A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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I spent April reading one of the most hyped literary fiction books of the last year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. At over 800 pages, it wasn’t a quick read, but neither was it as laboring and upsetting as everyone said it was going to be – maybe I have a heart of stone. I had trouble putting it down, which was surprising because based on reviews I was expecting this book to be ROUGH. I can’t remember the last time I read a better, more engaging novel. The review I am about to write is evidence that this novel demands serious thought.

So, what did I NOT like about it? The novel suffers because of it’s own hype. The parts everyone waxed poetic about (the extreme abuse and mental anguish the main character, Jude, goes through) were the parts of the novel that I felt were overdone and vaguely exploitative.

It felt like a betrayal at times, that a novel so expertly written made me feel the exact opposite of what the author was trying to make me feel. If you google A Little Life you will see an outpouring of emotion regarding Jude. You will also see a lot of hints of the horrific abuses he faces, which is why people label this novel “hard to read”. I got the sense with every escalating horror Jude lives through that Yanagihara was trying really, really hard to make Jude into a Christ figure. It felt like too much, mostly because I didn’t believe it. I don’t believe that one person can suffer all that abuse and then become an extremely rich and successful corporate litigator, for one thing. Sadly, I also don’t believe that someone can be as self-destructive as Jude and still hang on to a loving group of friends. I’ve heard Yanagihara say in interviews that she wanted A Little Life to be slightly off-kilter, like a fairy tale, and she’s right. I don’t believe that someone like Jude could have loving friendships and a successful career while also avoiding professional help. That’s a fairy tale, and it aggravated me.

The main feeling I felt towards Jude by the middle of the novel was annoyance at how he was written. There is so much glamorization of mental illness and suicidal people in fiction. What isn’t glamorized is the people who suffer and listen when their friends ask them to get help. This is serious – I am so sick of reading narratives about the beautifully suffering mental ill person who won’t get help. I resented the characterization of Jude, who is a complete martyr to the image of a mentally ill person who is brilliant and lovely in every way except that they keep trying to destroy themselves.

I nearly rolled my eyes out of my skull every time a character had to take a break in their interior narrative in order to think about how wonderful Jude was. When the novel isn’t focusing on Jude , it follows his group of college friends as they become very wealthy and successful in New York City. We are made to believe that these dudes are somehow exceptional, and I hated that.

It seems like I’m really tearing this book apart, but I do so out of love. I highly recommend this book, but I don’t want to join the chorus of people gushing over Jude and his friends. I am side-eyeing the tacky A Little Life tote bags – I just don’t get it. But, certainly, if you’re looking for a long read by someone who can write, and I mean really write – pick up A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara is an immense talent for sure.

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Landline by Rainbow Rowell

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Full disclosure, I listened to Landline as an audiobook, which may have heightened my irritation. Annoying characters in fiction are one thing, but when they are talking straight into your ears, they’re doubly annoying. But I won’t pull any punches, either. I didn’t like this novel very much, and I don’t think I’d like it much better if I had read it. I want to love Rainbow Rowell – Fangirl is one of my favorite YA novels in recent memory – but she keeps BORING me.

Landline suffers from the same thing that Eleanor & Park suffered from – boring characters with a boring love story, worrying about their boring conflict. Conflict that could be so easily solved if the characters just communicated with each other, and not in a charming sitcom way.

There were times where I was physically annoyed at how boring the narrative dared to be in Landline. No, I don’t want to hear a drawn out chapter about the main character being hungover, waking up at noon, not brushing her teeth, and then taking forever to get to work because she had to have a flashback memory about meeting her husband. The flashback memory? A boring conversation that more or less showed that the man she chose to marry, Neal – fucking Neal – is actually someone who has purposely disliked her their entire relationship. Not only is that boring, it’s MADDENING.

