Uncomfortable Reading At Its Best – And This Is True

28 Sep

A few months ago,  a friend of mine (and a hell of a fiction-slinger over at Hatchard’s) lent me an unassuming – some may say boring-looking – plain white proof copy of And This Is True, by debut novelist Emily Mackie. “It’s great,” she said earnestly. “It’s about a boy who’s in love with his father.”

Hmm.

Under other circumstances, I might have just politely smiled and hidden the book behind some prettier spines on my shelf, but this friend is not one to recommend things lightly. If she doesn’t like something about a book – prose, theme, dialogue, title – you are going to hear about it. Okay, in this case, she didn’t like the title, but that’s like a frigging standing ovation.

I finally got around to reading And This is True, and despite my reluctance to face the very unflinching subject matter, found it to be very readable, and even enjoyable. The kind of enjoyable you feel bad about, because you know you should just be appropriately disturbed. And even though I’d been warned, the casual confession on the first page still startled me: “I kissed my father once; when he was sleeping.”

Teenager Nevis and his father Marshall have just spent a near-solitary eleven years living together in a van, among piles of Marshall’s secret, never-published writing. When this kiss happens, things unravel in a pretty solid way – the van crashes and is ruined, and the two men are forced to quit their wandering ways and re-enter civilization. In an effort to forget what’s happened, terrified father Marshall rejects Nevis, often leaving him alone for hours on end (alone because Nevis is also busy hiding from their new hostess’s clingy daughter). We know that Marshall’s cruel behaviour is because what happened was Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, but that doesn’t make Nevis’s deep sense of betrayal any less keen.

In the face of this rejection, Nevis shuts down and stops talking. When he surfaces, he takes a cue from his father and begins to write, circling closer and closer to the concrete details of their past life in the van and the events surrounding the kiss(es?). This is classic unreliable narration at work, and even Nevis himself is aware of this, which is why he keeps trying to revise his writing to move towards the titular “True” story. By the end, we’re still wondering what exactly happened, but through Nevis’s own writing (and his exposure to other people who are not Marshall), he gains a crucial understanding of his father that he clearly lacked at the beginning of the novel.

I often get bored or annoyed with this style of narration. I end up thinking, “Enough now, I get the point. Yes, there is no objective way of truly documenting an event, etc, etc.” But this sometimes overused method seemed like a good fit when dealing with such an extreme psychological issue. Plus, Mackie gives Nevis such a fresh, believably naive voice, that the structure feels natural rather than forced for the sake of cleverness. Most importantly, she deals with what could be a simple shock-value premise with depth and restraint.

A good reminder to read things that may make me uncomfortable.

Mockingjay – more like MockingLAME

17 Sep

After succumbing to countdown clocks and completely unrealistic expectations, I finally received my copy of Mockingjay, the third (and final?) instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I didn’t like it, and I’m crushed. I was so utterly convinced of the addictive power of the other two books that I hadn’t even imagined that this one wouldn’t be just as thrilling. That addiction I was hankering for never kicked in, and I’m left jonesing for something to take its place.

So how is it possible that I was such an easy mark for the original Hunger Games books, while this one fell flat for me? As I admitted even back then (oh, those innocent Christmas days, when I was so swept away by the lure of teenage violence!), there were always some plot holes and iffy writing and other pesky problems that I couldn’t quite ignore. But these issues were easily forgiven for the sheer adrenaline rush that came with the breakneck pace of the plot.

The appeal of The Hunger Games lies entire in its Battle Royale/Reality TV show premise. Kids killing kids with hilariously improbable weapons! Never gets old, or so you would think. When you have a formula that good, you’re  bound to disappoint fans by veering off it. I don’t blame Suzanne Collins for trying (after all, she was probably already stretching it a bit with Catching Fire, in which she basically rehashed the plot of the first book), but she probably should have resisted the urge to go serial in the first place.

In Mockingjay, the ever-gutsy heroine Katniss is still juggling two boys (so now you know what’s up if you ever hear teeny-boppers – NOT ME – talk about “team Peeta” or “team Gale”), and still fighting the man, aka The Capitol and President Snow. In a very modern move, the revolutionary forces prop her up as more of a figurehead of the movement than as an actual leader, and she ends up feeling like just as much of a pawn as she did when she was forced to kill off her peers for prime time TV.

Thank God Collins still threw in a few trademark sewer-prowling mutts and invisible capsules that turn into killer bees and tar-like tidal waves (although these make almost no sense at all outside the concept of the old game arena set-up), because otherwise I would have been entirely bored by Collins’ attempt to portray an actual revolution. As it turned out, even her impressive ability to invent new ways for people to die wasn’t enough to save this overly long and unsatisfying story. The “shocking” twist at the end that’s clearly meant to be a tearjerker left me unmoved (and that’s really saying something – I still cry at this). Even Katniss settling down and choosing one of her suitors feels a bit anticlimactic by the time she finally makes up her damn mind.

