Friday, December 7, 2012

An Affair to Remember

I have a love affair with literature. It's ongoing and I can't seem to shake it. Sometimes, though, I have to ignore this passionate, vibrant, life-altering, truly absorbing secret life to drudge through the dull duties and unavoidable responsibilities of the grown-up life. But every once in a while, I give a furtive glance Literature's way; I find a quiet place for us to be alone; I steal a moment. So, Literature knows I'm devoted. Literature knows my true heart. And, when I become a bit despairing or despondent, Literature knows just how to remind me to keep caring.

Way back in 2008, Tim Kreider posted an article called "When Books Could Change Your Life" on the CityPaper website. It's a site I know nothing about and an author and article I never heard of until now. Social media dug it up for me, and I inhaled it.

It's an article about another lover of Literature (hey, I never said we were exactly exclusive). Kreider talks about how Literature gets you when you're young (...and maybe this sexually-charged metaphor has gone too far?) and never really leaves you after. His entire piece reflects the power of literature on youth and how it is those books that stay with you and mean more than anything you read after—regardless of how much more “adult” they become. He asks a series of probing questions, daring us to challenge him:
When was the last time a book changed your life? I don't mean offered you new insights or ideas or moved you--I mean profoundly changed the way you see the world or shaped the kind of person you are?

After reflecting on that, there was no disagreeing. Books have always meant a great deal to me and continues to do so, but I owe it all to those early years back when I really found myself inspired—not just by stories, but examples of how to live—and what living really is! Kreider goes on to say,
It's not that children's books are pure entertainment, innocent of any didactic goal--what grownups enviously call "Reading for Fun." On the contrary, the reading we do as children may be more serious than any reading we'll ever do again. Books for children and young people are unashamedly prescriptive: They're written, at least in part, to teach us what the world is like, how people are, and how we should behave.
And that’s something I agree with wholly. I’ve been working for a degree in English. (Which is basically just a degree in literature; it should be renamed “Reading really long and boring books and pretending to know what they’re about—I’m looking at you, Ulysses” But I don’t think that fit on the college banner head.) It’s lent me a sort of cynicism towards literature and the hoity-toity stance people take once they reach adulthood. No longer is it cool to gush about Little House on the Prairie or The Magic Tree House series. No. Now we have to pretend Frankenstein is the best book we’ve ever had or that we really do curl up with some Tolstoy every night. Hey, maybe some people do. Props to them. But, for me, the only reason I’m an English major is because of those books I read when I young. When I still cared. When I believed in magic and goodness and strength. They’re the books that made me feel powerful. That told me I never had to sell out. That promised my life, no matter how hard, could still be something wonderful. So what have books taught me? It’s pretty simple.

Books have taught me that every door leads somewhere new—whether it’s a wardrobe that takes you to Narnia or an open window from which you can fly to Neverland. Love isn’t always orthodox; sometimes it’s easier to love an animal. When it’s hard to say goodbye, that just means the moment, the person, the story meant more than any hello. It’s okay to make mistakes—even crazy mistakes—because the people who love you won’t care…even if you “draw” the drapes and “dress” the chicken one too many times. They taught me that nothing matters more than family, whether it’s the one you’re born into or the one you create. You can always find friends in the oddest of places. Even in the worst of situations, you can be optimistic—pay the “glad game.” It’s okay to believe in the unbelievable; that’s when the greatest adventures begin. Never hide your personality—it’s what makes you most unique. Sisters are best friends and life lessons waiting to be found out. You don’t have to be like everyone else to be loved by everyone else. Even if you’re the “chosen one” it doesn’t mean you can go it alone. When you lose everything, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on anything. Sometimes heroes aren’t the loud ones saving the day; it’s the ones who stay, the ones who care, the ones who stand by what they say. If fate seems to deal you an unfair hand, play a better game. It’s okay to cry. It’s better to laugh. No one can tell you who to care about; it’s just about falling for the right things at the right time and saying goodbye when it’s over. Evil doesn’t win. Even when it triumphs, it doesn’t win. Be curious; this world is meant to explore, question, wonder at. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a book is always an adventure waiting to happen. So let it.

