CBR-VI Review #5: The Virgins: A Novel by Pamela Erens

The Virgins is narrated by Bruce Bennett-Jones, a senior at an exclusive New England prep school. He’s obsessed with Aviva, a beautiful and mysterious new girl, who arrives at school and, after a disastrous sexual encounter with Bruce, begins dating Seung, a star student and athlete with a drug habit. Through Bruce’s eyes and imagination, we follow their (presumably) highly sexual relationship and eventual descent into misery.

I’m not dedicating more space to explaining this book because I really, really disliked it. I was actually sort of shocked at how much I hated it–it had generally great reviews and seemed like the type of novel I’d enjoy. But man, I had to force myself to get through it.

The closest book I can compare this to is The Virgin Suicides, which is unfortunate, because this is a pale, pale imitator of an incredible novel. Just as in The Virgin SuicidesThe Virgins (is the name a coincidence? I think perhaps not) features a voyeuristic narrator(s) obsessively fantasizing about the inner life (lives) of a gorgeous, intriguing girl(s). It worked for me in Suicides–the prose is brilliant, the anonymous narrators are human enough that they never become creepy but passive enough that they don’t sidetrack the real focus of the story, and the subject of their obsession, the Lisbon girls, were fully-fleshed out, ethereal, and completely worthy of the attention they were given. In the case of Erens’ novel, the narrator is a straight-up asshole, taking the mostly innocent fascination of the Suicides’ narrators and turning it into something weirdly possessive and grossly sexual, and Aviva is just kind of boring. Part of the magic of Suicides was that we were in on the secret, as readers–we were a part of the voyeurism, as in love with the Lisbons as the boys were. I never felt that in The Virgins.

Writing a book with an unreliable narrator is tricky, especially when that narrator isn’t someone you can really root for. There needs to be some balance, some grounding in reality, and I felt like that escaped Erens quite a bit. Bruce, as a character and as a narrator, disappears frequently from the narrative, and it made me forget what I was “seeing” was all in his mind. That’s sort of the point, obviously, but it’s frustrating to have 90% of a book be completely staged in one character’s imagination. The pieces of reality were few and far between, and I couldn’t really get why Bruce would be so obsessed with Seung and Aviva. That element of mystery, of their perceived sexuality, only carries so far–the level of recreation Bruce got to was unrealistic and never fully explained. Bruce is no Humber Humbert, the epitome of a depraved, unlikeable, and highly unreliable narrator who was nonetheless infused with humanity and, most importantly, a sense of justification for his actions and thoughts. Bruce just seems to be a pawn of the author to advance a plot–he doesn’t show us why he does and thinks the things he does.

The other thing that really bothered me, and this is fairly minor but still worth mentioning, is that this book was supposed to take place in the 1970s, a fact which completely escaped me until I read it in a summary of the book on Goodreads. This just enforces my point that Erens doesn’t have enough control over her writing–the story could truly have taken place at any point in the last 40 years, and the fact that I assumed (and didn’t see anything to disprove) that it took place in contemporary times isn’t a great sign. There should be a point in having a story take place in a specific time period like that, and there should be fairly clear markers of that period throughout. Again, it’s not a huge thing, but it drove me a little crazy.

Anyway, I will say that Erens’ prose has a lovely, dreamy quality that’s certainly pleasant to read. It’s just that the writing doesn’t compensate for the lack of an engaging plot, and can’t sustain 120+ pages of what is essentially pointless drivel. I don’t recommend reading this at all–try The Virgin Suicides instead. Eugenides did it first, and did it infinitely better.

CBR-VI Review #4: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

I am an unabashed David Sedaris fan. He knows what he’s good at and does it well, and although he’s often criticized within the literary community for passing off what is clearly humor writing as nonfiction/memoir (which I agree with), I think that he’s one of the funniest writers out there, and I never fail to be amused by him. I’ve read most of his books and many of the essays he’s published in magazines like The New Yorker, and I find that he really excels at balancing poignancy and hilarity– there’s always a heart and a sense of reality in all that he writes.

If you’ve read anything else by Sedaris, you’ll know what to expect with this collection–a series of essays on current events, his childhood, his travels abroad, and his crazy family, all infused with his signature deprecating, deadpan humor. He mostly delivers, and this collection is reliably entertaining, although I felt like it didn’t quite live up to the non-stop hilarity of some of his previous collections. Contributing to this might have been the fact that, as this collection was published five years after his last book, it seemed like a lot of the pieces had appeared elsewhere before being included, so I felt like I’d read most of them (and they happened to be some of the best ones). I also wasn’t a fan of the short stories interspersed throughout, which I didn’t think were that interesting or funny, and seemed really out of place.

