Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris

You may have heard of this because everyone got really excited about it and wrote about it on their book blogs a while ago, but I didn’t read it until now because that’s when it got in at the library.  It’s about an ad agency at the end of that dot-com bubble thing that happened when I was young and foolish and paying no attention to anything except, you know, learning geometry proofs and swearing to one and all that I would never give myself to anyone but Carl Anderson (my first love).  Isn’t he sexy? (Even though the picture’s very tiny?)  …Don’t feel bad if you think he’s not, because hardly anyone but me and Indie Sister think that he is, but oh how we loved him.

Anyway, this book was cool and interesting and funny.  And it rings true, the way people think in an office.  Worrying about racism and sexism and being jerks, and the way some people just have these crazy-ass ideas that you have to step around if you can, and how everyone thinks they know stuff about everyone else.  I liked it that he went for more than the funny, because he was doing well with being funny and it would have been easy to stick with that black humor thing all the way through – which he did, in a way, but then also there were.  You know.  Levels.

However, it was still a little gimmicky.  I mean, as gimmicks go, this works well, this first-person plural thing.  I totally get what he was after, making a statement about offices, hive-mind, corporate America, na na na na na na, and it’s cool and I dig it.  And I know you can’t separate the narrative style from the book without gutting it completely, but I just sort of wondered how effective and interesting his writing would be without it.  Again, definitely a very cool idea, but he’s skirting the edge of being Don DeLillo Lite, and I just wonder whether he’s only avoided it by being Gimmick Guy.  I’ll be interested to see what he writes next.

…I’m sure he’ll write another book that will be just as cool and have no gimmick and prove me completely wrong.  That would be nice.  I may be being unfairly harsh to Mr. Ferris because I read an interview with him it turns out he likes all these authors I assiduously avoid but still end up reading bits of: Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Chekhov, Kafka.  Those dudes.  Nabokov is the only author that Mr. Ferris likes that I like too, and that means nothing because all kinds of people like Nabokov.  I bet he likes Philip Roth and Anthony Burgess and Kurt Vonnegut too.  Oo, and like Cormac McCarthy and Tim O’Brien and John Kennedy O’Toole.

Added later: Dude, this is freaky.  I went looking for interviews with Joshua Ferris, and seriously, the man likes ALL of those writers.  There were two he didn’t mention, Anthony Burgess and John Kennedy O’Toole, but I bet he just forgot about them.  I’m about to write him a letter and ask him if he likes Anthony Burgess and John Kennedy O’Toole.  I bet he does.  I bet he does like them.

Robin, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Robin starts – after the “previously on Robin” bit at the beginning – right where Coombe left off, with the joyous happiness of Robin and Donal’s reunion.  Good news: They still love each other.  I wasn’t surprised by that, but I have to confess I was a little unsettled by the scene directly following it, where Donal goes home to tell his mother about his evening.  I quote:

Throughout his life he had taken all his joys to his closest companion and nearest intimate – his mother.  Theirs had not been a common life together.  He had not even tried to explain to himself the harmony and gaiety of their nearness in which there seemed no separation of years.  She had drawn and held him to the wonder of her charm and had been the fine flavour of his existence.  It was actually true that he had so far had no boyish love affairs because he had all unconsciously been in love with the beautiful completeness of her.

Or, Are You There, Freud?  It’s Me, Donal.

Well, then Europe kicks of World War I, and on account of that Donal is brave enough to talk to Robin straight away, overcoming his customary boyish shyness, and they have a touching conversation about how they would have a much slower courtship if it weren’t for the distressing thing about Donal being all set to get shipped off to war.  This is Robin’s reaction to thinking that thought:

“No! No! No! No!” she cried four times.  “Belgium!  Belgium!  Oh!  Belgium!”

Maybe it’s best for Robin to just not think any thoughts, ever.  What I want to know is, does she cry No No No No four times, for a total of sixteen No!s, or is this just Ms. Burnett’s narrative version of those legal documents that say “four (4) shrill negations”?

