes and childhood memorabilia.
The honesty of the narrative (or its pretense, but it amounts to the same thing here) makes the story memorable and moving. I feel that the value of each autobiography will always be measured by how much other people can find of their own stories in the author’s one. I’m sure this one resonated with many people and even I, who had mostly very different experience of growing up, found things that felt so close to my childhood.

Worst things about it:
Honestly, I don’t think there’s something I would consider “worst.” I certainly missed some perspective on how the father’s transgressions affected Bechdel’s brothers but then I understand she respected their privacy, keeping them in the background of the narrative.

Other pluses:
✤ I like Bechdel’s art, even when it doesn’t leave me stunned with awe. Its directness and simplicity serves the story well and remains clear. The watercolory shading adds a nostalgic feel to the narrative.
✤ I also liked the use of literary classics as leitmotifs for each chapter, including the scholarly analysis. I enjoy when books are treated seriously.

Other minuses:
People talk about the humor of the story. Personally I didn’t find it particularly funny – but I didn’t really need the humor either.

How it enriched my life:
Like many things it made me want to draw more.

Fun (?) fact:
So there were two things I felt particularly close to in Bechdel’s story: one was her various obsessive behaviors as a kid, which I did have too, to a much milder extent. Another fact was her last serious talk with her father, not long before he died. It so happened that not too long before my father’s death I also had a serious, personal talk with him about his life choices and life story, unlike any we had before, and I’m forever grateful that we managed to do that.

I might check out Dykes to Look Out for, Bechdel’s most famous comic, though it’s not necessarily my favorite genre. Also, this NPR list is still full of things I’m going to read.

Recommended for:
People who like slice of life stories and coming-out stories.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Love, Simon


Mildly Enthusiastic Review: God Don’t Like Ugly

A lot, if not most, of my reading choices are quite random and one of those was recently

er-goddontlikeuglyGod Don’t Like Ugly by Mary Monroe

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A story of Annette Goode, an African American girl growing up in the 60s in Florida and mostly Ohio. Annette suffers abuse at home and unpopularity at school but her life changes when she meets Rhoda, a rich and perfect girl next door. Slowly, Annette learns to stand up for herself (sort of) and make her own choices. It is also the first book in a series, which turns out significant as I will explain later.

How I found it:
I think the cover and the blurb combined to pick my interest. I didn’t know it was a part of a series though, or I would’ve been more reluctant to invest my time in it.

Summary judgment:
It’s a decent book for what it is but it could have a potential for a greater piece if it had the courage and conviction to remain a standalone.

Best things about it:
Despite the heavy themes it reads really well and the term “page-turner” used on the cover turns out quite true. It’s been a while since I went so fast through a book without any (literal) magic in it.

Worst things about it:
With seriousness of the subject matter one would expect the book to attempt a deeper analysis and character study. It calls for some gravitas, particularly that the tone does not suggest otherwise. However, as the story develops, the author seems to get this idea that this would become a series rather than a standalone book and so she never gives the story a proper structure. I felt it missed a real climax and after – spoiler – the abuser is murdered, the story just flops idly till the end of it. We fail to get a satisfying conclusion for Annette’s tribulations, she just goes from one decision to the next. And so the drama veers into soap opera territory: which, I suppose, is to be expected from a series.

Other pluses:
The writing is not only engaging but quite colorful. It easily transports you into the world of the story and keeps you interested in its flawed characters. Up until the very end I was interested in what was going to happen to the characters – the final lack of satisfaction didn’t take that away from the experience.
I love any story happening in the 60s (up to and including that one episode of Beverly Hills 90210; remember that one? good times) so that always adds a little star in my judgment.
I also quite love the illustrated covers for the series: they have so much character and fit the story well.

Other minuses:
I think I covered most of it: I disliked that the story didn’t have its independent resolution, whatever happens in the future books, and that the second half of it was just a series of loosely connected events that didn’t lead anywhere particularly interesting. If I were to sum it up, I’m afraid the book is neither ambitious nor pleasant enough to be entirely satisfying.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed reading it, despite not getting a full payoff for my time investement.

