Tag Archives: CBRIV

#47: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Ooof, how to review this?  I need to talk about the book before I can talk about what happens in the book.  Get comfortable because this is going to be long.

The previous knowledge I had of this book wasn’t actually about the book – it was about people’s reactions to the book.  When you pick this up, you’re also picking up the reputation of the book, and for me, it made for incredibly difficult reading.

I’ve heard many people refer to this book as their bible and that they’ve read it until it fell apart, marking up pages with their reactions or because a certain word or sentence or paragraph struck them with beauty or longing.  This concerned me because I was worried I wouldn’t get it.  I want to be in with the Kerouac lovers and their secret ways, but what if I hated it?  What if this was a club that I wanted to join, but the truth of the book went over my head?

I’ve also heard many people say they loved it when they were younger but when they went back and read it years later they didn’t like it.  This makes me suspicious because people say the same thing about Catcher in the Rye.  I love that book, but many people say you only like Holden when you’re young and when you go back and read it later you realize the book isn’t that great.  It also feels snobby.  “Oh yes… that book.  I read it when I didn’t know a thing about life and thought it was great, but now that I’m older and mature and have had real life experiences, I realize how silly and naive it is.”

And this brings me to my next obstacle before I even opened the book: hating something because it’s popular.  I get it.  I understand that there are times when something is so THE BEST THING EVER!!! that you don’t want to have anything to do with it.  I felt this way about the movie Titanic.  Everyone was talking about how it changed their lives and I was all “Yeah, no.”  (I did catch it on HBO or something years later, and yes, it is a good movie.)  My sister feels this way about Facebook.  She is determined to be the last person on Earth who doesn’t have an account.  People feel this way about a lot of authors because it’s cool to not like the mainstream.  Looking at reviews and general conversation about On The Road, there’s a lot of “Ugh.  I have no interest in reading that book.  What’s the point?”  This made me want to like it, because fuck that logic, and it also made me ready to hate it, because fuck Kerouac.  Win win!

With these thoughts, I settled in and began to read.

And stopped.  And started again.  And stopped.  And flipped back a few pages.  And read the wikipedia entry.  And started again.  And was frustrated with it.

I have a confession: I didn’t realize this was a novel until a good way in when people kept referring to the main character as Sal.  Sal?  How is that a nickname?  When I got to the wiki page I was all “Oh.  I feel dumb.”  Of course he changed it into a novel because then he could tell the truth while not having to get the facts perfect.  I approve of this.

I immediately lost track of which character was which.  Because they were based on real people I kept trying to remember who was Allen Ginsberg and forgetting who the characters were.  I felt like I should make a chart of everyone and how they knew each other.

Of course I was able to remember Dean.  Oh, Dean.  We’ll get to you later.

The language threw me for quite awhile.  I tend to like books that have their own rhythm and slang and language and dialect.  It takes me a few pages to get into it, but then I’m good to go.  But I kept getting hung up and getting frustrated and thinking about how people carry around tattered copies with notes frantically scribbled in the margins.  Were the words that I was failing to comprehend someone else’s mantra?

And then I got angry with the entire thing.  I decided that Sal was an elitist white boy who was slumming for fun.  Sure, there were times when he ran out of food and had to suck on cough drops to keep going, but he was able to wire his aunt to get money if he needed it.  I never got the sense that he was going to get abandoned somewhere.  He always had the option to go home.  This made me even angrier when he would wax poetic about how wonderful it must have been to be a slave and only have one purpose in life.  How wonderful it must have been to feel the sun on your back while you worked.  How wonderful it must have been to see a job completed when you returned home from a day of work.  Later he meets up and falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl.  He gets a job picking cotton and loves the work because he can rest on the warm soil and enjoy the feeling of his body as he moves through the field.  He quickly realizes he’s not cut out for the work and when his Mexican love and her boy come to help, he is heartbroken that their bodies have been designed for this kind of work and his has not.  Happily, he can pick up and leave anytime he wants because he can.  All those other folks who have to do this so they can get paid and just barely get by? How lovely it must be to only have that one purpose in life.

Are you fucking kidding me?

At this point I had a long back and forth email conversation with a friend who proudly subscribes to On The Road as a bible.  She has a tattered copy.  She loved it in high school, in college, and now.  She was really depressed that I wasn’t getting it and I felt like I was letting her down.  She pointed out that Sal is sad that his body is useless when it comes to real work and that the only thing he can do is sit and write.  He is jealous of those who can create with their bodies, either through physical work or through jazz.  The black jazz players have experienced things that Sal never can and he is in awe of their music and what it does to him.

I get it, but I was still really aggravated at the romanticized notion of what life must be like if you’re not while.  For a lot of people, it really sucked.

