Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Month in Books (March)

I've spent most of the month thinking, "I'm so far behind on books," but I'm really not. Instead, I think reading ten books in January set up an unreasonable expectation for how much I was going to accomplish this year, but I think the amount that I've actually been reading in February and this month is actually much more reasonable, and nothing to be ashamed of. Additionally, one of the books that I finished this month but read for quite a bit in February was over 800 pages long, and one of the books I read entirely during March was also over 700 pages long, too, so I may not have finished as many books as I feel like I should have, but I still read a lot.

Anyway, here are the books I finished this month:

1) My friend Rod recommended Drew Hayes' Super Powereds: Year 1, so I gave it a try even though it's over 800 pages long and I try not to read anything that big this early in the year. I'm glad I did, though, because I enjoyed it a lot. In a world of regular people, Powereds (who have superhuman abilities but can't fully control them), and Supers (who have abilities that they can control), five students at Lander University's top secret Hero Certification Program have an even bigger secret: they were all Powereds, but have undergone an experimental surgical procedure to transform them into Supers. Now, they have to adjust to college life, secret identities, classes, and the struggles of young adulthood while also competing against Supers who have had control of their abilities all of their lives. The secret of their transition isn't the only one some of them are keeping, though, and there are enemies in their midst both seen and unseen. Can they succeed in becoming Heroes? And will they still want to? Hayes does a really good job of building distinct personalities for the characters and maintaining a steady pace for action and plot. There are a few times when the writing could have used a tighter editor, but overall this was a good read.

Fortunately, he's already finished the second book. Unfortunately, he has not finished the other two. The second one is probably the next book I'll be downloading to my Kindle, after I finish the one I've been forcing myself through for the last three weeks.

2) Michael Bamberger's Wonderland takes the reader to Pennsbury High School, just after 9/11 but before the war. Every high school type is there: the troubled teen having an affair with his teacher, the homecoming queen trying to figure out what the rest of her life looks like, the popular student athlete with the troubled home life, the AV club nerd, the pregnant girl and her boyfriend who are trying to graduate despite becoming parents, the career teacher who's counting the days until he retires, the misunderstood rebel with a garage band, the kid who dies tragically during the school year, and all of the rest. The difference is that in "Wonderland" they are all real. Bamberger spent a year interviewing students, staff, and family members at Pennsbury, chronicling the school year leading up to the Pennsbury Prom and its aftermath. Will the prom committee chair get to go to the University of Vermont, even though she can't afford it? Will the class jokester succeed in getting an up and coming musician named John Mayer to play the prom? Will the quarterback and the softball pitcher break up? And will any of it matter to any of them in the end?

I really enjoyed reading this. Bamberger maintains journalistic detachment but still brings Pennsbury to life, exploring the town, the school's social environment, and the history of the people involved. I kind of want to google some of the people, just to see where they ended up, which is kind of odd since, for the most part, I have no interest in where the people from my high school that I don't already speak to are now.

3) I've seen the movie "A Christmas Story" at least a hundred times, possibly more, but I've never read the book until now. Since the stories that formed the basis for the movie were published in different books, Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story collects them into one volume for convenience of readers who are fans of the movie, but the introduction does recommend reading the original books in full. Reading this is almost like watching the movie, because the movie adheres very strongly to what's written. It's still worth a read if you are a fan, though, because it gives more detail in certain places, and I learned three things from it that I never knew before:

a) The metal zeppelin that Randy gets for Christmas and plays with is not a random toy from the prop department. It is his Christmas present from Ralphie. I always thought it was a period-appropriate toy that they just stuck in there, and didn't realize that it has actual significance.

b) The Bumpus hounds actually eat an Easter ham, not a Christmas turkey. That story was changed to fit the holiday in the movie.

c) I learned something about the Leg Lamp. If you remember nothing else about the movie, you most likely remember the iconic image of the Major Award that Ralphie's father won:

superboy, with lamp

I always thought that the shape of the lamp was just a weird hilarious oddity, a random plot point to snicker at, as if Shepherd sat around thinking, "It needs to look like something that a lamp wouldn't normally look like. A tree? A fire hydrant? No, no! A woman's leg!" It turns out, though, that the Leg Lamp is shaped like a leg because the logo of the company that sponsors the trivia contest is a woman's leg in a high heeled black pump. The narrator mentions that the company makes a "glowing orange soda", and after a little googling I discovered that it was the logo for Orange Nehi. I'm not sure why Ovaltine is mentioned by name in the movie while Nehi is not, but it's interesting to know that the lamp isn't just a weird piece of art in a random absurd shape. Instead, it's like winning a neon Pepsi logo.

