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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Stories about genuinely different kids trying to fit in always seem to resonate with me. Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s is no exception. Like many of these stories, fitting in is always the goal in the beginning, but by the end of the novel that goal seems to be so utterly beyond the point. It’s the ultimate middle grade MacGuffin – it gives us cause to empathize with our protagonist, but by the end we so love and understand them that we no longer see how the world at large cannot.
Willow Chance is an extraordinary twelve-year-old. She is a genius with an obsessive personality. She obsessively gardens. She obsessively diagnoses herself and those around her with various medical conditions. And she obsessively counts by 7s. All of these habits exist to calm an anxious mind. So when Willow’s parents die very early in the novel the reader worries just how much her already delicate psyche can undergo.

Losing your parents at twelve-years-old would be devastating to any kid. It’s the collapse of the only world you have ever known. But to lose your parents who are also your only friends because the other kids at school just don’t get you? And to lose your parents just as you are entering a new school where the teachers are suspicious of your intelligence? To lose your parents when you have absolutely no one else? It is practically unimaginable. But Willow meets Mai Nguyen who takes her under wing and shepherds Willow into a new life.

There is a large cast of characters here as Willow’s personality tends to alarm and then completely disarm everyone she meets. That she is so different, unable to affect pretense or fake her way through social norms she doesn’t understand, is refreshing. Both the people she meets in the story and the readers of it feel compelled to keep her from further harm.

Counting by 7s is a great story about people growing into the best versions of themselves in order to support one another. Willow’s journey away from and back to counting 7s is a testament to family in all of its forms. The characters Holly Goldberg Sloan has created draw you in because of, not in spite of, their differences and their challenges. This is a story of flawed, damaged people and with it Sloan is able to convey to her young readers how important it is to hold each other together. Willow does eventually find her place in the world, not through fitting in but, like the seven colors of the rainbow and the seven important people in her life, by being “vivid and distinct.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Thus far I have written only one negative review on this blog. I don’t really see the purpose in writing about a book I didn’t like. We all know what they say about opinions…what I think about a book is only relevant here in the sense that I am sharing my passion with you. We should be champions of books rather than their snarky detractors. But then Gone Girl happened.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a novel told in the split perspective of Nick Dunn and his missing possibly deceased wife Amy. I’m not going to argue that I look to literature to make friends, and I like plenty of books about somewhat less than savory characters. But that being said, Nick and Amy are simply abhorrent people. They are the worst sort of entitled, petulant, pretentious people imaginable. If their story were operating for some greater purpose I would be here singing the praises of Flynn and her novel, but the greater purpose of this novel is only in how enamored it is of itself and its darkness. People are often terrible; usually there is a reason for their lies and deceit and general detestability. Not so here.

Back to plotting though. Amy is missing. The house is a wreck. As usual, the husband is the prime suspect. Nick speaks directly to the reader, defending himself and proclaiming his innocence all as he lies to the police and digs himself a deeper grave involving Amy’s recently increased life insurance policy and Nick’s much younger girlfriend on the side. For Amy’s part we get years worth of her old journals. We hear about her courtship with Nick, her marriage, and her eventual fall from grace when she and Nick lost all of their money and had to leave their savvy New York life behind for the blandest of dying towns in the Midwest. All of this sounds great. Typical crime novel conventions. The problem comes for me when Flynn tries to turn these conventions on their head.

Gone Girl does not want to be a thriller (or at least just a thriller). It wants to be a literary novel about love, marriage, and the personas we are forced to adopt when we promise “till death do us part.” The most frequently quoted passage in the novel comes when Amy writes about the “Cool Girl” – you know the one. It’s the woman that loves bar food and fart jokes, sports and sex. Amy wore the persona of the Cool Girl for years ultimately becoming imprisoned in the falsity of her creation and in her marriage. It’s a great passage and an interesting topic for discussion, but the novel does not support it as a theme. The attempts at a deeper meaning, the contrived plot twists, the completely bananas ending…it all came together in the worst possible way for me.

As I stated earlier, I don’t see much value in negative reviews, but I had to get my thoughts out here. Gone Girl has SO MANY fans and you can see their reviews throughout the whole of the book world. I don’t encourage you not to read Gone Girl – in fact, I want you to read it so we can talk about it! It took me a year to get to this book; everyone was a buzz about it last year – now I’m alone. I was trying to stay away from the hype machine, but it worked so hard and for so long I had to give it a try. Gone Girl was not for me – it hit all of the wrong notes. If you want to read a literary novel about a man who may or may not have killed his wife that functions as a rumination on marriage and shared lives try Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut. It succeeds in all of the ways Gone Girl fails.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Victoria Reviews: The Long Walk by Stephen King (Richard Bachman)

I don't often read Stephen King books (though this one is under his pen name, Richard Bachman), but when I do, it never seems to be one of his more famous works.  This is the third King book I've read (the first one being On Writing and the second being 11/22/63…both were wonderful).  Many people who have either read none of his works or only a few of them push King into the Horror section and never look back, but they might be surprised to find that King is much more versatile than that.  Of the two of his novels I've read so far, I wouldn't classify either one as horror.  They have some frightening elements, sure, and they are occasionally unpleasant and often tense, but King's writing is so much more than just scary.  He has a wonderful ability to bring characters to life and use all the elements of his story to tie everything together in a unique and fascinating way.

