November 24th, 2015
I don’t read very many memoirs in this style (by which I mean, I guess, more conversational than literary), but this one was fun, particularly because my boyfriend recently introduced me to The Guild, which we’ve been watching on Netflix and which I’ve been liking a lot so far. Felicia Day (you may know her from TableTop? or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog? or some TV shows?) writes about some of what she does and how she ended up doing it, starting with her childhood (in which she and her brother were “homeschooled for hippie reasons, not God reasons”) (13). She includes goofy childhood pictures and images of pages from her diary and talks about how being homeschooled meant she had freedom to “be okay with liking things no one else liked,” though it also meant loneliness (31). She writes about how transformative the Internet was for her, especially after she got involved in a message board for people who played the game Ultima. (There’s a whole hilarious story about how, when she was fifteen, her mom drove her and her brother to New Jersey so she could meet up with her Internet friends from this message board, and how her mom encouraged her to kiss one of the boys in the group.) She talks about going to college young and dealing/not dealing with her perfectionism, which is a thing that comes up in her adult life, too, when she graduates college and moves to LA to act and, later, write. I really liked the parts of the book about the period when Day was writing/filming The Guild, and I don’t think just because I’m watching it now – there’s a mix of humor and emotion in the way Day tells that story that’s really satisfying. The scene where she goes to her neighbor’s yard to ask if his gardener can turn off the leaf-blower for a while (because she and the Guild cast and crew are trying to film and it’s too noisy) made me laugh out loud on the train. Not that the book is all humor: Day writes about her experiences with anxiety and depression and Hollywood sexism/idiocy and online harassment in ways that feel brave and real.
November 19th, 2015
This is the fifth of Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik novels, and I found it as delightful and funny as the others. The book opens at dinnertime, with Anastasia’s mom being distressed that she forgot to defrost any meat for dinner, again. “I just can’t get my act together when it comes to making dinner,” she says, and then, a bit later, “I am such a hopeless failure at housework” (2, 4). But thirteen-year-old Anastasia and her dad think that they can solve the problem: Anastasia’s mom just needs to be more organized about tasks that need to be done around the house, and for that, she needs a list. Anastasia’s dad gets it started—”Katherine Krupnik’s Housekeeping List”—but Anastasia points out that a) her mom hates lists and b) they’re actually all meant to be sharing housekeeping duties, as a family. And so: the “Krupnik Family Nonsexist Housekeeping Schedule” is born. OK, it says “Krupnik Family,” but most of the tasks are for Anastasia’s mom: she’s an illustrator who works from home, so she’s the one doing stuff around the house and taking care of three-year-old Sam when his morning preschool sessions are over, while Anastasia is at school and Dr. Krupnik’s at work. And the first day with the schedule is laughable: as she points out, there’s no room in it for unexpected events, and there are lots of unexpected events in her average day.
Which is something Anastasia learns for herself, very soon: in the book’s second chapter, on a Friday night, Anastasia’s mom finds out about an unexpected but very well-paying work opportunity that involves a ten-day trip to Los Angeles, leaving on Sunday. She puts Anastasia in charge while she’s gone, and, of course, hilarity ensues, and the housekeeping schedule keeps getting revised as Anastasia and her dad struggle to keep up with the normal tasks of running the household. It’s especially hard once Anastasia starts preparing for her very first date, which entails learning to cook a fancy meal. (Possibly my favorite scene in the whole book is when Anastasia is cooking. It’s extra-hilarious because a guy trying to sell tap-dancing lessons keeps calling the house, and Anastasia keeps telling him to call back because she’s busy/can’t decide. At one point, he calls just as she’s trying to figure out how to open the bottle of wine that the recipe calls for, and he walks her through opening it with a corkscrew, and it’s totally great.)