And there you have it. The lessons learned in the pages of books I cared about just because I wanted to care about them, even before the world hogtied me down and told me to care--that I had to care--and took all the fun out of caring. Lame move, world. Good thing I've got these long-loved books to remind me about...well, everything.

Books to thank for this education (in no particular order): Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, Pollyanna, Heidi, Little House on the Prairie, Harry Potter, Little Women, Holes, Junie B. Jones, Magic Tree House, Where the Red Fern Grows, Esperanza Rising, Winnie the Pooh, A Little Princess, Amelia Bedelia, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Verdict, No. 18

(find my judgment here)
The Lucky Ones
by Anna Godbersen
I miss it already.

This was a beautiful read. Godbersen is a master of language and moments. She has a way of spinning words together in such a way that you fall into this sort of dreamlike trance where the real world gets hazy and you find yourself right there with all these characters in the gilded world of the Roaring 20s. And I loved every minute.

The thing about Godbersen is she knows how to give unpredictable twists without them feeling unnatural. There were things towards the end where I was like, "Oh, yeah, duh! I totally saw that coming." But I didn't. In fact, I think I was annoyed that, as the writer in me followed along, I didn't think of it playing out that way. So it wasn't predictable, just...believable. Oh, and beautiful. So very pretty.

The thing is, quite honestly, if she was a bad writer, I would hate these books (like I hate this copycat). Because, let's face it, this is melodramatic melodrama. There is kissing, boozing, cheating, murder. And it's kind of jolting to remember that all this juicy drama happened in one summer. You're lazily flouncing along when someone suddenly says "I'm 18!" or "It's the end of one summer." And then you realize, oh yeah, all this crazy, crazy stuff happened to people barely adults in three short months. For a realist like me, that's a fact that's hard to stomach. I mean, 18 year olds shouldn't be married, shouldn't be screwing around with married men, shouldn't be deciding who they'll soar off into the sunset with. But, quite luckily, Godbersen isn't a bad writer. Au contraire! She is definitely one of the most talented YA writers I've ever read, and...for all the frilly silliness, I love everything she writes. Especially this.

After a sumptuous debut with The Luxe, she has found her footing and finalized her voice. This was the perfect combination of witty melodrama and soft moments; of sins and sinners with heart and honesty; of sweet kisses and steamy mistakes; of final decisions and second chances. More importantly, this was the perfect final installment of bitter and sweet. 

Yes, someone dies. Someone's married. Someone's famous. And the epilogue could be one of my favorites ever. Somehow, Godbersen makes this tragic, gilded tale a dreamy one. And then you find yourself lethargic and thoughtful, still sitting, still holding the book open, just staring into space and thinking about it, gauging your feelings until you wish there was just one page more.

At least that's what I did. And then I started over and read all my favorite bits again. Because that's what Godbersen does: she makes me forget reality to slip into a world I never want to leave and never really can. It might sound melodramatic, but it's a dreamy place--the pages of any Godbersen novel. This series is one of my favorites, and this book is the best of them. So read it--but start from the beginning. 

It's a very good place to start.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Judgment, No. 18

The Lucky Ones
by Anna Godbersen
"As summer reaches its hottest peak, these sun-kissed girls will find out if their luck can last . . . or if dark surprises are on the horizon."
You should all know of my literary crush on Anna Godbersen. In my not-so-humble opinion, she can do no wrong. Her books are the ones I'm so glad I didn't write exactly because that means I can just enjoy them. I couldn't make them better in any way, imagine them any more perfectly, or change them for any new purpose. I practically worship them. Hence my pre-ordering, as soon as possible, this latest installment of her latest series. And even though it's senior finals over here in my real world, I know as soon as I get this, I'll immediately drop everything to read it.  But let's get to the judgy part.

