Looking for Alaska, John Green

“When I was born, my mom wanted to name me Harmony Springs Young, and my dad wanted to name me Mary Frances young.”  As she talked, she bobbed her head back and forth to the MTV music, even though the song was the kind of manufactured pop ballad she professed to hate.

“So instead of naming me Harmony or Mary, they agreed to let me decide.  So when I was little, they called me Mary.  I mean, they called me sweetie or whatever, but like on school forms and stuff, they wrote Mary Young.  And then on my seventh birthday, my present was that I got to pick my name.  Cool, huh?  So I spent the whole day looking at my dad’s globe for a really cool name.  And so my first choice was Chad, like the country in Africa.  But then my dad said that was a boy’s name, so I picked Alaska.”

I wish my parents had let me pick my name.  But they went ahead and picked the only name firstborn male Halters have had for a century.  “But why Alaska?” I asked her.

She smiled with the right side of her mouth.  “Well, later, I found out what it means.  It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska.  It means ‘that which the sea breaks against’, and I love that.  But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there.  And it was big, just like I wanted to be.  And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”

Recommended by: SassyMonkey Reads

Looking for Alaska is about a lonely guy who goes to a boarding school so that he will make friends, which he duly does, and one of them is a mad girl named Alaska (mad in both senses of the word; I am in love with the English language), with whom he duly falls in love, and then she is dysfunctional and many things happen, and actually I think it was quite good, and I believe I shall check out that other book by John Green that everyone says is good.

And that’s about all I have to say about that.

Nope, a subsequent anecdote that made me laugh so much I find it worth editing this post to tell it to you, Internet.  My sister was in a YA fiction class at university, and the teacher was super touchy-feely and encouraged everyone to share, and sometimes there was oversharing.  And when they were talking about Looking for Alaska, this one girl said, “OMG, that scene where they’re having that really awkward scene where she’s trying to give him a blow job?  I mean, girls, we’ve all been there!  Hahaha, I must sound like such a slut.  But seriously we’ve all been there.”  Ah, oversharing.

The Far Cry, Emma Smith

Teresa was at sea.  The boat moved – would she ever forget it? – away from the land.  And something was severed; she felt delivered.

“I never want to come back!” she screeched.

The grey land made no effort to hold her, gave no final sign of enticement.  It lay there, apathetic, allowing her to go.  The loud-speaker was playing “Indian Summer”.  Down pouring a huge flood of sound, drowning the salty air, paralyzing thought, emotion, everything, a vast crocodile tear of farewell, loudly lugubrious, and up against it soared Teresa’s voice, like a skylark beating its frail wings.  “I never never want to come back…”   Strands of hair whipped across her blasphemous mouth; the tears in her eyes belonged to the wind, for she was hard with triumph.  “Never, never…”

“Very well, never come back,” the flat grey mud that was England seemed to answer, indifferent to her wild cry of renunciation.  She gripped the rail, passionately free.

Recommended by: I actually don’t remember.  Persephone had it up, but I think I read about it on another book blog before then.

The Far Cry is about an excusably unpleasant girl called Teresa and her unpleasant father who go away to India in order to escape from her (I’m sure equally unpleasant) mother who has expressed interest in young Teresa for the first time in her life and may be contemplating stealing her away from her hapless father and bringing her up to be spoiled and pleasure-seeking.  They go on a boat and meet people, and then they get to India and meet a few more people, and then several very eventful events happen in a cluster and the book closes on a note of hope for Teresa’s future.

It wasn’t bad.  I didn’t love it but it wasn’t bad.  It’s one of those books that makes me bust out the litotes in order to talk about it: I didn’t dislike it.  The characterization wasn’t uninteresting.  There was just never a point at which I wouldn’t have been completely happy to put it down and read something else.  Things got set up that never went anywhere; and even when they did go somewhere, they never went anywhere satisfying.  Ms. Smith talked about feelings so much that I thought some emotional climax would be reached, and I suppose it sort of was, but it didn’t bring everything together, and it wasn’t very satisfying.

The girl, Teresa, reminded me of Frankie from The Member of the Wedding — misplaced and cranky.  I didn’t like The Member of the Wedding.  I support Southern gothic writers and everything but I do not love them in my heart (although that story of Flannery O’Connor’s with the girl called Joy and her wooden leg was a riot), so it wasn’t helping matters that I had Frankie in the front of my mind the entire time Teresa was around.

Two thumbs sideways.  Not in the hitch-hiking sense.  Or, okay, two stars.