And oh, man, there are so many other funny moments throughout the whole book, like when Mrs. Krupnik is talking about how her boyfriend in junior high used to snap her bra strap, which she then has to explain to Sam, which then results in Sam saying, “I’m going to strap your bra” to his father (24). Or this, about Anastasia’s goldfish, Frank: “Frank was always wide-awake and cheerful in the mornings. He was the kind of guy who would go jogging at dawn, if he had legs” (45).
November 14th, 2015
Jenny over at Reading the End started her post about this book by noting that someone on Twitter described it as a “postcolonial Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” which was enough to pique my interest. I like books that are set in England at the time of the Napoleonic wars, but with magic (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, obviously, but also Sorcery & Cecelia and its sequels), and I’d actually been meaning to read something by Zen Cho for a while (this is her first novel, but someone I know recommended her short stories). So, yeah, I was in. And oh man, this was a fun read. It felt slow to get moving, but once it did, it was delightful.
So, right, the story. Zacharias Wythe is England’s first black Sorcerer Royal, and many of the other members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers are not pleased. He’s a freed slave who was taught by the last Sorcerer Royal, and there are rumors that he killed his predecessor, despite Sir Stephen having raised him as a son, and that he killed Sir Stephen’s ancient familiar, Leofric, too—no one has seen Leofric since Zacharias took up the Sorcerer Royal’s staff. To make things worse, Zacharias comes to power at a trying time for thaumaturgy: there’s been a marked decline in the atmospheric magic levels in Britain; it seems like magic is running dry, and something must be done about it. And Zacharias doesn’t even particularly want to be Sorcerer Royal: he was happier being Sir Stephen’s secretary and would rather be devoting his time to scholarly/magical inquiries, though Sir Stephen clearly intended for him to be his successor. As Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias has to deal with things like politicians trying to pull him into a magical dispute that the sultan of an island in the Malacca Straits is having with the witches in his country. As if that’s not vexing enough, he’s roped into giving a talk at a school for gentlewitches—where magical young ladies are taught to suppress their magic, because it’s not deemed suitable for women to cast spells unless they’re lower-class/working women. At that school for gentlewitches, meanwhile, is Prunella Gentleman, an orphan who’s been raised by the school’s headmistress. She’s half-Indian, and knows nothing of her mother, and little of her father. One thing is clear: she’s rather more magical than it’s proper for a woman to be. You can probably guess that Zacharias’s story and Prunella’s will intertwine, in interesting ways. There’s more plot than I want to go into, but it’s all pretty great: there’s the arrival of Mak Genggang, a witch from that aforementioned island, and there are dragons and fairies and other magical creatures, and there’s lots of humor and spell-casting and some romance, and Prunella is a total badass, and I am delighted that this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy.
(Note: throughout this post I’m going to use they/them/their as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. I known some people hate it, but I find it less clunky than “he/she” and “his/her” (which also implies a gender binary in a way I don’t necessarily think is appropriate here) and also less clunky than ze/hir.)
I like David Levithan a lot, but this is not my favorite book of his. The premise is interesting: A. wakes up in a different body every day. A. doesn’t know why it happens, or how, just that it happens: it’s been happening for their whole life, as far as they can tell. There are some things A. has figured out: they always wake up in the body of a person their own age, and they don’t travel large geographical distances unless the person whose body they’re inhabiting does. And it’s just for one day: at midnight, A moves on to a new body. A. has a personality of their own—I mean, A. is really pure personality, pure consciousness—but can also access the factual memories of the person whose body they’re in, so they know that person’s name, the names of that person’s family members, where that person goes to school, and so on. By age 16, A. is as used to the situation as they can be. But then one day, things change: A. meets a girl and falls for her and wants to see her again (and again and again). A. wants to be with this girl, Rhiannon, though obviously the logistics of A.’s existence make that challenging, at best.