However, this email exchange did get me motivated to get back to the book and just read it without judgement and to put aside its reputation.  This kicked me into a different mindset and I really enjoyed Sal’s last trip.

And now we get to Dean.

Dean exhausted me, and not in a good way.  If you’ve never experienced someone in full on mania, you are very lucky.  Kerouac does an amazing job capturing the nonstop motion of Dean and while I did not enjoy these parts, I do realize that it’s incredibly good writing.  My problem was that Dean frustrated me because he is so out of control and everyone loves it, or at least accepts it.  They let him lead them, they get swept up in his mania, they make excuses for him, and they love him.  It drove me crazy.  At times I actually got physically uncomfortable because I wanted someone to walk away from him and be done or at least try to take control over the relationship or realize how he was not a good friend.  (More on that last part in a bit.)  I hated that he was the energy behind everyone because he’s so destructive.

I don’t know if this was an intentional metaphor or if it came from reality, but Dean’s relationships are just like his cars.  He gets a new one, mostly by stealing it, fills it with friends and plans, and then runs it until it is unfixable.  Several times Sal calculates how long it takes Dean to drive a long distance and it is ridiculous.  He doesn’t need sleep when he’s manic and he pushes the car as hard as he can.  As soon as it won’t run, he grabs another and away he goes.  His friends are the same way.  If someone is useful to him, he latches on.  His energy either willingly sweeps them along or overpowers their hesitance and off they go.  When something happens where a friend slows him down or somehow judges him or angers him, the friend is cast aside.  And when it comes to his women, they are sometimes as wrecked as the cars.

Again, while these passages made me twitchy, I was really impressed by the writing.  I felt out of control.  But I also felt incredibly irritated that no one else seemed to see this as a problem.  Well, not Sal or other main characters.  There were a few stops where Dean was told he couldn’t stay long and it would be a good idea if he didn’t come back.

I’m skipping Dean and his women entirely.  I know people are not going to like this because they see his relationships as a driving and important force in the book, but I can’t do it.  The way women are portrayed in this book would double this review and it’s already exhausting.

We get to Sal’s final trip and I really liked it.  Part of it was because of the emails with my friend, but a bigger part was that Sal was going solo.  His latest book had been published, he had some money in the bank and he realized he could just pick up and go.  This, of course, it was draws many people to this book – the longing to just pick up and go.

And Sal does go.  He decides he wants to visit friends and see parts of the country that he misses.

And then Dean decides he needs to be part of this and Kerouac writes my favorite passage of the entire book:

Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me.  I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers.  It came like wrath to the west.  I knew Dean had gone mad again.

My stomach sank at this.  I wanted Sal to be his own man.  I also paused because, holy shit, that is fantastic writing.

And this brings me to my final frustration and the end of this review: Sal’s realization of Dean.  (Spoiler alert!)  Dean, Sal and Stan head to Mexico and full on debauchery.  They want to squeeze every drop out of life in this moment.  They breathe in freedom.  I understand again why people revere this book.

And then Sal gets sick.

He becomes a useless car and Dean must abandon him.

In this moment, Sal realizes who Dean is and that while people want this madness, at some point it will burn.  You can’t expect him to be faithful to his friends.  Everyone in his life shrugs his madness off and excuses him as just being Dean.  The few people who do cut him loose still make excuses for  him, knowing he’ll never change and why would you want him to?

I was really looking forward to this moment.  The entire book was a love letter to Dean, and now that Sal realizes that he too can be set aside, there was going to be a flowing chapter about realization and despair and longing and abandonment.

One sentence.

Forty-five words.

And in the middle of this, he forgives him.  He at least knows Dean’s life is a mess and understands that Dean had to leave him behind in order to get back to it.  But still…  This entire madness leads up to forty-five words.

But this isn’t my story.  This isn’t me wanting to express my anger and irritation at Dean.  This is Sal’s story and his Dean and his understanding of who the man is.

I understand why this book is worshiped.  I understand why people clutch it to their hearts and want to be on the road.  I understand how and why people love it so much.

I didn’t, but I’m OK with that.  It wasn’t my language and it wasn’t my journey.

For those of you who have had to replace your copy because the spine finally gave up and pages fell out, I get it.

#46: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

I’m coming right out with it:

There’s a cat in this book and it dies.

I knew it was going to die from the moment it appeared, but FFS!  Can we get some books where stuff happens that doesn’t involve the death of a beloved pet?

Our protagonist in A Mang0-Shaped Space is Mia Winchell.  She’s been keeping a secret from everyone since she was eight years old and learned it had to be kept a secret.  She has synesthesia, only she’s never heard that term before and doesn’t know it’s a thing.  All her life she’s seen letters and words as colors and textures.  Intense sounds explode into colors in her head.  When she realized that other people don’t see the same things, she learned to pretend and hide it from everyone.