You can read here to get my takes on the last one, and here to see how it turned out. Just remember there are three girls bordering on screwing up their lives in various ways: Letty, the starry-eyed actress has ruined her chances with a handsome but normal young man and is now being courted (perhaps for nefarious reasons) by a famous actor; Astrid, the brash and...let's say passionate one has married the cheating, angry bootlegger and expects to live a life of leisure. Which is doubtful considering she's a flirt and there's an attractive body guard in the mix; Cordelia is the unlucky one who found her match in that fellow bootlegger child a long time ago and is now getting it on with a handsome but boring pilot. As promised at the very beginning, one girl will be married, one will be famous, and one will be dead.

I think Astrid is bound to leave her husband. We all knew that wasn't going to last. I hope Cordelia drops the pilot because he really has become pretty boring. And, again, I hope Letty will finally get over herself, somehow go back to the first cute one, and have enough confidence to actually make her dreams happen.

And I know it will all happen--whatever happens--in the most beautiful way imaginable. And while it is melodrama, it will happen in a very believable way, too. Because Godbersen knows her characters, and that makes them that much easier to love. So enough talking. I'm going to get reading.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Verdict, No. 17

 (find judgment here)
 Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
"What I wouldn't give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
In one word: wow. It's the first book where I agree with every back cover quote. And I found myself stopping to pencil down favorite bits and lines for future reference. And, by the end, all I wanted to do was read it again.

 It was that good. It was everything, and it was amazing.

Cloud Atlas is a beautiful tale of human resilience and what makes someone good. Is it something taught or experienced, or realized at the most dire time? It's a story within a story within a story within a story, and at the heart of it is a tale of a man unknowingly influenced by all the highlighted lives before him. It's interesting to imagine what impact a life has, and it's beautiful to see them ricochet between stories here. And if you wonder how Mitchell can pull off six stories in one book--ranging from nineteenth century letters of a sailor to a post-apocalyptic man unaware of what the world was--don't you worry about it. He is a genius of storytelling and characterization. Every story feels different, every character feels real, and every twist makes me want to read it over and over again.

It really was more than a book, more than an escape--it's a second life, and it claims you whole. I found myself mesmerized for hours, absorbed by each character and each varying story, landscape, lesson. Even for its heart--that being one of redemption and reincarnation, second chances--it never came off as preachy. Just metaphysical. And I loved the...wonderment.  It was astounding. Breathtaking. Intoxicating. Liberating.


I loved it. It's a new favorite, and I don't see it being replaced any time soon.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Judgment, No. 17

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
"Brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky."
I found this while watching movie trailers. Well, no, I watched the trailer for this movie and then, about five seconds later, I bought this book on rush order via Amazon.

See, movies are powerful. And if a trailer gives me chills, I hope the book sends me into conniptions of awesomeness.

Basically it sounds like a mess of stories that span time and place, where love triumphs and hope prevails and, above all, life is lived (insert oohs and ahhs here). I know, right? It actually sounds like quite the puzzle and I'm curious to see how these stories, so far-reaching, can interconnect in a way that doesn't seem trite or contrived. I imagine there's a bit to do with sci-fi, though hopefully no...aliens. I imagine there will also be sex and swearing (see previous post for that rant), but I hope beyond hope it will be, uh, tactfully done. Or this really will be my last adult novel.

Because this is also a book heralded by critics, trumpeted by writers, editors, publishers alike. Everyone seems to love it. And I hope it is because it really is a perfectly original tale done with artistry and craft rather than just some mess of events everyone is scared to complain about in case they're the only ones who didn't get it (like the movie The Tree of Life. Nobody actually gets it, they just don't want to be the one to admit it first).

But here goes. Another foray into the inexplicable and often dull world of adult fiction. Here's hoping there's less shock and awe and more just general wonderment. A girl does like to be wowed, after all.  

Verdict, No. 16

(find the judgment here)
The Dog Stars
by Peter Heller
"I wake from dream into dream and am not sure why I keep going. That I suspect only curiosity keeps me alive. That I'm not sure any longer if that is enough."
An apt example sentence if ever there was one. For this is exactly what I found myself wondering about...two pages into the book. What is it about adult fiction that makes writers suddenly feel free to go crazy? I know I am a self-proclaimed lover of young adult literature and people don't tend to take me seriously because of it. But maybe it's because adult fiction is really just a bunch of grown-ups trying to prove they're not kids anymore. But they do it in the most asinine way possible. 

