Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides* title pretty much says it all. There are virgins and they will commit suicide. Not only that, but the first few sentences remove any arc of suspense. I respect Jeffrey Eugenides’ boldness in his debut novel; he told readers what to expect from the get-go and then piqued our interest enough to keep reading.

The novel is told from the perspective of teenage boys. They describe the life (and death) of five sisters who live in their neighborhood, walk their school halls, and experiment with innocence or lack thereof. At first, I was like….okay, so why do we need a bunch of boys mansplaining girls to us? It’s the ladies’ lives, let them tell it! Except, from a creative perspective, I appreciate that Eugenides used distance to render the girls into mythical creatures, overly romanticized. They’re girls who the reader can’t quite grasp. They’re basically ghosts throughout.

The first Eugenides book I read was Middlesex, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a personal favorite (check out my review if you want a photo of an interesting retail product-- the “Anti-Masturbation Cross”). Then, I tried The Marriage Plot, which was absolute garbage and filled with the most boring characters one could possibly conjure. The Virgin Suicides, while not as impressive as the entertaining complexities of Middlesex, certainly read better than the plot which shall not be named.

You can also watch a young Kirsten Dunst crush it as a main character in the film adaptation. You're welcome! The Virgin Suicides receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. New York: Warner Books, 1999. Print.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Best American Short Stories 1987

The year is 1987. Michael B. Jordan is born (hallelujah). Aretha Franklin is the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two nerds invent Photoshop. Eazy-E releases Boyz-n-the-Hood (banger). Ann Beattie edits The Best American Short Stories 1987*. Solid year.

I’ve reviewed some of The Best American Series before and I will again because they’re the best. For some background on what the series entails, check out my review of The Best American Short Stories 2013. If you like the idea of the format, but want a slightly different genre, check out my review of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005.

The Best American Short Stories 1987 is chock-full of talent, as per usual. This year includes Susan Sontag, John Updike, Raymond Carver, and Charles Baxter. The series not only entertain in and of themselves but also gift you a long list of talented authors for your mental Rolodex. You get a good short story and a taste of what the writer could provide you in long form. In the end, authors get a chance to explain their writing process and their inspiration for the story, which is helpful for any aspiring writer.

I chose this particular year at random from my favorite used bookstore (shout out to Heartwood Books in Charlottesville). I enjoy it only slightly less than the 2013 edition (very hard to beat out George Saunders and Juno Díaz). The 1987 edition includes an excerpt from The Things They Carried, which is beyond brilliant, and I found it interesting how easily the excerpt stood on its own as a short story.

Overall, The Best American Short Stories 1987 receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Beattie, Ann and Shannon Ravenel, eds. The Best American Short Stories 1987. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Blood Meridian

Something that I don’t need in my life: a brutal gang of scalphunters intent on superfluous violence roaming the United States-Mexico borderlands in 1849. I’m uninterested. To be honest, I don’t like Westerns and I never have. In my opinion, they tend to be too slow-paced, I get annoyed with the narrator’s drawl, there’s too much landscape description for my liking, I don’t relate to their plight, and every little detail feels like a trope. I gave Blood Meridian* by Cormac McCarthy a chance’s Cormac McCarthy. I never read All the Pretty Horses when it was assigned in high school (Sorry, Mr. Wood) and I also never got around to The Road (mostly because I used to confuse it with On the Road by Kerouac). No Country for Old Men is a phenomenal movie, but I haven’t read the book.

Basically, I read Blood Meridian because, like in the case of White Teeth, reading it allowed me to scratch off part of a poster. We’re all suckers for scratch offs, admit it.

The most impressive aspect of the novel is its historical accuracy. Blood Meridian follows a teenager referred to as “the kid” as he gets caught up in the Glanton Gang. The gang originally kills Native Americans for bounty hunting; soon, they devolve into killing anyone and everyone for sport. Apparently, the Glanton Gang existed. They are all a bunch of morally devoid assholes and the only whisper of a moral compass lies in “the kid”. It’s a very quiet whisper.

Am I missing something? Blood Meridian was the biggest struggle for me to trudge through since Naked Lunch (which isn’t a novel, it’s vomit on some pages). McCarthy is clearly talented--his sentences are symbolic and he sure knows how to describe the countryside. But the book is 330 pages of murder and not much else, plot-wise.

I do not have a problem with the graphic violence; we’ve all been desensitized by the Saw movies and serial killer podcasts. Instead, I found the violence monotonous; again, I am uninterested. The crew seems to murder because they are bored and I, in turn, am bored. *Gang encounters large group of Native Americans. Kills them mercilessly. Gang encounters another large group of Native Americans. Kills them mercilessly. Gang encounters another large group of Native Americans. Kills them mercilessly*. I wonder what happens next??!?

There are countless novels and movies that contain violence and manage to use that violence to a creative end. For me, Blood Meridian has the violence without the creatively satisfying payoff. Blood Meridian receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

*McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Print.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Bend Sinister

Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite lepidopterist-authors (one who studies butterflies and also writes world-famous books--seriously, he's very into butterflies). Eight years before he published Lolita, he published his second English-language novel, Bend Sinister*.

Bend Sinister is not an “in your face” dystopian novel, like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, or The Handmaid's Tale. “In your face” dystopian novels make you go THIS IS NUTS, SOMEONE GOT VERY, VERY CARRIED AWAY, HOW CAN WE AVOID THIS?! 1984 has a rigid system of policing thought and a Big Brother literally invading people’s homes. Brave New World produces genetically modified people and then indoctrinates them at all hours of the day. Fahrenheit 451 treats knowledge as dangerous and requires the burning of books. The Handmaid's Tale forces fertile women to submit themselves to men and imposes strict puritanical codes. On the other hand, the totalitarianism of Bend Sinister progresses insidiously but also clumsily. The new government, which seeks to create a uniform society, seems disorganized and inefficient. After all, any transfer of power will come with some growing pains. Bend Sinister shows the growing pains, so while the staples of dystopia are in the works (censorship, torture, oppressive government, all that jazz), these tools have yet to be fully implemented.

Nabokov’s dystopia is also different from his contemporaries' in that the main character, Krug, is important on an international level, so he’s able to fight back. He isn’t disposable and he has some leverage. Unfortunately, I find him boring and two-dimensional, and I can’t connect with him. I know that Nabokov is capable of garnering empathy for his characters-- his best novel is narrated by a rapist. The man knows how to create complexity-- so why does Krug fall so flat?

In Bend Sinister, Nabokov makes complicated moves between 1st and 3rd person in his narration and drops references that I straight up don’t understand (he includes a seemingly unnecessary and lengthy aside on Shakespeare, but what do I know?). Overall, we have a novel with: great writing (it’s Nabokov!) and a compelling story (I like that he attacks from the angle that authoritarianism is stupid rather than merely evil), but ultimately awkward execution. Bend Sinister receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Nabakov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947. Print.