Anyway, Robin and Donal decide to keep their love a secret.  Actually not a secret (Robin asks about this and Donal is boyishly glad to explain); actually it’s “a sort of sacred, heavenly unbelievable thing we own together.”  Uh-huh.  A sacred, heavenly unbelievable thing that we never tell anyone about and we pretend doesn’t exist.  Nothing like a secret at all.  Just not telling anyone, ever.  Not a secret in any way, no sir.  They love each other a lot, secretly sacredly, and then Donal gets called up and then they get word that he’s died, and Robin takes sick, and it turns out – Ms. Burnett is very coy about this – it turns out she’s preggers.

(I am less coy.)

She’s too busy mourning to worry much about this pregnancy business, so all the grown-ups around her worry about it for her.  They’re very worried and can’t decide what to do, because they don’t want everyone to laugh at her and call her Big Slut Robin when everyone who loves her knows that she is actually Sweet Angel Robin; so after a while Lord Coombe brings it up with her, and she says, with a Barbara-Cartland-worthy delivery, “Did you – think we were – not married?”

Yeah!  Get your mind out of the gutter, Lord Coombe!  Donal would never have sacred boyish romps in the garden with Robin without marrying her first!  (Did I mention they only ever meet in this garden?  They can’t go to his place or her place so they always meet in this garden.  Gold star to Ms. Burnett for the unsubtle Eden reference there.)

Unfortunately it was all about the marrying in secret and not getting the documents, so to shield her from getting called Big Slut Robin, Lord Coombe marries her in secret.  After some long-term high-quality moping on Robin’s part, a period during which everyone who hangs out with her tells each other what a Sweet Angel Robin she is, the book suddenly turns into a massive spiritualist tract.  Donal, who we later learn is a prisoner of war, starts talking to Robin in her sleep – he very luckily met an American in his POW camp, who taught him this trick – and Robin perks up right away because of the Comfort ™ that she is getting from her Spiritual Encounters with Donal.

And then he comes back alive.  And they’re reunited.  Oh, and Lord Coombe swings it so it’s like his marriage to Robin never happened.  I don’t know how that works because the whole point was that everyone was going to think he was an icky old pervert, marrying his ex-mistress’s daughter, and that was why it was so noble of him to marry Robin; but apparently nobody had noticed yet.  Anyway the marriage with Lord Coombe is then off the table, and Donal confirms that he married Robin.  Still no documents but I guess the word of a Lord’s Heir is good enough.  Donal takes his sweet time going to visit Robin, and then cheats us of the good reunion scene we are entitled to suspect by telling Robin in her dreams the day before he comes back to her.  It’s lame.

I mean, I liked the book a lot – especially when everyone was being coy about Robin and her pregnant state – but hey, man, I wanted my reunion scene.  Stupid spiritualism ruins everything, and don’t let American POWs tell you any different.

Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

I liked Night Watch enough that I got all of Sarah Waters’s other books out of the library in the hopes that I would be getting a grand new favorite author.  Tipping the Velvet was evidently her first, and I didn’t like it as much as Night Watch, sadly, but I still totally enjoyed it.  So much I stayed up until three last night finishing it even though I have a paper to write today.  I’m doing that straightaway after I write this.

Lots of interesting Victorian underworld in this book.  I spent a lot of this book trying to work out what all that mad Victorian slang was about, which was jolly.  Though I did get fed up with Nancy when she was window-shopping at the tobacconist and the dude came up and talked to her and she was dressed as a boy and she like totally talked back.  I was in my room going “Well that’s just GREAT, Nan, you WINDOW-SHOPPING HUSSY.  Hope you’re enjoying offering that UNEQUIVOCAL SEX INVITE with all that crazed WINDOW-SHOPPING TALKING you are doing.  He is OBVIOUSLY trying to pick you up and that might be okay if you weren’t a GIRL, you humongous MORON.”  Not really fair to get so cross about it.  She didn’t know.