Collections like Me Talk Pretty One Day had me crying of laughter from start to finish, and this one seemed a bit more cynical and snarky, and slightly less funny. It was still good, don’t get me wrong, and if you’re a Sedaris fan it’s absolutely worth picking up, as some of the essays are true gems. I loved “Understanding Understanding Owls” and “Loggerheads,” among many others. But it’s definitely not the place to start in his body of work.

CBR-VI Review #3: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

I’m honestly shocked that I never read Flowers in the Attic when I was younger. I illicitly read smutty books like it was my job back then, mostly because I was reading far above my age level from very early on and I had a house overflowing with grown-up books just waiting to be perused. I have vivid memories of dog-earing the pages of my mother’s copy of The Mists of Avalon to mark the sexy parts, for example (I’ve still never read the whole book), and was fascinated by the sex scenes I came across in unexpected places. There’s definitely a thrill to sneakily reading “bad” books–it’s exciting and terrifying, the prospect of being caught absolutely mortifying. My cousin and I, when we were twelve, bought a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever… and spent weeks obsessively re-reading it until we were so afraid of one of our mothers finding it that we put it in the library’s return chute and ran away. Needless to say, Flowers in the Attic would have been my jam back then. 

As a twenty-four year old, though? Not so much. I finally got around to reading it in preparation for the Lifetime movie adaptation, just so I’d be up on what all the hype was all about, and because I have a weird thing about having to read the book before I see the movie. I obviously wasn’t expecting highbrow literature–my expectations were really low, in fact–but I was still pretty disappointed.

If you don’t know the basic premise of the novel, here’s a quick summary: It’s the late 1950’s, and Cathy Dollanganger has the perfect life–that is, until her father dies unexpectedly in a car crash, leaving the family penniless. Her flighty mother decides to move the family to live with her estranged parents, promising a life of riches and fun, but when they arrive, the children (Cathy, her older brother Christopher, and the four-year-old twins) learn that they will be living in the attic, and no one, apart from their evil grandmother, will know that they even exist. Cathy and Chris become de facto parents to their young siblings as time passes, trying to figure out how to survive…and deal with their blooming hormones and changing bodies (hint, hint). 

This is definitely not intended to be anything other than trashy fun, but it was so poorly written that I couldn’t even enjoy it as that. V.C. Andrews spends so much time describing random and irrelevant things, which really slows down the pace and makes it a chore to read. The scandalous, campy parts are still sort of fun, in their own way, but I found them to be greatly exaggerated and, again, didn’t think that the dozens of pointless, boring passages in between those good parts were worth enduring to get to them. The dialogue is stilted and often anachronistic, the characters are annoying, and it was all just sort of a slog to read. I want my campy trash to be fun to read–if I’m going to spend that valuable reading time on something fluffy and frivolous, it at least needs to be enjoyable. This definitely wasn’t. 

Again, if I’d read it as a kid, I’d have loved it. But as an adult with more discerning tastes, and with so many other books out there to read, this one is just not worth the time. Read the Wikipedia page to get a sense of what it’s about, if you’re curious, but there’s no point in reading it. 

 

CBR-VI Review #2: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

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Allie Brosh is something of a personal hero(ine) of mine. I don’t remember how I came across her blog, but I do remember that the first time I visited it, I spent the next few hours reading her entire archive of posts, actually laughing out loud. Her blog (and the resulting book) is sort of a memoir–she’s a bit like David Sedaris, in that her stories are based in reality but clearly exaggerated and adjusted to maximize humor–and sort of an assortment of ramblings on random topics. Mostly, it’s made up of illustrated stories about her two dogs, her childhood escapades, and, especially recently (and most poignantly), her struggles with anxiety and depression.

First of all, I dare you to read one of the pieces in the book and not laugh, or at least crack a smile. It’s fundamentally impossible. Brosh is just flat-out hilarious, and this book was so much fun to read. There’s just something about the amateurish MS-Paint drawings combined with her self-deprecating and slightly sarcastic humor that just kills me, and I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a book. As a fan of the blog, I was happy to see some of her classic pieces included (the birthday cake story is one of my favorites), and loved seeing some new ones, too (the pinecone hunting incident is hilarious). She manages to keep the humor consistent throughout, which I appreciated, although I don’t necessarily recommend reading straight-through like I did. Her humor is more effective in smaller doses, I think, and I’m going to have to revisit some of the pieces towards the end to fully appreciate them.