So: the book gives us 40 days of A.’s life (well, the edition I read also had “Six Earlier Days” appended to the end), from the day they meet Rhiannon on. There’s the A./Rhiannon plotline, and also a plotline involving one of the other people whose body A. inhabited thinking A. is the devil, and then also the bits of all these people’s lives that A. sees/inhabits. This last bit is one of the book’s strengths, but also one of its weaknesses: at times it feels like a heavy-handed way to talk about various Serious Issues. A. wakes up in the body of someone addicted to drugs; A. wakes up in the body of a depressed girl; A. wakes up in the body of a mean girl who basically spends her days bullying everyone around her; A. wakes up in the body of a Spanish-speaking girl who works as a maid instead of going to school; A. wakes up in the body of someone who is a problem drinker. There was also one chapter that struck me as really horribly fat-phobic, when A. wakes up in the body of a dude who weighs more than 300 pounds. This, ugh: “his size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it. While I’m sure if I access deep enough I will find some well of humanity, all I can see on the surface is the emotional equivalent of a burp” (270).
But still, there is plenty to like in this book. I like the way Levithan writes about sensations—kissing, running, swimming, climbing a mountain—the way he writes about the experience of being in a body. And he’s really good at writing about moments of connection, whether that’s A. and Rhiannon singing along to an apt Kate Bush song on the radio or dancing in a basement at a party or skipping school to have lunch together in a Chinese restaurant, or whether it’s A. in the body of a girl named Zara whose girlfriend snuck in her window to spend the night with her, or A. in the body of Holly, whose love moved far away, or A. in the body of Mark, whose best friend is suggesting that maybe they should be more than friends.
October 28th, 2015
Earlier this month, I read Fangirl, a Rainbow Rowell novel in which the protagonist is majorly into the (fictional) Simon Snow series, which is a Harry-Potter-esque series featuring a magical Chosen One and a magical world at a moment of crisis. Carry On is not the fanfic novel that Fangirl‘s protagonist is writing, but it is a Simon Snow book—Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow book. Or, as the flap copy puts it: “Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story—but far, far more monsters.”
So, right: it’s Simon Snow’s last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and there’s a lot going on. Despite having been told, since the age of eleven, that he’s the Chosen One, he isn’t the most skilled magician around—just the most powerful one, and that power can be dangerous. Meanwhile his roommate Baz, who’s been a constant, if antagonistic, presence in Simon’s school life, isn’t back at school. Does Baz’s absence have to do with the possible civil war that might be about to split the magical world? And what’s to be done about the Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious force or creature that has been creating magical “dead spots” for years? And oh, how about the way that the last time Simon saw Baz, Baz was holding hands with Simon’s girlfriend, Agatha? Simon has to sort all this out and then some.
I liked the narrative style of this book, in which different chapters/sections are told from the point of view of different characters, including more minor characters. But the problem, I think, is that Rainbow Rowell is better at love stories than she is at ghost stories or mysteries. Or maybe the problem isn’t that, exactly: maybe the problem is that I read Rainbow Rowell books for the love stories, for the kissing and talking, specifically for the talking that comes before or after the kissing, the talking that involves the same characters who are doing the kissing: she’s really good at writing relationship stuff. And for the first half of this book, there wasn’t much of that, and it sometimes felt a bit slow. (Also, if you’ve read Fangirl, you know which characters are going to be kissing, and I just wanted them to hurry up and get there.) But I carried on (sorry/not sorry), and once the promised kissing arrived I was delighted, and continued to be pretty delighted for the whole second half of the book, so much so that I chose finishing this book over taking a nap on a day when I maybe really could have used the nap.
October 18th, 2015
Fangirl follows Cath Avery through her first year of college, and it’s totally charming in that way that Rainbow Rowell’s novels tend to be. It opens on move-in day, with Cath and her identical twin sister Wren both arriving at University of Nebraska–Lincoln. They’re not roommates—Wren’s choice, not Cath’s—and Cath is anxious about being on her own. Nothing is familiar or comfortable, except for all the Simon Snow paraphernalia with which Cath decorates her room. Simon Snow, in the world of Fangirl, is a soon-to-be-completed eight-book series about magic and vampires: it’s set at a school for magicians and is very Harry-Potter-esque, and Cath has always been really really into it. She and Wren used to write fanfic together, and she continues to do so on her own, and the world of the Simon Snow books provides a reliable place to escape to.