Anyway, if you love, or even just like a little bit, the movie, then you'll also like this book.

4) Remember Rebecca Martinson, the author of the infamous deranged sorority girl email that catapulted the phrase "cunt punt" into the national vernacular? In the forward to Taylor Bell's Dirty Rush she waxes poetic (in her own way) about what an accurate depiction of sorority life Taylor Bell's account of her experience in the Beta Zeta chapter at Central Delaware University is. Taylor, a third generation Beta Zeta legacy, isn't interested in joining a sorority. She's an intelligent, independent Women's Studies major, and is distrustful of the entire Greek system until the night of her very first college party, when the sisters of ZB rescue her from a social disaster. Before she knows it, she's abandoning a lifelong friend, rushing the chapter, and joining the planning committee for the "cancer kids" charity after a night of driving a sister to the emergency room to help get the sister's anal beads removed convinces her to give these girls a try.

Taylor Bell, author of this accurate depiction of sorority life where girls sleep with fraternity members because their chapter tells them to, everyone hoovers so much cocaine that they make a Bret Easton Ellis novel look like a PSA from Nancy Reagan, and sisters drive over an hour one way to eat KFC without being seen doing so by other students, isn't real.

About twenty pages in, I realized that the author and the protagonist had the same name, so I glanced at the copyright page and discovered that the copyright is jointly held by two guys. Taylor Bell is a sorority girl created by two middle aged white guys, but that doesn't mean the book is wildly inaccurate, right? Not after Rebecca Martinson said a few pages of nice things about it, right? Nope. Other than panty raids and pillow fights, every cliché you could think of about sorority members shows up in this book, and by the time they get to the sex tape it's not even entertaining any more. I started out sort of enjoying this, but by the end I was just bored.

5) I'm going to have to start running soon. I've more or less hit the top speed that I can make while walking, and it's just barely going to get me through the half marathon I registered for in September, which I'm kind of terrified about anyway. With that in mind, I picked up Matthew Inman's The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, but it's not as inspirational as I was hoping. Instead, it's kind of blunt in saying that the best way to run is just to put your shoes on, get out there, and run. It was entertaining, but I guess I was expecting some kind of magical wisdom or something, rather than a bunch of stuff that I've sort of already figured out on my own.

I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, but I'm getting ready to try. That's a good first step, I think.

Also, it motivated me to buy something that may or may not be a fanny pack, so there's that.

6) Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects was a fascinating look at 100 objects in the British museum, and how they represent the history of civilization. Starting at axe heads and stone tools, the book moves through religious iconography, currency, technological advances, exploration, trade, social issues (I was surprised to see a chapter about LGBT equality and one about equal rights for women) and ends, with object #100, with a look toward the future.

Things that I liked:

a) I learned a lot. For example, I had no idea that paper money was invented in China.

b) Even though the book is 700 pages long and can seem intimidating, each chapter is short, only 5-7 pages, so you can slowly chip away at this and still feel like you're making progress.

c) The author doesn't shy away from negatives. He doesn't pretty up the negative aspects of colonialism, war, slavery, or intolerance.

d) This really is a world history. The author includes multiple chapters on the civilizations and cultures of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. I was concerned that since all of the objects are housed in the British Museum this would be a history of the world from a Western Civilization perspective, but this is very globalized.

The thing that I didn't like was that in the entire book the author only mentions once or twice the idea that any of these objects, several of which are unique and culturally and historically significant to specific countries around the world, should be returned to their places of origin. I probably wouldn't have thought about it, but the author himself raises the point in one chapter that there have been discussions about returning this object to its homeland, but it's really better off being kept safe in London where everyone can enjoy it. That, to me, smacked of "old white patriarchy", but when I discussed it with my friend Jackie and Keri, they both pointed to the current situation in Iraq where ISIS is destroying historical artifacts, so I can see both sides of the argument. Every country isn't Iraq, though, and there are probably several where the object could be returned, since the "everyone" who can see things in the British Museum is actually a rather narrow slice of the whole of humanity. On the other hand, this probably isn't the kind of argument I can settle in one paragraph, either, so I'll move on.

