The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

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Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart (out February 9th in the U.S.) was a hit in France under the title Réparer les vivants. According to Google Translate, the one and only most accurate translator, that means “Repair Living” (?).

It starts out describing a group of boys out on a surfing trip which ends in a car accident. All of the passengers are injured, but the story focuses on Simon, who enters a coma and is declared brain dead at the hospital. For a novel that starts out with such a horrible tragedy, the victims sort of fade into the background from that point on. Simon himself becomes more object than character – he is known only through the memories his family and girlfriend have of him. And then there’s the matter of what to do with his body.

Organ donation is sort of a hot-button topic, one that a lot of people feel strongly about, so I think a thoughtful novel about the subject will find a lot of readers. My main problem with The Heart is the way it’s wired: the writing style just fell flat for me. I just can’t stand overly descriptive writing, writing that flows like water out of your hands. Kerangal chooses lush, overflowing language over characterization. The narrative mind-jumps, going from character to character, and I had trouble keeping them all apart, characters that should have been so distinct – Simon’s mother, his father, his girlfriend, his little sister. I don’t feel like I know anything at all about them. With all that, the lack of dialogue, the run-on sentences, jumping from one point to the next, I just couldn’t get a grip on this story.

If you’re a fan of ruminating literary fiction, and you enjoy the writing style, The Heart may be a great read for you. I would suggest reading the first few pages, and if the writing style seems good for you, keep going. Objectively I think the writing is impressive, but sometimes things are overwritten in such a way that it is a disservice to the story, and that’s how I felt about The Heart. I was a bit bored. After all, when I’m reading a novel, I don’t want to be impressed – I want to be taken away. The Heart did not do that for me.

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You by Caroline Kepnes

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I picked up You by Caroline Kepnes because it has one of those plots I find immediately intriguing. After hearing one or two bloggers talking about it, I wanted to read it right away.

The novel is told from the point of view of a stalker as he becomes unhinged over a girl, told as if he were talking directly to his victim, which is where the title You comes in. The narrator, Joe, is a nondescript twenty-something man with an inferiority complex because he didn’t go to college. Aside from the stalking and murderous impulses, he’s sympathetic. At times more sympathetic than the girl he is stalking: Beck, an ivy league educated MFA candidate who is insufferably narcissistic.

In this way You flips the concept of ‘likability’ on its side by giving the stalker full reign over the narrative. Of course Joe narrates his life and crimes as if he were a good guy, but you can’t help but agree with him about certain things, like how obnoxious New York hipsters are, or how irritating #hashtags can be. His running commentary shines a light on how deeply sad he is, and you kind of want him to give up the stalking and go to community college. You understand why he hates New York hipsters from Ivy league colleges because he was raised in the city with an abusive family and no educational prospects. As well read as he is, he’ll never fit into the world Beck comes from. But every time the reader comes close to sympathizing with him, he does something truly messed up, which makes the novel both uncomfortable and darkly entertaining.

It has the addictive Gone Girl effect – except You doesn’t really have any twists. Everything you think would happen in a novel about a murderous stalker happens, and the end doesn’t feel so much like a twist than a final breath of air before a fall.

Unfortunately, the writing style was either bad or just age-group anachronistic. It reads like a John Green novel if a John Green novel had murder and very explicit sex scenes in every other chapter. I have no trouble with adult subjects in YA novels – but parts of this novel were truly explicit, not something I’d feel comfortable recommending to a kid to read. In You all the sex reads strange because of how juvenile the writing is. Kepnes was trying to write a novel that is pointedly about millennials, so that’s part of it, but I think a lot of it was just bad writing. The reading experience is quite fun, though. Fast-paced, addicting, all the stuff you want a thriller to be. I spent hours last weekend reading it because I didn’t want to put it down.

This novel is junk food. I recommend it to anyone looking for something quick and satisfying and not polite/boring: travel reading for those who hate romances, perhaps? Older high schoolers or younger college students looking for something edgier than the average YA novel but without too much needless literary substance will love this, too. It’s not Gone Girl (they’re never Gone Girl), but it’ll do. I’m looking forward to the sequel Hidden Bodies, which comes out in 2016. I can see this turning into a Dexter-esque series with the added sociopathy of millennial angst. Which is as much a reason to read You as any. (Or a reason to never read it. Your call.)