The two true stand-outs of the collection, though, are two pieces (well, technically three–one’s a two-parter) that deal with Brosh’s experiences with mental illness. You wouldn’t expect (or I didn’t, at least) for some of the most accurate, uncomfortably true-to-life depictions of living with depression to come from a cartoon. And yet that’s what Brosh has created–it’s still funny, in that awkward way when you’re recognizing yourself in what you’re reading, but it’s powerful in its honesty. Depression is generally, in my experience anyway, glossed over or dramatized to a degree that most people can’t relate to. But what Brosh portrays is the depression that feels a whole lot more real, the kind you’re almost slightly embarrassed by, because surely it could be worse. Hers (and mine, and I suspect a lot of peoples’) is not really something that feels newsworthy, or worthy of being covered in a book or a movie. It feels like something that needs to be sucked up and dealt with, or ignored, or something to be played down. And that’s one of the things I love most about Hyperbole–it’s bringing attention to the fact that depression is depression and just because one person’s might be a lot more visible, or a lot closer to what people imagine when they think of the word, doesn’t discount another person’s experience with the same illness. But despite the serious and important subject matter, Brosh is never preachy, and never gets into after school special territory, and, most importantly, never stops being funny. And that’s how I know Brosh is the real deal, and shouldn’t be discounted just because her medium is a little bit different from what’s considered the norm.

If you’re a tried-and-true Hyperbole fan, this is well worth the money to own. I would have perhaps liked more new content, but I’m also happy to have my favorite pieces from the blog in book form. If you’ve never read anything by Brosh before, this is a great place to start–and once you’re done, go check out her archives.

CBR-VI Review #1: A Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

“Woman must come of age by herself…
She must find her true center alone.”

That’s the pervading message of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic book: a woman must find herself, define herself, in the crowded chaos of daily life. A Gift From the Sea is a meditation on life, on love, on relationships, on parenthood, but above all it’s about what it means to be a woman. Lindbergh draws inspiration from two weeks spent alone at the beach, in a simple, run-down cottage that she’s rented to reconnect with herself. Leaving her husband and children and day-to-day responsibilities behind, she embraces her new-found solitude, using the time to reflect and write. The book is, in addition to being a treatise on modern-day womanhood (albeit a 1950s-era version), a love letter to the cleansing and healing power of the sea, the sand, the ocean air. The ocean and its treasures, lessons and wisdom serve to frame her reflections–each chapter uses a different type of shell as a metaphor for the things Lindbergh is talking about, and she often finds inspiration in the things she sees each day.

I was given this book at a very timely moment in my life: my college graduation party. A close family friend gave it to me, and that couldn’t be more fitting: I’ve known her since I was two, and she is, as a result, one of the most influential women in my life. It took me a while to pick it up, though, and I can’t really figure out why (that’s a lie, actually–my never-ending pile/list of “to-reads” is the reason). I firmly believe in books coming to you when you’re ready for them, and I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind in my chaotic post-college daze to appreciate the wisdom this book offers. Now, almost two years later, Lindbergh’s struggles to find balance, independence, and strength as a woman amidst the business of day-to-day life is something I can identify with much more strongly. It also helps that my relationship with my boyfriend has grown and changed dramatically in that time, and so the emphasis on what it means to be a true partner in a mature and stable relationship resonates in a way that I don’t think it would have two years ago.

All that being said, it’s truly remarkable to me that a book written in the 1950’s as a treatise on womanhood could be so relevant six decades later. There were, as is to be expected, a few moments where I was reminded of the limitations Lindbergh and other woman of the era faced (she makes it clear that most women, especially of her social class, were housewives, with few professional opportunities), but on the whole, the message of the book transcends any single time period. I loved that, and it made me feel a comforting sense of connection to Lindbergh, to her contemporaries, to my mother and the family friend who gave me the book (they both read it when they were around my age), to my grandmother (who Lindbergh reminded me of), to all of the other women struggling to define themselves, to express themselves, to be who they were meant to be. I don’t often write in my books, just because defacing that creamy-white paper feels like a sin somehow, but I broke my rule for this one, underlining and starring passages all over the place. This book feels like a mantra, and it’s one of those very few that I knew, as soon as it was over, that I’d be revisiting time and time again for the rest of my life. I look forward to picking it up in a year, or ten, or fifty, and seeing the notes I scribbled to myself when I was just twenty-four and figuring it all out, re-reading Lindbergh’s words and finding new meaning in them.