7) Remember in January when I read VC Andrews' Christopher's Diary: Secrets of Foxworth? In case you don't, here's what I said about it:

Did you ever read "Flowers in the Attic" and wish there was another version of the same story where Cathy's brother, Christopher, mansplained everything to you? If so, "Christopher's Diary: Secrets of Foxworth" is the book for you! High schooler Kristin, a distant cousin of the Foxworth family, has grown up hearing creepy stories of the attic children for her entire life, but thought they were just exaggerated rumors until she found a locked strongbox in the rubble of burned down Foxworth Hall. Opening it, she discovers Christopher's diary, a day by day account of the years Christopher and his children spent locked in the attic of Foxworth Hall, tortured by their religious grandmother and abandoned and poisoned by their mother. As she reads the diary, Kristin becomes more and more obsessed with Christopher, falling in love with the long-deceased cousin and imagining that she sees him following her, beckoning to her, and, eventually she begins pretending that her boyfriend is Christopher. Her boyfriend, Kane, agrees that they should pretend to be Christopher and Cathy, and our story ends with the two of them heading up to Kristin's attic to read more of Christopher's diary, because attics turn Kristin on now.

I was expecting trash, and wasn't disappointed. The sequel will be out next month.

Well, the sequel did come out, and I did get around to reading it. In short, Christopher's Diary: Echoes of Dollanganger was like a VC Andrews book ghost written by Stephenie Meyer. This book didn't just go off the rails: it left the tracks and steamed into Crazytown under its own power.

It picks up right where the last one left off, with Kristin and Kane sneaking up to Kristin's attic to read Christopher's account of being locked in the Foxworth Hall attic to each other. Within days of doing so, Kane starts to become obsessed with the story, rearranging the attic furniture, only wanting to spend time with Kristin when they're in the attic reading to each other, insisting that they call each other Cathy and Christopher, and then he surprises Kristin one day by showing up in a blond wig, to be "in character" more. Meanwhile, Kristin's father is trying to unravel the mystery of who has really hired him to rebuild on the grounds of Foxworth Hall, as the buyer that he's been meeting with turns out to only be the manager of a trust that actually bought it, and the trust is overseen by a psychiatrist who treated Corrine Foxworth Dollanganger Winslow after the first burning of Foxworth Hall, when Grandmother Foxworth and Bart Winslow were killed. The psychiatrist, it turns out, is working for the most shocking twist of all, a person believed long dead who has every reason to want the diary that Kristin and Kane are reading, a person...

...whose full story will be revealed in the sequel, due in May.

8) I picked up Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman because it was heavily referenced in Shirley, the novel about Jackson that I read in January that suggested that she murdered a college student who was having an affair with her husband. In Shirley, one of the things that makes the character based on Jackson (I say that because I'm assuming that it's just fiction, and that Jackson didn't actually murder anyone) even more evil is that she not only killed this girl, but then mined the circumstances of her death to write a novel about it, and that novel is Hangsaman. The cover of the book even says it's "loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946".

The problem with that is that it sets up an anticipation that the book is going to end one way, with one of the female characters disappearing, and (spoiler alert, I guess) it doesn't. That doesn't make it a bad novel, but it does make it a novel where you spend the whole thing anticipating one outcome, looking for clue to that outcome, wondering when that will happen, and then you get to the end, where it seems possible right up to the last page, and it doesn't happen. It's an entire novel of foreshadowing that goes nowhere, and can leave you a little frustrated. (Or a lot. I don't know how mad you get.) That's sad, because it's not a bad novel. It's not Jackson's best work, but it is ominous and disturbing in places, and if you're freed from the expectation of, "Oh, God, is she about to get murdered/kidnapped/kill herself?" then you can actually read this and think, "God, that's morbid," and enjoy it just for that.

In the book, Natalie Waite, a college freshman, leaves home for a small, private, all-female college and wanders into all the sorts of trouble that parents imagine their daughters will run into in college: social ostracism, rampant smoking and drinking, people stealing in the dormitory, flirtations with lesbianism, students seduced by their professors, dabbling in the occult, not attending class and wasting the money their parents are paying for tuition, etc. All of this is viewed through Natalie's unreliable filter: she's socially awkward, depressed, and having trouble separating imagination from reality. Is any of this actually happening? Where does it start to and then wander off? The reader has no real way of knowing.

Coming up in April: I'm going to force my way through the book I've been reading on the treadmill for three weeks and move on to something I might actually enjoy.

1 comment:

Justin Bower said...

I've read 5 and 6 and really enjoyed them. I didn't expect anything wise from the Innman book so I wasn't overly disappointed at it just being usual Oatmeal-esque stuff. The History was a bear to get through, but fascinating stuff. And as always I am cowed by teh fact that you've read more books in a month than I've yet read this year (finishing the twelfth right now...)