But she’s thirteen now and school is finally falling apart.  She can’t make the numbers be something different in math and she can’t make words match up to the wrong colors in Spanish.  After another F in math, she decides it’s time to tell her parents.

After a trip to the pediatrician and a disastrous visit with a cruel psychotherapist, Mia is sent to a neurologist to see if she has a brain tumor.  Lucky for her, the nearby neurologist is studying synesthesia and is able to tell Mia and her parents that while it isn’t a normal thing, it’s not going to kill her and it’s not something that needs to be cured.

Mia then explores her brain to see what else it can do.  She learns from others who have synesthesia and experiments with different stimuli to increase the sensations and intensify her reactions.

While she does this, it looks like she’s going to lose her best friend, have her first romance, continue to fail at school, and help a five year old boy.

I didn’t love it.

When the book started I was really into it.  You see Mia panicking and holding everyone at a distance.  She’s mourning the death of her grandfather and coming to terms with starting a new year in school.  She knows she’s not normal and wishes that she could just be liked everyone else.  It’s painful.  No one needs extra pain on top of the run of the mill teenage angst.  She has no one to talk to.

I thought that it was going to take a while for her to get caught or willingly reveal her secret, but it happens fairly quickly.   And then she takes off on a mad path to see what else she can do and how much she could control.

Here’s where things got weird for me.  On the one hand, I totally understood her celebration.  For the first time in her life she has a name for what she has… for what she IS.  She doesn’t have to hide it and she has an online connection to other people who have the same thing.  It makes sense that she’s eager to explore and share and learn.

But for some reason it fell apart for me here.  I didn’t feel like it fit her personality to shut everyone else out so completely even though she had kept them away from her secret for so long.  I wish there had been more exploration for this giant shift in personality.  I know that it makes sense, but at the same time I wish Mass had shown it more.

Mia’s friendship issues worked well.  A lot changes for girls in the eighth grade.  Boobs start appearing.  Priorities change.  Boys become interesting.  Schoolwork become challenging in different ways.  There are plenty of books that just explore these issues.  Throw synesthesia in and you’ve got an entirely new path to explore these problems with.  Along with her best friend, Mia has other girl friends to share with and push away.  For the most part, I liked these scenes.

I did feel like some of the the conflicts got too easy.  Mia has a huge falling out with her best friend.  There are a few moments where the friend explains why she’s so hurt and it makes sense.  We see their relationships before Mia tells people her secret and to have it change so drastically so quickly didn’t work for me.

Her first romance, on the other hand, did work for me.  It was awkward and unexpected and it felt very realistic.

And then, of course, her cat dies and things change.

Why do the pets always have to die?

I think this is a great book to learn about synesthesia.  I liked the characters and the story, but overall it wasn’t a huge win for me.  It did make me wonder about my own math games.  Growing up, I assigned personalities to the numbers one – ten to help myself get work done, especially when it came to multiplication.  I always figured I had an overactive imagination.  Was that a mild form of synesthesia or did I just like to make up stories?

In case you’re wondering, eight is a fucking bully.  I hated that guy.

#45: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a book that has been on a ton of READ THESE BOOKS OR DIE! lists since it was published last year.  I kept flipping through when I saw it in the store and added it to my TBR list, but for whatever reason, I didn’t pick it up.  Since the paperback was recently released, my book group decided it would be a good choice for October, so here we are.

There have been many reviews of The Night Circus in this and last year’s CBR. Several friends gave it five star reviews and have added it to their lists of favorites.  I liked it a lot, but don’t have the passionate love that they do.

It’s a fairly simple plot, which I like because then the details can get insane.  Two magicians have been dueling for ages, only they never go after each other directly, each choosing a student to fight for them instead.  Prospero the Enchanter is delighted that he has found a winning player when his five year old daughter is delivered to him.  Testing her skills he knows that she will be able to destroy anything Mr. A.H. can find.  The two agree to the same rules, although Mr. H. does pause and ask Prospero if he is sure he wants to bet his own daughter.  The pact is made and the game begins when Mr. A.H. plucks an orphan from obscurity and surrounds him with books to prepare him for the challenge.

Celia and Marco are doomed without knowing what has happened.

The two magicians leave much of the competition to fate.  They do not know how the game will be played, when it will start, or even what it will look like.  Years pass and the two students train constantly, even though they don’t know each other, don’t know the rules, and don’t know how the game is played.  All they know is that they will compete and one must win.

