Wednesday reading 23 November 2016

What I just finished reading

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek; and

The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer – YA lesbian retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth. Good scene-setting. I wanted to like it more than I did but it was fine, if not particularly exciting to me.

What I’m reading now

I’m midway through the first draft of an assignment that’s due Friday, about the time I get home from work, so all I’m reading is my notes right now. Sorry! Can’t wait until term is over. (I’m going to watch a million movies, clean my house, read some of my book backlog and replay the Ace Attorney games when the term is done.)

What I’m reading next

I’ve managed to buy no new books for three weeks straight. I feel pretty pleased with myself.

Book: A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Library book

I was always going to like this book. Bitter, resentful Gene and his charismatic, mercurial friend Finny, the year that changed their lives and ended Finny’s, and the war that rages outside their little world. I love that Gene can’t reconcile for himself how much he cared about Finny with how he ruined Finny’s life. I love how all the characters are so unstable and angry, how Gene’s envy takes over his life, Brinker’s ambivalence, Leper’s inability to handle the war.

And of course, it’s not just their secret summer at Devon. The threat of the war outside, that they alternately long for and deny existence of, hangs over the story. You can’t get away from the mid 1940s setting and how that means for these boys in a remote boarding school in America the war is both omnipresent and too distant to be believed. So much is shaped by the war pressing in on them (Leper’s breakdown, Gene’s underwhelming memories of his time after enlisting). And yet so much of the dark heart of the story is caused by the trauma and ennui of youth, of a time when everything awful is so much more intense than it will every be again.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Acquired how: bought paperback

Carol is a curious book. Originally published as The Price of Salt under the pen name Claire Morgan, Carol is equal parts lesbian romance, suspense thriller and coming of age story. It’s hard to know how to categorise this book, which is going to make tagging by genre tricky.

I watched the film earlier in the year so I was eager to read the book. Though there are changes in the adaptation, both versions of Carol are remarkably similar. Therese is a sales assistant in the toy section of a department store; Carol is the elegant woman who comes to her section to buy a toy for her child’s Christmas present. The connection between them sparks a relationship that changes the course of their lives.

Therese is 19 and an aspiring set designer. She seems crushed under the weight of her life, almost paralysed with fear of being stuck working at the department store forever like her co-worker Mrs Robichek, pushed into wearing clothing she doesn’t especially want, and dating a boy – Richard – that she doesn’t especially like. The atmosphere in the early chapters is claustrophobic. When she agrees to a trip with Carol halfway through, I could only feel a sense of relief.

Carol is more mysterious. She seems more remote and frequently cold. Her actions are easily explained by her divorce drama but Therese doesn’t really see or understand it (at least, until the end, and even then she expects Carol to choose Therese over her child).

My experience of reading this book was necessarily influenced by having seen the movie first. There were plot moments I was eager to get to, which made me frustrated, at times, with parts of the book prior to that (hardly the fault of the book). The movie also benefited from giving the audience Carol’s point of view, so that she was more of a rounded character and less of an idealised object, and her fears of losing her daughter were given more weight. Because the book, on the other hand, is limited to Therese’s point of view, Carol remains frustratingly out of reach for much of the book. Though her motivations become clear to the reader with time, they remain opaque to Therese for much of their relationship.

And Therese is so very young – 19, and the kind of 19 that makes it difficult for her to sympathise with Carol’s fear of losing custody of her daughter. This book is as much about her slow maturity toward an adult identity as it is about her first romance. In Carol she seems to be looking for a mother figure as much as a lover, which is equal parts creepy and fascinating.

And yet for all that, I enjoyed this book immensely.

My copy of the book has an afterward from Highsmith, talking of the letters she received from fans so happy to read a lesbian novel with a happy ending. Frankly, even in 2016, that’s something I get excited about.

Review: Loud is How I Love You

Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown
Acquired how: bought ebook

I read what feels like a lot of the rock romance novels, because I like romance and I like music, so I tend to assume those two things will go great together. In practice, a lot of those books are really dramatic New Adult novels (and I’m not overly eager to relive my late teens and early 20s) and/or about the bad boy fantasy. I’ve never understood the bad boy fantasy, so I can’t get into that.

This book is definitely not about the bad boy fantasy – it’s a friends-to-lovers story (that’s the stuff I love) and Travis tries to portray himself as more responsible than Emmy.

