Leo, don’t disappoint me


Remember when I said I would be going on a short hiatus but would be back in December or something like that? Yeah, December turned into January, January turned into February, and March turned back into December again.  Well, the season has officially changed (knock on wood) and I’m back. Just in time for the much anticipated (at least in my circle) Great Gatsby. I know this blog is supposed to be about the books that we should have read, but there’s no harm in mentioning the next best thing (movies), right? I know I’m guilty of doing this probably more than I should, but this one should be good. One of the things that happened during my hiatus was my decision to tentatively like Leonardo DiCaprio again. Relax, Leo lovers, I admit that I’m in the minority here. I actually liked him in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, albeit felt his performance was overrated, disliked him in Romeo + Juliet, loathed him in Titanic, and it was all downhill from there.  But then Django Unchained happened. His character was theatrical, syrupy, and ridiculous which seemed to fit how I feel about him as an actor, but loved the story so much that I truly believed in his performance as Mr. Candie.  And now here we are, on the cusp of The Great Gatsby.

How does someone get through an English program without having read The Great Gatsby?  When asking a friend if I could borrow her copy, I tried to recall what I did to avoid this book seeing as it’s such a key work in the literary canon. I guess reviewing the books that made my list when Carolyn and I initially started this project, I shouldn’t be surprised. Ultimately, I think it was by the grace of God and an evolved ability to B.S. that made it possible for me to get through the class that we covered TGG.  This was the Golden Age of my academic career—I was able to read entire novels half-assed, yet still manage to grasp the theme and its place within literature.  And write twenty page papers in 24 hours.  Trust me, I’m not bragging.  Probably anyone who reads this is remembering when they were able to pull this off too.  And gen ed majors?  This is technically the hard skill you obtain from the degree.  However, ability to B.S. is like any other skill—use it or lose it.  Unfortunately, this isn’t something I can do today.  Case in point, didn’t I say that my first post back would be about the epic East of Eden? I did read of East of Eden, but I read it the same way I read it the first time—rushed and half assed. I love Steinbeck. In fact, I love him so much that I refuse to do a post on his magnum opus when I know I haven’t truly absorbed all of his wondrous prose and genius. Reading Steinbeck is like eating a bacon wrapped liverwurst sandwich on sourdough bread that has been dipped in batter and deep fried and then dipped in a hollandaise/mayonnaise sauce. No, I don’t mean gross, I mean rich and dense.  So compressed and deep that it takes a truly devoted reader to finish.  And finish gradually and in small doses. I will go back to East of Eden and I will savor the crap out of it when I’m in a less frantic place.  And a place with no self-made deadline.

Thankfully, TGG is a nice substitute for Steinbeck. F. Scott Fitzgerald has the same keen eye for social awareness that allows for a perfectly written setting that captures the sparkly, animated vitality of the twenties. But like most writers, Fitzgerald knows it isn’t a story without some kind of tension or discontent. Nick Carraway is like a less whiny, immature Holden Caulfield.  There is some overall dissatisfaction woven in with all the bourgeois glitz of the period. He and Gatsby are likely partners in crime and are perfect counterparts.  Midway through the book, I realized just how much I missed in my first read.  I recalled the point-of-view being analyzed to death in class, but didn’t remember talking about Fitzgerald’s careful balance of poetic observation and action.  Each chapter ends in a quiet desperation.  The setting is two-faced as is Gatsby and is buzzing with parties, drinking, and luxurious cars all while leaving the reader with an aftertaste of decadence.

I have big hopes for Leo here.  His performance needs to be a gentle balance of extravagance and sadness.  In TGG, we come to find that Gatsby may not be that great and is actually quite vulnerable.  However, if I want to take into the theater what I took from the book, then I should probably be even more concerned with Toby Maguire’s performance. Will Nick come across as a dismissive a-wipe?  Or will he be the sharp-edged observer who comfortably flies under the radar in the shadow of Gatsby’s magnetism? Only time will tell, but I do know this—The Great Gatsby is worth all the fuss and thankfully when it’s brought up in conversation again, I won’t have to B.S.

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Back in the saddle

I have let you all down. I may be a little presumptuous here in thinking there’s a you all who even read this, but for those who actually have read this little blog, I feel I owe you an apology. I was supposed to have read In Cold Blood and have made the mistake of allowing other things to interfere with what I truly love. I wish I could tell you that there were some more tragic/glamorous reasons for my lapse in reading all the fantastic books you all have recommended. I haven’t had beloved friends or family pass away (thank god). I haven’t had any catastrophes like fire, floods, or hurricanes carry away all my worldly possessions. I haven’t been writing a best-selling novel that will change the face of the literary canon. So what has happened? Well, really, in the grand scheme of things, nothing.

