Wednesday, August 26, 2015

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

I am pretty sick so forgive me if this review isn’t as readable as the others. I suppose it is a good sign that I enjoyed this novel even though I could barely breath and was sweating through my clothes for most of it.

I was sold on This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! when I read an early review and learned it contained old ladies, ghosts, the morbidly obese, and alcoholics all stuffed together in a weirdly structured, careening plot. This novel is as quirky and fun as it sounds and proved to be a very quick, light read despite the dreary events befalling the characters.

While I absolutely love a good ghost story, I liked that the return of Harriet’s dead husband was not the showcase of this novel. This is the story of Harriet’s life, not her husband’s haunting. If I had written this novel, I know that I would have (mistakenly) obsessed over the logistics of Bernard’s ghost, would have inserted him into every scene, etc. It takes a skilled, restrained writer to not let the fantastic event of Bernard’s return overshadow the living and pleasantly normal characters.

I never really grasped what Bernard was up to with CTO Charmichael and what the rules of his ghostliness were. All I really garnered was that Bernard was giving up some chance at an afterlife to return to his wife for a few clumsy encounters. I didn’t particularly enjoy the scenes that featured Bernard haggling with the clerks of the afterlife, but I suppose they added some context to his visits and offered some explanation on why he couldn’t just stay or guide Harriet more than he did.

I loved the conversational, slightly-snarky tone of the writing. It’s incredibly accessible and made this book fly by. Though the language is casual, it’s not without beauty. Imagery such as the “dazed bumblebee of shock” circling inside of Harriet’s head add whimsy and depth to otherwise straight-forward prose.

The novel is not all cute metaphor and quirk, however – there are quite a few dark (and plot spoiling) happenings. Things end on a fairly uplifting note, but not before plunging into shocking and upsetting territory. A majority of the revelations about Harriet’s life are reserved for the last fourth of the book, which worked with the plot, but I did feel an emotional lopsidedness to this novel. I didn’t truly feel invested in Harriet as a character until the ending when we learn how and why she is flawed. Though, part of the charm of this novel is that you don’t really know who Harriet Chance is until the very end – and neither did she. I loved the sentiment, in the last paragraph of the book, when Harriet realizes that “our lives are more sinew than bone” and the whole structure of the novel falls together - all of the weird side-stories and flashbacks mean more than the solid, present acts did. It was a refreshing take on a familiar trope.

There are some weird similarities between this novel and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The action takes place in the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic/whatever you call an area with glaciers, the titles are conversational statements containing the main character’s name, both feature quirky women abdicating from a family, the cloud of maternal angst hangs heavy over each novel, the covers are almost the same light blue, and Bernard and Bernadette are pretty much the same name, right? Was this intentional? What is going on here? It’s easy to keep the two books straight since they’re written so differently and are, now that I think of it, not similar at all, but I couldn’t post this without bringing up the likeness.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is an endearing, human read. I am excited to look into Evison’s other works, but I have to buy another box of decongestants first.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance is available September 8th, 2015 from Algonquin Books.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Company of Tatters by Jack Beltane

I kind of hated high school. I resented my one-stoplight town and I convinced myself that my many talents (I could play “Dust in the Wind” on guitar and could read books real fast) were being squandered on these farmers and Juggalos (actual demographics taken from my 2009 self-conducted census!). The drive to leave, to be anywhere else, was maddening. So, when at the end of A Company of Tatters I realized that I was actually nostalgic for the days when going to Walmart seemed exotic, I was a little shocked. Jack Beltane’s A Company of Tatters is an intricate dissection of what it means to be a senior in high school, made vivid by a near-tangible setting and an indulgent sense of introspection. It’s hard to not want it all back – even the embarrassing bits  – after reading such a dedication to that time.

I was surprised by how much I had forgotten, or, more likely, blocked out. Remember the weird weight every decision carried? Picking a college dictated how often you’d see your friends and family, your course for the rest of your life. Who let me, who put as much thought into picking a t-shirt in the morning (though, to my credit, this was pretty hard because every article of clothing had to accurately represent my entire system of beliefs), decide this!?  Now, after revisiting my not-so-distant youth with Jack and his company, I am both impressed with and baffled by the strange, almost calloused resolution with which I faced high school. How did I function knowing that most of my friendships would soon be over or irreparably changed – that despite the inordinate gravity I cast over every interaction, it was all pretty silly and this was just a four year stint in some weird building? Things that remind me of my own resiliency are always nice, but more importantly – Beltane reminds us that those interactions mattered. Things are not any less meaningful just because they happened to us when we wore silly shoes (I wore Converse to prom??) or parted our hair the other way.

