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Search tags: I-am-a-structure-whore
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review 2017-05-18 21:59
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I've waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author's fault or mine. It's silly to assign blame when one doesn't like a book; I suppose this one just wasn't for me, and I wish every book was.

 

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much "me." The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator--I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to--borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious "accident." The game also embodies what I understand to be the book's major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

 

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn't until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean's "accident," though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery...except it's not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you're even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don't have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

 

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn't. A book can be about roads we do and don't take, how our choices don't always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-04-03 17:13
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.

 

(Spoiler-free until the note.)

 

The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).

 

The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?

 

Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.

 

(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.

 

Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)

 

Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

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review 2017-03-11 20:24
Black Wave, Michelle Tea
Black Wave - Michelle Tea

The more I read (and watch movies and TV), the more I value encountering something unlike anything else I ever have before. Black Wave, by Michelle Tea, immersed me in a world new to me in several ways.

 

Though there are occasionally individual queer characters in the books I read, I haven't read much queer lit where a larger community is represented, especially queer women. Black Wave is set in San Francisco in the 90s at the start, an alternative past where gentrification has strangled most of the culture(s) from the city. In addition, the world appears to be ending due to advanced climate change: it's dangerous to be out in the sun even incidentally, the ocean is a trash wave, many animals are extinct, and invasive species have overtaken the dying native flora. In other words, the environment's death mirrors a cultural and, as is soon apparent, a personal one.

 

The protagonist, Michelle (like the author), is in her later twenties, and is the kind of addict who tells herself she's not because she doesn't shoot heroin but snorts it and is able to keep her job at a bookstore. She falls in love (or becomes infatuated) easily and hooks up with many of the women who come into her orbit, despite being in a "steady" relationship with a partner more stable than she is. At one point the point of view shifts from Michelle's to her girlfriend's, who thinks she's a sociopath.

 

That feels pretty accurate, but one of the amazing things about Black Wave is that despite Michelle's objectively unlikable character, I still felt very much invested in her. In part this is due to the humor and energy of the writing. For example:

 

Michelle seemed more like some sort of compulsively rutting land mammal, a chimera of dog in heat and black widow, a sex fiend that kills its mate. Or else she was merely a sociopath. She was like the android from Blade Runner who didn’t know it was bad to torture a tortoise. She had flipped [her girlfriend] Andy onto her belly in the Armageddon sun and left her there, fins flapping.

 

I may also personally respond to Michelle because she's a writer, one who's even published and had a sort of local fame. Around the midpoint of the book when she moves to L.A., the narrative is deconstructed as she attempts to write a new book. It becomes clear that not everything we've read so far is as it happened. Another aspect I liked is that somehow this sudden shift doesn't feel like a trick as can happen in many modernist and post-modernist writing and metafiction. How and why I don't know, but after some minor readjustment on my part as a reader, I was still invested.

 

I've often noted what a structure fanatic I am, and the last major selling point of Black Wave is the way it beautifully spins out in the last third.

 

Tangents were Michelle’s favorite part of writing, each one a declaration of agency: I know I was going over there but now I’m going over here, don’t be so uptight about it, just come along. A tangent was a fuckup, a teenage runaway. It was a road trip with a full tank of gas. You can’t get lost if you don’t have anywhere to be. This was writing for Michelle: rule free, glorious, sprawling.

 

As the world ends, people begin dreaming vividly and lucidly about others who exist in the real world, all over the world. They're dreams of connection and love where identity is fluid, and some begin living in them, like Michelle's bosses at the bookstore who hand over the business to her. So the world ends, but somehow Michelle's in a good place, and so was I.

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review 2017-01-13 18:12
The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan
The Association of Small Bombs: A Novel - Karan Mahajan

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

 

I finished this critically acclaimed book while away for the holidays and jotted down a list of likes/dislikes. Short story shorter, I liked it, but what a downer.

 

The synopsis from amazon:

 

When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.