Fun fact:
It’s mostly fun for me, not for you, but for the first time since I was really sick, I guess, I spent most of a Sunday lazing about with this book on a couch – and it was exactly what I needed.

I considered reading further books in the series for the resolution of the story. But then I started reading about them online and it turns out there are quite a few of those books and they seem to completely accept their sudsy fate so there is no resolution in sight. I didn’t like the characters enough to want to spend so much time with them for so little return.

Recommended for:
People who like family sagas and returning to the characters they’ve already met, while not being put off by (overly?) dramatic events straight from a TV drama.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Nick Carraway Chronicles


Anthropology of a Teenage Introvert

Books: I had a lot of time to kill recently so I finished King John. So not the best Shakespeare. But I’m well halfway through my Shakespeare re-reading.

Music: Some Tom Waits.

Mood: As evidenced by February’s empty archives, February was a tiresome month that left me not a drop of energy to write. Things are happening but I’m mostly rather tired for now.

er-anrhtopologyofanamericanI read Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann for the first time in December two years ago and immediately decided to read it again, which practically never happens. But this book moved me; so even though I got back to it after a year rather than immediately, this review is born of two readings. It’s a controversial book if you look at Amazon reviews: people either love it or hate it and had I seen the reviews before I started the book, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It sounds like nothing I’d enjoy: little plot, depressing and rambling? No thanks. Except, while you might argue for these things, the book is so much more.

It is a story of a girl, Eveline Auerbach, finishing high school on the threshold of the 80s, falling in love and suffering traumas. Now, I have no 80s nostalgia and the iconic literature of that time to which Anthropology is often compared – all the American Psychos and Bright Lights, Big Cities – is on my shortlist of the scourges of the world, together with head lice. But Hamann, while I suppose true to the spirit of the times, manages to make the 80s universal. She does that through a minute, obsessive vivisection of Eveline, the first-person narrator, who’s extremely introspective and prone to noting every little observation. She’s a visual artist but, as so often happens in novels, a visual artist is just a stand-in for a writer: Eveline seems more interested in words, the subtlety of their meaning, than in images. (To be precise, she’s often shown creating art but it’s the interest in language that colors her narrative.) Her observations, while based on banal everyday occurrences, are poignant and aphoristic. Every chapter holds a few phrasing gems.

The main reason why this book delighted me so is how I related to the heroine – not because I’d ever been a knock-out anorexic beauty to turn all the heads in a room but because of her attempts to put the world into words and to define it with precision. That’s how I used to imagine writing when I was a teenager harboring writerly ambitions: as always looking for striking ways to describe small things. So, while it’s not something I say often (or ever), the poesy of Hamann’s writing is what makes the book such a find.

And one more thing that Hamann captures amazingly is a teenage immature love – not the reality of it (I’m sure such romances never happen) but the concept. Eveline falls for Harrison Rourke, a substitute teacher, actor and boxer. Virile, trustworthy, protective and pretty much flawless, Rourke is not so much a character as an archetype of a man. From my point of view today I see their relationship as peculiar in its complete lack of communication: they learn crucial things about each other exclusively from other people, which often fuels the story’s drama. However, I still remember that when I was a teenager directing steamy dramas in my head, that’s exactly what they based on: the fact that their characters never properly talked to each other, which would have led to too speedy conclusions.

The first part of the love affair, with Evie in high school, admiring Rourke from afar also rang very true: the kind of imaginary relationship in which every look, every exchange grows to mean the whole world. Hamann manages to be both subtle and sexy in those descriptions of first encounters: they have an almost oniric quality. Nothing really happens (yet) but the tension is palpable.

The second half of the novel shows Evie past Rourke and past high school, entangled in a self-destructive, self-punitive relationship with devilish Mark, a true child of Ellis and McInerney. This part is more socially conscious, with the descriptions of the glamorous, empty throng that Evie and Mark hang out with. More happens here but in a way this period of Evie’s life is more of a waiting game than high school, when nothing substantial really happened.