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean

Recommended by: I vaguely recall seeing the title and author of this book inside an IM window, so I’m going to go ahead and say that somebody told me about this book, but I don’t actually remember.  Anyway it’s a reread.  I’m giving it four stars because I enjoy it so much.  It maybe doesn’t deserve it.  I have lost all perspective.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty pleasure.  If you are an intellectual snob at whatever level, this book will appeal to you; but if you feel quite guilty about being such a snob, you might find that you can’t enjoy it.  However, although I feel faintly guilty about being an intellectual snob, I don’t feel guilty enough to deny that there is a part of me that wishes that everyone around me had read all the same books I have.  Think how nice that would be.

This is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin” set in a college where everyone has read all the same books everyone else has (lucky them), and they are always quoting Keats and Hamlet at each other.  Which I believe I would find rather trying.  But!  But, but, but!  The heroine (Janet) goes out with a chap called Nick who sets T.S. Eliot poems to (good) music of his own devising; and that I would not find trying in the slightest.  Though I believe he does Wallace Stevens as well, and I hate Wallace Stevens.  Hate him.  Hate.  Hate.  Hate.

Well, anyway, I am fond of the story of Tam Lin.  I like how Janet goes where she’s not meant to and tells all the knights at home to go away and rescues her true love with much fortitude and does not seem to feel terribly anxious about the whole affair.  I like my Fairport Convention song of “Tam Lin”, which is one of the few songs that I almost always put on CDs of songs to sing in my car — it’s a very good car-singing song, much like “O Valencia” and “Sheila Take a Bow”, and I never skip over it when it comes up on shuffle.  I like Fire and Hemlock absolutely vastly, enough to buy the pretty bubble-cover copy when I was in the UK even though I already had a copy at home, and I will review it here when next I reread it.  So I was disposed to like this, as I already knew the story was going to be brilliant.

Tam Lin is not an ordinary kind of fairy-tale retelling, as it spends a lot of time on college-related (but not Faerie-Queene-related) things like what courses people are taking and what they are all about, and why Janet’s roommate is so impossibly tedious that she hasn’t even read “The Hunting of the Snark”, that ridiculous girl! (so you see what I mean about intellectual snobbery)  This (the college things, not the Snark things) is actually rather diverting, and there are just enough mysterious events that you mostly remember there’s a plot going on, in addition to all the romance and reading of books.

I found this book rather unputdownable the first time I read it, particularly as the end drew near, to the extent that I did something I never, ever, ever do at university, which is I read it during my Christian and Byzantine art class, under my desk, even though I was sitting up in the front row in plain view of my professor.  This time, having acquired it through PaperbackSwap, I’ve been reading quite at my leisure, during commercial breaks while watching Guiding Light and House, under my desk during my CLST class (yes, yes, but I don’t sit in the front and it’s not necessary for me to take notes in this one anyway), while I munch on my mid-day quesadilla, and so forth.  It is still friendly and pleasant.  If it had not come up at an opportune time on PaperbackSwap, I might well have bothered to spend money in order to obtain a used copy.

I would say ultimately that it isn’t as pulled-together a book as it might be.  Fair enough, as “Tam Lin” isn’t an awfully pulled-together ballad, but still there were some plot kinks that aren’t well explained, things that don’t iron out nicely once everything sorts out at the end.  Good fun nevertheless.  I wouldn’t peddle this book to others, but I do enjoy it myself.

P.S. I really hate Wallace Stevens.  I really, really do.

P.P.S. Whenever I read “Tam Lin”, I sort of wish my name were Janet.  But then I suppose very few people would sing “Tam Lin” to me, whereas hordes of people would sing “PLANET SCHMANET JANET” to me.  In fact I know this to be true because I have a friend called Janet and I have always said PLANET SCHMANET JANET to her and never “Tam Lin” one single bit.  So.

P.P.P.S. Sometimes when I feel that words or phrases I like are being underused (such as “cross” to mean angry and “upset” to mean “tipped over”), I work them into my everyday conversation, thus returning them to (my) everyday life.  I have long felt that I would love to bring back the exhortative form “Do you” (“Do you ask Mumsy whether we may pour ketchup into the back of the piano.”), which the Robin character uses sometimes in this book, but I know that it would just make life difficult for my auditors.  And, in fairness, if someone used it to me, I imagine I would be perplexed too, as it has fallen out of general usage and I would not be expecting someone to use it.  Oh well.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan

I have no idea where I read about this book, but I’ve been intending to read it for ages.  I went to the library yesterday, ostensibly just to return Dark Shadows (which I realized once I got there I had left at the apartment), and I got maybe eleven books, which is pretty restrained, and out of all of them, I decided to read The Keep first.