It is definitely a New Adult novel about people in their early 20s making ill-advised choices due to hormones, misunderstandings, bad communication and back-and-forthing because the heroine feels she can’t have all the things she wants and dicks the hero around a little. And yet I liked it anyway.

Why? Well:

  • Emmy was worried that if she continued giving in to her passion for Travis that various horrible things would come true – and then they did. The heroine’s fears seemed founded in reality and given that these fears revolved around important parts of her identity, it made sense to me.
  • Unlike most rock romances, this book is actually about the music. The writer, Mercy Brown, is a musician from New Jersey just like the characters, and so the description of life in a college band felt true. The characters know about and care about musical instruments, they rehearse, they play gigs, they are part of a scene and so forth. This is the kind of stuff I read these rock romances for.
  • This is one of the ways in which New Adult can shine – this book was as much a coming of age story as it was a romance. Emmy’s internal turmoil about reconciling her admiration for her late father with feeling abandoned by him and the way she dealt with revelations regarding same was integral to the book. It made sense that there could be no romantic resolution with Travis until she’d dealt with her unresolved issues about her father, because that was a huge part of what was holding her back. That made her refusing to commit to Travis even though she loved him less annoying.
  • This is a comedy and the wacky hijinks and description of the other players in the music scene really lightened things up.
  • There’s a small but wonderful moment about the power of stories and the way they connect to things in our lives.

There were also some issues with the book that kept me from truly loving it:

  • Sometimes the wacky comedy hijinks got too much.
  • And the romantic drama really was dragged on for a long time.
  • There were some things I thought may have been anachronisms, possibly intentional, but to be fair my memory of the 90s is a bit shaky. But I do remember coming of age in the 90s meant growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis so the moment of (spoilers) unprotected sex without long discussion beforehand shocked me.

Still, I enjoyed it, and I think a reader who wants a book that captures the zanyness of the American college experience as well as the highs and lows of an indie band, with a sexy romance to boot, could do a lot worse than to read this book.

Review: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Acquired how: bought paperback

It’s interesting that even when I don’t especially enjoy a book I can still admire much of the writing. So it is with Jane Eyre, a work of classic literature that is so not my scene.

It started okay – the beginning with the Reeds and at the Lowood institute rather reminded me of Dickens, whose work I’ve enjoyed. I especially liked the last chapter with Helen Burns which was note perfect. I don’t think that chapter could have been better written. It was magnificently done. I also very much admire the chapter wherein Jane returns to Gateshead and deals with her family – there is so much to enjoy about the writing there and Bronte’s sharp eyed view of her characters.

Ah, but Rochester. What an absolute tool. He has so many many awful personality defects that I didn’t find in the least charming. He’s manipulative and cruel, to both Jane and Blanche Ingram. He’s self absorbed. He struggles to take responsibility for his own actions. I feel like I can deal with that Byronic Hero character type much easier when the character is a vampire, werewolf or other such horrible creature of the night, but when the character is just a regular (if wealthy) man I find it anywhere from aggravating to abhorrent.

And that’s not to mention my thoughts on all the untranslated French! A choice, I’ll note, I’m very glad is not common in novels today.

The only thing that saves the Rochester-Jane romance for me is that after Jane leaves Thornfield she meets the Rivers’ family, and St John Rivers is somehow even more annoying. There’s nothing like telling a woman she’s letting god down by not marrying you to make yourself seem like the worst option.

After that, when Jane returns to Rochester, whose power has wained as hers has risen, but whose sharp wit has not lessened any, it feels a relief. He may be a dickhead, but at least he’s not a sanctimonious dickhead.

Of course, Jane Eyre is a tremendously influential novel. Reading it was interesting at least in part because I realised how many popular tropes surviving today can be traced back to gothic novels such as this one. In that light, even reading the parts of the book I found to be a bit of a slog, still had value.

After over 150 years, nobody really needs to be swayed one way or another into reading this book – even you want to or you don’t (or you have to because of a school assignment), but we all know the basic plot points. Everybody knows about the mad wife in the attic. There’s something to be said for reading literary classics and understanding how they’ve influenced literature since their publication. Given that, I don’t regret reading this book. I didn’t love it but I felt pushing through it was worth it.