Perhaps you can relate. Like many of you, I work a full-time job that satisfies me on some levels. I’m challenged every day. I work with people I like. It’s my bread and butter. But it’s not something that feeds my soul and balances the pie chart of Hilary. It pays for my basic needs and gives me the opportunity to some fun things here and there. Despite my tepid feelings about my job, I do ultimately care about how my performance affects others. Unfortunately, sometimes regular everyday life comes in and takes precedence, even when we don’t want it to. And sometimes we resent it for doing so. There have been some recent incidents at work that have made me put things I truly care about aside and I resent it for poisoning my personal life. I resent it for making me cry every day for a good ten day stretch. I resent it for making it almost impossible to do anything when I got home except for watching old Sex & the City reruns and playing Bejeweled on my phone. Both have acted as a mind numbing morphine of sorts for all the terrible, unproductive, irrational thoughts I have brought home. In fact, anytime I opened up my laptop for the last few weeks was to look at etsy.com or home décor items. Okay, that and purses. Friends, I ask you—for those of you who know me well–am I the type of person who even buys a lot of purses? You should be laughing at this point. That is what stress does. It slithers and sneaks its way in and burrows itself into every part of your body and mind. It stretches out and freeloads on your creativity and desire to think about other more happy and productive things.

At least this is what stress does to me. Things have settled down a bit at my job and the heart palpitations have at least stopped temporarily. If I can’t have a restful night’s sleep, I’ll settle for not having a heart attack or a stroke. Tonight is where things change, though. I have joined forces with some pretty fantastic women and will be embarking on National Novel Writing Month. Do I expect to have an entire novel written? Not necessarily. What I hope to accomplish is to establish a habit. This is something that should have happened long ago. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Ultimately, everything I have disclosed to you about my job, about my Sex & the City watching, and (sadly) Bejeweled playing are excuses. Not one of them is more excusable than the others. They have all prevented me from establishing this healthy, wonderful habit of writing, which is something that definitely creates balance in the pie chart of Hilary. Along with occasionally looking at etsy.com and home décor websites.

I promise to get to In Cold Blood. And I promise to do your book lists justice. You took the time to give them to me and I will take the time to read them. For the month of November, I will take a hiatus in reading and return to my roots of writing. Hopefully by the beginning of December I will return to you with 50,000 more words under my belt, ready to tackle more books.

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On the Road . . . I’d rather stay home

I tried.  Really, I honestly did put forth effort here, but I’m sorry, Mr. Kerouac, this classic American book just doesn’t live up to the hype for me.  Maybe that condemns me to a “pseudo” English major who never wore all black, drank coffee in a dark, smoke-filled coffee house, or listened to beat poetry until the early hours of the morning.  If these characteristics and a love of Jack Kerouac are the defining features of an English major, then yes, sign me up for the pretend version.  Perhaps if I had come across the book earlier in my life I would have gotten more out of it.  But I have carried this book around with me now for two weeks, and I have yet to move past the half-way point.  In fact, I just ran the Twin Cities Marathon, and I would just as soon have turned around and run it again as finish this book.  Well, okay, maybe it isn’t that bad, but it certainly didn’t captivate me enough to inspire me to do more than just carry it around in my bag.

So when I thought about why this book was such a failure for me, I realized that I had preconceived expectations for it.  I don’t know, I guess I just assumed it would have a plot and character development.  I know this is nonfiction, but all good memoirs still follow the conventions of good storytelling.  Kerouac isn’t telling a story.  He’s rambling about meaningless road trips with flat characters.  In the end, he gives no insight or appreciation for a greater meaning (okay, I admit that maybe isn’t fair because I didn’t finish it, but I kind of doubt he comes to any kind of earth-shattering epiphany at the end – correct me if I’m wrong).