I didn’t like it.

I really thought I must have missed something.

You know how sometimes you’ll watch a commercial, and you just can’t figure it out?  The commercial ends, and you’re staring at the screen wondering what the point of that was, how that could possibly make anyone consider using the advertised product, when it doesn’t even make sense?  And you think and think and think but you can’t figure out what you missed in that commercial that would have made it make sense?  And you start having a hissy, and you’re going on and on about how stupid and pointless that commercial was, and the person next to you is all, Dude, chill out, that’s a totally normal commercial.  And then after you’ve been breathing into a paper bag for a few minutes to help yourself relax, you ask in a quiet but vehement voice WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT COMMERCIAL? WHAT DID I MISS? and the person next to you explains it, and no, you were completely right, there wasn’t anything more to that commercial, you weren’t missing anything, it was exactly what it seemed to be.

This is what we call Not aimed at you.  And that was The Keep.  It was just not aimed at me.

It’s about a guy in prison writing about two cousins with a Past working together to restore an old castle with a keep and scary tunnels.  Things are turbulent.  Questions of freedom and imprisonment.  It sounded so good when I read about it, wherever I read about it, and I was very excited that it was in at the library, and all the time it was never aimed at me in the first place.

Thus, no review I give will really be of any value, because the book was just so blatantly not aimed at me.  Everyone else, please feel free to enjoy it.  I was mightily unimpressed by the book generally and by all of the characters particularly, and I didn’t care at all what happened to any of them, and if Danny and Howie and Ray and Holly and Mick and everyone had all just fallen off a cliff, I would not have felt any more fulfilled when I reached the end than I did when I reached the real end with all the stuff that actually happened.

So oh well.

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), Jerome K. Jerome

I’m sure someone told me about this book – probably a number of someones, as it is old and famous – but I haven’t got the faintest idea who. It is also an impossible book to review; so I will just say, It was very funny (as it intended to be), and I enjoyed it a lot. Here is an excerpt. The whole thing is like this:

The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the River Thames altogether. They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered: “Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.”

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this bloodthirsty strain. We never ought to allow our instincts of justice to degenerate into mere vindictiveness. It was a long while before I could get Harris to take a more Christian view of the subject, but I succeeded at last, and he promised me that he would spare the friends and relations at all events, and would not sing comic songs on the ruins.

The Semi-Detached House, Emily Eden

Which can be read here, as it is out of copyright, and also this website is brilliant and I am all in favor of celebrating women writers.

Recommended by: Box of Books (whom I owe an apology)

I am sorry for griping abut The Semi-Attached Couple and its unbitchy nature.  Emily Eden is very amusing, and in many ways she is quite like Jane Austen but bitchier.  So I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions even though Helen in The Semi-Attached Couple was very annoying.  Now I have just finished The Semi-Detached House, and it was completely charming.  Everyone in it was so endearing, and they had such pleasant conversations, and everything worked out so neatly, although frankly I was hoping that a certain person and another certain person wouldn’t get engaged, and I thought briefly that Emily Eden was going to dare to leave one of the women single.  But she didn’t.  Oh well.

Here is what the sweet old mother says that made me laugh while I was waiting in line at the post office to send an envelope that will Decide My Future:

Lord Chester and Doctor Ayscough said such clever things about poisons; I thought I would remember them for fear of accidents; but I am not quite certain whether I have not forgotten part.  However, I know it is not wholesome to take strychnine in any great quantity, so mind that, girls; arsenic, which is very apt to get into puddings and gruel, should be avoided, and you should take something after it, if you do swallow any – but I forget what.  It was really very interesting, and I like a good murder that can’t be found out; that is, of course, it is very shocking, but I like to hear about it.

Awww.  She’s cute.  Whenever anyone says “shocking” now, I think of that adorable BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey (which has already come on Masterpiece Theatre, so you’ve missed it if you didn’t see it) and adorable Felicity Whatsit who plays Catherine, with her big wide eyes and Isabella telling her “It is the most shocking and horrid thing in all the world!”  Oh, and also, the sweet old mother has two daughters, and one time they are talking to a girl who is in some difficulties, and

They were induced to adopt their usual resource, and to call to mamma to come and satisfy the disastrous state of Miss Monteneros’s existence.