Now, I wouldn't exactly call myself a prude. There are books with swearing, sex, or drug use that I can appreciate. As long as there's a reason for it--as in it makes sense. So the first few F words, fine. This guys living in a crappy world filled with awful people, I guess a dirty mouth only makes sense. But this book averaged about three F words a page. At some three hundred becomes a little excessive. And then there's the whole sex thing. I know, I know. People have sex. It happens. It's a thing of life. And men who go nine years without it I'm sure would naturally think about it were a beautiful woman to suddenly walk into their lives. But I don't need to know every awkward detail just because it's happening. With or without the sex scene, the book would happen. So why be so blatant and crude about it? Since when did vulgarity equal maturity?

It's kind of an unfair standard: if drugs, sex, and swearing are in YA fiction, people are up in arms claiming literature is ruining their kids' moralities. It's YA books that are banned from schools, too awful for their dear children to face. Books like Catcher in the Rye or anything Mark Twain. But when I read something about F-ing with some hot young thing and all the...let's say intimate details involved, I want to turn around and yell "Right back at ya." Cuz things here just got awkward real fast. 

This is why I read YA, people. 

And maybe it is just me, but I think this book would have been just as strong without all that. Okay, let's be fair: without so much of it. But I doubt it would have gotten so much attention. Because people like the shock and awe factor. They like inexplicable gore and violence and sensuality. You see it in movies, you see it in books. So maybe it's inevitable. Maybe I should let adult fiction be just that: adult. So let's ignore all that lovely stuff and focus on the story. Did I like it?

Maybe. I can't really say. I wasn't at all invested in the main character, Hig, or his life decisions. But I was interested in the world he was forced to reside in. And there was a certain effortlessness to Heller's Hemingway-like prose. It was simplistic. Stylistic. Choppy. Desperate. Interesting (once you got into the swing of it). Heller does a great job at characterizing a heartless world and, while there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to the plot, that same inexplicability makes this desperate world seem all the more real. And Hig's heartbreak for his dead wife is...beautiful. The obsession for the dog--practically titular--is unexplained. In fact, it's mostly forgotten after about thirty pages in when the animal, well, dies. It became almost awkward when Hig brought it up later--as if Heller realized that maybe if he wanted "dog" in the title, he should keep mentioning it throughout. Even as a way to keep someone from killing him. Cuz that would work on me.

So, yes, this is a chilling novel, a frightening world, and it's a story about a broken man's search for wholeness in a shattered world. There were definitely some heart-wrenching, hopeless and beautiful parts. But they were far and few between, tangled around a mess of distracting vulgarity. Call me quaint, but it just didn't work for me. So if this is the best of new adult fiction, count me out. I'd so rather have a taste of YA any day. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Judgment, No. 16

The Dog Stars
by Peter Heller
"Both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human." 
This is a new book in the ever-tired genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. Only this time it's not about girls and boys pretending to be grown up, sticking it to the man, fighting for their lives amongst zombies and vampires whilst falling in love with the mysterious new boy/girl. This is about a man and his dog and their search for happiness after they've lost everything. Well, after everything they've lost was taken from them.

So, it has everything I love (at least at this point in my life): dogs, disasters...and a lack of teenage drama. It sounds amazing.

But, really. Everyone from Oprah to the Salt Lake Tribune is raving about it. It's been a while since I've judged or even read adult fiction (now, don't be crude) so I'm not exactly sure how to go about this. The predictability of YA is gone. I would say, though, this seems like a cross between I Am Legend...and any number of dog-people books. I'm sure there will be love/making which could be beautiful/awkward. Hig, the main character, will probably be a callous guy whose only soft spot revolves around the memory of a wife and his faithful dog.

In any case, I am excited to read again. I am excited to read this. And I am excited to see if it really is as amazing as everyone is saying.

Here's hoping.