I got seriously worked up about Nancy’s behavior and what I wanted to happen.  Like Florence?  I was against Florence from the beginning.  Why’s everyone always ending up with snotty righteous uninteresting people?  It was like that time Dorothea married Casaubon, only more ugh and no dashing young Will for her to hook up with later.  What if Jane Eyre had married St. John?  Ugh.  About forty pages into the book I went and read the end, and there was this random-ass Florence character I’d never met, so I took against from the beginning, and when she finally showed up I was like PFFT, Florence, I hate that bitch.  So it was good really that she was such an aggravatingly virtuous character and I didn’t have to reconsider my early unfriendly assessment of her.

Well, that’s neither here nor there.  Sarah Waters is a good writer.  Tipping the Velvet was good.  We’ll see, won’t we, whether my fondness for her survives reading her other two books.  I’m saving Affinity for last because it’s about spiritualism.  I like spiritualism.  Hester Whatsherface received a whole play all from Oscar Wilde.

Miss Spitfire, Sarah Miller

Recommended by: Book Nut

I love Annie Sullivan.  Every time I think about Annie Sullivan it blows my mind.  She was twenty when she went to go teach Helen Keller, and she’d had no proper parenting, and she was twenty, and she must have been just about the most brilliant and inventive person of all time.  Annie Sullivan.  WOW.  There was a woman who knew how to parent.

Anyway, I was excited to read this book about her.  I like young adult books, even though I have now become a real adult and can no longer feel smug, as I did when I was seven and eight and nine, about reading way above my grade level. So I checked out Miss Spitfire to read.

And it was, you know, fine.  Nothing wrong with it at all.  It’s just – we all know this story already.  I guess I was hoping for a fresh look at the story, and this really wasn’t it.  It went down just about the way you’d expect: Annie comes, there are big fights, she feels anxious, she makes Helen behave, there’s a breakthrough, things improve, the end.  Of course Ms. Miller has given us a good story, but the story of Helen and Annie is a good story, and it would be some trick to make it boring.  But she hasn’t brought anything new to it.  For me.

However, there was a picture of Helen’s house when she was a kid, and I was really surprised about it.  Look.  In my mind I always pictured something more airy and grand and plantation-like, but this could very easily be a house in the Garden District or something.  It’s cute!  It’s the kind of house everyone is tearing down now to build their McMansions.  Learn something new every day.

Birds in Fall, Brad Kessler

She handed the open tube across the cello.What do I do with this? I asked.

You write your name.

You’re being dramatic.

Am I? she asked.

The name of the lipstick was Japanese Maple. Against her pale skin, the letters looked lurid and blotchy.

The Japanese maple on our roof was slightly more purple than the lipstick. Its leaves in fall the color “of bruises” Ana once said. She would have looked good wearing that pigment. I held the glistening tube in my hand, not knowing what to write or where. I wanted to write Ana’s name, or both our names, as though we were a piece of luggage that, lost, would find its way back to the loft. So I put our address down, taking care with each number, each letter: 150 First Avenue; and then I showed my arm to the cellist, and she said: Your name. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to write it down.

Recommended by: A Reader’s Journal

Basically I chose to read Birds in Fall because I’ve been rereading a bunch of old books lately, and I thought, You know, I have this massive long list of books to read that I’ve been at some pains to compile, and here I am doing nothing but reading stuff I’ve read before a million times. So I glanced at my List, picked a few things at random, and checked them out of the library; and then I read this one first because it has a pretty cover.

Birds in Fall is about a plane that crashes off the coast of Nova Scotia. The families of the people who died come to the wee island where it crashed, and they all stay in the little inn together while they are waiting for news. I thought it was going to be extremely depressing. If it hadn’t had postage stamp birds on the cover, I might never have read it and devoted my time entirely to the watching of Angel until my eyeballs fell out.  (He hit Buffy in the face.)

However, there were postage stamp birds on the cover, and for the first two-thirds I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was – and you’ll have to excuse the adjectives and be aware that I hate myself a little bit for using them – haunting and elegiac.  The whole thing of becoming a community on the basis of their mutual loss worked very well, and Mr. Kessler created the mood quite perfectly, the boredom and the grieving more or less put on hold until bodies could be found.  Excellent.

