Review #8: Scraping By in the Big Eighties by Natalia Rachel Singer

NOTE: For the sake of full disclosure, I want to mention that Natalia was my college mentor. She was my advisor for my honors thesis and is a close friend. That being said, I’ll try to review this book as objectively as possible!

More of a series of essays than a cohesive memoir, Scraping By in the Big Eighties is the story of Singer’s twenties, the vague, undefinable years between college and career. After graduating from Northwestern, she packed her bags and headed West, as much to escape her mother’s mental illness as to reject the future so many of her former classmates were embracing, one of stability, security and selling out. The book follows her from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico to Massachusetts to Paris as she discovers herself, deals with the demons of her mother’s illness, and resists the establishment, Reaganomics, and the excess of the 80’s. There’s plenty of sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, but there’s also a lot of interesting social commentary on a decade that’s most often glorified or forgotten. I didn’t know much about the 80’s beyond what one sees on VH1 and what my parents have told me, but Singer paints a complex portrait of a decade that’s far less ideal than nostalgia would have us believe. She is decidedly anti-Reagan, and describes him and his policies in ways I’d never really heard of before (and appreciated). The interplay of politics and personal experience really works here; all of her stories are framed, somehow, by the national situation and the policies of the lawmakers in power.

She doesn’t let her own story get overshadowed by these larger themes, though; these are what really drive the story. The experiences she retells range from the hilarious to the devastating, but they all work equally well. The portions dealing with her mother are particularly poignant; it’s a delicate situation, but she handles it incredibly well and presents it in a nuanced manner.

Although I know Singer personally, I think her persona on the page is real and powerful and would be even to someone who’s never met her. I found myself relating more than I would have thought–who would have thought that two recent college graduates 20 years apart would share the same experiences, beliefs, and disillusionment with mainstream society? Singer’s voice is honest and compelling, even when dealing with the touchiest of subjects.

I really recommend this memoir, whether you grew up in the 80’s or not; it’s a unique and fascinating look at a life lived outside of the mainstream, and a beautiful coming of age story.


Review #7: The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

NOTE: I read this book in the original French.

I was assigned this book this semester in my French class. I was pretty excited for it, as I’ve read other works by Zola and loved them. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to my expectations.

This is the first in Zola’s epic series on the Rougon-Macquart family. I think there are something like twenty books in the series; they all focus on the same town and the descendants of the same mentally ill woman. Zola was really interested in heredity, and so all of the books in the series have an underlying theme of inevitable destruction; the characters’ fates have been ordained by their ancestor’s illness, and they all carry it with them in some way, letting it (consciously or not) shape their actions. This isn’t really the type of series that needs to be read linearly, though–I read Germinal, one of the later books, before this one. All of the books deal with different characters; this book simply sets up the (easily summarized) backstory. Because there are so many characters in this book, and many of them are given their own books later on in the series, it might be better to read this one last, so it’s easier to see who you’re supposed to focus on.

The book has a lot going on, so it’s hard to give a concise plot summary. Basically, the action takes place in a small town in the South of France at the beginning of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. The main conflict of the novel is that between the Royalists and the Republicans; characters fall on both sides of the divide, and are motivated primarily by their political interests and desire to enact change in the country in one direction or the other. These political interests are closely connected with social climbing and greed; thus the novel can be seen as a meditation on ambition and the desire for power. There’s a lot of political discussion, some romance, and quite a bit of intrigue and scandal–these characters, and some of the plotlines, would not be out of place in a contemporary soap opera.

One of my biggest problems with the novel is how wordy it is. Zola spends far too long simply describing things–this can be interesting, but having whole chapters devoted to the layout of the town can be exhausting. It was also frustrating having so much going on at once, and I found it difficult to keep minor characters straight and to focus on the important plotlines (because he’d abandon them for pages and then pick them back up again with little transition).

There are definitely some interesting themes presented here, though, as well as some remarkable characters, most notably Félicité Rougon, who is a ruthless, shamelessly power-hungry, and incredibly manipulative woman. She’s easily the most interesting character, as much of the action is propelled by her desires and influences on the men around her (usually without them knowing it). The scenes featuring her were definitely my favorites.

I think I’d have enjoyed this book more if I’d read it last in the series; as is, it’s too confusing and there isn’t enough emphasis on the characters to form lasting connections with them. I’d recommend it with reservations–check out Zola’s other books first, and then come back to this one.

Review #6: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I LOVED this book. I’d picked it up once or twice before, but couldn’t ever seem to get into it. I knew it was something I had to read, though, so I brought it with me on a plane ride so I would be forced to push past the first twenty-five or so pages. It worked! And it ended up being one of the best reads of my life.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is, at its core, about comic books. That’s not to say that you have to be a comics fan to enjoy this book–I liked comic books a lot when I was growing up, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in a book that focuses on them so heavily. The novel is about so much more than that, though. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are cousins; Joe arrives in New York as a boy after having escaped from WWII-era Prague and moves in with Sammy’s family. Sammy quickly discovers that Joe is a talented artist, and soon convinces him to be his partner in creating comic books. Together, they invent The Escapist, a superhero inspired by Joe’s training in the art of escape and the boys’ mutual hatred of the Nazis.

There’s a lot more to it, but saying any more would ruin the experience of reading. That’s the basic plot that you need to know going into it–and know that it’s far more captivating than it may sound on paper. Chabon is a phenomenal writer, and his beautiful prose makes this book worth the read on its own. However, he also has created some truly remarkable characters, people so real that I couldn’t help but become completely invested in their stories. The book is as much about World War II and the daily pains and joys of any human life as it is about comic books; it’s complex and absorbing and you become completely immersed in the world being described.

Again, you don’t need to be a fan of comic books to enjoy this novel, but it certainly helps to have a basic knowledge of the form. Chabon intersperses the narrative with short chapters basically describing the comics that Sammy and Joe write, and these were some of my favorite parts of the book. The language in these sections is perfect, and it’s so easy to imagine how they would play out in graphic form.

This was unlike any other book I’ve read–I just loved it so much! I unreservedly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their usual reading preferences; it’s a complete masterpiece.