Daily Archives: 03/09/2017

CBR9 #11: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat did I just read and why did I like it?  And why is it called Universal Harvester?  I need this to be a book club book so someone can tell me what they thought was happening and we can hash out the whys.

Darnielle’s writing is breathtaking.  I mean this literally.  There is a sentence with a pronoun shift that made me gasp and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  One pronoun scared me.  A PRONOUN.  He has a powerful gift.  There are songs on The Mountain Goats album The Sunset Tree that I cannot listen to because the combination of his words, voice and music almost immediately knocks me into tears and I cannot have that.  His songwriting skills blend beautifully into his fiction and the flow and beats and pauses are just as lyrical.  Wolf in White Van did it to me, too.  I had to pause from time to time to sit with the words.

Adding a confusing as hell plot to such carefully crafted words made this a satisfying read.  I wanted to race through it because what the fucking fuck was happening, but I also want to take my time and enjoy the language.

We’re in Iowa.  Video stores are still a thing and Jonah works at the local Video Hut. Stephanie returns a video and tells him that there’s “something” on it.   A second customer returns a different movie and also tells him that there’s “something” on it.  When Jonah finally watches it and the added scene appears, it scares the hell out of him and gave me a stomach ache.

A barn.  Someone breathing.  Movement under a sack.

What is he seeing?  Was someone hurt?  Is this an art project?  A cry for help?  A threat?  Why is it so terrifying and why isn’t there an explanation?  Should he go to the cops?

Jonah’s boss Sarah Jane watches and becomes obsessed.  She recognizes that barn.  Stephanie also wants to investigate but Jonah wants to be done with everything.  Something is wrong.  It’s unexplainable.  He can’t sleep and he wants to forget what he’s seen.

The book is split by perspectives and time.  The first section is Jonah’s and was by far my favorite.  The mystery is creepy as fuck and Jonah is a strong character.  I enjoyed going through everything with him, even if I didn’t enjoy the content.  (Again, a pronoun shift scared me.)

The second part of the book is a flashback to a new character and mystery and I waited to see how it would catch up to the tapes.  The strength here was not understanding Lisa’s mother’s actions.  It’s a strong choice because Lisa cannot understand what happened, so we shouldn’t be able to either.  And even better, why did this mother’s choice result in someone adding creepy ass footage to VHS rentals?  Where is the logic in a time-consuming, detailed job?

Part three brings us back to Jonah and a reveal that explained nothing to me, and this is where I need a book club because whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat is going on and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are these videos being made and whyyyyyyyyy are people participating?  Everything was slow and sad and confusing and I felt like I was going crazy because characters were accepting things as if they were logical.  I couldn’t see the logic and I loved it.

Part four pops us into the future with a whole new cast of characters but the same old tapes.  More is revealed that made me flip back to part three because, again whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat is going on and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are these videos being made and whyyyyyyyyy are people participating?  Our future family sees Jonah on one of the tapes and has the same reaction as Jonah did when he first saw a cutscene.  The Pratts don’t know if they should go to the police or shrug it off as an art project.  But it’s creepy as hell and they don’t like it.

It’s still creepy to me because I know who these people are but I still don’t know why they’re participating and what the point to all of this is.  The creator of the films tells us why and states it with calm logic, as if we are foolish to even have to ask.

I did understand why videos were the medium used.  There is permanence to film, both video and photographs.  Visuals were used to both search for answers and send messages, so even though I didn’t get it, I was on board with why it was happening.

This book legitimately stressed me out and Darnielle led me through it all.  I was concerned for the characters and even gave pause to ask if I wanted to know what was happening in that barn.  I was concerned that it was going to be a total brain fuck and maybe I didn’t want to have it in my mind.  (See: Requiem for a Dream)  However, because I am already solidly in love with what Darnielle does, there was no way I was going to put this down.



CBR9 #10: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Jules miraculously lands at a creative arts summer camp her junior year of high school.  Even more miraculous, she is somehow taken in by the most popular crowd there.  The six of them decide they are the Interestings and Jules redefines her life based on what they see.

For reasons that Jules never understands, the beautiful and perfect Ash becomes her best friend.  Jules doesn’t see why she, or any of the Interstings want her around and she knows at any minute they will realize they’ve made a mistake.

Teenage Jules through late forties/early fifties Jules tells us this over and over and over and over again.  She is not worthy.  The rest of them are.

Ash’s brother Goodman is beautiful and Jules of course is enthralled by him.

Jonah has some sort of secret, but does he even know what it is?