I admired the novel's intricate structure as it shifts across time and multiple points of view. As a writer, I'm always greatly impressed by such a feat when it is accomplished smoothly and clearly. The different points of view also offer insight into how a victim might become a terrorist or sympathetic to one or his cause, how other victims may become advocates, how someone moderate in his faith might become an extremist, how a terrorist may walk away free and be disaffected even as he commits or aids in more acts of terror. In the case of these characters, often it's the personal or psychological rather than the political that provides the impetus for violent action. Refreshingly, this novel does not feel ideological.

 

The prose is also accomplished, and I liked that the author wrote to his best reader; he did not define or explain cultural or religious terms that may be unfamiliar to a white, atheist Westerner like me. I had no problem looking up information for myself.

 

Despite what I was drawn to in the novel's craft, I felt the characters were held at a remove, as if I were looking down on them from above. This prevented me from fully connecting with them and the novel as a whole. Without that connection, I finished the story with a feeling of, "Well, that happened." There was nothing to counterbalance the weight of events, not enough beauty to keep the novel from simply depressing me. At times the metaphor of the titular bombs was also heavy-handed.

 

I can see what critics admire in this work, but I left it feeling untouched.

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review 2016-03-04 16:43
The First Time Rats Saw God
Rats Saw God - Rob Thomas

Rob Thomas is known to me first and foremost as the creator of Veronica Mars and its titular heroine, one of my favorite television shows and characters. If I had to choose one character that I wished were real, it would be Veronica. That's saying a lot; I love countless fictional characters to distraction.

 

A highlight of the show is Veronica's caustic wit. Other characters are funny (e.g. Logan, Mac), but there's something about a tiny, blonde, teenage girl who used to be on the pep squad cutting people down to size with a sharp tongue (or bantering with her father, friends, or boyfriends)--after suffering the murder of her best friend, the abandonment of her mother, the destruction of her father's reputation, and rape--that is unique and paradoxically pleasing for a female character especially.

 

Rats Saw God and its protagonist, Steve York, display the same jaded wit, and it's the best feature of the book. Before VM, Thomas wrote YA novels, and his grasp of high school and teenage life is strong. He taught high school journalism, and his experience is evident. 

 

Like Veronica, Steve has recently gone through some shit (less serious than Veronica, but just as devastating, and, as I like to say, suffering is not a competition). The conceit of the book is that in the present, Steve is doing horribly; he's a stoner flunking out despite obvious intelligence and past academic success. He is on the verge of not graduating and must somehow make up his English credit. His guidance counselor asks him to write 100 pages (unthinkable for a high schooler--hell, for an undergrad), in chunks each week, of anything he likes. Steve complies, so the flashbacks to how Steve got where he is take the form of his first person writing.

 

The back-and-forth between present and past comes in quick bites, generally. We're to understand that writing is helping Steve move on from what happened back in Houston (I won't spoil what that is, but from the beginning it's clear it has to do with his then girlfriend, Dub, and his father, whom Steve refers to as "the astronaut," after his famous profession). The progression wasn't always clear to me (like how and why Steve became interested in another girl in the present), and I found myself more engaged by the past. When the source of Steve's heartbreak is revealed, it's upsetting, but given the nature of the shock, it feels unexplored. Steve and Dub never deal with each other significantly face-to-face either. While this makes sense given Steve's character especially, it still left me hanging. I could've used another 50 pages.

 

If you're a VM fan, you'll recognize the book's title (in the book's context, it's part of the coveted yearbook photo for Steve's extracurricular, GOD--Grace Order of Dadaists), referenced in season two. You'll also recognize the name of Steve's girlfriend, Wanda Varner, who goes by "Dub," from a season one episode in which that Wanda ran for student president but lost and also turned out to be a snitch. She's not the most trustworthy here either, but that doesn't mean you don't like her until the end.

 

Thomas's protagonists tend to be whip-smart and jaded. For me, this is ultimately much more interesting when that character is a girl.

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