Thursday, April 10, 2014

Potpourri of February/March Reads

Some recent reads, in rough order of worthiness from best to worst:

These were good and/or great
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Lonely Planet's Phuket Encounter

These were meh/suspect
The Crazed by Ha Jin
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

This one should be thrown across the room
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Yes, that's correct. Gone Girl is in dead last on the list. I'll get to that in a second. Oh wait, maybe I should say "I'll get to that in literally one second." Which is not true, because it's going to be more than one second, and the expression "I'll get to that in a second" is FIGURATIVE, but apparently the authors and editors in the publishing industry today (see also: The Hunger Games) don't actually have to know what "literally" means but they can use it over and over and over (literally dozens of times!) in these contemporary please-take-me-seriously novels, jarring the reader (but not literally jarring, because how could an author put me in a jar?) and making it so obvious it's the author's voice coming through. Not the literary voice or the writing voice, but the text message voice. That doesn't really work when you tell a story from the points of view of two different characters, but they both just sound like you replying to an email.

Contrast that with The Moonstone, a gem (see what I did there?) from Victorian England, but not your English teacher's Victorian England novel. It has been called "the first detective novel" (would Agatha Christie and the author of The Invention of Murder agree?) but what's so great about it is the narration. There are a few point of view shifts, and each character's distinct attributes are fun, but the snark of the old servant who tells the first half is an unbeatable delight. I love reading classics for numerous reasons, but the fact that they are better edited than most of the crap on front-of-bookstore tables is starting to become a main one. It's bad enough that we live in a memoir- and blog- and print-on-demand-glutted world where everyone who thinks they write can "publish" their words, but when the actual publishers allow sloppy, comma-spliced "voices" to infiltrate the bookstore shelves, it's the beginning of our decline and fall. And that doesn't mean reading can't be fun. I have found most mystery/thriller page turners to be generally well edited over the years, but I guess that is changing. If you want to read a classic that doesn't feel like slogging through a classic, hie thee to The Moonstone.

I read The Moonstone in Phuket, mostly while lazing by the pool and/or by the sea, and while we were there I also read Lonely Planet's Phuket Encounter. Obviously, I had skimmed that before (on our first trip to Phuket) and used it as a reference, but this time I read the whole thing. It just so happens that we also seriously considered moving to Phuket while we were there (I had a job offer, but didn't take it) and I was  enjoying thinking about getting to know the place more deeply as a resident, but still really enjoying it as a traveler, and the Encounter books are good for that: an enriching taste of a place, with where-to-go and what-to-do ideas plus tidbits and a real feel for the spot and its vibes.

I also sat in one of my favorite Phuket coffee shops and finally read Tracy Letts' play August: Osage County. I can't believe I haven't seen a stage production of it (yet) as it has been on my radar since I lived in New York, but it's gloriously funny and dark and I think it's wonderful. I love the wicked dysfunction when it is done so right. Once we returned to Phoenix, we saw the film, and I think Julia Roberts was robbed of a Supporting Actress Oscar.

On to the incredibly average! Our friends whom we met while teaching in Korea and who now live and teach in Shanghai came to Thailand while we were there so we could all hang out in our third country together, and one of them passed along to me Ha Jin's The Crazed, partly because she gave up on it out of boredom. She had heard quite a bit about it, which makes sense since it's about university grad students and professors in the north of China, kind of the exact life my friend is currently living only without the whole lead-up to Tiananmen Square uprising factor. I've still never got around to Waiting despite the many times I touched it at Borders, so this was my first Ha Jin. The story wasn't terrible -- the main character's emotional meandering was a little weird, as was his inability to focus, but it didn't really devolve into unbelievability until the end-- but the writing itself is, for me, filed under "What's all the fuss about?" The main thing about it is that it feels like reading a translation of Chinese language, even though Ha Jin writes in English. This tells you SO MUCH about language, and it is so interesting (for someone like me, who likes words and language) to contemplate the differences between what-we-call-Mandarin and English, and it opens up fascinating questions about translation of literature, our own personal translations of our inner voices, the neuro-linguistic processes of creating art, and so on -- but I really wanted a novel and not a case study. I don't see how people can fawn all over his writing if it all comes across like this, because it doesn't feel natural or like a native speaker at all. Should published writing have to feel like it was written by a native speaker of that language? Which is worse, that Ha Jin sense of prose detachement and not-quite-being-there in the language, or the Gillian Flynn feeling that someone is "literally breathlessly talking to my best friend!!!" as they jabber in a purposely casually unpolished first person?

Coolidge was "meh" for entirely different reasons. Amity Shlaes apparently has writing skills and editors, but her structural and philosophical problems outweigh mere questions of storytelling quality. It's exciting to move into the modern presidents in my Prez Bios project, but I didn't know Shlaes was going to usher us in with this In-Defense-of-Reaganomics screed. She is so eager to prove that if we had listened to Calvin Coolidge's thrifty New England budgeting advice (not that silent Cal was discoursing to many people) we wouldn't have ruined our nation/economy/lives that she makes great leaps in both logic and paragraph construction.

Her book feels like this: "So, Calvin and Grace, now a settled married couple on the political rise, gazed with wonderment at the Boston politics Calvin was dipping his carefully scrubbed toe into, and they set up their Northampton kitchen and ordered new drapes that Calvin cleverly found in a catalog sent from his Amherst classmate who now runs a railroad car and why can't you people see that Wilson ruined everything by allowing Democrats to hang things in the White House windows!?! Those Democrats were signalling to all the world our fear, hiding from the economic truths of cost-cutting and good, solid American materials.  Also, you should pray at night before bed. Let's skip now to Calvin becoming vice-president. Oh wait, you mean I'm actually supposed to connect his life's timeline together in this biography? I'd rather show how his son dying clearly reflects the impending doom of our nation, with Franklin Roosevelt lurking somewhere on the White House lawn, poisoning the Coolidge boy himself. Or was that just a fever dream I had?"

In other words, I learned a lot, including how to read a biography/political interpretation skeptically, a lesson Shlaes teaches rather well.

Last, and very certainly least, we have Gone Girl, the book that took bestseller lists by storm. As one of my clearly brilliant Goodreads friends put it, "It is a book for non-readers who 'read' and like to recommend the book they are 'reading.'" The first half is engaging, if not engrossing, although it's only eighty or so pages before the intern who was in charge of removing "literally" from every other page apparently had to go back to class or checking Instagram or something. Frankly, I related a ton to "Diary Amy," which as I'm sure your book group pointed out gives us so much to ponder about relationships, psychology, how well we know people, blah blah blah. That's all well and good, but then the book starts to veer way off course with its (ideologically) flipped-about second half, and seriously, the less said about the ending, the better. Not because I can't say anything more without majorly spoilering (which is true) but because it's so awful and so doesn't quite work, despite how well Flynn thinks she has stacked the deck against one of her characters (get out! get out! get out! yes, you can get out! and by the way, you suck, too!) .... This book is just a big sigh. Also, a deeply troubling symbol of the state of the U.S. publishing industry: Hold me, thrill me, kiss me, kill me, but don't waste time with silly things like editing, syntax, and vocabulary; what do you think we are, writers or something?

Ugh. I literally wanted to throw the book across the room when I literally  finished reading it, but I was literally reading it on a beach, so I literally had to drop it on the sand instead.

True or false: The word "literally" is used correctly in the previous sentence.

(I wouldn't suggest checking your answer with Gillian Flynn.)

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