What I’m trying to say (while also trying to scrounge up the tiniest bit of bookish dignity) is that this book did not feature a pre-teen getting impaled by a spear, there was not a Survivor-style alliance in sight, there was very little double crossing intrigue, and no “last-man standing” excitement. Maybe I should just read the first one again to console myself and then go read some grown-up books.

Adventures in Learning – You Are Here #2

5 Sep

More fun facts from my latest non-fiction find, You Are Here by Christopher Potter:

You know how on some nights you can see the crescent moon, but also a faded impression of the rest of the moon alongside it? I’ve always thought (without really thinking about it too much) that this had something to do with the regular sunshine getting to the moon. Actually, the reason we can see the rest of the moon, albeit dimly, is because it’s illuminated by reflected earthshine. The most important thing I learned from this is that I should stop accepting half-assed scientific theories of my own ridiculously uninformed creation, and actually look things up on a regular basis.

One of the brightest stars out there is a red supergiant named Betelgeuse (and, like Michael Keaton’s gross-out afterlife criminal, pronounced Beetlejuice). The word comes from a long ago translated version of an Arab word, with possible original meanings varying from “hand of the central one” to “armpit of the central one.”

Quasars. Always heard the word, always vaguely assumed they were something that didn’t necessarily exist (or possibly even belonged completely to the sci-fictional realm). Turns out they’re the light caused by a black hole eating up all the matter around it, until there isn’t any more in its gravitational reach. So in this active quasar stage, black holes are anything but black, and even scarier than regular black holes – after all, there seems to be one at the centre of every galaxy, including our Milky Way, but it can’t get us… in case you were worrying about that. I was.

The Comparison Curse

27 Aug

Blurbs comparing a current author to an old literary stalwart present a pretty obvious double-edged sword. They instantly speak to their target demographic (if you liked this, you’ll loooove this!), and manage to make a book stand out just a little bit more on that busy table of new, seemingly identical and obscure debut novels. On the other hand, forget trying to read that book without constantly comparing the two authors. And who do you think usually makes out better? The generally agreed upon genius, or the plucky new modern author who is automatically more fallible simply because of their newness?

Amy Sackville’s The Still Point, published early this year, had a stellar blurb to its name, courtesy of author Francis Spufford: “If Virginia Woolf had had a younger sister with a passionate interest in icebergs, she might have written something like this beautiful, unearthly novel […]” First time novelists would kill for this kind of association – or would they? I haven’t read that book yet, only skimmed the first couple chapters, but spent the whole time looking for reasons why Sackville’s writing was or was not like Woolf’s, like some kind of “Spot the Difference” challenge from Highlights magazine.

Unfortunately, I suffered the same compulsion when reading True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. ‘The Bell Jar for the twenty-first century’ proclaims Trezza Azzopardi on the front cover. And as gripping as the book was, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways in which it was not The Bell Jar. I remember relating much more with Plath’s cynical mid-century heroine Esther Greenwood than with Davies’ nameless black sheep. Granted, I was probably in my late teens when I first read The Bell Jar, so might have been more inclined to appreciate the angst. And of course, relating to the main character isn’t the be all and end all of a book, but that distinction made reading these works very different experiences for me.

In a nutshell, the True Things protagonist falls into an obsessive, dangerous, darkly sexual relationship with an ex-con. And actually, there’s not much more to that nutshell, making the story more suited to a movie than a novel, I thought. I felt like I needed a few pre-plot points of reference to help anchor myself to Davies’ heroine, but instead I was instantly pulled into this ultra-destructive, downward spiraling affair – which was possibly the point, but it made it all the more difficult to understand the motivations of the heroine. Why is “she” so obsessed with “him?” What, if anything, was so wrong in her life before he showed up, to make her so vulnerable to the charms of such a brutal, repulsive man?

I should also admit that part of my reluctance to relate to “her” was that my deep-rooted prude had a hard time dealing with the frequency and intensity of the sexually violent scenes. I’m guessing most people had the same reaction, but I think I needed something – even just one thing – to make me feel like I knew why this woman would allow herself to be in this situation. Why she would risk her job, friends, family, house, car, personal safety, self respect, life savings (and on and on) for this hunky piece of evil. Her one friend in the book, Alison (finally, a name!), stands in as the reader proxy, with her baby-having, job-keeping, TV-watching middle class values and obvious perplexity at her friend’s bad choices. But her inclusion in the book only increases the sense of frustration, because there’s nothing she can do to help her friend, either.