The Art of Asking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

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There’s a helpless joy I feel whenever I hear song I loved in high school. I sway a little on my feet like the female lead in a romance novel. I mean to say I swoon.

Reading The Art of Asking had the same sort of effect on me, not only because I remembered how much I loved the Dresden Dolls back in the day but because I remembered how cool Amanda Palmer is.

She is brazen and unapologetic, sensitive but unafraid of her audience. Full disclosure: she’s so cool, I thought reading The Art of Asking would grate on my nerves. I thought, a little meanly, that Amanda Palmer was a bit of a try-hard, just like all the cool kids in high school who used to wear all black and smoke cigarettes and dress effortlessly from the thrift store.

I’ve seen the TED talk that inspired the book (or, at the very least, inspired publishers to give Amanda Palmer a book deal), and I liked it, but I failed to see how it would translate into a book.

Palmer makes it work by turning it into half memoir, half art-as-business manifesto. And often The Art of Asking is uncool: it reads like a sentimental blog post that had been professionally edited, full of stories and scenes and life philosophies. Palmer’s discussion of what art is was refreshingly not cool, as it stresses collectivism over elitism, the transactional nature of art: “Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing.”

This book isn’t really about Kickstarter albums, or couch-sharing. If anything, it ends on a note encouraging a return to patron-based art consumption. (See: Patreon.) Which is something to think about–maybe instead of worrying that the internet will kill art because there is no way to attach monetary value to it anymore, we can change the way we determine that value and give of our own accord. We can help and be helped, guided by our own human determination to collect, connect, and share.

Overall, I enjoyed The Art of Asking more than I thought I would. Amanda Palmer is still cool (or weird, however you look at it) but she’s also much more. I didn’t really need to hear all those stories of Neil Gaiman trying to flirt, though.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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I’ve been a fan of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast since about 2013, and although I haven’t been keeping up with new episodes, I still recommend it a lot to people just getting into podcasts.

Then Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor announced they were releasing a Night Vale book…and I knew I wasn’t going to like very much. Not that I didn’t try to have an open mind. I did, but I knew I wouldn’t like it very much and I didn’t. I am book reviewer, hear me roar!

I’ll keep this review short, because while I wasn’t a huge fan of the novel, I still think the podcast is really cool and I wouldn’t want to turn anyone off entirely. So here is a list.

THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT THE WTNV NOVEL:

  1. I didn’t like the characters the novel focused on. The podcast is a fictional story about a creepy, bizarro town told exclusively through the sweet, deep-voiced narration of Cecil, the host of a local community radio show. While the recurring characters are part of the charm in the podcast, the story is always told through this singular voice. This was the main reason I knew I wouldn’t like the Welcome to Night Vale novel, because most of the charm of the podcast is its format. There are a few chapter breaks that are transcripts of Cecil’s radio show, which read exactly like the podcast except…you’re reading it. Cecil’s voice was sorely missed, but those chapter breaks were STILL my favorite part of the book– I didn’t like the actual novel part of the novel. Which is a bad sign.
  2. I don’t think a twenty-five minute podcast translates to a novel. I was really glad it was over when I was done reading it. The long-form story just didn’t work for me in the Night Vale universe, because the more I was told about the town the less it amused me.
  3. It felt like the authors were a little tired by the end of the novel, too, like they had a specific word count they needed to produce, and some of it had to be forced out. There were a lot of times where they told instead of showing–actual, literal scenes where the characters looked at each other and said, “Wow, our town is a really weird place to live!” I rolled my eyes a few times, and the minute I roll my eyes at a piece of writing is the minute you’ve lost me entirely.
  4. I guess I just missed Cecil’s voice a whole lot. Cecil’s voice, the community radio station, the background music…those are where the character of “Night Vale” lives! I missed the atmosphere of the podcast, the comic delivery, etc.

That’s about it. I don’t recommend reading Welcome to Night Vale unless you are already a big fan of the podcast. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, definitely do not start with the novel. Listen to the podcast.