Fate chooses the game to be held as a circus.  Chandresh Christophe Lefevre is chosen by Prospero to bring Celia and Marco together.  Chandresh doesn’t know what’s happening, only that he wants to create an amazing circus, something no one has ever seen before.

Almost without realizing it, Celia and Marco begin the challenge within the circus itself.

Things get very confusing at this point, but it works because Celia and Marco don’t know what’s going on.  Marco isn’t able to travel with the circus and had to bind himself to it on opening day so he can keep track of Celia.  Celia doesn’t realize that Marco is her competition for some time, but knows that she must keep growing the circus from within.  She uses her magic to create amazement for the visitors.  They are enthralled with the tents, the food, the music, and the performers and are swept up in the fantasy.  No one ever pushes themselves to look for the wires and strings that must be holding everything together.  They simply smile and enjoy the magic, not realizing that it actually is magic.

It was obvious early on that Celia and Marco would fall in love, and of course they do, and of course this causes problems.  They still don’t know how the game ends.  If they try to quit or walk away, they can’t.  So, they keep creating magic and pushing themselves to strengthen their skills and create new levels of magic. Their respect for each other pushes them to create more and more powerful pieces and it seems that neither will win.

Eventually things are built too high and begin to crumble.  Marco realizes he made an unforgivable mistake when he bound the circus.  Chandresh and the other architects begin to push against the magic, not realizing what is happening. Celia slowly begins to understand the rules and doesn’t know what will happen to the circus performers once the competition is won.  They have become her family and she is terrified to hurt them, but knows she cannot walk away.

For me, the strongest aspect of this book was the supporting characters.  At times Celia and Marco’s story doesn’t feel like the main one, even though everything revolves around the two.  We have moments from other POVs and get to see the circus in very different way.  I wanted to know what the sacrifice was going to be and where it was going to touch.  No one was safe and I quickly sped through the last part to find out how it would end.  These characters played wonderfully against Celia and Marco because there was so much love and friendship.  Neither of them was raised with kindness, yet they responded to it and wanted to protect the others even if it meant losing the game.
I also enjoyed the pacing of the book because time felt fluid.  It was confusing at times to flip back and forth between the chapter headers to see when you were and what had already happened or hadn’t happened.  Thing slowed down a lot in the middle, but this worked for me because I felt like Celia and Marco were in a holding pattern.  They knew what they had to do, but not how to do it.  Or where.  Or when.  Or to whom.  When things started revealing themselves, the book began to pick up speed and fly to the end.

I was pleased with the ending of this book because a choice had to be made.  Neither could walk away and someone had to win.  The way they created the circus meant that it couldn’t continue forever, no matter how powerful their magic was, together or as individuals.

I wish the Night Circus was real.  Not so much the part with the cruel competition, but I want there to be a place where everyone believes in magic and  pauses for a moment to watch it happen all around them.

#44: Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell

I love Sarah Vowell because she loves America.  Not in the scary “We need to take our country back!” kind of way where things can go real bad real fast if you don’t believe in the right god or have the right skin color, but in the kind of way where she ponders our history and realizes, fuck yeah!  America!  See the difference?

I really enjoy all of her books because she is so smart and so funny.  I always feel like we’re BFFs and she’s excitedly telling me about the latest thing she’s discovered in the library or sharing a tale of bemused exasperation at her family.  Yes, I know I don’t know her in real life and I’m not going to stalk her and pet her hair until she hugs me or anything, but she is awesome and if I ever saw her in real life I would probably panic and either look away or be all “I know about assassinations because of YOU!!!  …  Because of your book!  YOUR BOOK ABOUT ASSASSINATIONS!” and then other people would be all “WTF?” and if we weren’t in NYC when this happened then the cops would be called but if we were in NYC then, honestly, people would probably just shrug and go about their business.  They might not even shrug.

Anyway…

Take the Cannoli is a collection of previously published essays.  From watching her dad shoot off his homemade cannon while she belts out The Star Spangled Banner to a tale of the depression that is Disney World (did you know Chester A. Arthur was a person?  AND THAT THIS PERSON WAS PRESIDENT?  OF THE UNITED STATES???), this book is everything a Sarah Vowell fan could hope for.

Seriously, she works in the phrase “without the men jerking each other off” when talking about Tom Sawyer Island at Disney World.  And it makes sense.

I was very disappointed when I could get my hands on the audio version of this book.  I’m not even sure there is an audio version, which is sad because if you’re going to read a Sarah Vowell book, have her read it to you.  She’s super sarcastic and a simple sentence becomes a tear inducing belly laugh when she puts in the right pauses and tones.  I’ve had her audio books before and laughed so hard that I thought I should pull over before I drove into something from not being able to see through the tears.