Mark is an evil reflection of Rourke: a man without honor, manipulating the girl with money and position, sexually perverse. There’s also a third friend, Rob, who’s the de-sexualized male companion, taking on the role of a reliable friend (and also a small-time crook involved with Jersey mob). Possibly, it’s not an accident that their names can be combined to form Ro-ark because they embody certain qualities – good or bad – that Rourke lacks. Of course, I might be reading too much into it; this book invites speculation. I should also add that the super-positive image of Rourke is a direct result of the first person narration. We only see him through Evie’s eyes, and to her he’s an enigmatic perfection. I can easily imagine a negative, feminist analysis of Rourke – but I don’t really want to because Evie’s vision seduced me sufficiently to enjoy this specimen of perfect literary manhood.

There’s also a whole – important but not that convincing to me – issue of Evie’s first boyfriend; of her perplexing relationship with her parents; of friendship and betrayal, suicide, drugs, sexual abuse, pregnancy, Reagan’s politics, not to mention boxing: so it’s not a book where nothing happens at all. But the real strength of the novel lies in the subtle texture of its language and in the unapologetic introspection of the main character, which reminded me of what it felt like to be seventeen. Few books about teenage girls manage to be so true to their subject matter.

Rotten Tomatoes

Girl out of Water: Fish Tank

er-fishtankYesterday, rather uncharacteristically I watched a movie without superheroes. Every now and then I will watch a gritty social drama about growing up in a worse district of a generally nice place, ever since Fucking Åmål enchanted me many years ago. My newest addition to this collection is British Fish Tank about Mia, a dancer wannabe from a more or less pathological family and the relationship she develops with her mother’s boyfriend. Of course, to make matters sufficiently gritty, Mia is fifteen and the boyfriend’s approach degenerates from paternal to decisively different.

The movie excels in the acting department. Michael Fassbender as the boyfriend manages to be both repulsive and intriguing. Obviously, he’s got the charisma (and, let’s face it, the looks) to make a viewer sympathetic where another actor would only come off as a predatory creep. I’m still not sure if that’s all Connor was or if he started as well-meaning and lost control later on. (Side note: never ever do I accept the explanation that sex is something that just happens and so dirty particulars can be excused; my uncertainty is about how much his actions were premeditated, not whether they were innocent because they obviously weren’t.)

Katie Jarvis as Mia also deserves praise for how she mixes strength with vulnerability. You can’t exactly like her but you can’t help wanting her to find luck in the end. She’s also wonderfully real, with her unflattering hairdo and far-from-perfect dance moves. Finally, the supporting actors are pretty great: the mother suffering from arrested development and male-dependency (not to mention other dependencies) and the little sister, already fated to repeat the same mistakes. Even though written more or less as clichés, they manage to appear human.

While actors work overtime to make this movie memorable, writing proves a little weaker. The movie is terribly predictable. From the array of characters you know the outline of what will happen. There are points in the story where it could take a different route but it simply doesn’t. The only thing that surprised me, and this gives the movie at least a star more in my assessment, was restraint when it came to violence. For instance, I was groaning internally – spoiler alert – expecting the little girl to drown, especially after the movie made sure we knew Mia couldn’t swim. What happened next was the only surprise of the movie and I really liked it.

Subtlety is also sorely missing when it comes to symbolism: what with the dead horse, and the fish eaten by the dog and especially the escaping balloon at the end… But I’ve come to expect that from Bildungs…films, I guess. It was still not nearly as bad as in a certain Polish film where a boy made carton angel wings for the girl he liked. Well, that’s not what teenagers did centuries ago when I was one.

All in all, Fish Tank might not make it to the top of my favorite movies but for a two-hour-long film without any spandex in it, it proved interesting and thought-provoking and made me appreciate Fassbender’s skills yet a little more.