In the real world, meanwhile, Cath avoids her dorm’s dining hall for weeks, because she’s too anxious about figuring out where it is and how it works. She avoids talking to her roommate, Reagan, too, for a while, and also sort of avoids talking to Levi, the guy who’s always hanging around with Reagan, although Levi’s super-friendly to everyone, Cath included. She goes to class, and finds a writing partner in her Fiction Writing workshop, and spends most of her time in her room when she’s not at class, or at the library, or having lunch with Wren or other meals with Reagan. As the year progresses, Cath has to deal with various difficulties, including her dad’s mental health issues, the maybe-reappearance of her absent mother in her life, and how Wren parties all the time and won’t let Cath be as close to her as they used to be. But there are good things too, including a friendship/romance that is maybe the best thing about Cath’s freshman year, except when it isn’t.
This was a really pleasing book: I like the way that the narrative is interspersed with passages of both the fictional Simon Snow books and the fanfic that Cath is writing/has written about them, and I love the humor and emotion of the book as a whole, and oh, there are so many good bits of dialogue, humorous or otherwise. I also like the way Rowell captures why Cath writes fanfiction and how immersed she is in the community of fandom, which she’s been into since she was just “writing for Wren and the friends they’d made in the old Snowflakes forums,” and how that community is still important to her even as she’s a much bigger deal in it now, even though it’s no longer “just a bunch of girls trading birthday fics and cheer-up fics and cracked-out “I wrote this to make you laugh” stories” (50).
In the foreword to the edition of Oreo that I read, Danzy Senna calls the book a “hilarious badass novel,” and yeah, that sums it up pretty nicely (xi). Oreo is a satirical picaresque quest-narrative, with the protagonist (a half-black/half-Jewish precocious teenage girl called Oreo) playing the part of Theseus. It’s a very smart book and a very funny book, from the epigraphs page (which includes the disclaimer that epigraphs “never have anything to do with the book”) to the “Key for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.” at the end of the book (which recaps the Theseus myth and makes it clear which of the characters/scenarios Oreo encounters correspond to which parts of Theseus’s story).
So, right, the plot. Oreo’s parents, Helen and Samuel, get married despite the fact that she’s black and he’s Jewish and both their families disapprove. They get divorced when Oreo is very young and Helen is pregnant with their second child. Oreo and her brother, Jimmie C., are raised by their maternal grandmother: Helen is a traveling musician, and Samuel isn’t part of their lives at all. But Oreo is told that there’s a secret about her birth that she’ll need to discover when it’s time. When she’s a teenager, it’s time, and she sets out from Philadelphia to New York to find her father and learn the secret.
But the plot isn’t what’s really great about this book, though it is really satisfying in its shape, in the way that it fits with the Theseus story. What’s really great about this book is its form and humor and language. There are shorter named sections within each chapter, and these named sections contain everything from straight prose to diagrams to lists to letters to equations. It’s quirky and funny, with passages like this:
A word about weather: There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.(5)
Or this, about Oreo:
she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and precision, their rock and wry. When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, she said, “I am going to find that motherfucker.” In her view, the last word was merely le mot juste(37)
There are so many funny set pieces I can’t even begin to describe or quote from all the ones I like, but some highlights for me included a letter from Oreo’s mom to her and her brother about the time she had a job filling in dyeless spots on a faulty shipment of dresses, a whole bit about Oreo’s tutors, and the part where Oreo realizes she forgot to bring the gift she was planning to give her father, which is a plaster of Paris cast of his son’s uncircumcised penis.