Some people reading this might be wondering what in the hell is wrong with me.  (People who know me in real life don’t need this review to ask themselves that.)  I realize that she is a very specific taste and I’m sure there are many who think she’s boring, unfunny, and that her voice is unpleasant.

Those people are dead to me.  SHE IS A NATIONAL TREASURE.

These stories aren’t connected in any way, other than some reoccurring themes.  There isn’t a vacation to Hawaii or to presidential assassination sites.  She’s not telling the tale of America by discussing the Puritans.  These essays were published at different times in different publications, all gathered together for my enjoyment.  In some ways, this was a little disappointing because I really enjoyed her other books that followed a clear path to tell a tale, either historical or personal… or both.  On the other hand, there was something wonderful about reading her account of hiring people to make her goth, then flipping a few pages to see her learning how to drive, then reading another story about Frank Sinatra.

She loves America because she is so much of it.  She loves The Godfather, as referenced by title of the book.  (Which I didn’t recognize because I haven’t seen The Godfather.  Shut up.  SHUT UP!  I KNOW!!!)  She loves aspects of Disney World.  She loves politics.  She’s part Cherokee, so she’s part Original America.  Did I mention that she’s smart and sarcastic?

For me, the most powerful piece is when she and her sister drove the Trail of Tears.  She wants to know more about where this part of her came from.  She already knew the details from books, but she wanted to feel the ground beneath her feet and measure off the steps as they drove.  I liked this part a lot because she already had the book experience, but now she was getting the reality experience.  Reading about something is one thing, but then standing somewhere where bones are probably buried is something entirely different.  She was angry and sad and argumentative and horrified that people don’t know what happened and aren’t as angry as she is.  The Trail ends where she is from and as she processes the experience she is surrounded by family, friends, and home.  It’s confusing because she straddles different parts of America, but it also makes sense because it’s who she is.

If you love people who love intelligence, start reading Sarah Vowell’s books.  And please get the audio versions if you can.

#43: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I managed to avoid all spoilers about this book.  I refused to read any interviews, book reviews, or any other posts about what people thought.  I didn’t look at any ratings, other than to note that it’s averaging 3.4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The main reason (maybe the only reason) I read this was because J.K. Rowling wrote it.  Unless it showed up on a ton of OMFG YOU GUYS HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!! lists, it wouldn’t have appeared on my radar.  I don’t know how to categorize this type of book.  I guess it’s realistic fiction, and maybe I don’t read much of that.  Looking at this year’s CBR, the only two fiction books like this I see are The English Major by Jim Harrison and  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler.  Everything else has a twinge of faerie or fantasy or alternate reality, or historical fiction with the author’s own bias.   But this book was written by Rowling, so here we are.

One way a casual vacancy happens is when a current council member dies. The seat must be filled by special election, unless the remaining council members are able to appoint someone through majority.  Our story starts with Barry Fairbrother dying from an aneurysm and creating a casual vacancy.

All the joys of small town politics pour over the pages, heavily laced with small town gossip.  It quickly becomes apparent that there’s going to be a fight and an election will have to be held.  But that’s not what this book is about.

And it’s delightful when you realize this.

Like in many small towns, there is a group of politicians that feel they are always in the right.  They understand what the town needs, where it came from and where it must go.  They often want to preserve the integrity of the town and you get the sense that they are worried about…well… other people.  Outsiders.  They absolutely belong to the NIMBYs.  Things need to be done, of course, but it’s important to take care of those who make a difference.  Why use resources on something that won’t give back?  They will gladly spend money to plant flowers in the middle of town, but to put up a bus stop shelter in a lower income area?  Why, that would be wasteful!  It would be vandalized within a week, so why waste time and money?  Besides, they and their families have lived in this town for generations and there’s never been a bus stop shelter before, so why do these interlopers deserve one?

These people are happy with their power and surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and admirers.  The know how to work the system and do everything they can to make sure people know that they are the important ones in town.  They throw perfect parties.  They intimidate the hell out of other people, and they know it.  And they get a thrill every time it happens.

On the other hand, you have people who also care about the town, but they care about all parts of it.  They recognize that many people don’t fit in to this upper tier.  Perhaps they came out of a lower socioeconomic status themselves.  They believe in investing in people and that money spent on services will help everyone.  Why plant flowers when you can offer scholarships for the poor kids?    Why spend money on people who can spend it on themselves?  Perhaps they are idealistic, but with the right personality, they can fight as hard as the other group.

Add some bad blood to the town’s history, and welcome to Pagford.

Again, you might think that this is a book about politics and power and elections, but it’s really not.  It is about power, and lack of power, but it’s also about secrets and the lives we live behind closed doors.  All it takes is for one little tremor to knock things over.  Barry Fairbrother’s death is far more than a little tremor.