It’s rare that a book affects me on such a profound level, makes me think and inspires me to strive for the things that I want while reassuring me that it’s possible to do so, even with a family and friends and daily obligations. A Gift From the Sea should be required reading for all women, of all ages, because it just says it all in a way I’ve never quite seen before.

CBR-V Wrap-Up

I set out to read 52 books in 2013. I ended up reading 65, which averages out to 1.25 books a week!

I read some truly great books this year, and some okay-to-bad books. In no particular order, here’s my list of top 3 bests and worsts. This is by no means a definitive list–there were dozens of others that could have made my best list alone.

Best:

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

Worst:

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Divergent by Veronica Roth

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta 

CBR-V Review #65: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

I am, unabashedly, a J.K. Rowling fangirl. I grew up with Harry Potter and my devotion the series has only deepened over time, and in my eyes, Rowling can do no wrong. Although I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Casual Vacancy yet, I most certainly will at some point. However, given the mixed reviews of her first foray into adult literature, I’m glad that The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under a pseudonym) was my first exposure to her non-Harry Potter work.

I do want to say that I think I would have loved this book even if it hadn’t been written by Rowling. I might not have ever had the opportunity to pick it up, given that it wasn’t hugely successful before the reveal of its author’s true identity, but I would have definitely still liked it. And if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have given it a strong review just because of who the author is (as much as I adore her).

The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old-school detective novel, featuring the hardened-yet-lovable protagonist of Cormoran Strike, a former soldier in the British army and a current private eye, struggling to make ends meet and dealing with a recent breakup with his beautiful ex-girlfriend. He’s approached by a wealthy lawyer who wants Strike to investigate the suspicious death (deemed a suicide by the police) of his sister, a beautiful and famous model named Lula Landry. With his new assistant, Robin (a practical young woman caught up in the excitement of detective work), in tow, Strike sets out to find out what really happened to Lula.

I could not stop reading this book. It was just so, so good.

I appreciated, first and foremost, that this was simply a really good mystery. Nowadays, I feel like a lot of mysteries are closer to the horror and/or psychological thriller genres, which can be good, but aren’t my favorite. What can I say–I’m a scaredy-cat. This was just a fun read, with nothing too grim or disturbing to weigh down the enjoyment of figuring out whodunnit. It’s a lot like an Agatha Christie mystery, complete with the dramatic, chapter-long monologue at the end revealing who the culprit of the crime is, and I loved that.

In that same vein, Rowling keeps the tone light and the prose fast-paced. This is where her years of Harry Potter experience really benefited her, because she was really able to use her (underrated, in my opinion) knack for humor here, while also keeping things moving and giving the reader some exciting action and a twisty, unpredictable mystery (along with the requisite red herrings, which were convincing and deployed well).

Rowling is also so good at creating unique and memorable characters, as evidenced by the amazing cast of the Harry Potter series. She lives up to that reputation here. Not only is Cormoran Strike a perfect protagonist (something of an anti-hero, complex, with a good backstory), but her supporting characters are brilliant as well. Robin is a great foil to Strike–somewhat naïve, but smart and capable too–and the people they encounter throughout the investigation are just so well-rendered and so believable that they practically jump off the page. She also doesn’t disappoint with her creative names, which were one of my favorite things about the HP series–we’ve got Lula Landry (a superstar name if I’ve ever heard one), Guy Sommé (a flamboyant fashion designer), Deeby Macc (a popular rap star), and Tansy Bestigui (a young and obscenely wealthy housewife), just to name a few.

I’m pretty sure this is going to become a series (I’d be disappointed if it didn’t), which makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot more to discover about Strike, I think, and I’m excited to see where his relationship with Robin goes (and what mysteries come next). Given how good this book is, it seems like Rowling may have struck gold twice in terms of successful series.

I really don’t have anything bad to say about this novel. With it, Rowling has proved that she’s not just a kid’s writer, and can hold her own as a writer of adult fiction as well.