Then around chapter nineteen or twenty, everything went to hell.  Well, not to hell, but the book experienced a sudden drastic drop-off in interestingness.  Everyone went home and I got bored and kept wanting to skim, and I read the end like five times, but it didn’t help because the end wasn’t that interesting either.  Everyone went home.  I didn’t even care about Ana getting closure, and previously I’d been unable to put the book down, I was so involved in whether Ana (and everyone) got closure.  So humph.  I was all set to recommend this book to my mother and put a lot of energy into persuading her to read it, and then it got less interesting and saved me the trouble.

Still, it’s worth reading, and I can see reading it again.  For one thing, the drop-off in interesting was so drastic and sudden that I have some concerns that I, not it, might be the issue.  Perchance I just suddenly became not in the mood for this book, and in fact it didn’t change at all.  So I’ll probably read it again sometime, to see if that’s the problem.  I can see that being the problem; the more I think about it, the more likely it seems.

Sweethearts, Sara Zarr

Recommended by: God knows.  Some website.  I remember seeing it but I didn’t take note of where and now I can’t remember.  I’m cute but dumb.

I actually bought this book mainly out of terror and dismay, as it sounded a lot like a story I’m in the process of drafting, and when I read about it I freaked out immediately and started having depressing dreams in which Sara Zarr (who looked a lot like Scheherazade from the TV movie of Arabian Nights, damn her) came and fussed at me for writing a lamer version of the exact same story she had written.   This isn’t very admirable and demonstrates deep insecurities and also a hitherto unacknowledged desire to look like Mili Avital, but there it is, that’s what I dreamed.

To my relief, this book is really nothing like my story at all, so Mili Avital/Sara Zarr/my mean old embarrassing grouch of a subconscious can just leave me alone.  It’s about a girl called Jennifer (hmph) who was a misfit outcast girl in elementary school and she had a best friend called Cameron and they were outcasts together, and then Something Happened when they were nine and Cameron left very unexpectedly and Jennifer recreated herself.  And named herself Jenna.  And then when she is seventeen, Cameron comes back.

(Please, like that’s an improvement.  There are other, better nicknames for Jennifer than that.  Just saying.)

I enjoyed this book.  Ms. Zarr (who incidentally doesn’t look any more like Mili Avital than I do except that she is brunette like Mili Avital and I have fair hair) writes excellent dialogue and genuine relationships which is often tricky.  And although I was extremely sleepy and I knew I would be losing an hour today, damn Daylight Savings Time, I nevertheless stayed up late and finished it in one sitting.  With, in the interests of full disclosure, some getting up and down for water and the bathroom and to brush my teeth and to check Woot and PostSecret.  I wasn’t wild about the last chapter – it seemed unconnected with the rest of the book, how suddenly we were leaping through enormous dollops of time in the narrator’s life and all kinds of shit happened in the intervening years, and – it was a bit jolting, and I thought, really, it could have been handled more smoothly.

But overall a thoroughly good book.  If I knew any teenage girls I would give them my copy.

Oh, hey, I do know a teenage girl.  Maybe I’ll give her my copy.

Heck Superhero, by Martine Leavitt

Martine Leavitt is still my new BFF, and great respect to her for raising seven kids and still managing to write books, but I didn’t like Heck Superhero as much as The Dollmage and Keturah.  I think that writing in the present time may just not be her thing, and it may actually be necessary for her to set her stories in strange, alternate versions of England from back in the day.

Heck Superhero is about a kid whose mother goes MIA, and as a result of some pretty spectacular magic thinking (he’s only a kid, so this is permissible), he thinks that he has to be a superhero in order to find her, by doing enough really fantastic and amazing Good Deeds.

It was good.  Just not as good.  I wish I had Martine Leavitt’s other books instead of this one.  It was a teeny bit of a letdown.

HUMPH (or, The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray)

HUMPH.  I AM DISPLEASED.

Spoilers to follow.

