Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cannonball Read 3 Review #17 - The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

This was my second time around reading this novel, and it still is one of my favorite novels ever. Eugenides is a first-class writer, and he has a true gift for observation and wit. The Virgin Suicides is the story of the last year of life of the five teenaged Lisbon sisters, narrated by a sort of anonymous "we," a group of boys who live in the neighborhood and are infatuted with the mysterious Lisbon sisters. We know that the Lisbon girls live at home with their strict, conservative Catholic parents, but any other insight into their lives is through other people's sometimes conflicting accounts. The narrators are now older, and they are researching the events of that year that led up to the Lisbon sisters' deaths by going through the "evidence" they had collected as kids and interviewing neighbors, family, and friends for their accounts of what happened. Set in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1970s, the novel is an outsiders' observation of a family's decline over the period of about a year. The novel kicks off with the youngest sister Cecilia's suicide attempt and then documents the narrators' observations and little contact with the sisters throughout the next year. These normal teenaged boys are completely fascinated by and flummoxed by the elusive Lisbon sisters. They can only guess at the complexity of those girls' emotions and struggles within their home. Even so, Eugenides still captures the self-involved teen angst that young girls go through, the kind that we wallow in and think will never pass. When Cecilia is in the hospital after her first suicide attempt, a doctor asks her why she's there, telling her "You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets." Cecilia replies "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl."

Eugenides is creative, wry, and a sharp observer. His narrators take on a sort of collective anonymity, allowing the reader to be one of them, devotedly watching the girls from across the street or asking questions of people who might have had even the slightest contact with the beautiful and strange Lisbon sisters. Piece by piece we learn more about the last days of five girls who slowly get lost in their own unhappiness. So while the subject material is kind of a downer, the author manages to bring humor and imagination to the proceedings, making for a unique and mesmerizing story.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cannonball Read 3 Review #16 - A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I suggested this novel for the June meeting of my book club, not because I like hype, because as one could tell from my distrust of Jonathan Franzen and my late-coming to Harry Potter and the Millenium Trilogy, I'm not into hype. I wanted to read the book because I heard it was written from various people's perspectives, over many years, and one of the chapters was in PowerPoint format. That is creative and intriguing, and I had to read it. Oh, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, too. That's probably something I should mention, but again, not really my main reason for choosing the book.

The novel is divided into chapters that could almost be short stories from people who are either closely or distantly related from each other. Bennie, a big-shot music producer and Sasha, his long-time assistant bookend the novel and show up throughout, and the rest of the novel is fleshed out by people they are sometimes close with or only tangentially associated with. But even those people distanced from them by several degrees or generations are still shown in vivid close-up. We see intimate snapshots of these people's lives over time and come to know them deeply, even if we're with them for just a chapter. The characters' lives weave in and out of each other's over a lot of time, showing how we change, how our lives diverge from what we expect, and ultimately, how time marches on. Egan uses rock music and technology, even her ideas of where technolog is going and what our future looks like in terms of how we connect with each other personally, as a backdrop for a truly modern reflection on human relationships and how we deal with aging in today's world. That's what Goon Squad is about: about time rushing at us like a bullet train as we sit on the tracks, oblivious, smoking, drinking and having a picnic. We make plans and make decisions that change our lives in big and small ways, and before we know it, it's twenty years later and we're shocked at how we got here. But Egan isn't trying to bum us out, she also uses the story to show how humans connect, and how even the briefest of contact can change us and stay with us over time. In one scene, Sasha's uncle gently tries to reach out to his lost, defiant, friendless niece, telling her "You can do it alone. But it's going to be so much harder." Time flies by, bringing with it unexpected disappointments and surprises. The connections we have with the people around us are what stay with us through it all.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cannonball Read 3 - Review #15 - The Group by Mary McCarthy

I'm fascinated with women's issues and social history, and especially the plight of the woman in less modern times, because the social constructs of the American woman's role is so complex. The Group is a novel that follows eight Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 and follows them through their lives in New York City from two weeks after their graduation to the funeral of one of their members many years later. The novel isn't in a typical narrative format, rather it kind of disjointedly focuses on each member, some more than others, and shows how they stay in each others lives or drift away over the years. Within the fictional narrative, we also get a really close-up look at the way women lived then, from sexual politics to marriage and their role in the working world. In some ways, their stories are timeless and resonate deeply with me as someone only two years out of college, stumbling around pretending I'm a grown-up when really I'm terrified and completely unsure of where my life is going. Some of these women put on brave faces, thinking they have it all figured out, and they get into marriages that destroy them, involve themselves in political movements they hardly understand, and struggle to maintain friendships with people they only think that they know all the way. It also explores the delicate dynamics of the friendship within a group of women, the power plays, the insecurities and the real warmth that all come into play in such a group. No matter how they change or where they go, in the end, they are always brought together because they are a part of The Group.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cannonball Read 3 Review #14 - The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese-English writer who is somehow able to completely capture the restrained, reserved English personality while writing complex and developed characters who go through trying ordeals. In Never Let Me Go, the novel was centered around three friends who love and hurt each other while on growing up and then on the verge of their deaths. He expresses their pain, confusion and passion while never being melodramatic or amateur. In The Remains of the Day, the narrator is a proper English butler who has worked most of his life in a great English house for Lord Darlington. Not only is Stevens a stiff-upper-lip Brit, but he is a butler who takes his job very seriously and dedicates his life to serving his master. So when I say that he is restrained, I mean he is really restrained. Yet his story, told in diary form, is so clear and thoughtful and coherent that you don't feel a disconnect. Just because he doesn't flail around or cry out about his feelings doesn't mean we don't feel his frustration at his weaknesses, befuddlement over the housekeeper's mood swings and sadness over the decline of his beloved Lord Darlington. In the present day, it is the 1950s and Stevens works for an American man who has bought the Darlington manor after the lord's death. Stevens sets off on a brief road trip to meet with Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of the home, and during his trip he thinks back to the days working for Lord Darlington, the height of his career in the years leading up to the second World War. Through Stevens reflections, we explore the ideas of what it means to have dignity, the social constraints of English society, and the complicated relationships in his life, both personal and professional. Stevens is trained to always do the right thing, to be loyal and gentlemanly, and it is interesting to see how he struggles to do his best while others around him falter or try to pull him down. Ishiguro's language in the book, through Stevens narrative, is straightforward and sparse, fully illuminating his narrator as a character. I can't wait to see the film, as Stevens is played by Anthony Hopkins and Miss Kenton is played by Emma Thompson. You can't really get much better than that.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cannonball Read 3 Review #13 - The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is a unique novel, a sort of calm and detached telling of a group of strange college students to do evil things. The story is narrated by Richard, a transfer to the fictional Hampden College in Vermont. He itches to get away from his depressing town of Plano, California and get away from his cold parents, so he heads to Hampden, a small liberal arts college in a small Vermont town. He immediately notices a small, close-knit group of students who study Greek and the classics with a strange professor, Julian, who has no small amount of influence on his students. Richard manages to ingratiate himself to Julian and the others, and is allowed in the small, six-person program. He becomes a part of this eccentric group of students and is involved in the murder of their friend, Bunny, which I'm not spoiling, as he mentions it in the first page of the novel. The novel is split into two books, and we know going into it that the group murders Bunny, so the first half is the events that lead up to the murder, and the second half is what happens to the group in the aftermath of their crime.