Teenagers, Murders and Secret Societies: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

er-specialtopicsEven though I don’t specifically search for stories about high school girls, I find them in the strangest places, my latest one the once-controversial Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

This début novel tells a story of 17-year-old Blue van Meer in an unapologetically postmodernist fashion, rife with literary allusions and metaphors. Blue travels the country with her father, a professor of political science, to finally settle for her senior year in a mountain town. She gets involved with a mysterious group of pretentious teenagers led by an even more mysterious, and probably insane, teacher. It’s then that life-changing events unravel (they include hanging; and it’s not a spoiler because the book tells you on the first page).

Like a precocious teen, the book can’t decide between its two preoccupations: does it want to be extravagantly fun (as a whodunnit) or seriously ponder life questions. Sometimes it manages to merge these two, but generally it’s better at the page-turning aspect because once the revelations start coming, you can’t put the book down – even though you rightly suspect in the end you’ll be treated to an open ending.

The open ending is interestingly solved, though. The whole novel is structured like a syllabus, each chapter titled with a famous book’s title. Sometimes this casts an important light on the events, sometimes it seems more like playing with the phrase from the title itself (“Things Fall Apart,” “The Trial”). At first I welcomed the game of allusions but after a while you realize that the very amount of books referenced requires a determination of a Bible scholar and you focus less, especially as the events speed up. At any rate, the syllabus ends with a “Final Exam” where all the possible answers to the story are gathered as multiple answers to test questions. This is an interesting and quite effective way to sum up the unanswered mysteries and at least give the reader a selection from which to pick out their favorite ending.

Just like literary allusions multiply beyond reason, metaphors crowd one another. Most of them are surprising and fresh, sometimes also awkward and confusing. I didn’t mind but I only occasionally interpreted them, again overwhelmed by their amount. But not a single one stood out to me as much as this one used by this reviewer: “she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers’ heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Pessl doesn’t usually reach this level of accuracy in her metaphoric choices.

While the elaborate story leaves us wanting for final answers, another motif gets precedence: how growing up means emancipating from your parents. Blue’s father, professor van Meer, is definitely the most interesting character in the novel that you can’t decide whether to love or to hate. He’s charming, self-assured and intelligent, treats his women like doormats, thinks himself a wonder and refuses to apologize for anything. Obviously for Blue he’s the center of the world. The mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider, serves as a mother figure and will also turn out a disappointment. In two poignant scenes, Pessl presents them in a similar way, their faces lit orange and monster-like. This emancipation from parents is a fairy-tale motif, very Bruno-Bettelheimian. In the end, in the world devoid of competent adults, Blue will learn to stand on her own and even, despite endless bad examples, form a romantic relationship. This is the true closed ending of the novel and I actually liked it.


Pleasures of Middleness: Middlesex

er-middlesexBefore I knew anything about Eugenides’ (sort of) epic novel Middlesex I assumed without thinking much about it that Middlesex was some sort of place, like Middlemarch. A place-derived title often doesn’t promise a very interesting read but I like to check out Pulitzer winners if they don’t sound too depressing. When I started reading and figured out that Middlesex was much more literal than just a name of a place (which it also is), suddenly I expected more from the story. And generally I wasn’t disappointed.

Middlesex is a very scholar-friendly book. Not only is it rife with metaphors and allusions – it self-analyzes. It actually robs you of some of the satisfaction of feeling smart. You don’t have time to self-congratulate for noticing the, say, Homeric allusions when the narrator explains them. Hardly do you realize the importance of the narrator’s location in Berlin when (s)he informs you that all the split places attract him because of a sense of affinity.  At one point Stephanides-the narrator says he likes to draw attention to the mechanics of writing fiction and that’s exactly what happens all the time. Not all of the metaphors are explained directly but when Callie is seducing her friend in her sleep in the moonlight what movie is the friend’s brother making? A vampire movie, of course. The book constantly plays with the reader in these small ways. Personally, once I got used to how blatant it was I actually liked it a lot. Even though I’ve grown bored with most postmodernist techniques like these, I’ll still bite if the story is interesting and Callie’s story actually is.