Story of my LIFE.  And here is a description of a boat called an outrigger which I don’t know what that is, but the description sounds exactly like my views of kayaks:

It may be necessary to explain that [it is] an apology for a boat, and, apparently, a feeble imitation of a plank – that the individual who hazards his own life in it is happily prevented, by its absurd form, from making any other person a sharer in his danger – that he is liable to be overset by any passing steamer, or by the slightest change of his own posture – that it is difficult to conceive how he ever got into such a thing, or how he is ever to get out of it again, and that the effect he produces on an unprejudiced spectator is that of an aquatic mouse caught in a boat-trap, from which he will never emerge alive, notwithstanding the continual struggle he appears to keep up.

I just have to say

I’m in the middle of The Semi-Detached House, and I’m definitely much more charmed by it than I was by The Semi-Attached Couple. I like Blanche so far much more than I did Helen, and I am now definitely feeling the Jane-Austen-esque but bitchier thing. Behold:

“Are you going to this concert, Baroness?”

“No; it seems odd, but we are not asked this time,” said the Baroness, with an air of modest pride. “I suspect we are out of favour at Court, but a Drawing-Room is my aversion, and I have been sadly remiss this year; absolutely neglected the Birthday, which was very naughty of me, and so I am left out of this party.”

As that had been invariably her fate with regard to all parties at the Palace, the resignation she evinced had probably become a matter of habit; but she hinted an intention of bringing the Queen to her senses by staying away from the next Drawing-Room too.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

Recommended by: Bride of the Book God

I’ve been reading The End of Mr. Y for untold ages (perhaps an entire fortnight), with numerous little vacations in which I read other books for purposes of duty and leisure. This is because The End of Mr. Y didn’t really grab me – I wasn’t so much uninterested in this book as I was much more interested in others.

It’s about a Ph.D. student called Ariel Manto who is studying (among other things) Victorian author Thomas Lumas, whose book The End of Mr. Y is supposed to be cursed, so that anyone who reads it dies. Happily for the world, only one known copy exists, and it is in a German bank vault. However, Ariel, that lucky duck, happens upon a copy at a used bookstore and reads it joyously. She discovers that it contains instructions on how to get to a place called the Troposphere, which can put you inside other people’s minds and all kinds of crazy shit. Hijinks ensue.

As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story with Project Starlight and Adam and that lot, so it was jarring for me when they showed back up.

I also get rapidly impatient with books in which the narrator struggles for words to describe the bizarre and foreign universe(s) in which s/he finds him- or herself, or the bizarre and foreign sensations s/he experiences as a result of the bizarre and foreign circumstances s/he is undergoing. Without wanting to be nasty to people who do this, and I include Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, both of whom I love, in this category…get a damn grip. If I wanted to hear people groping helplessly for self-expression I’d just attend my classes. Especially Symbolic Logic. Yes, okay, I can see the point – if it were a normal experience there would be no problem for the narrator; his/her difficulty in finding viable words indicates that the phenomenon s/he is attempting to describe is outside of ordinary human experience. Don’t care. Take two seconds to explain that the words you’re using are only approximations, and then forge ahead bravely. Embrace the inadequacy of the English language.

(I ♥ the English language and its copious profusion of available words. So this may be a knee-jerk defensive reaction – Oh yeah? Can’t describe it? You got something to say about my language? What’s wrong with English, huh? Huh? – rather than a valid stylistic criticism.)

One brief remark:

There is something a bit weird about how Ms. Thomas addressed the issue of sex in this book. Ariel repeatedly refers to her “transgressive” sex habits, and calls herself a slut and makes nasty comments straight along about her sexual life, which involves things like being tied up with ropes and sleeping with married guys, and she just several times describes all this as being nasty and dirty and bad. And then when she and Adam have finally had nice, good, missionary position sex (which is glorious for them both) and declared their love for each other, there is this passage, which I actually find rather disturbing:

“Why don’t you hate me?” I say, even though I already know the answer.

“What do you mean?”…

“Well, you know everything [about me] now. All the sex. All the…everything.”

Where all the [bad] sex is evidently a specific thing for which Ariel requires forgiveness from Adam (former priest and virgin until a few minutes ago). I’m probably overthinking this, and the self-loathing is just a facet of Ariel’s character, but honestly the whole question of sex in this book is set up in a way that seems quite creepy and antifeminist.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Seven.

