Review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: October 28 to November 13, 2016
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

People say if you face your worst fear, the rest is easy, but those are people who are afraid of rattlesnakes or enclosed spaces, not of themselves and the horrible things they’ve done.

[…]

Life was beautiful, everyone knew that, but it was also bitter and bleak and unfair as hell and where did that leave a person? On the outs with the rest of the world. Someone who sat alone in the cafeteria, reading, escaping from his hometown simply by turning the page.

[…]

I think of life as a book of stories. You move through the stories and the characters change. But once you have a name on your skin you are stuck with one story, even if it’s a bad one.

[…]

Don’t make me sit through reality.

Alice Hoffman has a nice way with words, even when those words are hard to swallow.

I don’t read contemporary fiction much these days or at all. I’m like the people who adamantly refuse to read genre fiction because sci-fi and fantasy? Ugh. But I’m like the exact opposite of those people.

Contemporary fiction? Ugh. About people? You lost me… fine. What’s so special about them? What do you mean none of them shift into animals or mythological creatures? What do you mean none of them are aliens crash-landing on our planet? What do you mean this city is set in our world and our timeline? What do you mean there’s no apocalypse in this story?!?!?!

I read contemporary fiction like I used to read assigned books: reluctantly and kicking and screaming all the way. Well, maybe not so much kicking, but there’s definitely screaming. And expletives. It’s all because contemporary fiction is too close to real life, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s like a shadow of real life, without the weight or consequence or closure. And oftentimes, contemporary authors leave their stories wide open just so you have something to “think about” (e.g. gnaw on while you curse their books). If I wanted reality, I’d turn to nonfiction. It’s the better imitation of reality, anyway.

That’s why I rarely read contemporary fiction. So I just wanted to explain that while this book is, by contemporary fiction’s standard, a perfectly good book with lots of things that would interest readers who like contemporary fiction, such as sharp prose, strong willed but broken characters, haunted pasts, difficult relationships, deep explorations of those relationships, and some magical realism near the end, it’s not for me. Save for the magical realism, the other things are just not what I’m interested in or look for in my reads–to much drama, not enough otherworldly-ness, and I prefer the other way around. Personal preference and all that.

The premise is this: Shelby Richmond and a friend were involved in an accident years ago. Shelby walked away from it, and the friend didn’t. The rest of the book is about how grief and guilt, mainly how Shelby deals with both as she constantly carries them around, as they constantly loom over every aspect of her life. So she learns to live with them, and then later on when she moves away to New York, to deal with them. There she meets other similarly broken people, and they teach she valuable lessons about dealing with the past and moving on. But finally, it’s her friend’s mother who helps Shelby through it the most.

I couldn’t connect to this story, so I can’t sum it up in a way that really represents what it’s really about. Good thing someone at Kirkus Reviews did just that. Just a warning though, there are a lot of spoilers in that summary, but I think the last line sums up this book quite nicely: “A novel full of people—flawed, scarred, scared—discovering how to punish themselves less and connect with others more.”

All in all, this book isn’t as magical or beautiful as the cover led me to believe, but that’s on me. I shouldn’t have assumed it’s anything like Practical Magic.

Other than those few “minor” things, this is a perfectly fine book, and I’d like to thank Simon & Schuster for sending me a copy. It seems I won it from a Goodreads giveaway, but I don’t remember entering… Not complaining. I rarely say no to free books. It’s just weird that I don’t remember.

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Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Rating: 
Date Read: May 01 to 06, 2016
Recommended by: book club’s choice
Recommended to:

This book’s a challenge to rate. Still don’t know where I stand or how to feel about it because there’s so much about it that’s uncomfortable, as it should be since we are unpacking a distorted history here. And yet it’s surprisingly not a difficult read. Uncomfortable at times, but not difficult.

We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.

[…]

So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.

The language is pleasantly smooth for such uncomfortable subject matter, and I can see why it won the Pulitzer, but despite the ease of the writing, the story doesn’t feel real. It feels like what it is–a fictional account, that benefits from perspective and hindsight and distance, about a personal narrative that’s supposed to emulate real events. But it never feels real. Not once during the read did I forget that I was reading a story. But maybe that’s the point? This is literary fiction after all.

Although I read it for a book club, the only person I want to discuss it with, so he could help me unpack it, is the author himself because he’s got some ‘splaining to do. Just kidding… sort of. But seriously.

* * * some spoilers below * * *

There are a couple of scenes in particular that I’d some explaining, but I no longer have the book with me and didn’t take notes (I know, I know–the nerve!). But let’s start with the most obvious. Let’s start with the scene with the squid on the beach. How is it relevant to the story? What does it even mean? I’m trying to see the bigger picture here, but can’t see how this fits into the narrative or even how it improves the story.

Please explain, Professor, for I am lost and mildly annoyed that you threw a scene like that into your book.

All kidding aside. Professor Viet seems like one of those intensely smart people who also happen to be easy to talk to. And I would love to hear about the origin of this story–how it came about; how he crafted it; how much of it was taken from real events; how much of it was taken from his own life; whose story is he telling here and why; to what purpose and what end.

You know, just simple questions…

* * * * *

A couple interviews with the Professor himself that I found after reading this book:

NPR

NYT

PBS (video)

I don’t understand the book any better now than I did when I first finished it, but these interviews provide a glimpse into his thought and writing process and his activism. I now understand where he’s coming from better than I did when I first finished the book.

Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 19, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: a lot of people
Recommended for: people who like realistic YA fiction

This book is ridiculous.

Ahem.

I mean, not for me.

Let’s start with some quotes

So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

[…]

It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.

[…]

Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.

[…]

I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.

[…]

I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.

[…]

It’s not life or death, the labyrinth. Suffering. Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?

[…]

“Sometimes I don’t get you,” I said.
She didn’t even glance at me. She just smiled toward the television and said, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.”

Oh the humanity. There’s only so much of these I could take before the book becomes papier-mache (if it weren’t a borrowed or library copy). I’ve never quoted so much from a book I can’t stand, but I think these quotes are worth noting. They’re representative of the book as a whole. If you like them, you’ll like the book.

Objectively speaking, this book is a quick read and it’s not bad, not as bad as I make it sound. The basis of the story is about teenagers at a boarding school. One of them falls for a girl named Alaska, but it’s unrequited and the rest of the book is about dealing with grief. So it’s a fairly average, sort of nuanced narrative about the pains of growing up that has echoes of its forerunners, Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye. What sets it apart from Perks and Catcher is all those quotable quotes above and a quirky cast of characters (and a manic pixie dream girl).

I had no expectations going into this book even though all I’d heard were good things about John Green’s writing, and after years of encountering rave reviews of his books and youtube videos, I finally got the chance to see what all the hype was about. His youtube videos–the educational ones–are great. They actually educate and cover a variety of topics and subject matter. I especially like his Crash Course series which covers literature, history, science, politics, and other subjects that might not be taught in some schools like psychology and sociology.

Green’s writing, however, is…just not for me. Not just because it’s YA, but because it’s wordy and tries too hard to be funny, heartfelt, and transcendent, all at the same time. Sort of like Nicholas Sparks but more self and socially aware, and aimed at a younger, hipper audience. So the result is prose that can easily be taken out of context and quoted all over the place–made into t-shirts, banners, posters, movies, etc etc. That’s the sense I got anyway, that Green’s writing tries too hard to be unparalleled and that I can literally see what he’s trying to do by telling this story. It comes across as forced and stiff and sometimes awkward. But maybe that’s a YA thing and it’s way over my head?

So in short, this book is not for me. It didn’t help that I found the plot and characters pretentious and overreaching, and I’m fully aware how that sounds coming from me, someone who counts Cloud Atlas, House of Leaves, and Infinite Jest among her favorites. So this isn’t a critique of the book or Green’s writing, but a reflection of my personal taste and why books like Looking for Alaska don’t work for me.

Sometimes pretentiousness works if it has a point and impresses more than repels. But sometimes it falls short and comes off as trying too hard.

Review: Jennifer Love Hewitt Times Infinity by Kevin Fanning

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: May 11 to 14, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: found during a bout of spring cleaning
Recommended for: people who like quirky stories

Interesting concept, nice prose. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

This collection of short–really short–stories isn’t actually about Jennifer Love Hewitt the actress, but in my opinion, what she could have represented had she turned out to be more famous and/or had more pull in the entertainment industry. Things didn’t quite work out that way for her career, but this book imagines they did. It imagines her as an important cultural icon who’s deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and for that, I will shelve it as “fantasy.” Kidding.

As you might assume from the title, it’s all about about JLH, but…not really. It’s all about her in the sense that each story features a character called JLH and everything is told from her POV. These stories explore a variety of things, but they’re mostly focused on entertainment, fame, technology, interpersonal relationships, mythology (or rather how we weave mythology), and generally how we shape our lives and how we make sense of them. Which I think is interesting.

The writing would have been just fine without the JLH gimmick. I might have enjoyed it more without the gimmick. But I suppose Kevin Fanning had to do something to set his work apart from other writers who were also experimenting with similar themes and ideas. To me, though, having JLH as the common thread that ties the stories together actually makes the whole collection seem dated, and not in a good way, not unlike the actress herself. All while I was reading I kept thinking about I Know What You Did Last Summer, which led to me trying to recall when it first came out in theaters–it was 18 years ago.

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Has it really been that long? Kids born in 1997 are graduating from high school right this minute. Where has the time gone.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t get this JLH gimmick. I mean, I understand the idea behind it and what Fanning did with it, but I don’t see the point of it. Like, why pick a middling actress with a barely remembered career (who has, arguably, no impact on shaping our modern mythologies at all)? Because Fanning likes the sound of her name? Because Fanning wants to make everyone (or me specifically) remember I Know What You Did Last Summer and in turn remind them (me) how much time has gone by (and/or how much older we’ve all gotten since the movie’s release)?

Not ironically, I don’t remember how I came to own this quirky little chapbook. It was probably a gift from awhile ago. I’d probably meant to read it shortly after receiving it. Maybe back then it would have meant something. Now, though, it’s just another reminder of how much time has passed.

 

[ETA] So why JLH, is what people want to know

A friend from book club, Jules, said something interesting yesterday. He asked, “Why not someone more famous? Why not Tom Cruise?”

Then someone else, Emmy, from a different book club who’d overheard our talk said, “Tom Cruise Times Infinity…??”

And all three of us were silent as we pondered the very idea of an infinite number of Tom Cruises.

Jules and I simultaneously had a mother-of-god moment.

Then Emmy said, “See what I mean? Isn’t one Tom Cruise already too much?”

She’s got a point.