Barry  is solidly in the second group and believes that you give back to where you came from and help up the next generation.  If you found success, it is your responsibility to reach back and teach someone else how to succeed.  When everyone takes a step forward, everyone wins.

The problem is the people who need to take a step forward aren’t very pretty.  Or educated.  Or polite.  They don’t speak properly.  They don’t have the right accents or clothes.  They’re poor.  And frankly, many in town feel that they should be left where they are, or, even better, handed over to the adjoining town.

This is what the election circles around.  Which camp will win and will social services be cut or will the methadone clinic stay open.

But, again, that’s not really what’s going on.

The true story is who people really are and what happens when secrets come out.

Each chapter is told by a different community member, so we get to see all different sides of the town.  From the powerful politicians to the powerless teenagers, everyone is either hiding something or bursting to tell their story.

No one is safe and when messages from The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother start appearing on the council’s webpage, things get ugly.  Publicly ugly.  Gossip is gleefully passed, especially among the upper echelon.  Of course this changes when they realize they are also targets.

The election gets closer and closer, but we don’t see campaigning or back room deals or speeches.  Instead we see the very deepest secrets of town members and what happens when truth is forced out.  Sometimes it happens over a kitchen table and sometimes it happens in public, but truths are revealed and nothing can be the same.

It took me a while to get into this book because town politics both bore and frustrate me.  With the Presidential election happening, I’m about ready to crack.  I didn’t want to get involved with a fictional election, but then I realized what this book was really about.  Once stories started being told, I was in.  I especially enjoyed seeing the same events from different points of view, and I liked that some characters didn’t get a voice at all.  I think Rowling very pointedly did not write from Barry’s widow’s point of view.  Although the story starts with her husband’s death and events happen around her and because of her, this is not her story.  Hers is a tale of mourning, of reconstructing, of building a life for four children and no husband.  We know that tale.  That’s not the one Rowling wanted to write about.

Another thing I liked about the multi-POVs were the different voices.  We have sullen teenagers, exhausted blue collar workers, business owners, social workers, and more. They each have a different view of Pagford and their role in it and I enjoyed seeing the town through the eyes of so many people.

There are times when I think authors use death simply as a plot device to get to the next thing.  Two characters need to reconcile or split up forever, so someone dies.  I hate it.  It’s a cheap trick.  Here however, Rowling uses death to prove a point.  Things do change when people die, but not always in the way you think.  Of course Barry’s widow will be forever changed, but what happens to the people who never even knew him?  How do we view death and why is one person’s passing more important than another’s?  Why is it OK to make some people a hero after they die while others are distasteful and their passing a dirty inevitability?

Truth and death.  Secrets and gossip.  Love, friendship, sex, anger.

Reality is all over these pages and I love how Rowling used a simple political moment to capture the layers of this imaginary town.

#42 Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that you knew wasn’t going to end well, but for some reason you stuck with it?  You had a sinking feeling in your stomach that slowly hardened into a rock and just sat there, pressing down, letting you know that things were not going to be OK at the end.  Bad things were coming.  You know it, but you’re going to stand here and watch.

That’s this entire book.

As soon as I started reading I kept asking myself “Are you sure you want to do this?”  For some reason I decided that yes, I did want to keep reading.  I prepared myself to be shocked, sad and depressed.  I knew before I even finished the introduction to the author and his writings that this was going to be one of those books that you can’t shrug off and walk away from and it was going to leave me physically affected.  I was going to be twitching off the sensation of not wanting to remember.  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien did this to me.  I kept wondering why I was reading the book and I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but the book felt important and I felt like I should know what happened, and that’s why I kept reading Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.

I haven’t even gotten to the part where I talk about the book and my face is already twisted into a grimace of not wanting to think about this anymore.

Here’s Goodread‘s summary:

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids recounts the exploits of 15 teenage reformatory boys evacuated in wartime to a remote mountain village where they are feared and detested by the local peasants. When plague breaks out, the villagers flee, blocking the boys inside the deserted town. Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor is doomed in the face of death and the adult nightmare of war.

I read this and thought Lord of the Flies.  I can handle this.  I read Lord of the Flies.  Once.  In high school.  I don’t remember being freaked the fuck out by it.  I’m debating picking it up now to see if it will wash away the sadness of  Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  by not being as horrible.

I don’t even know how to review this book.  There are semi-spoilers, but not specifics.

