Thursday, June 28, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #5

Trashy Read 2012 #5: Fifty Shades of Grey, by E L James

For awhile, I thought I'd avoid reading this one.  I've never been one for popular books (I tend to wait a year or so until the fanfare has died down before reading a bestseller or critically-praised work), and I wasn't particularly interested in what Fifty Shades had to offer the romance genre, as its crossover popularity removes it somewhat from the romance novels I love so much.  But after a half-hearted agreement with other MFAs to give it a shot over the summer, I finally relented and put my name on the library hold list. 

Fifty Shades of Grey is not very good.  It's ridiculous that the trilogy covers 1,500 pages to tell a story that a better writer could tell in 350 without losing any of the emotional beats.  The writing is pretty abysmal, too.  I suppose that a lot of people won't notice James's reliance on her thesaurus or the overdose of adverb usage.  As an adverb hater, I noticed and it bothered me a great deal.  At one point, when the heroine is crying, James actually uses the phrase "watery tears."  What?!  I'm not surprised this book started out as fanfiction, as its writing is on par with your average piece of fanfiction.  (Note: I say that as someone who loves and appreciates good fanfiction.)

However, I don't think Fifty Shades is a particularly bad book, either.  I've certainly read books, including literary fiction, that is less absorbing.  The sex scenes are, as promised by the book's categorization as erotica, definitely the most interesting I've encountered in mainstream publishing.  I even appreciated the way James builds the sexual relationship between the two.  It doesn't start off being crazy BDSM stuff; it works its way there in a (somewhat) more believable manner.  So while the book itself is lacking in a lot of what I like about fiction in general and romance in particular - the characterization, the believability of the building relationships, the emotional stakes - I can see why it has sparked so much attention.

That being said, I'm not sure what makes this book so special, so different from any other erotic romance out there.  I don't read erotica, but I know it exists in major digital markets in the romance community.  So why this one?  Was it because James already had a big following from her days of writing fanfiction?  Is it the fact that the books actually made it into paper copies that made it accessible to a wider audience?  I don't know.  I can't imagine why anyone would care about these lead characters in particular.  Christian Grey is business-as-usual angsty, the kind of alpha male that exists all over the place in what romance reviewer Sarah Wendell would call "old skool romance."  Anastasia Steele (yep, that's her actual name) is the other side of the old-skool couple model, the wide-eyed innocent who doesn't understand why she has all these feelings for a dangerous man.  There's nothing here that is new or interesting.  These are not fascinating people (especially Anastasia, who annoyed the shit out of me through the entire book, a problem since the book is narrated in her first-person voice).  Not to mention how out of date this book feels sometimes.  For example, Anastasia is 21 and graduating from college and DOES NOT OWN A LAPTOP.  The book features some truly kinky sex and a bizarre submissive-dominant contract that is hilarious in its seriousness, but the thing that drove me craziest about the whole thing was Anastasia's absolute stupidity when it came to techonology.  I'm supposed to believe this girl got an internship at a publishing company without knowing how to work a Mac?  You have got to be kidding me.  (Since getting my library tech job and seeing what people my age and younger are capable of automatically picking up in regards to technology, I am angry that James did not have enough respect for her main character to make her as technological proficient as any college student would have to be right now.)

So there you have it.  As someone who appreciates good writing and a high dose of believability, this book didn't really satisfy me the way it has the general reading public.  I don't think it's the kind of trash some critics have labeled it, but I also don't think it gives us real insight into relationships like some readers and TV personalities have claimed.  It's a book with a lot of acrobatic sex scenes and base-line brooding.  It wasn't the worst book I've ever read, but except for its occasional moments of WTF-ery, it isn't going to stick with me long, either.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Percussion Grenade, by Joyelle McSweeney; The Singing Knives, by Frank Stanford; Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis; Helsinki, by Peter Richards

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are four books I've read and enjoyed recently:

Percussion Grenade:  I can't be completely fair to this book, as Joyelle happens to be one of my favorite MFA profs, but let me say that I did enjoy this one.  Joyelle's work is genuinely strange, amorphous, interested in big ideas without directly addressing said "big ideas."  She's interested in sound and means for the poems and plays in this book to be read aloud.  I found that I liked the book best when I did just that.  By the way, if you get a chance to hear Joyelle read her work, you should really do it.  She's kind of amazing.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Carpal Seeple," "A Peacock in Spring," "Dear Fi Jae (Purple Road, Purple Rain)," Dear Fi Jae 3 (Caninery)," and "Third Poem for the Catastrophe."  (Note: This is also a really pretty book, gorgeously designed.)