Besides lacking conflict, tension, plot, or round characters, my biggest turn off for this book was the writing itself.  I appreciated the experience, living the “everyman” lifestyles, but the writing made him so arrogant that I was quickly annoyed by him as a character.  I wanted to sympathize with him for having to hitchhike and having no money for food, but because of his cock-sure flippancy and arrogance, I found myself not really caring about his plight.  This might also be because everything that happened he brought on himself.  I would have enjoyed the journey more and empathized if he was a victim of his circumstances.  But he wasn’t.  He chose to travel across the country this way.  He chose to buy whiskey and cigarettes instead of food.  Oh yeah, and if it got rough for him, he called his aunt back home and she sent him money.  All this equates to a bored kid going through a quarter-life crisis.  I just don’t find this banal experience to be that captivating for my time or attention.

Of course again, to be fair, maybe there is some revolutionary, life-changing theme by the end, but I’m okay with not knowing that.  Maybe I will pick up this book again someday; probably I won’t.  If my failure to fall in love with Jack Kerouac makes me a failed English major, then so be it.  I would rather spend my time with writers who can intrigue me with realistic characters, vibrant settings, engaging plots, tension and conflict, and gorgeous prose.  Here’s hoping for the next one on the list . . .

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Outstanding Novel of the Year

Every year when I teach Introduction to Literature, I assign my students a “Banned Books” project; they are required to research a book that has been banned at some point in the past, reflect on the rationale for banning it, and offer their opinion on censoring the title.  Every term someone chooses Lord of the Flies, summarizing the violence, the grotesque savagery, the disturbing breakdown of civilization into mass chaos.  I nod along in my hypocrisy, injecting questions about the validity of banning the book, pretending that I understand the vileness of the content that is called into question.  I never let on to my students that I haven’t read the book – after all, what literature teacher hasn’t read such a classic as this?  I haven’t.  Until now.

Since many students have summarized this book during their banned books reports, I knew what I was getting into before I picked it up.  [Spoiler Alert].  I knew the boys were stranded on a desert island and that any semblance of civilization ultimately descends into violence and animal instincts.  I knew Piggy would be killed and that the boys would ultimately be rescued by the end.  What I was not prepared for, what my students had not summarized for me was the beauty of Golding’s language!  The level of detail in the descriptions was so astounding, I occasionally forgot that I was reading such a graphic and horrific scene.  To paint an image with such clarity that leaves a reader breathless is truly a remarkable talent – to do it while describing the slaughter of a pig or the man-hunt for the tribe’s pariah is worthy of my utmost respect and admiration!

So yes, this is a graphic and barbaric tale, but the wonderful thing about it is not so much the commentary that is made on the decline of civilization, but rather the conversation that it evokes in readers.  A part of what makes the book so disturbing is the validity of it – the characters and their motivations are so believable that the realism of their descent leaves the reader unnerved by their unchecked violence and its true possibility.  However, it also begs the question: what if?  What if Jack had not been so competitive and charismatic?  If he had complied with the rational approach of Ralph, would this story have really ended so violently?  Can such an argument be made for the downfall of civilization based on boys who are so easily influenced by one sociopath?  And of course, I need to bring up the other “what if” question:  What if this had been a group of girls stranded on a desert island?  Would the same barbarity have overtaken them, or would it have been less physical in nature – was their end result due to the fact that they were without sensible adult influence or due to the fact that they were adolescent boys caught between understanding fantasy and reality?  Of course there are no answers to these questions because it is after all a fictional scenario.  But like I said, that is the beauty of this book and likely why it became a classic and iconic staple of the American canon: because of the wealth of discussion it evokes.

For the first time since Hilary and I started this blog, I actually am feeling cheated that I didn’t have the chance to read some of these books in school.  I longed for discussion after I read this.  My debriefing of the novel with my husband was rather one-sided as it had been so many years since he had read the book in school.  My curiosity about what others saw in the symbolism (some more obvious, some less so) was only slightly mollified by a literary analysis at the end my copy of the book.  How I would have enjoyed adolescent discussion of the various themes had I been able to read this book in eighth or ninth grade when all my students were “forced” to.  But that in itself prompts the question of whether I would have appreciated the writing and the intricacies of the plot and its meaning if I had been assigned to read it as a teenager.  Who knows?  For now, I can say that I am grateful to have been able to read this book now, and pleased with myself that next quarter when my students present a banned books report about the violence of the Lord of the Flies, I will be able to contribute my own insight rather than nodding along, lamenting that I never cracked open the book.