Cathy is a dancer cursed with a woman’s body and too much passion.

And Fig is brilliant and talented and extremely unattractive.  So unattractive.  There are many reminders of this.

Early on we know that Something happens.  While the six are inseparable at camp, we know only four get together as adults.  We know Goodman disappears at some point.  And through all of this, Jules remains unsure of why Ash wants her around.

In order for this book to work you have to either be completely in love with Ash and understand why Jules defines herself by Ash’s existence OR you have to completely understand why Ash and Fig want Jules in their lives.  Or both.

The problem I had was that so much of Jules’ personality is believing to her core that she doesn’t measure up to Ash and Fig in any way.  Ash comes from money and knows at sixteen what she wants to do.  Fig’s talent is clearly going to lead him to success which will bring money.  Jules… what is her point?  She’s not going to be a comedic actress.  She’s not going to create art.  So what should she do?

The more Jules drowns herself in her self-bestowed mediocrity and acceptance that she’ll never be as good as anyone, the more I wondered why Ash and Fig wanted her around.  If her inner monologue was ever voiced, they would be so sick of her shit.  She never feels equal.  She never feels part of them, even as she explains over and over again that Ash is family.  But Ash and Fig constantly tell her that they would not get through life without her.

I didn’t see it.  I wasn’t in love with Jules, and while I could understand why she was in love with Ash, I wasn’t in love with Ash, so the book only worked for me in pieces.

When the Something happens, I was not surprised.  The aftermath is what was interesting (heh).  What happens to a family when a life-altering event happens?  How much do the adults define the reactions of the children, and when those children grow up, can they redefine themselves and logically review the facts of What Happened?  If your behavior was dictated by authority, do you ever question what happened and search for your own opinion, or do you take the simple answer and decide the adults knew what they were doing, so it’s best to go along?

Because of the Something, it was obvious that Something Else was going to happen and this kept me interested (heh).  At some point in the book, knowledge was going to be shared and I wanted to know what the fallout would be.  I wanted to know if that knowledge would be shared willingly or if there would be an accidental reveal.

While I waited, I was hoping Jules would either see her own worth or articulate why Ash was deserving of her adoration… or if she was deserving.  It seemed like there were too many moments where Jules doesn’t decide anything for herself.  Instead she acts the way she thinks Ash’s best friend should act.  At times I couldn’t understand why Jules’ husband fell in love with her if she was so caught up in what she was not.

But Ash and Fig are constantly telling us how important she is, and that’s another problem I had.  Wolitzer is a good writer and I want to try some of her other books, but there were moments where she told instead of showed and there was no reason.  At one point Fig makes a joke and knows immediately he’s gone too far when he sees Jules’ face.  But we don’t get to see her face, so I don’t know if she looked angry or shocked or was about to cry or turned red or turned away or what.  Fig tells us he went too far.  He tells us that Jules is important.  He tells us that he would never have had success if it wasn’t for her.  She can do no wrong, even when she does.  At camp, we are told that Jules’ is funny, but we never see it.  Too much telling in this book.

Ash is also defined by everyone around her, but because she is so sure of herself, I found her a more sympathetic character than Jules.  Ash was born into money so there are immediate expectations and behaviors.  She is defined by the Something that happens.  Growing up, Goodman’s behavior dictates her own.  If he’s going to be the troubled son, she has to be the perfect daughter.  I didn’t feel like she had many choices in her life, but what she did have was activity and action in the space she occupied.  Jules had to wait for someone to tell her what to do, or decide for herself what she thought they’d tell her to do.  It doesn’t seem to occur to Ash that she can’t do things because she hasn’t had many obstacles in her life.  And money gets things done.

Jules never felt like part of the story to me because she kept telling me over and over and over again that she shouldn’t be there.  It didn’t make sense that Ash and Fig insisted on her because I couldn’t see their version of her.

I was really disappointed in the ending of the book.  I don’t know if Wolitzer fell into the trap of not knowing how to end things so she chose a cliche, but something happens that forces people to get together and I wasn’t impressed.

I didn’t hate this but I also never fully bought into it.  Even when a fifty year old Jules makes a major decision, it didn’t make sense until her husband explained it to the reader by saying it to her.  Why didn’t I see this part of Jules’ thought process?  Was it an intentional writing choice to keep her apart from the reader the way she felt she was apart from the Interestings?

If you’re a fan of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, you’ll like this one.  If you hated that book because you hated everyone in it, give this one a pass.  Different books, but similar feelings of alienation and the rich, cool kids.