You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die.  You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come.  You brought it into the room.  The table could smell it on your breath.  The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset.  He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven – the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you.  It lands.  It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

Just bad luck.

That’s what you say.

Of no consequence.

That’s what you make yourself believe – because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come.  You hide a Jew.  You pay.  Somehow or other, you must.

I saw The Book Thief first when I was in England, staying in London with my family over New Year’s, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted it or not (I wish I’d bought it then because it would have been more expensive BUT it had a nice cover and was hardback), so I picked it up and glanced at it, and something the sales person said led me to believe it was in translation.  So since I didn’t really have any spare money for a book that might not be good and was in translation anyway, and since I definitely didn’t have any spare space in my luggage, I didn’t get it.

What with one thing and another I checked it out of the library this past summer and read it almost all in one go, lying on my couch at home.  It made me cry.  So I didn’t read it again, and I didn’t buy it, and by the time I noticed that I was pining for it, it was too late and the Official Christmas Buying Embargo was on, and when I didn’t get it for Christmas (I got many other things though!), I went round to Bongs & Noodles and bought it with my Christmas gift card money.

(Yay!)

Seriously, honestly, this book is as good as you’ve heard.  It is one of the best books I have ever read.  Markus Zusak, yay for you.  It’s about a little German girl who steals books and has a foster family and hides a Jew in her basement.  And yes, okay, the book is narrated by Death, and I know that might not be a draw for some people, but this book is just gorgeously written, and it’s extremely moving, and I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.

But sad.  So if you have serious objections to bits of story that involve dead children and mums crying about it, and if those objections are serious enough that you actually cannot see past them, then okay, this book might not be for you.  For everyone else in the whole world though.  Yup.  Damn good book.  It made me cry, and although I tear up extremely easily, it is a much better trick to make actual tears actually fall out of my eyes, which is what The Book Thief has done both times I’ve read it.

Although I ordinarily cannot deal with Holocaust books at all, which I know this officially isn’t one of, but it kind of is.  And still I liked The Book Thief a lot.

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

When David slept he dreamed more often of the creature he had named the Crooked Man, who walked through forests very like the one beyond David’s window.  The Crooked Man would advance to the edge of the tree line, staring out at an expanse of green lawn to where a house just like Rose’s stood.  He would speak to David in his dreams.

I picked this up almost completely at random. My dad said “What else can we get Mom for Christmas?” and I said “Oh, I know. This.”, and grabbed The Book of Lost Things, which I had been eying for a while, so he got it for her, and – um, well, before she had a chance to read it I swiped it and read it myself. So that was randomish. However, A High and Hidden Place also said it was good.

Before I get started with the reviewing, I have to quote this because it slays me.  I don’t usually read Amazon reviews until after I’ve written my own (then the study would be tainted), but for some reason I did in this case, and here is what someone on Amazon says about The Book of Lost Things (s/he (?) didn’t like it):

Repugnant and odious!

Don’t even THINK about allowing a child to read this – or even a teen lost in his own “goth” moment. Connolly has reached far into the earth and pulled up homosexuality, erotic thoughts, murder, gore – any evil thing possible to put a poll of black around the reader and then has the nerve to charge $16.00 for his own perversion. It’s been said that if an irishman was a boomerang he wouldn’t come home, he would just cry and whine and write stories about why he wanted to come home. This is what this melancholy, dark soul has done in this book. My advice to you is “don’t read” and my advice to Connolly is “seek help immediately” — what a distasteful, loathsome tome!

Seek help immediately. And charging $16.00 for his own perversion! The nerve! But it’s okay, because this review was referring to the hardback edition – I read the paperback, and it was free for me because I swiped it from my mother, so I got John Connolly’s Tome O’ Perversion at no cost to myself!

I enjoyed this book, although I think it would have been more cool if there had been more interaction between the fantasy world and the real world – like Pan’s Labyrinth which was very dark but very cool.  As it was I ended up liking the bits in the real world better, and it was good when things overlapped somewhat, like when David could hear the books whispering and when he saw the Crooked Man in his bedroom, and like that.  Once he got to the other place, there was a lot of subverting of fairy tales that sometimes seemed to be happening just for its own sake, like John Connolly’s all, Hey, what if Snow White was a bitch?  What about THAT, eh? but then forgets to take it anywhere, plot-wise.

Not absolutely wildly original (but some nasty corpses, also).  Not perverted.  Not a tome either, either in the “one volume of several” sense or the “scholarly and ponderous” sense.  But an excellent cover.  Really.  Excellent.