This lack of connection between me and the narrator continued to distract me throughout the book. Perhaps mistakenly, I kept waiting for her to act in some way that I would act, or for some information to come to light that would explain her decisions. Instead, she pays lip service to the fact that she’s put herself in terrible danger, but doesn’t seem to really believe it. After one particularly gut-wrenching scene, she ruminates on what has just happened with a sort of out-of-body perspective:

Something terrible has happened to me, I whispered, standing in the kitchen. It was like a film set. Obviously the kitchen of a nice woman.

When I managed to ignore (or embrace) the intrinsic uncomfortableness of the book, I was enthralled. There’s a sick sense of enjoyment in watching such a spectacular breakdown unfold. And despite the considerable shock value she wields, Davies doesn’t at all rely on the cheap tricks of sex and violence alone – she describes this person’s deterioration in meticulous, painful, emotional detail. She just doesn’t tell us why.

Adventures in Learning – You Are Here

21 Aug

After my obsession with a certain end-of-the world what-if book, I’ve had sort of a thing for science. Not an intimate, knowledgeable thing, mind you, but a bit of a crush.

And this crush led me straight into the arms of You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by fellow non-scientist Christopher Potter. The book begins with the basics – stuff we all may or may not remember from high school science classes, but somehow winds up exploring quasars and and quarks and quantum mechanics. I admit at the beginning, during all the basics, I fancied myself above what this book had to offer – not just because of the simple facts at the start (which didn’t last long), but because of the noticeably plain language. However, as the book zoomed on towards concepts that I can only begin to understand, I grew to appreciate Potter’s straightforward approach. It’s a remarkably concise, patient guidebook through some of science’s (and philosophy’s, and even religion’s) most abstract ideas. Wildly abstract to me, anyway – I found myself at times opening my eyes wider while reading some of the more mind-bending passages, as if that might allow a little more understanding to seep in. So in the end, it was perfect that a journalist would take on the task of making a wide variety of scientific information somewhat palatable and relateable for the average reader.

As with my previous learning adventures, I’ll be throwing some fun facts at you for the next little while. And here’s the first one that made me go, “really?” As promised, it’s a little basic compared to what eventually follows, but it’s an example of how most of us actually don’t know the answers to these classic curious child “why-phase” questions:

You know the whole digging into (or right through) the centre of the earth thing? My childhood hole-to-China endeavour wasn’t a terribly determined effort – I may have just grazed the bottom of my sandbox. But it’s somewhat gratifying to know that even grown-up attempts have been less than successful: The furthest we’ve been able to go into the earth is a meagre 12.262 kilometres, before drill bits start melting at 300 degrees Celsius. 12 k! Some people run 12 k before their first bowl of fruit loops. Not me, but you know, some people.

Unsolicited Personal Information

20 Aug

This last week has been filled with prolonged birthday celebrations, work deadlines, and moving house. Yes, I packed up my books and carted them just down the street for a new life in a new flat. With a yard. Sort of. If London hadn’t already turned its back on summer, I’d be reading The Blue Castle in a kiddy pool (aka paddling pool) at this very moment.

That’s not going to happen, though. So instead I’m turning my guilty pleasure attention to the release of Mockingjay in three days, eight hours, thirty-one minutes and 24 seconds. Or something like that.

Anyone know what’s happening with the Hunger Games movie? Do you think they’ll do full justice to bad-ass heroine Katniss and the gratuitous violence that makes the series so terribly satisfying? If I don’t see some kid impaled on a spear I’m going to be very disappointed.

At the moment though, I’ve been geeking out with more non-fiction sciencey fun (You Are Here by Christopher Potter), which means that my educational segment, “Learning Adventures” will be back tomorrow! Come back and visit if you want a glimpse of just how far quantum theory lies from my brain’s grasp.

It’s my BIRTHDAY!

11 Aug

So I was determined to find something to post today that would encapsulate both my love for myself and the fact that this blog is supposed to be about books. I settled on some photos of my trip with my parents a couple weeks ago to the book Ark at the V&A, as part of their small spaces exhibition.

It's nifty.

I think I'm pretty nifty, too.

Stealing books was frowned upon.

The first birthday present I received this year was also book related: a copy of The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (alas, not the old McClelland and Stewart edition) from one of my sisters, which I’ve written about here before. I can’t wait to yet again read about mean old Cousin Stickles and purple pills from Montreal and moonlight on Lake Mistawis. It’s the book version of Death by Chocolate.

Housekeeping update: And if you want a chance to win a SIGNED copy of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, you can still leave a wacky Wikipedia entry here, until end of day Friday.