The Singing Knives:  When talking about my work with Joyelle (see above) and my advisor, they always tell me to read Frank Stanford, a Southern poet who was big in the 70s before he killed himself at the age of 30.  I decided to start with The Singing Knives because it contains "The Snake Doctors," the only Stanford poem of which I have previous knowledge.  Stanford is weird, but this book is really not that far away from the Southern gothic literary tradition.  I like the grittiness, the meanness, of these pieces.  They have a lyric sensibility with an almost narrative drive, with characters showing up in multiple poems.  I will definitely be checking out more of Frank Stanford in the future.  Poems I particularly liked here: "The Noctural Ships of the Past," "Poem," "Transcendence of Janus," "If I Should Wake," "Narcissus to Achilles," "Bergman the Burning Ship," and "The Quiver."

Poemland:  I'll admit that I kind of wanted to hate this book.  Chelsey Minnis is really popular among a lot of my fellow MFAs, and because I have a knee-jerk reaction against well-loved contemporary poetry, I planned to hate this book (which I only read because a friend told me to read it this summer).  But instead of hating Poemland, I liked it.  A lot.  At 126 pages, Poemland is longer than most poetry collections, although that can be attributed to the fact that each poem in this book (and really, they all run together as one long poem) is very short.  The effect makes the whole thing read like a little book of aphorisms about poetry and writing and woman/personhood.  It somehow manages to feel universal and personal all at once, as cliched as that sounds.  Once I started Poemland, I couldn't stop, and I ended up finishing the whole thing in one sitting. 

Helsinki:  This latest run of poetry books I read was pretty successful, as I enjoyed all of them.  But probably the one I enjoyed the most was Peter Richards's Helsinki.  It's hard to describe this book, which is a long narrative told in lyrical form.  Sentences and lines run together, which adds to the disorienting feeling of the speaker's voice, a voice that seems lost, a voice that seems to be piecing something together.  Helsinki reads a bit like science fiction, in that it shares a lot of the tropes of the genre: stranger in a strange land, the invasion/awe of the alien other, the hero telling his tale backwards, the possibility of hero as enemy, etc.  I can't say I knew exactly what was going on at every point in the book, but I didn't care.  What was on the page was so fascinating and beautiful and troubling, that I kind of just wanted to move into the world of the book and not leave for awhile. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Club Revisited: June 2012

Book Club Revisited Pick #2: Anya's Ghost, by Vera Brosgol

Book Club Revisited, the fun, web-based book club I have going with three of my friends, is still going strong!  This month we read a YA graphic novel by Vera Brosgol, Anya's Ghost.  We all liked this book considerably more than our last choice (Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You).  Anya's Ghost is scary, sweet, and honest about what it's like to be a teenage girl.  When Anya falls into a well and comes out with a new ghost friend, her social life begins to pick up.  But all the advantages of having a spectral friend to help you dress for parties and give you your classmates' test answers may not mean so much once said friend begins to go a little crazy.  Brosgol balances action and horror with the everydayness of her characters' lives in clever little ways, making this a fun read.  Also, the art is fantastic.  This is one of the best-looking graphic novels I've read in a long time (and a nice antidote to the sometimes eye-searing red of Alison Bechdel's latest book). 

In full disclosure, our book club chat lasted six hours last night.  And we only spent about a half hour or so talking about the book.  This is what is so great about an informal reading group like this; at some point, the new friends you make become just as important as the new books you're exposed to. 