Basically if there’s anything in the book that you like, don’t.  It’s going die, or be killed, or get ruined, or go away.  There is no lasting happiness in this book.  A small event would happen that would be nice and a character would be happy and I would be destroyed because I knew something horrible was on the way.  The youngest, sweetest boy finds and falls in love with a dog.  Yep.  We all know what’s going to happen there.  A girl is left behind in the village with the boys.  Yep.  Although I was pleased that she didn’t get raped to death, so there’s a bonus.  The boys have a small victory by finding food and having a festival?  Yeah, that happiness will be done by the time the sun comes up.

The most painful and beautiful thing about this book is the love the nameless main character has for his little brother.  The narrator is older than most of the boys and is one of two unofficial leaders.  Minami is the other, and he is quickly revealed to be calculating and quick.  He doesn’t care for much other than survival and while he has moments of kindness and fun, you know he’ll drop it in a second if he thinks he can profit from cruelty   With the narrator, you get the sense that he is cold and you know that he has committed crimes because he is part of the reformatory school, yet he doesn’t come across as being as hard as Minami.  We see him cradle his little brother when he sleeps and tries to protect him from being cold and scared.  His brother is able to keep a piece of innocence even though he is surrounded by war and violence and the criminal boys.  The younger brother is not part of these boys.  When his father found out that they were being evacuated, he dropped the boy off, figuring he would be better provided for.  He is excited and enthralled by their tales, seeing them as daring creatures and not understanding the danger.

When the plague hits and the boys are left behind, Goodreads lies.  “Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor” doesn’t happen.  They realize they are alone, they are pissed, and they break into all the houses to wreck things in their anger.  They don’t put anyone in charge, although they do listen to the narrator when he tries to organize things.  They eat and wander around and are bored.  There is no plan to create some sort of society.  They just kick around and wonder if the adults will come back.

I wonder what would happen if the adults hadn’t come back.  A Korean boy who was also left behind joins the group and teaches them how to hunt for birds and there was some food left behind, but there are no long term plans.  When people start to get sick, the boys panic.  Minami quickly moves into survival mode and will do anything to protect himself.  He works to gain the support from other boys, although I’m sure he’d easily knock them aside if he needed to.  If the narrator didn’t have his brother, he’d probably be the same way.  Minami is a great mirror character for him and I’m curious what this book would be if it was told from Minami’s point of view.

In the end, the adults do come back.  And of course they bring their power and their rules to these boys that they detest and were forced to take in.  They crush any semblance of independence they have created and the boys are immediately placed back into their powerless, outsider roles.

This brings us to the central question of this book: What would you do for the greater good?  For Minami, it’s about survival.  Will he stay independent if he thinks it will lead to escape and freedom, or will he stay put knowing he has a sense of power over the other boys?  Will the narrator fight for himself and his brother?  If you know that you will be defeated, is it better to fight and be knocked down, or to be silent and safe?  The villagers have no connection to these boys at all.  They could easily kill all of them, although they do fear the government and they soldiers who will return to check on them, but will they kill a boy or two if it means protecting their own families and friends?

Part of me wishes I hadn’t read this because it’s so horrible, but at the same time I’m glad I did because it is so powerful.  Having the story told through the boys gives it this sense of innocence even though they are anything but.  There are a lot of penises getting waved around.  But they are boys and this makes them powerless when adults are around.  But the adults are powerless when the soldiers are around.  And the soldiers are powerless when there is war.  People latch onto whatever is going to give them comfort or a sense of control, even if it means others are killed.  Will people protect a group, or will they kill everything if it means they individually get to live?

Having the introduction to Ōe, his life, and his writing was incredibly helpful.  I didn’t know anything about him, and reading this made me understand the story.  I think that’s the reason why I stuck with it and didn’t immediately return it to the library when I realized how ugly it was going to be.  It was truth, it was his truth and I felt by reading it, I was honoring it.

I don’t know who I would recommend this book to.  In a way, I don’t want people to read it because it’s so harsh, but at the same time, it should be read.  Just don’t pick it up if you’re feeling emotionally fragile.

#41: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas

Why oh why do I not keep a stack of little sticky notes next to the bed, especially when I’m reading a book like this?  I kept thinking “Oooh, I’m going to want to talk about this part!” and then I guess I thought I’d magically remember the page when I sat down to write my review.  I’m awesome, but I’m not that awesome.

I love non-fiction books that are solidly researched and then written in a conversational tone.  There’s a time for textbook-like writing, but I prefer non-fiction where the author’s voice comes through.  Sarah Vowell does it and whenever I read her historical books I feel like we’re hanging out and she’s all “Oh, hey!  Did I tell you about President Lincoln getting assassinated?  Check this out…” and then we laugh and laugh and are best friend forever.