But first: This is the third book in a trilogy that basically, for me, has been the Gemma-and-Kartik (that’s his name) show, with some other stuff about magic or something going on as well.  To be brutally honest, I haven’t been terribly interested in the main story, so I’ve just been carrying on reading in the hopes that Gemma and Kartik would move to The Land Where People Don’t Care About Race and get married and have lots of little babies.

AND THEN KARTIK WENT AND DIED, DAMMIT.

I mean, I knew that was going to happen, because I read the end before I read the middle, but I was still extremely outraged when I got to it in real time.  And I’m still cross.

And you know what else?  You know what else I’m cross about?  I’ll tell you!  I’m cross about the unsubtle foreshadowing of Felicity’s tendencies by mentioning Oscar Wilde.  I mean COME ON.  I already figured it out anyway but then Ms. Bray went and put that in and it’s not that I don’t support Oscar Wilde whole-heartedly, because God knows I do, but seriously, once she said that it was glaringly obvious and thus she completely prevented me from feeling smug and clever when The Truth Was Revealed.  And, you know, I like feeling clever about plot points that I predict without reading them at the end of the book; because as a trend, I am not using my brain to predict things when I am reading, so I very very rarely guess things before they happen, including really obvious things like that the guy named Lupin who got sick all the time during the full moon and had to have Snape take over his class and teach about werewolves, was a werewolf.

Yeah, that was dumb.  But I did have an incredibly brilliant epiphany about this plot point in the fifth Harry Potter book, and damn, that was smart of me.

Anyway, I don’t like it that Libba Bray messed up my high opinion of myself.

AND ALSO KARTIK DIED.  I mean what was the point of all those saucy dreams she kept having about kissing him (with tongue, the scandalous wench!) if he was just going to die at the end?  THERE ARE RULES about these things (that exist in my brain) whereby the hero of the story, and I think we can agree that Kartik was the only candidate for that, is supposed to survive.  DEVIANCE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.

True Notebooks, Mark Salzman

Carlos was a minor character in the story [I was writing], a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness. Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured Duane must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answering, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a writing class there. If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

I didn’t respond immediately. I wanted him to think I was giving it serious thought. Then I asked, “Are you sure you can’t recommend any books?”

Recommended by: A Striped Armchair

The Man sucks.

Also this book was good. I drove around for a while trying to remember which library branch had it, and then I finally remembered and checked it out, and then I read it straight through. It’s a memoir of Mark Salzman’s time teaching a creative writing class at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t say that this is the best-written memoir I’ve ever read in my life, but it’s not badly written by any means, and Mr. Salzman writes with great sincerity. Which, actually, is probably more important than writing like a dream, when you’re dealing with something about which people have some really firmly ingrained preconceptions.

What Mr. Salzman is quite successful at (shades of John Berendt (who is a better writer, I think)) is reproducing dialogue. (Mozilla, you had better stop underlining words that I am spelling correctly! Dialogue! Dialogue! Dialogue! I hate you.) I mean, reproducing dialogue in such a way that the reader gets a sense of what the speaker is like. And good on Mr. Salzman, because not a lot of people can do that, particularly in nonfiction, where very often everyone sounds like they are different-faced versions of the same person.

(Sidebar: Yay for John Berendt, seriously. How well did he reproduce the Lady Chablis? So, so, so well.)

Okay, now I’m having regrets. I’m feeling a little guilty about saying that True Notebooks wasn’t well-written. It wasn’t badly written, at all; it was just a trifle, a hair, a speck generically written. Which is okay! Because of how well he did the dialogue! It’s just that if it hadn’t been for the dialogue, you would have had a book on an interesting subject that was not ultimately a very interesting book, because although it was very funny in spots it was a trifle (a hair, a speck) generic. A trifle! Except for the dialogue which made everything okay, I swear it did, and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it!

(MOZILLA STOP UNDERLINING “DIALOGUE” IN RED! THAT IS HOW THE WORD IS SPELLED!)

This review has been the cause of a great deal of emotional turmoil – more, to be honest, than I was expecting – so I’m going to stop.