The Long Walk is about a group of 100 boys who volunteer to join the book's namesake event, the Long Walk.  The point of the Walk is for all of them to walk at a minimum speed of 4 mph until there is only one left walking.  Anyone who stops walking, falls below 4 mph, or in some other way breaks the rules receives a "warning," and three warnings earn you a "ticket," which means you're out of the Walk (I won't say how this works…spoilers).  The prize?  Anything you want for the rest of your life.

There are no stops, pauses, rests, or anything of the like in the Long Walk.  The boys must walk constantly and continuously until the end, however long and far that might be.  The book, therefore, turns rather psychological as the constant walking starts to wear on their bodies and minds.

The book is written in third person limited perspective from the point of view of Ray Garraty, number 47.  He quickly makes friends with some of the other boys, forming a group they call the Musketeers.  King does a beautiful job of making these characters come alive.  One might expect the description (and Garraty's thoughts) to linger on the characters' feet – the pain of the beating their feet take as they walk over 100 miles without stopping – but King spends much more time inside their minds.  You really get to know several of the characters very well, and they spend a decent portion of the Long Walk discussing deep and philosophical questions and ideas, most likely to keep their minds off the pain in their bodies and feet.

One interesting thing I discovered while reading this novel is that you really start to feel everything that's happening to the characters.  It's very subtle, but by the end, the effect is unmistakable.  Halfway through, I realized I was physically exhausted and wanted to sit down and rest, but it didn't make much sense because I was already laying down and relaxing.  It was strange to feel a certain physical aspect of the story in real life, rather than just having everything take place in my head, but it says a lot about King's descriptive skills.

This novel was actually the first one that King ever wrote (though it wasn't the first published), and to a certain extent, you can tell.  The writing isn't quite up to the same skill level of his later works, simply because he didn't have the years of experience for this one.  I must say, though, that for a first novel, this one is pretty amazing.  His lack of experience doesn't detract from the story at all, and King's signature style is still quite obvious.  Overall, it was an incredibly tense and fascinating novel to read, quite different from my usual reading material.  The Long Walk proves that time is not what made Stephen King a phenomenal writer; he's always been that way.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed by John Irving

John Irving’s Trying to Save Piggy Sneed is a collection of short works divided into sections of memoir, fiction, and homage. I was in the midst of a long historical novel and needed something with which to cleanse my pallet and Irving’s short works seemed just the thing to dip into as needed. I am a fan of Irving’s novels. I genuinely enjoy his sense of absurdity and moralizing; Irving’s novels hit on the core of humanity, which is what I was expecting from this collection. Sadly, it did not deliver in the same fashion.

My grandmother sometimes shares with us letters about her childhood, her disaffected mother and the father she lost early in life, and finally her 50+ year long relationship with my grandfather. These letters and stories are so important to me because they are the makeup of this great woman that I adore. However, they would probably be uninteresting to a stranger. John Irving’s memoir reads much like my grandmother letters, and frankly, I am basically uninterested in his stories of the boys he may or may not have wrestled back at Exeter. There is a way to write about your life in sports (that can even be of interest to a nonsports enthusiast such as myself); unfortunately, John Irving hasn’t quite discovered it. However, when he writes about realizing that he was always a writer, about his education and initiation into the literary world and the friendships forged there I was thrilled. I come to Irving’s novels time and again because I like the way he writes about people, which comes across brilliantly here.

What you have really come to Piggy Sneed for though is the fiction. Irving has written very few short stories (his style is not exactly suited to the form) but I was eager to read each of them. The inclusion of “The Pension Grillparzer” from The World According to Garp is alone worth the price of the book. This is easily Irving’s best story. This is the story of a rundown hostel in Austria populated with the world’s oddest circus and its toothless trained bear. The most outrageous of Irving’s plots (such as this one) serve as a ballast for humanity by speaking deep truths about human cruelty and kindness. Irving’s created worlds, like our own, are dangerously unpredictable, absurd, and full of extremes. That’s the beauty of working our way through them.

The final section of the collection is that of homage to Charles Dickens and Gunter Grass. Dickens is Irving’s ultimate hero and instructor. The seed of all Irving’s plotting and moralizing lies within the novels of Charles Dickens. Here Irving is mostly writing in defense of Dickens’ sentimentality and in praise of Grass’ skill. His homage led me to pick up copies of both The Tin Drum and The Pickwick Papers, so I would say he succeeded in him aim.

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed is not Irving’s best work. It is a collection for those (like myself) interested in learning the whole of a writer they enjoy. Both through the literary section of his memoir and the short stories themselves an interested reader will learn much about Irving’s process. Definitely recommended for the Irving completest, but as I said worth it for “The Pension Grillparzer” alone.


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