Douglas writes in this same way here and I really enjoyed it.  A different author could have easily made this a book of facts and I would have zoned out quickly and put it aside as things I sort of already knew, but am not interested in reading about in terms of numbers and percentages.  Instead, Douglas pulls from the research and applies it to pop culture and media and says “OK, look.  Here’s what the data tells us, but let’s look at what’s happening on TV.”  I appreciated this approach, and while it still didn’t make for a quick read over a day or two, it was a pleasure to spend time with it and think about my own stance on feminism.

Back in March of 2011, I wrote a review for Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More by Marina Warner.  As I was reading I was already formulating how I would talk about this book in a way where I could refer to being a feminist without sounding like That Type of feminist.  Here’s what I managed to stammer out:

It’s a huge pain in the ass that I can’t just be a feminist anymore.  I have to be a humanist.  Or I get to be a “feminist AND” or a “feminist BUT”. Everything is so watered down and angry that you have to explain what you are by immediately pointing out what you aren’t.

So…I’m a feminist BUT I don’t hate men.  I’m a feminist AND I think we need to work to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

Mostly I just hate people.  But I try to do it equally.

I think I really nailed it with those last two sentences.

So here we are again.  The conservative right wing has infiltrated the media so thoroughly that feminists back away from the word and try to come up with something more politically correct and not off-putting.  We all know that feminists hate men, don’t wear makeup and wear ugly shoes.  They have no sense of humor and will drag your ass to HR if you only use male pronouns.  And of course they are all exhausted from killing their children, practicing witchcraft, and becoming lesbians.

This really pisses me off.  Not only has “feminism” become a bad word, but I’m totally on board with trying to find a new word!  Why do we have to reclaim our own word?  For fucks’ sake people!

However, this isn’t a book arguing about the merits of defending feminism.  It is a book about how many of us have been tricked into setting that term aside, and now we can put on booty shorts and beat the shit out of each other on reality TV because it’s our choice, not any man’s.

We won, you guys women!  We totally won!!!

There’s so much to talk about with this book, but I think I’m going to stick with reality TV.  Douglas brilliantly deconstructs the roles women play on reality TV and I was pretty pissed that I didn’t always realize what was happening.  There are shows where women are put together for the sole purpose of getting drunk and ripping out each other’s hair.  The producers carefully pick girls who they know will be combative, then fill the house with booze and cameras, sit back and wait.  These shows are easy to identify and can be avoided.  After all, we’re not all those kind of girls and we can roll our eyes at immaturity and location.  It sucks that girls aspire to get onto that kind of show, but we know what we’re getting into if we stumble onto a marathon.  And we can laugh about how much better we are than the participants.  Need examples?  The Bachelor, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, Bad Girls’ Club, Super Sweet Sixteen, later seasons of The Real World… I don’t want to continue.

But then there are the supposedly balanced shows, and here’s where things get scary.

The Survivor and The Apprentice, chose to show women and men equally.  Here was a reality where everyone came in at the same level and anyone could win.  But what happens?  The women all turn on each other.  Women are “emotional”.  They are “bitches”.  They are “two-faced”.  They criticize each other using women-only terms.  And there’s always the double standard where men are aggressive and powerful but when women behave the same way they are ball busting bitches.  There’s a way to win, ladies, and you don’t do it by behaving like a man.  Say “please” and “thank you” and guide activities.  Don’t ever demand and don’t be too assertive.

The message these “balanced” shows teach us is that reality always ends up with women backstabbing each other and refusing to work together.  Even if all-female teams win challenges, they do it with name calling and are dysfunctional.  And since this is a reality show, this what all women are like.  No one scripted these fights.  No one told a woman what to say.  These are real women behaving in real ways that happen in real life.

This is reality.

And how frustrating is it that real women watch these “reality” women and cringe when they act this way?  “Oh me?  Well… I wouldn’t call myself a feminist…  At least not that kind feminist.  I mean, I wouldn’t ever act like she does.  It’s so… off putting.  She should be nicer.  People would like her if she would just be nicer.”

There’s so much more to talk about with this book, but I really want everyone to just get it and read it.  If you’re turned off by the term “feminist” then this book is for you.  If you identify yourself as a feminist, then this book is for you.  If you’re curious about how mass media shapes decisions women make and how males view us, both positively and negatively, this book is for you.  Especially the sections where women are in power positions on TV dramas.  If you hate women and think we should all be having babies and making sandwiches, well… first, you’re going to get voted out of office, and second, you’re probably not reading this.  But you should, because you’re ignorant and should be embarrassed.  And stop talking about vaginal ultrasounds and deciding what the true definition of rape is.

This book is smart, funny, incredibly well-written, unapologetic and thoroughly researched.  Even if you only have time to flip through it the next time you’re in the library or a book store, check out the table of contents and find something you’re curious about.  We need to get this reality out there.