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You Don’t Always Need to Kill Your Darlings (sorry, Stephen King)

I knew this one was going to be one of the first books on my must read list. Whenever I admit to not having read the series, I get a reaction similar to when I revealed that I had never seen Goonies or Gremlins. Take a deep breath—I’ve seen both since. The thing is this—Harry Potter sort of falls under my whole “dragons in space” type genre. “Dragons in space” is a term fondly used by some old friends that seems to fit the whole “Lord of the Rings”-“Star-Trek”-“Deep Space Nine” genre. It’s not that I have anything against “LOTR” and certainly not “Star Wars”—it’s just that sci-fi/fantasy takes work. When I worked in books, these were the ones that had covers that were a combination of romance mass markets and surrealistic art. The readers were a hybrid of clammy skin that hadn’t seen sun since the Twins won the World Series and Cheeto stained fingers. The stories required a lot of patience—learning new terms and accepting that some of these worlds existed (at least within those pages), picturing alien characters who had really weird names, and understanding often times complicated back story of wars and battles and dynamics of characters that required tables and charts in the first few pages. I’m exhausted thinking about it. My friends, I’m sorry—I know and love many sci-fi readers. I don’t mean to offend—these are just the stereotypes. Now here’s another stereotype: greasy, unkempt hair hiding behind a used book with stylishly vintage cover art, Mac and guitar case in tow, and hoodie smelling of clove cigarettes and coffee. Probably on that Mac are original poems. The book of choice? One with scattered, magnetic poetry type sentences that eventually lead to some deeply internal problem that is supposed to resonate to the sensitive—to the artist. I’m guilty of these books. I’ll admit it. I like to see bad things happening to characters. I like to see them suffer and I like to see the world slap them upside the head with the most atrocious problems a person can withstand. Am I sadistic reader? Nope. I’m your typical Muggle (yes, this really is about Harry Potter!). In reality, I’m completely ordinary. And I’m totally okay with that. But in my head? That’s a different story. No one can scare or shock me more than me. I’m not mad and I’m not crazy, I swear. I just like the escape of a good book with really out of this world problems. And I’ve mentioned this before—bad things really show us what a character is made of and the worse the problem, the more chutzpah they have to have. And these are the characters to root for.

But here’s the thing—sometimes it’s okay to read about good things happening to good characters. Which brings me to Harry Potter. It was more out of my comfort zone than even Sweet Valley High because there wasn’t even anything I could laugh cynically about. It was just a good imaginative story. Sure, there are some formulaic elements, but I actually enjoyed them. I liked the unsavory Dursleys and I liked that Harry got some justice, albeit fairly benign justice. I liked the trip to Hogwarts and all the fantastical parts of Hogwarts. No one was contemplating suicide. No one had been raped or robbed or beaten up. No one was struggling with inner demons or their dysfunctional family. No one was running away from their past or trying to put together pieces of their lives. But Harry Potter still has chutzpah. He was given an unfair hand, but is extraordinary and doesn’t know it. Granted, he really doesn’t discover it fully in this book, but I know from others that the books are really about discovering all he is. And that’s something I think anyone can learn from or appreciate.

Don’t fear the “dragons in space” genre and don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it. Like every other genre, there are some bad apples within the good, but in the case of Harry Potter, the numbers speak for themselves—these books have entertained and inspired millions for a reason—lot’s of people like to see regular ordinary characters have fantastical adventures and live to tell the tale.

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Like, totally!

Back when everyone was reading the Sweet Valley High series, I was still reading the Babysitters Club series and rereading the Little House series. There are several obvious differences between all of these books—the SVH girls were open mouth kissing boys, riding in fast cars, and getting accused of drunk driving. The BSC girls were kissing boys, albeit in a more PG rated manner, going to dances, and trying to be successful entrepreneurs. The Little House girls were, well, trying to survive on the primitive Kansas prairie. But they did eventually move to town, grow into young women, and got married to boys where kissing was assumed. So, really, the biggest differences were where the characters ended up kissing the boys and how they got to kissing those boys. But, let’s be honest here—the main thing we care about is whether or not they got to kiss the boys.

Can you really blame Francine Pascal though? She has capitalized on a very specific audience and has given them quick and tidy reads with idyllic characters with fluffy problems. Many teenage girls don’t want to read about dying of pancreatic cancer or nasty divorces or the journeys of reinventing oneself. Most teenage girls at one point wondered what it would be like to be blond, popular, and perfectly beautiful. Oh, and have a Jeep Wrangler and several hot, popular guys falling all over themselves for them. I’m not saying that the Wakefield twins are deliberately superficial characters. They are the epitome of what many people think teenage girls are about. But I believe many women who were once teenage girls themselves would agree that the SVH books are a welcome fantasy of high school life. Our problems were much messier and we were far more angsty. If all we had to freak out over was a zit or whether or not the cute boy we were crushing on noticed us, would we be the women we are today?  In high school, we were deep feeling, smart, and ambitious girls who were trying to reconcile who society thought we should be (SVH girls) with who we really were. All while learning to accept that not being blond, having bad skin, and caring about more things besides boys was maybe not okay at the moment, but once we left high school would actually be cool.