Welcome to Night Vale is at times absolutely perfect-it just didn’t need a novelization. That’s like saying, Hey, the Mona Lisa is a really great painting, really a masterpiece of its form…maybe we should turn that into a podcast? Okay, sometimes experimenting with different forms turns awesome things into further awesome things, but in this case it didn’t feel organic or inspired or interesting. But feel free to disagree with me, Night Vale fans! I would like to hear your thoughts.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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If you’ve read my blog recently, you know I’ve got a thing going on with Margaret Atwood–I am attempting to read her back catalogue in chronological order. I’ve gotten as far as Cat’s Eye, released in 1988. Some of her most popular work has been released after 1990, like the Oryx and Crake series, but I’m basically clueless about her newer work. So, when I heard she had a new book coming out in 2015, based on a serial she had been publishing online, I was all aboard.

There’s a lot of reasons to read Margaret Atwood–she’s quirky without being annoying or cute. (Never, ever is she cute.) The way she blends science fiction, gender issues, and Canada is one of those things readers needed without knowing they needed. Her language is in turns poetic and flowery and sharp as a knife. And The Heart Goes Last, while at times perplexing, did not disappoint.

The Heart Goes Last is about a modern couple named Stan and Charmaine who are living in their car after the economic collapse of the United States. They are offered the chance to trade freedom for comfort by joining The Positron Project in Consilience, a town where people alternate between being prisoners and living comfortable, dictated lives. It’s basically a city run by a corporation that gets people to sell their lives and bodies as a way of escaping the starvation and crime on the outside. All Hail Our Kindly Corporate Overlords.

It reminds me a lot of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart in the way it uses dark humor to shine a light on how very messed up society is and can become. Also, the fact that sex robots were a major plot point and nearly all of the characters are insufferable narcissists and/or insufferable idiots makes The Heart Goes Last kind of Shteyngart-esque.

Not that The Heart Goes Last was all sex robots and hand-wringing about materialism. I’ve read present day dystopian/speculative novels that focus on social media, like the above-mentioned Super Sad True Love Story and The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, and they’re certainly of the moment but sometimes they feel a little naggy, like your aunt complaining about selfies at Thanksgiving. The Heart Goes Last is different—it focuses on how economic disparities and excessive corporate power can erode individual choice, and it isn’t concerned about Facebook. Although it is sometimes absurd, the premise isn’t completely far-fetched. Because of this, The Heart Goes Last could have been a truly spooky dystopian, a la 1984, but instead it was…funny.

The dark humor lent the novel a satirical flair, but I don’t find The Heart Goes Last anywhere near as scary as I find The Handmaid’s Tale (published by Atwood in 1985), and I think The Handmaid’s Tale is more effective because of its earnestness. I certainly recommend The Heart Goes Last, but my answer to the question “What Margaret Atwood book should I start with?” has not changed. (It’s still The Handmaid’s Tale, because I will never shut up about that book.)

This is the downside to being a Great Living Writer. Jerks like me will always compare the old to the new. But I find Atwood’s bibliography so interesting in the way it flows from one book to another like one decades long conversation. They’re all different, but the ideas build on one another. Which is why I’m glad I took the time to read them in order (with the exception of this one), and why I’m glad she’s still writing. Because if The Heart Goes Last is any indication, Margaret Atwood in 2015 is still taking valuable and interesting risks with her writing.

Let me know what you thought of The Heart Goes Last in the comments below. Bonus questions: Do you have a favorite Margaret Atwood book? Are you from Canada? Is it as cold there as they say?

A Brief August Round-Up/A Less Brief Pre-Autumn Check-In/The Summer Reading Wrapeth Up

Here’s a list of what I read in August!

Delirium by Lauren Oliver – This is the first book in the Delirium trilogy. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either? I’m still looking for an underrated gem of perfect YA dystopian, but I think after I wrap this series up, I’ll call off my search– unless somebody besides a fifteen year old can vouch for a series for me. Okay, maybe I’m not the intended audience, but The Hunger Games was so awesome guys! Why can’t there be more like that? I have such a soft spot for YA, but a lot of it feels so tedious, especially dystopian, which follows a lot of formulaic plots without the benefit of interesting writing styles. This series, like the Legend series, really suffers because of how eye-rolly the main romance is. BUT, it has a seriously gutsy twist at the end of the first novel, and that is what kept me reading the second book later in the month.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – I reviewed that here, if you missed it.