I think there is a tendency for people, especially those of us who had experiences that weren’t perfect, to shrug off high school memories. We’re likely to make excuses for the odd things we did, for the things we fought for that seemed, at the time, paramount to our existence. When talking to my friends, I sometimes get the sense that we feel that we are our best selves now, and that any previous self must be ignored or, at best, forgiven. To admit to having been anyone other than who we are right now is a great weakness, somehow. Though, if we didn’t feel that way, we’d probably fall apart. That’s why A Company of Tatters is so effective and bittersweet: It is an unapologetic ode to selves gone by – a raw celebration of youth. Though Jack, Tobie, Sammy, and Ally are young, their feelings are violently pure. These characters, with their immense capacities to love and forgive, impressed and reassured the hell out of me. That was my best self once, and that’s okay.

While the relationships are super-charged and crackling with intensity, they aren’t unrealistic, and they’re definitely not melodramatic. I think this story in any other hands could have been a catastrophe, but Beltane balances it all with ease.

Not only is Beltane an expert of liberating forgotten emotion, he crafts settings that shine. His descriptions made me nostalgic (seeing a trend here?) for a time and place I’ve never been. The dull murmur in the glistening mall food court, the quiet dark of a suburban backyard in the wintertime – all enhanced by a playlist of songs referenced throughout. It was mesmerizing – I finished a great majority of the novel in one day.

I was only drawn out of the story twice: It took me a while to memorize everyone’s names (if I took a break from reading, I needed some time to become reacquainted) and, at times, it seemed that Jack was a little too clueless. Was he really unaware that Ally was in on the King of Hearts dance setup until page 236!? Though, maybe, having grown accustomed to Jack’s clear-sighted retrospection, I was used to him having all the answers.

I am reading over this review and I’m amused; Most of this was about myself, but that’s what Jack Beltane’s novel forces you to do – to reminisce, to accept your strangest self, and to make us want to share our own war stories. A Company of Tatters is an absorbing and heartbreaking read that makes even those of us who refused to wear real shoes to prom feel welcomed.

Visit jackofbells.com to purchase the book and listen to the accompanying soundtrack!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson

I'm ashamed. The last and only time I read Shirley Jackson was in high school. "The Lottery" was prominently featured in one of our textbooks (the concept of English/"Language Arts" textbooks blows me away. It's weird, right?). I remember liking the story, finding it dark and subversive in all the ways I normally fawn over, but something just seemed off. It didn't fit in with the rest of the lesson. It didn't resonate with me the way it probably should have. No one offered any context, any background on Jackson, or really any analysis on the story itself. We just said, "Yeah, that was creepy," and continued on. It was one of the only pieces in high school that I felt was read just to satisfy a syllabus requirement. So, by default, I resented it.

Perhaps because of this dismissive reading of her most prominent work, I always thought of Shirley Jackson as a literary "one hit wonder." I once saw a copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle at a bookstore and disregarded it as a posthumous, half-baked melodrama.

What the hell was wrong with me!? Why did no one tell me!?

Shirley Jackson is a goddess.

I figured I'd give Let Me Tell You, a collection of essays, short stories, lectures, and other writings, a try. The cover was pretty, there seemed to be a bit of buzz about it, and there was an ARC available. Why not? I am so, so glad. I feel like I have found a kindred spirit in Jackson, and this is what reading is all about for me - finding those few souls who, though filtered through time, culture, and the calcified shells of self-perception and identity, make me feel like me.

So it is no surprise that in addition to enjoying the short stories in this collection, I was fascinated by her personal essays.

I got a sick joy out of "A Garland of Garlands," her tongue-in-cheek commentary about the follies of professional book reviewers. "Book reviewing is just nothing for a healthy young women to be married to," Shirley says of her literary critic husband. I recognized some of my own bad reviewing habits in the section on "The Earmarked Pen," which is a trend for reviewers to cling to a set of cherished words (see: heartrending). Jackson's comments on "The Development of the Theory of the Universality of Art" were also interesting - reviewers and critics do tend to believe themselves to be artists, but why? I, at least, see my reviews as holding their own in the literary world because of the emotion, honesty, and eloquence with which I attempt to imbue them. But of course I feel this way - I wrote them. If I find meaning in art and communicate it to you in a relatable, heartfelt (heartrending?) way, does that make me an artist too? Maybe not always, but I like to try.