But there’s no harm in living in the Valley for a moment because reading about perfection is a stress reliever and kind of fun! Twilight, Harry Potter, and the 50 Shades books aren’t popular now because they’re literary masterpieces, they’re popular because they’re fun reads—to many people, but not all. Francine Pascal has not changed my life by reading this book. It’s no To Kill a Mockingbird (see previous post), but it was a fun read and made me thankful that I’m not a teenage girl. I don’t have to fight over the captain of the football team with my scheming twin sister. And I don’t have to share a car with her (thank God). The SVH series gives young adults a soap opera to read. And there’s nothing wrong with a little PG-13 drama. Let ‘em read these for a while before they graduate to reading Judy Blume’s Forever.

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Revisiting Sweet Valley High: Double Love

This was a book that I surprisingly had a difficult time finding.  As a kid, my bookshelves were packed with every Sweet Valley Twins book.  I can distinctly remember roller skating up and down my driveway while I read the special double editions (yes, I once was that coordinated to be able to roller skate and read at the same time!).  The Sweet Valley High versions filled my sister’s bookshelves, but I never graduated to that series after outgrowing the Twins.  Since these books were so popular in our house, I figured that I would be able to find the series easily, but they weren’t at any bookstore and I scoured three libraries before I could find a copy.  The one I finally tracked down isn’t even the original.  First published in 1983, the text was updated in 2008, probably to appeal to a new generation of readers.  This is evident with heavy handed references to those modern day commonalities that were the fodder of science fiction in the 1980s: cell phones, Blackberries, and internet blogs.  I was left wondering how much of the content changed with the language when it was updated, and I began to wish that I had a copy of the original version to compare how these girls also may have changed in the twenty-five year span.

As I had expected, this was an easy read.  For the most part, the characters were as I remembered them from the Twins version, but just with slightly more complicated “high school” problems.  I was surprised to find that Elizabeth seemed to be more of a main character than Jessica – or at least a much more likable character.  When they were younger, Elizabeth was always the “goodie two-shoes” of the pair, the rule follower, type A personality.  Jessica was still an amiable person, just more mischievous, shallow, and selfish than her sister.  Here, however, Jessica seems to have morphed into a clear antagonist.  My grade school perception of the two was that they solved their problems together, each relying on her own strengths, be they organization, optimism or the ability to color-coordinate and find a great sale on shoes.  With Jessica clearly as an antagonist, however, the girls are at odds, though expressions of their love for each other are sprinkled throughout the book.  There is really no sense of love between them – Jessica only cares about Jessica, and Elizabeth seems to be too naïve to realize that and cares for her sister purely out of sisterly obligation.

In this version of the Wakefield twins, Jessica shows clear signs of sociopathic narcissism.  Because of this character shift (though perhaps only due to my faulty memory), I am again left wondering what else changed between versions of the book besides the references to the Fast and the Furious movie.  Did the 1983 version really suggest that Mr. Wakefield was having an affair?  Was there really an underground drinking and street racing gang?  Was Steven’s girlfriend’s family really drug addicts?  Did Jessica really claim that Todd had tried to rape her?  In many ways, these plot points feel forced, as though the revised edition is struggling to prove it can be relevant to a post Twilight generation.  On the other hand, perhaps Francine Pascal was progressive enough to realize that some of the problems that high school girls face do tend to be universal and timeless.

While some of the language and the plot devices made me roll my eyes, I do have to commend these books for what they are!  They serve to introduce young readers to a pair of strong characters (though admittedly maybe not the best role models) whose escapades span many years and over several series.  This alone makes these books notable – no wonder Sweet Valley Twins was on my list of my memorable books of my life.  These books get kids to read!  So, whether you like Harry Potter or are able to stomach Edward Cullen, these series serve their purpose beautifully: introducing a love of reading to a young generation that is too easily entertained by more mindless pastimes.  While the argument can exist that it is difficult to find quality literature for young adults (particularly in a series), any books that can appeal to this age group and keep them reading from one book to the next is well worth it.

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