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver – The second book of the aforementioned Delirium trilogy has a markedly more mature narrative, and I liked that. I think it was slightly better than the first book, even, and a lot of that was because the love story in the first one had been completely altered. (No spoilers though.) For a summary of this series: basically, this is about a dystopian United States where people get a surgery on their 18th birthday that keeps them from falling in love, because in this society, love is considered the ‘disease’ that is the root of all mankind’s problems. Basically, like so many YA dystopian trilogies, it took an aspect of The Giver and just made it about a girl wanting to kiss a boy, on the lips even. I have the third and final installment on my Kindle as we speak, so I’m not exactly knocking it.

Champion by Marie Lu – I read a lot of YA last month, which I guess is why I didn’t really want to write this post. I really have a love/hate relationship with YA–so much of it is so dumb, and the Legend series by Marie Lu is no exception. That being said, while I found the second book of the series completely boring, this, the third and final book, was my favorite. But no, I don’t exactly recommend anyone read it if they’re looking for a good YA dystopian series that is not The Hunger Games or even Divergent. The problem is I don’t exactly have anything to recommend that fits that description, and that bums me out.

So, as far as my summer reading challenge goes – I have read 3 out of 4 classic novels written by women: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The only one I haven’t gotten to yet is Beloved by Toni Morrison, (inexcusable, I know) which is on my desk to be read very soon. Once I finish the Delirium trilogy, I will have completed my 2 YA series. I have absolutely not started a short story collection but you know what is lovely in Autumn? Short stories. And I read and watched a book to movie adaptation early in the summer–Olive Kitteridge. So, not too bad.

In other challenge-y news, I lowered my Goodreads challenge goal from 80 books to 70 books, because it was stressing me out too much, I wanted to read longer books without feeling rushed or guilty, and I just have quite a lot going on in my life at the moment. I also think 2016 will be the year I have no challenge at all–I think it puts too much emphasis on quantity over quality, and I know I’m going to read every single year anyway, so why do I need a challenge? Maybe my challenge in 2016 will to only read excellent books and have fun everyday all the time always.

So now it’s September. (92 degrees, but September) Which means it is almost my favorite time of the year. I am looking forward to reading a lot of Stephen King in the fall, because I like to do that and last October I wasted a lot of time on IT so I need a re-do. That, and lots of cozy warm-drinks-and-book instagram selfies, and NaNoWriMo. All very exciting things!

I also started a trial membership of Scribd, which I am using to try out audiobooks–something I’ve always actively resisted but am now trying out for reasons I will explain later. I will post a review of Scribd as soon as I’ve formed an opinion, so keep an eye out–but for the time being, please tell me about your experiences with subscription books services! (I.E. Audible, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, Oyster…) I am interested, and the idea of paying to borrow books is still kind of weird to me because IDK, libraries exist? But, still, we will see.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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It’s not very fun to write a review of a book that is beloved. You either love it and you write a review saying, “Like your big brother and your 11th grade English teacher, I, too, loved Catcher in the Rye” and who cares, or you hate it and you write a review saying, “I don’t really get why people like The Fountainhead.” And who cares?

So, I didn’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn looking to review it or even post much about it on here. I was reading it because it’s been on my shelf for too long and it fulfills one of my goals for my Summer Reading Challenge. But this book got under my skin, so I wanted to write a brief post about it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Now that I’ve read it I realize how few classics are about a young women’s coming-of-age in the strict definition of the term; so many novels about young women are plain love stories. This is not a love story, it’s a survival story. Francie grows from a poor little girl to a young woman going off to college; in between she is forced to drop out of school to help support her family financially so her brother gets to remain in school. She watches her father deteriorating from alcoholism and her mother struggle to balance motherhood and working in poverty.

The story of Francie’s family is fascinating in its stark realism, in the ways that it deals with how idealistic people can either stubbornly keep on or be ruined in the face of poverty. It’s written in a sparsely beautiful way, only occasionally sentimental. It has the warmheartedness and redemptive qualities a story about growing up in a certain place should have. And what a sense of place this story had. 

While the Brooklyn in this novel is long gone, so many of the themes it touches on are current. Smith writes on issues of sex, childbirth, class, privilege, and disappointing husbands so frankly I wonder why more people don’t call A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a feminist classic.

I think this could easily take the place of Catcher in the Rye in many junior year English class. Kids would probably hate it just as much, but the English teachers would find so much to discuss. That’s about the highest compliment a classic novel can get, am I right?