Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.

April

  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.
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Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.

If you haven’t read any of The Hunger Games trilogy yet, I envy you.  This means you can go out to your local bookstore to purchase it and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and read all three in one fell swoop.  I don’t normally tell people what I think they should do, but I’m telling you this is what you should do.  I know I should be telling you wait a couple of days and buy Freedom by Jonathan Franzen instead, but who are we kidding?  I’ll read that sucker next year, when it’s in paperback and the waiting list at the library has dwindled.  I’m sorry, Mr. Franzen, I think you have a lovely reading voice and your writing is incredibly clever, but The Hunger Games can’t wait.

Mockingjay picks up a month after Catching Fire‘s cliffhanger ending; protagonist Katniss is living in the believed-obliterated District Thirteen, is coerced into becoming the face of Panem’s revolution, and learns that, as in the Hunger Games, she’s trapped.  Once again, she must figure out not only how she is going to survive, but also how she’s going to ensure the survival of the people she loves.  Devastatingly — and realistically — she doesn’t fully succeed.

And that’s part of the reason why I like Suzanne Collins: the woman is a mercenary.  She slices through her cast of characters, killing them off in what is not at all a flippant way.  Every death serves a purpose, and each one is a surprise.  Actually, the entire storyline is a surprise, and Ms. Collins’ ability to tell a captivating story is undeniably enviable.  You try writing a trilogy that’s both sentimental and graphically gruesome, all the while subtly threading through commentary on warfare, reality television and the media, politics, fashion, family values and sex, and then throw in some of the twistiest plot shifts ever.  When you’re done, get back to me.

In all honesty, I can’t write anything more about Mockingjay aside promising that it’s a ridiculously good read.  It’s just not fair to those who haven’t read it.  There are far too many reviews out there that, in my opinion, give away insane amounts of information.  (Putting the words “spoiler alert” or similar in the text is useless and stupid, by the way.)  So please, stop reading reviews right now — in fact, stop reading this post!  Pick up a copy of the book and read that, and then we can talk.

On a Bit of a YA Kick.

When it comes down to it, I think I’m a cross between a thirteen-year-old boy and a sixty-something woman.  Here’s why:

  • I read comics;
  • I quilt;
  • I like zombies;
  • I own tons of moisturizers and creams;
  • I watch action movies;
  • I love BBC America and costume dramas.

I could go on and on, but regardless of my proclivities, my point is that in between reading “grown-up books,” I’ve been binging on adolescent fiction.  I can’t think of a better word than binging, because I do crave reading young adult books; once I read one, I hungrily reach for more.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret My most recent YA spree started with The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  It’s the story of twelve-year-old orphan Hugo, who lives in 1930s Paris.  Actually, to be more specific, Hugo lives in Gare Montparnasse, one of the city’s busiest train stations.  There Hugo secretly works as the keeper of the clocks, a position that technically belongs to his uncle and guardian, who has gone missing.  Hugo has no other relatives with whom he can live — his father died in a fire — and because he is scared of being sent away, he continues his uncle’s work within the station walls.  After he’s caught stealing from the cart of a toy vendor, Hugo finds himself in the middle of a mystery that will change his life.

I can’t say much more without giving everything within the book away, but I will say these two things: The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a must-read for lovers of film history, as well as anyone who appreciates detailed pencil drawings.  See, Selznick tells his tale in a somewhat unconventional manner, alternating between illustrations, text and photographs; by doing so, he facilitates a reader-friendly introduction to one of film’s most influential innovators.

The Hunger GamesAfter The Invention of Hugo Cabret, my picks in adolescent fiction definitely veered towards the dark and depressing, particularly with Suzanne Collins‘s novel The Hunger Games — which I immediately re-read upon completion, so engrossed by it was I.  It’s impossible not to get hooked by Collins’s absorbing writing style and likable protagonist, not to mention the story’s incredibly captivating plot.

The Hunger Games takes place in the future, one in which North America no longer exists.  The remaining pockets of civilization has been divided into districts serving a wealthier, more powerful capitol who each year reminds and punishes its chattel of their lower standing and previous rebellion by coercing one boy and one girl from each district to participate in a televised survival game.  The novel’s main character Katniss is from District 12, the poorest of the bunch; when her twelve-year-old sister is selected to take part in the Hunger Games, Katniss quickly takes her place as the district’s tribute.  Soon Katniss and Peeta, the male tribute from District 12, on are their way to the Capitol for makeovers, interviews and training before literately fighting for their lives in the bloody, gruesome games.

A few final notes:  The Hunger Games is book one of a trilogy; part two, Catching Fire, is set for a September first release.  While the plot is indeed fascinating, as is its social commentary, it is also very graphic.  Children, after all, are not only being killed, but they are also killing each other in extremely explicit ways.  I’m interested to see how the novel’s brutality will translate to the screen; Collins is adapting her book to film .

Thirteen Reasons WhyEven after The Hunger Games, I was still in the mood for something on the bleak side — who wants to read only happy stories?  I want the characters I’m investing in to work for their happiness, as opposed to having it just handed it to them.

I thought Jay Asher‘s Thirteen Reasons Why would fit my sad little bill perfectly; after all, it’s about a girl who, before committing suicide, records her reasons why on a series of cassette tapes, which she organizes to have sent around to her classmates after her death.  One of the recipients of the box of tapes also happens to have harbored a secret, not-acted-upon love for the girl.  Doesn’t this all sound riveting?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  Our suicidal narrator Hannah has a strong voice, and yet she is utterly unbelievable as a character.  What she relates via cassette tape is tragic… but ultimately so very contrived.  The boys in her school rank her ass on a widely-circulated list, for example, a scene taken right out of an episode of My So-Called Life*.  Lamentably, Asher tackles way too much, and the end result is confusing, frustrating and all over the place.

If I StaySince Thirteen Reasons Why didn’t satisfy my craving for sad story, I turned to If I Stay by Gayle Forman to push me over the edge.  It definitely did the trick — I kept on pushing the book off my lap distressfully, only to pull it back on again.  You try reading about Mia’s close-knit family without getting torn up.  It won’t happen.

Raised in Oregon by punky, unconventional parents, Mia rebels in her own way by choosing to play classical cello.  Her skill is so great, she’s had a successful Julliard audition and is awaiting to hear if she’ll be New York bound in the fall when she goes for a ride with her parents and young brother.  Their car is hit by another vehicle; Mia’s parents are killed upon impact, her brother is gravely injured and Mia, surprisingly, finds herself outside her own critically wounded body.  As she follows herself through surgeries and intensive care, Mia looks back on her life and must decide what she wants to do, live or die.

It sounds so terribly hokey, doesn’t it?  Trust me when I say If I Stay is not.  Forman could so easily succumb to schmaltz and sentimentality, but she doesn’t.  Instead, she allows Mia to grieve first her parents’ deaths, then her younger brother Teddy’s, without any sense of melodrama.  Forman essentially trusts the reader with a heartbreaking story — something, unfortunately, that not all writers are able to do.

So is this the end of my adolescent fiction fever?  That’s highly doubtful.  Even though I’m currently reading  an “adult” book, I’ve got a list of my next-reads at the ready.  Some of them might even be somewhat cheerful.

Then again, they might not.

* Episode 5, “The Zit.”