The novel is an interesting one, as it is not in the form of a typical murder mystery. As I mentioned, we know up front that the group kills their friend Bunny, so the only suspense is wondering why it happens and what happens to everyone afterwards. Though it is never specifically stated, the novel takes place in the 1980s, but the students at the center of the novel have this strange, old-world vibe, and this cold, disaffected air so that the reader is never comfortable with them and never connects with their motivations. It's a picture of how cool and capable evil can be, how seductive and calculating. Only in the aftermath of this horrible act does the reader, and our narrator, really start to understand the scope of what happened and become horrified with how we were lead astray. It was an unexpected book, and I think Donna Tartt is a wonderfully capable storyteller. I'm excited to talk about it with my book club.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cannonball Read 3 - Review #12 - Bossypants by Tina Fey

There are a few writers who could write about something like salad or the history of calendar publishing and make it hilarious. Bill Bryson is one of them, and even though this is the first book I've read by Tina Fey (her first book ever? Probably, right?) I believe she is another one of those people. She does draw from her own life, which has been colorful and not exactly mainstream, so she has less than boring source material, but even so, the humor and biting wit in her writing makes me confident she could make almost anything funny. Bossypants doesn't read like a typical memoir, and I don't know if it's even marketed as such, but instead Fey tells stories from snapshots of her life from childhood up to the present that paint a picture of her experiences and world view without her having to give a blow by blow account of how she got from here to there. Tina Fey was an awkward child/teenager/adult with a keen eye for observation. She writes in vivid detail and is honest and self-deprecating about her admittedly many faults. She is more than aware of the many things people think and say about her that are unflattering, true or untrue, and she gets her detractors back in the most satisfying way: by being so funny and smart that it takes them a second to figure out that they're the ones being "oh, snapped!" Fey tells stories about her childhood, her family, her early start in improv, the challenges and triumphs of working at SNL during a time of transition, and what it's like to be Tina Fey in all aspects of her life, from work to family. The most satisfying chapters for me were the chapter about her dad and the chapter called "All Girls Must Be Everything" where she talks about the beauty standard for women and the media assault telling us what's wrong with us that we never would have even thought of until they told us. I laughed out loud and even though I'm already a huge fan, I was won over all over again by her self-effacing humor and honesty. It was a really fast read, funny and engrossing. I hope it's not her last.

Cannonball Read 3 - Review #11 - Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I've read Fahrenheit 451 and I own The Martian Chronicles and plan on reading that, so I know that Bradbury writes some science-fiction, but this book is a simple and beautifully written book that centers around Douglas Spaulding and other residents in the fictional Green Town, Illinois during the summer of 1928. Split into brief chapters, there is no real plot, but rather small stories and reflections of the characters as they go through their summertime lives. Douglas is a sensitive, passionate, and serious 12-year-old boy who treasures the joys of being a kid in a small town during the summer so much that he recognizes how amazing everything is while it is happening, and writes down his discoveries and joys so he won't forget. The reader gets perspectives from young children as well as the old and frail citizens who often are found reflecting on their youth with envy, amusement, and fondness. The whole novel is sort of restless, with a sense of urgency that time is flying by, and Douglas is so desperate to remember the little things that make him happy and the things he learns. One especially beautiful passage is at the beginning, when Douglas realizes that he's "alive." It's something he all of a sudden understands and marvels at, and it leaves him kind of flabbergasted. There is also a part at the end that endears him to me, forever, when an old sort of rambling man of the town tells Douglas how he is one of those children who become sad younger than everyone else. I think Douglas is the 1928, male version of me as a child. Mostly the book is made up of snapshots in the daily lives of these people in a simple town during one summer. People have their petty squabbles and their small worries that don't mean much in the long run, but then there are relationships that form us and genuine moments of love and kindness that stay with us forever. Bradbury's writing in this novel is flowery and lovely, and not something we see much of anymore, as in 2011 readers tend to scoff at the nostalgic or the precious. I, however, loved reading about the daily goings-on of Green Town, and the character of Douglas is a sweet and earnest little hero.