Wednesday, April 18, 2018

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

            One of the top questions on Goodreads for Bryn Greenwood’s 2016 novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is: “Is this book going to horrify me?”


            Sometimes reading makes you uncomfortable; It’s called experiencing things outside of your immediate comfort zone. It’s called Mark Zuckerberg at his Congress hearing.
            Without giving anything away—this book is controversial AF. Personally, I don’t exist in a world of absolutes. I exist in a world of gray areas and nuance, because I am perfect. If you categorically dislike this book without reading it, you can go ahead and continue polishing that bubble, bitch.

            The novel is about finding solace and stability amidst abuse. Greenwood gives a voice to people who are doing conventionally “wrong” things for the right reasons. As a reader, you see intent, not just the actions themselves. The book shows some broken people trying to glue each other back together like some terrible macaroni art.
            I’m not saying intent entirely justifies action. But when your life is messy, some of the solutions that work for you are not the same solutions that would work for someone with a clean-cut lot. I can read something without condoning it. Re-tweets do not equal endorsement!

            Alright, enough about me defending Greenwood’s subject. HER WRITING IS PHENOMENAL. I devoured this book. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Brain on Fire. She makes a hard-to-believe plot very believable, and she does so very gracefully. She deftly shifts between several narrators, proudly announced at the top of each chapter, which is something I came to value after reading Sing, Unburied, Sing. I highly recommend this book if you can break through your own sense of self and into a well-written world of moral quandary. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Greenwood, Bryn. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016. Print.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing

           Obama found the time to read Sing, Unburied, Sing* during his presidency, which means you can too. Time published Obama’s top-ten reading list for 2017, and Jesmyn Ward’s novel made the cut. I can understand why.

            Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intense depiction of a dysfunctional three-generation family. They’re hampered by drugs, death, poverty, racism, and a lack of self-love. There is not a breath of fresh air in this story; it’s clear that Ward has a need to convey the brokenness of the family with a dire sense of urgency that trumps the reader’s need to pause and relax. I got through the novel quickly, partially because the writing is poetically compelling and partially because I needed closure on the entirety of this family’s struggles. Whew.

            Alongside the intensity is a downright spookiness. The novel has ghosts, and the spirit world has a say. They are loud and proud, contributing to the mood/dialogue/thoughts of the living characters. In this way, Sing, Unburied, Sing strikes me as a much more polished Beloved. Beloved, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, also deals with the dead but more haphazardly. As I mention in my review, I wasn’t always sure who was speaking in Morrison's piece. Sing, Unburied, Sing effectively jumps between points of view and those transitions are clear. In fact, each chapter states whose perspective will be narrating in giant letters that you can’t miss. Having multiple narrators helps me understand the family’s plight in a more well-rounded way. I will say that I’m disappointed we didn’t get to hear from Michael, the imprisoned white father.

            Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award—a prestigious award that Jesmyn Ward also won six years prior for her novel Salvage the Bones. Is Jesmyn Ward crushing it? Yes. You can read my review of another National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin here, which also contains links to reviews of several National Book Award finalists. National Book Award National Book Award blah blah blah.

            Lastly, what impresses me so much about this novel isn’t the heart-wrenching story, but the powerful execution of simile and metaphor. I’ve been annoyed in the past by authors (ahem, Murakami) who sometimes use analogy in an awkward, unhelpful way. As if they’ve heard that throwing a metaphor in the mix will make you sound smarter. Obviously, it has the opposite effect of making you sound like a donk. Jesmyn Ward is no donk. Her novel is packed with similes and each one contributes to the text in a meaningful way.  Sing, Unburied, Sing receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York: Scribner, 2017. Print.

*Ducharme, Jamie. “Barack Obama Posted His Favorite Books and Music of 2017.” Time, Time, 31 Dec. 2017, 6 Apr. 2018.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Art of Fielding

            The Art of Fielding* by Chad Harbach is a novel centered on a fictional college baseball team, the Westish Harpooners. I’m not a fan of the team or the book.

            Harbach worked on the novel for over a decade, so you’d think he would have had enough time to come up with some curveballs. The novel is incredibly predictable. Harbach doesn’t embed Easter eggs; he embeds arrows. Everything falls into place exactly how you would anticipate and it shouldn’t have taken 500+ pages to do so.