The novel goes beyond Callie’s life to start from her grandparents’: their flight from Greece to the USA, their incestuous relationship and their immigrant difficulties. I find this part much weaker than Callie’s own story. I feel that the humorous tone, so successful in the later part, clashes with the descriptions of war violence and of the brother-sister marriage. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the first part unnecessary but I definitely did not enjoy it as much. When we get to Callie’s own life though, the story finds the right voice. Like a good postmodernist novel that it is, it welds together many different genres: social commentary during the race riots, teen romance with the Obscure Object, prep school drama, action adventure and, most of all, the mystery of how and when Callie discovered the truth about her body (to name just a few). Callie’s voice, observant, ironic, unapologetic, combines all these together, at its best reminding me of Lolita. While this is obviously a humongous praise for any novel, I believe it justified. The novels share a similar tone, flagrant erudition, the themes of European immigrants, unconventional sexuality (I’m putting it mildly), and, most of all, the double character: a teen girl and an older, “satyric” man. That they are the same character fits in great with all the other twists Middlesex adds to well-known motifs.

Hermaphroditism seems like a subject inviting certain garishness and sensationalism, which Eugenides avoids in quite an impressive way. Even when Cal almost literally works as a circus freak, he makes it sound mythical rather than cheap. This is certainly the biggest win of the novel. What doesn’t work quite as convincingly, I think, is the metaphor of middleness, which becomes forced: how being in between sexes is like, well, everything else. Immigrants are between their native land and the new home; teenagers are between children and adults; everyone is in the generation between their parents’ and children’s. See what I mean? This message is so generic that virtually useless. Despite this problem, though, Middlesex is a good read, the kind that interests you, tells you something new and makes sure you feel smart and perceptive all the way.


Stories about Lives of Girls and Women

er-livesofgirlsI got theoretically interested in Alice Munro way back when I was devouring Atwood, simply because she’s also Canadian and often mentioned together with Atwood in critical texts (my reading choices are often random like that). But as she writes almost exclusively short stories, I didn’t really get down to reading her work because I prefer to immerse in a long story of a novel. So when I found out that Lives of Girls and Women bears “a novel” subtitle, I jumped at it – even though I suspected that a writer renown for short stories will not be a master of the novel.

And basically the suspicion proved right in that the book is more a collection of short stories linked by their common protagonist than a novel as such. There is no large plot, just a series of events depicting the narrator’s, Del Jordan’s, growth into a woman. The short story character of the book is particularly evident in where the weight of writing lies: not so much in the plot developments as in the juxtaposition of scenes. Minor in themselves, especially in the first half of the story, events gain new meaning in the light of what follows, like, for instance, when Del’s quest for religion is offset by her realization that no God can save a dog that took liking to killing sheep.

This kind of writing, typical and expected of short stories, is exactly what turned me to novels. They require less intellectual detective work and allow for more emotional response. These days I’m a hurried reader, reading mostly on buses and at breakfast, which makes a hunt for meaning less effective and less gratifying. I still enjoy it but first I need to be hooked by powerful characters and their dramas. If all the excitement is buried under a layer of metaphors and symbols, it pains me to admit it, but I will not enjoy such a book all that much. (Unless it’s really stunning, I guess. I still allow for that.)

Munro’s story suffered from this affliction to me. It has a lot you could write essays about: religion versus biology, coming to terms with the physicality of living, accepting and rejecting female social roles, an individual in a traditional community, human violence versus nature’s violence, and, of course, lives of girls and women in all their aspects. I could go on and on as, in fact, I loved to trace themes like these in books but nowadays I mostly end at enumerating them. While a complex story full of interesting ideas, it falls very, very short for me in that Del is ultimately uninteresting, cold and haphazard in her decisions. Not once did I really care what will happen to her. Indeed the half-hearted analysis (or maybe just observation) of themes and motifs was much more thrilling than Del’s dilemmas.

This book actually fits nicely with my previous read, In Zanesville, in that both take on female adolescence. But while definitely better-written and more profound, Lives of Girls failed to evoke that bitter-sweet sense of growing up that Beard’s story did so well.