Up Next from Book Club Revisited:  I got to pick this time around, and I chose Paul Tobin's brand-new superhero novel, Prepare to Die!  It sounds like a lot of fun, and I can't wait to read and discuss it!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Book Reviewed: Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

In order to prove to myself that I am capable of reading books older than three years this summer, I went ahead and picked up a copy of one of the few Austen novels I haven't already read: Northanger Abbey.  Of all of Austen's books, this is the one about which I have the least amount of knowledge.  I only knew that the hero's name was Henry and that it poked fun at gothic novels.  That's it. 

I was surprised by Northanger Abbey for several reasons.  For starters, it's hilarious.  I often giggle when reading Austen, but I think this one might have all her other books beat in terms of humor.  Mrs. Allen and John Thorpe are delightfully awful people, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Also, the book's last sentence is pretty damn great.  Next, I was surprised by the way the book was organized, with two even sections - one taking place mostly in Bath and the other at the titular estate.  For some reason, I expected the Abbey to be a much larger part of the book.  Instead, half the book feels a little too much like set-up, with the Bath scenes being fun and lovely in their own way but not really doing anything for the central plot involving the Tilney family.  Finally, I was surprised by how flirtatious Henry Tilney was toward Catherine, which was adorable.  Of all of the Austen heroes I can remember encountering, Henry seems to be the most laid-back and sociable.  I liked that.

Overall, I wouldn't put Northanger Abbey at the top of my list of favorite Austen novels (Persuasion is a the very tip-top of that list, in case you were wondering).  I found the pace to be a little off and Catherine to be a surprisingly unengaging Austen heroine.  But I still enjoyed reading the book, and I think it is the funniest of Austen's oeuvre. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Not the (Ideal) Mama!

Book Review:  Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel

I love Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home.  The story of her closeted gay father's suicide and how it coincided with her own coming out is told beautifully, both in the writing and the illustrations.  I got overly excited when I found out Bechdel was coming out with another graphic memoir, this time about her mother.  Are You My Mother? got great reviews and a lot of press, so I had unreal expectations about it.  This kind of excitment always turns out to be roblematic for me.

Bechdel loves allusions, loves using literature and history as mirrors of her own experiences and those of her family members.  Some people complained that she used too many literary allusions and referenced too many books in Fun Home, and I thought all those whiners were ridiculous.  Well, now I kind of know how they feel.  Are You My Mother? is as much an investigation into Bechdel's obsession with psychoanalysis as it is an investigation into her relationship with her mother.  The famous psychoanalysts she talks about here - in particular, Donald Winnicott - are just as important as Bechdel and her mother as memoir "characters."  I learned a lot about psychology and parent-child relationships in this book (I've never read Freud and haven't been into psychology texts since I was a teenager), but I found the emotional impact of the story to suffer a bit under the weight of all the quotations and historical background.  This book doesn't feel as tight or as urgent as Fun Home, and it just didn't connect with me.

This could be a personal problem, of course.  I try not to read books - especially memoirs - through a prism of my own life experiences, but that's an impossible order.  And here, I just couldn't get into a story about a cold mother and a woman who needs her mom's approval at every turn.  My own relationship with my mother is so opposite from Bechdel's that it's almost laughable.  Where Bechdel's mother is self-centered and withholding, mine is selfless and open.  I've never felt an ounce of disproval from my mom ever, and I realize that's rare.  Even most loving moms can be harsh at times.  Because I have a high-functioning relationship with my mother, I found it really hard to put myself in Bechdel's shoes.  I feel bad about this, but there's only so much I can do.  And I'm sure Bechdel could give me a major lecture on how my own parental relationships are screwy.

I'm not saying I disliked this book; I'm just not sure I particularly liked it either.  I love Bechdel's art, especially when she contrasts the more cartoon-y "life" frames with those of recreated photographs.  I love the way her hard work of constructing her art and text gives her books a very intelligent, self-propelling feel.  I just can't connect to the emotional strands of the book, and in the long run, it doesn't punch me in the gut Fun Home does when I read it. 

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed:  The Lichtenberg Figures, by Ben Lerner; I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, by Karyna McGlynn; The Man Suit, by Zachary Schomburg.