Not that it’s all humor. As Harryette Mullen puts it in her afterword, “Oreo is a character whose linguistic and cultural competence allows her to travel between two distinct minority cultures, while enjoying the resources of the dominant culture and exploring her own identity” (215). Like Danzy Senna said: badass.
October 1st, 2015
Near the start of Photobooth: A Biography, Meags Fitzgerald talks about taking photobooth pictures with a friend in 2003 to celebrate the last day of classes of tenth grade, and how, after that day, she got very into photobooths: taking photobooth pictures, learning about the history of the booths themselves, and collecting photobooth pictures taken by others. The rest of the book talks about Fitzgerald’s experience with all those things, and also about various photobooth-related travels she’s taken, including a trip to California for the International Photobooth Convention and visits to photobooth warehouses in Montréal and Holland.
I am really fond of this kind of book in general—I find it easier to find “graphic memoirs” or illustrated travel journals or nonfiction comics that I like than I do to find graphic novels I’m excited about—and also, I like photobooths. So it’s not surprising that I really liked this book. Fitzgerald’s drawings of photobooths, photobooth pictures, herself, and various people she met on her travels are really satisfying, and pair well with the text. I liked reading about various different angles of photobooth history/production/art/culture, including but not limited to: how chemical photobooths work and what their charms are, and how they’re largely being replaced by lower-maintenance digital ones; the precursors to the photobooth and various inventors and companies whose work shaped the photobooth landscape; why photobooths appealed to Fitzgerald in high school, and how her relationship to them has changed over time, along with the art she’s made in them; how photobooths have been used by various artists and ordinary people throughout their existence. (Speaking of Fitzgerald’s photobooth art, I like it, and you can see more of it here and here.)
This book makes me nostalgic for my own photobooth experiences circa 2004-2007, when New York City, like other places, had more non-digital photobooths than now. I was amused to be reminded of the existence of photobooth.net, where the picture for the now-departed photobooth at the Wonder Wheel has me in it. More photobooth pictures featuring a younger me are here and here and here. Awww. Also, this:
September 24th, 2015
Speak starts with a prologue narrated by a doll that’s been “banned and marked for disposal” for being “excessively lifelike” (2). “I review stored information,” the doll says (3). It tells us it’s been “programmed to select which of [its] voices responds to the situation at hand: moving west in the desert, waiting for the loss of [its] primary function” (3). And so the stories that follow, the voices that follow, are people who have lost or are losing something, or multiple things: people, places, love, a sense of connection, a sense of purpose. There’s Stephen Chinn, who invented the babybots, those “excessively lifelike” dolls, and has been writing his memoirs from prison. There’s Gaby White, a teenager who, like others, was stricken with a spreading paralysis when her babybot was confiscated. There’s a married couple, Karl and Ruth Dettman, both Jewish refugees from Germany. There’s Alan Turing, writing letters to the mother of his childhood friend. And there’s Mary Bradford, a 13-year-old diarist in 1663, heading off to Massachusetts Bay Colony with her family.
I like the way the different sections/voices make use of a variety of narrative forms: there’s the straight prose of Stephen’s memoirs, but also letters and diary entries and, in Gaby’s sections, chat transcripts that are also exhibits of evidence from Stephen’s court case. And I like the way the different sections intertwine: the Dettmans were involved in the creation of the software that’s the predecessor to that used by the babybots, and Ruth Dettman worked on an edition of Mary Bradford’s diary. Images and themes recur: speech; silence; shells and spirals; Turing’s questions of where someone’s “mind-set” exists and how it can be preserved; Mary Bradford writing that her diary “shall serve as mind’s record, to last through generations” (37). And in addition to the theme of loss, there’s the theme of being trapped: in prison, in one’s body, in a marriage, at home, in one’s life.