Georgie, our main character, is a wife, mother of two daughters, and TV comedy writer. She sounds cool, right? At the start of the novel, she and her writing partner, Seth, are offered a chance to write a new sitcom for a major producer. Not only that, it’s a show the pair has been dreaming of writing for years. The problem comes in when Georgie needs to stay in LA to write the show and attend meetings over the week of Christmas. She had originally planned to go with her family to visit Neal’s mother in Nebraska. And, the plane tickets are already bought, so Neal makes the executive decision that the family will still be going to Nebraska. Without Georgie.

Alright, I thought. Sounds sensible. Except Neal spends the next week IGNORING HIS WIFE’S CALLS LIKE A SAD THIRTEEN YEAR OLD BOY.

SOUNDS LIKE A KEEPER, RIGHT?

Instead of spending the next week writing an awesome television show and realizing her dreams, Georgie spends the week frantically trying to get in touch with her man child of a husband who is punishing her for having the nerve to choose her career over going to Omaha for four fucking days.

Basically, the whimsical part of the story is that Georgie, in her frantic husbandless state, goes to her mother’s house and tries to call Neal on a landline telephone. And–MAGIC ALERT–she reaches Neal. But it’s NEAL FROM THE 90s! College Neal. Neal before he proposed. So, the rest of the novel is Georgie talking to her old boyfriend. And, surprise: he was a miserable man child back then, too!

“Neal, neal, neal,” Georgie purrs, over and over again, so happy to hear her husband’s voice. And I’m thinking – why? Rowell gives us nothing to go on – why a funny, successful woman would be so in love with someone who keeps punishing her emotionally for being a funny, successful woman is beyond my understanding. A house husband who resents living in LA, resents Georgie for hanging out with TV writers, resents Georgie for working late nights, resents Georgie…for being Georgie. I hate that Rowell tries to pass this off for a love story. If this is what love is, I’d send it back.

This is where Landline completely falls. No amount of magic phones can make a story with such an unlikeable couple interesting to me. But I’m rooting for Rainbow Rowell. I like her characters, sometimes. Georgie and Seth were awesome. She just makes some poor choices – Neal, Neal, Neal. And, we never do find out if Georgie’s TV show gets picked up–which is just disheartening.

So, unless you love chapter-long telephone conversations about nothing in particular and stories of women choosing their unsupportive husbands over their careers, give this one a pass.

 

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman is about a black family that moves into a research institute to teach a chimp sign language. Throughout their stay, the institute’s history of eugenics experiments involving black people comes to light, and the main character, a teenage girl named Charlotte, starts to have the suspicion that history is repeating itself.

I find monkeys to be inherently unlikeable characters – don’t ask me why – and Charlie Freeman, the chimp in this novel, sort of proves my point. He’s a jerk. (On the subject of how nobody wants to read an adult novel about a chimp, here is my favorite review of this book on Goodreads so far.) But it turns out the novel isn’t really about him.

Nor is it really about Charlotte, who is a likable and smart teenager, but ultimately forgettable. The character I will remember from this novel is Charlotte’s mother, who was perplexing. The Freeman family was involved in the experiment at the mother’s insistence, and her relationship with Charlie quickly becomes sickeningly close. I had trouble grasping why the mother did what she did throughout much of the novel, but the novel is peppered with little tidbits about her that left me wanting more. She used black sign language out of principle. She was aspiring for career success and saw the experiment with Charlie as a way to prove her own importance. I was intrigued by her, but by the end the reader sees her the way her family sees her: through a lens of confused horror.

Still, Greenidge covers a lot of ground: eugenics, the way the scientific community can slant with prejudice, the racist depiction of black people as apes, and the limits of language when it comes to race. There is a lot to unpack here, which is why I was confused by how rushed it all felt. Like with the mother’s characterization, I wish she had spent more time going in depth about the experiments, and the way they reverberate into the culture. She goes there, but doesn’t always deliver.

Overall, though, it’s a solid debut effort. I will be watching to see what Kaitlyn Greenidge writes next.

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.

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.