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read recently:

The Lichtenberg Figures:  This book by Ben Lerner won a crazy amount of awards when it came out in 2004, and it's easy to see why.  Lerner's has an amazing vocabulary and a good sense of humor; he writes about the nature of language and poetry in pretty and ironic ways.  You could never call these poems boring.  That being said, the book didn't have much of an impact on me by the time I put it down.  I really liked a few of the poems here, particularly the very first poem in the collection, but overall, I found this to be a decent book that probably won't stick with me for very long.  I almost feel bad about that, considering what a wunderkind Lerner is in the literary world.

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl:  Because my own MFA thesis concentrates so much on gender and violence, my advisor suggested I pick up this book and give it a try.  And with a title like that, how could I resist?  I Have to Go Back is an incredibly visceral book, and the way it evokes actions and reactions seems of particular importance to what McGlynn is doing here.  I had a lot of trouble following the "plot" of the book (I'm still not 100% sure I understand who is perpetrating the violence at any given point), but I really appreciated the book's organization.  Like Olivia Cronk's Skinhorse, this is a book that works almost like a seance, forcing the reader to get impressions rather than whole pictures, at its best in vague fragments.  I like this kind of poetry, even if I can't even make sense of it.  I hope one of my poetry friends will read this book soon so I can talk it out with someone!

The Man Suit:  My friend Drew left me a big pile of books to read this summer, and so far Schomburg's book has been my favorite.  The Man Suit is just a lot of fun to read, and at its best, it's surprisingly affecting.  It's humorous and strangely profound in its depiction of the absurdities found in both history and present life.  The central series in this book, "Abraham Lincoln's Death Scene" is weird but also gets at just how bizarre historical narrative constructs are.  For some reason, Schomburg's poems here remind me a lot of my favorite Kelly Link stories, which is a huge compliment because I love Kelly Link.  My two favorite poems in this collection - "Full of Knives" and "The Whale" will probably stick with me for awhile.  The Man Suit is a nice reminder that poetry can be whatever it wants when the writer is talented and not constantly getting in the way of his own work. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Club Revisited: May 2012

Book Club Revisted Pick #1: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron

My librarian friend Amy, who I have mentioned many times on this blog as being awesome, and her friend Mike, who is also pretty awesome, took up the book Brideshead Revisited last year and tweeted about their experiences reading it.  They called this Twitter book club "Book Club Revisited," although they continued to read more books that weren't, in fact, revisiting anything.  Anywhosen, I'm happy to report that "Book Club Revisited" has two new members: me and Corey Whaley, who wrote a book I really love called Where Things Come BackFor our first book, Corey picked Peter Cameron's well-reviewed 2007 teen novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.

Cameron's book is about an eighteen-year-old New Yorker named James Sveck.  James is supposed to go to Brown in the fall, but all he really wants is to buy an old house somewhere in the Midwest.  James is the product of two self-absorbed, cliched New Yorkers, and he has a horrifyingly snobby older sister.  James hates people his own age, dislikes most converstions, and the only person he's ever been able to connect to is his grandmother.  Suffice it to say, he is not a particularly likable character.

This unlikability ended up being a turn-off for all four of us when we discussed the book via video chat last week.  While we admitted to liking Cameron's writing and his representation of sexuality, none of us came away feeling any particular attachment to this novel.  None of the characters felt completely worthy of our sympathy, and I had a problem with the way Cameron handled the absence of expected emotional beats throughout the story.  That being said, participating in the book club was a lot of fun for me.  We have agreed to keep it going, and in a few weeks, we'll be discussing the teen graphic novel, Anya's Ghost, which looks like it'll be good.  I had to leave my library book club behind when I started grad school last August, so it's fun to be discussing books (or at least books that aren't assigned contemporary poetry) with other people again.

Note:  I'm also participating in an ironic book club on the side this summer.  A group of us Notre Dame MFAs will be reading and discussing 50 Shades of Grey.  Which will either be a lot of fun or very slow torture.  Stay tuned to find out which!