            Important caveat: I don’t particularly like baseball and baseball drives the book’s plot. Of course, the novel is more than that—it’s about the tension between ambition and failure that applies to all of life, not just a literal game. But I didn’t care for the athletic details and obviously that skews my perception.

            Harbach received an MFA from UVA, so I want to like him (go Hoos). But I do wonder if he ever actually went to college. Oftentimes, The Art of Fielding feels like an old guy describing a frat party. It doesn’t matter whether or not he’s correct about some of the details involving two drunk people making out in the corner, he’s going to come across as lame-sounding. It’s going to sound dated and contrived.

            Contrived. That’s the perfect word to describe The Art of Fielding. First of all, everyone has a ridiculous sounding name. Henry Skrimshander. Guert Affenlight. Craig Suitcase. Craig…Suitcase. Craig Suitcase is an inconsequential character introduced on page 309 merely to call the opposing team a “bunch of douchetards” (Hardbach, 309). That should really sum it up for you.

            Additionally, amidst the plodding predictability, I have qualms with a bunch of unrealistic events. For example, several times (not sure why this had to happen several times), the college students stay up all night pounding scotch, not sleeping whatsoever, and then suddenly they’re sober enough to make the morning shift at their job. Truly every character in this book—from the president of the college to the star athlete—treats sleep as unnecessary. If your characters don’t act like real people then I can’t buy into your story.

            I am surprised that I disliked this book so much. It received the 2011 Guardian First Book Award, which is an award I admire given its good company. Previous Guardian First Book Award recipients include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I’m obsessed with, Everything is Illuminated, which I like less so but still respect, and White Teeth, which I like even less so but again, still respect. Clearly some people found inspiring nuggets of truth in The Art of Fielding but I was not one of them. The Art of Fielding receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

*Harbach, Chad. The Art of Fielding. New York: Back Bay Books, 2011. Print.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

            I love Nietzsche, which is a little douchbaggy to say, but I took a Nietzsche class in college, which is still a little douchbaggy to say. The professor was extremely impressive and he guided us through Nietzsche’s writings that I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand on my own.

            The Unbearable Lightness of Being* by Milan Kundera tries to be a philosophical romance. Emphasis on tries. The novel takes a theory primarily found in Indian religions: eternal return. Nietzsche spoke at length about how this theory affects the human psyche. “Eternal return” (or “eternal recurrence”) posits that everything that has happened in the universe will repeat infinitely. In religion, the theory is still cyclical in nature, but refers instead to the endless rebirth of souls rather than actual events.

            Kundera takes Nietzsche’s rumination on eternal return and weaves them into a love story. There are the juicy romance bits: sex, infidelity, unrequited love, etc. Amidst it all, Kundera toys with defining life as “heavy” or “light”. According to Kundera, if life happens once and only once, it takes on a character of “lightness”; nothing really matters, and you’re free to make decisions that are less weighty because they have less significance. If life recurs eternally, it becomes “heavy”; you have comparisons between some decisions and others, thus there is a comparatively better course of action at each fork in the road. Kundera relates the light/heavy distinction to the romantic decisions made by the main characters. A choice to remain faithful has greater consequence depending on your philosophical perspective.

            I don’t typically read romance novels, but Daniel Day-Lewis played the lead in the 1988 film adaptation, and I wanted to give the genre a chance. The premise had promise—one part passion, one part cosmic despair. Unfortunately, the execution is insufferable. I regret the time I spent reading this book. There weren't even any interesting sex scenes. This meme is more interesting:

            The novel teaches me nothing about the metaphysical weight of human action or inaction. It bores me to death in its constant doubling-down on lackluster plot points. It confuses me in its roundabout, unnecessarily nonlinear structure. Kundera came up with a light/heavy metaphor and apparently thought it needed referencing on every other page. This is not a Curves class, stop talking about weight so much.

            I am not a philosophical gatekeeper, but I know what interests me literarily, and a lame love story clinging to contrived existential claims does not. The Unbearable Lightness of Being receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

*Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.