I also mostly liked Hall’s writing style, which is often lush and lyrical, like in this passage from one of the Mary Bradford sections:
Next, rain. Rocks and meadows becoming silver, and trees waving like pennons. Dark green on one side, pale green on the next. Whole banks of trees, shifting from one hue to the other (70)
Or this, from one of Gaby’s sections, where she’s talking about taking a trip to see the ocean:
At first, it was so dark I could only see my reflection in the glass. I couldn’t see anything passing. But still, there was this feeling of movement. I’ve never felt anything like it. I think maybe human beings are meant to be moving. It was like I was vibrating at the right frequency. Slowly, dark shapes started to emerge outside the bus. They dripped past, like liquid. Liquid houses, liquid golf courses, liquid palm trees, liquid walls. A few lights on here and there. (300)
My one complaint is that the pace of the book felt like it lagged—it took me longer to finish this book than I expected it to, and partly that was because I was busy with other things, but I don’t think it was just that.
September 10th, 2015
In her introduction to this book of ten essays, Meghan Daum writes that when she was working on this book, she told people that it was “a book about sentimentality” whose pieces, she hoped, would “add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses” (4). She also writes that she “wanted to look at why we so often feel guilty or even ashamed when we don’t feel the way we’re “supposed to feel” about the big (and sometimes even small) events of our lives” (4-5). The book is also, she says, about “the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor—that we might not love our parents enough, that “life’s pleasures” sometimes feel more like chores—but can only talk about in coded terms, if at all” (5-6). All of which is really interesting, and had me really excited to read the book. And I mostly liked this book (except for one essay, more on which shortly), but I didn’t quite like it as much as I wanted to.
The good: Daum is clearly smart, and she writes well. She is great at openings: with a lot of these essays, the first few lines really drew me in. And I thought some of these pieces were incredible. I loved the book’s first essay, “Matricide,” which is about the death of Daum’s mother, and Daum’s complicated relationship with her, and about Daum’s mother’s negative/complicated relationship with her own mother. I also really liked “Difference Maker,” which I’d already read in the New Yorker but was happy to reread—it’s about not wanting kids, and what Daum calls the “Central Sadness” that was a feature of her marriage at the time the essay is about (in part because her husband felt like he might want kids, or at least, might not be OK with not having kids), and about being a mentor in the Big Sisters program and then a court-appointed advocate for a kid in the foster care system. “Invisible City,” about living in LA and what it means to be at home in a city (and about going to a party at Nora Ephron’s home, and playing charades with Rob Reiner and others) was also really satisfying. And I like the bits of “Not What It Used to Be” where Daum writes about being nostalgic for her twenties, for “the abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction” (83). This is great:
Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. (88)
I was less impressed/interested by other essays. “The Best Possible Experience,” about being a romantic or not/marrying early or not/dating people in part for the experience of it, had moments where it was hilarious, but also felt like it was trying to do too much, in too many different tones. “On Not Being a Foodie” also had its funny moments, and I can totally relate to Daum’s idea of contentment as a goal, but the central argument about staying inside a comfort zone felt a little flat. And I really really disliked the essay called “Honorary Dyke,” which felt incredibly tone-deaf: I felt like it bought into way too many stereotypes and conflated gender expression and sexuality in ways that don’t feel at all useful to me. Daum talks about how she “counted herself among the ranks of straight women who are ever-so-slightly unstraight,” and clarifies that she’s “not talking about being bisexual,” but about being “biologically straight, culturally lesbian” (93). This apparently means not having things like “long hair, long fingernails, [or] a skilled and thought-out approach to cosmetics” (ibid.) Or not shaving one’s legs. Um. But what about lesbians who have/do all those things? And why can’t non-lesbian femaledom be a broad enough category to include women who opt out of some mainstream cultural ideas of beauty? I was also bothered by Daum saying, in regard to a relationship she had with a woman, that the girlfriend “was playing the girl part” while Daum “was playing the guy part,” without acknowledging how stereotypical the roles/behaviors she’s talking about are, or that there are relationships (queer or not) where there aren’t really male or female roles (104). Blergh.