I was also very excited to find that Shirley Jackson has an affinity for the strange. Ghosts, demons, synchronicities, and prophetic dreams are not things to be ignored in Shirley's world. She addresses these topics with a graceful, humble humor without shirking their wonder. Jackson's writing is decorated with no-nonsense mysticism (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn't, I promise). In "How I Write," Jackson says, "What I am trying to say is that with the small addition of the one element of fantasy, or unreality, or imagination, all the things that happen are fun to write about." I couldn't agree more.

I feel kind of silly just now discovering these things about Jackson - I read a few other reviews and it seems like what I'm pointing out is what she's known best for - but I don't mind too much. Her immense talent is exciting no matter who points it out, or how often they do it.

There were times when I was bored with Let Me Tell You. I didn't care too much about the fork she cooked with; I got frustrated when I couldn't remember her children's names. But maybe, after reading the rest of the Jackson canon, as I surely (resisting every urge to make a horrendous pun here) will now, I'll come back and savor every character of those drier passages.

Let Me Tell You, edited by Jackson's children, is an insightful look into the world of an intriguing, brilliant woman. I was quick to learn that you don't need to be a long-time Jackson fan to appreciate the anthology - I can't imagine the joy a dedicated follower would find in this book.

4.5 stars: Like writing an essay about a ghost puking into a glass bowl that sits on the piano, which you dusted and polished this morning. The essay is pretty smart, if you say so yourself, and so is the piano.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lowry Giveth, and Lowry Taketh Away

WARNING: This post completely spoils The Giver and Messenger by Lois Lowry. Not that she left much for me to spoil...

I hate The Giver

I  read Lois Lowry’s The Giver for the first time (and the second and third time) as a grade school assignment – I adored it. I eagerly shed off the tales of talking animals, of neatly bound fables, and choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps (almost) for this dark, alluring “big kids” novel. It catapulted me into a decade-long fascination with dystopian fiction. Afterward, I leapt into Lord of the Flies and 1984 – very adult, and very fundamental pieces of literature. The Giver was the catalyst in my transition from children’s to adult fiction – a life-altering moment.  

Look at this smug bastard.
Lowry was also the first writer to show me that fiction isn’t always tidy. I loved the ambiguous ending, when Jonas is sliding away from his restrictive world, with the colors and the cold whipping around him – what happened to Jonas? Did he escape? Did he die? Was all of it just a drug-induced fever dream? 

My class spent an entire week discussing the ending. We had debates. We yelled and we laughed and
we let ourselves be completely absorbed by ideas. It was the first time in my life that I picked apart a piece of literature, defended my thesis, and really thought about the power an author has to bend our perceptions – about how our reactions to literature expose who we are. I was absolutely convinced that Jonas had died, and I loved the book because of it. Death made it a more meaningful, cautionary novel and, for some reason, I’ve always loved things that make me sad. But I was also intrigued by my classmates’ ideas – some of them outrageous or intentionally silly, but exciting none the less; their own personal convictions were bleeding out into their hopes and conclusions, and nothing pleases me more than the chance to analyze someone based on their literary conjectures.

Our class read interviews with Lowry in which she was asked about the ending of The Giver and her answer impressed the hell out of me: “That is up for you to decide.” This woman was respecting the intelligence of her young readers and I was thrilled. I was right, and you were right, and even though we moaned and acted as if we would die if she just did not tell us what it all meant, we were happy. It was a formative experience.

But now I am just mad.  A book that shaped my identity as a reader and writer is now one of my most despised objects. Lowry betrayed me, and I can’t go back.

He's on a real bad trip.
I made the grave mistake of reading Messenger, the third novel in the Giver Quartet. Not only did it lack the emotional intensity and eloquence of the first novel, it shattered every reason I had for liking The Giver. There’s Jonas, alive and well with his sled, which wasn’t a metaphor or a dream like I had hoped, but really just a plain old sled. And he’s a leader of some town? Everything worked out for him? And, mad and full of confusion and, strangely, a bit of panic, we are left floundering with no explanation. In fact, his very existence in this part of the story seems incongruous and glossed over – an afterthought, perhaps.

Lowry told us that we could pick the ending, then wrote one anyway. If she had any inkling that a sequel was in the works, she shouldn’t have given readers free-reign to decide for themselves. She could have just shrugged and said, “You’ll see.” (This is why I think the rest of the series is a huge afterthought and a money grab, but that’s a different story). There’s a big difference between “you can pick” and “you can guess.” I realize that many times, an author may not know there’s more to their own stories until well after the fact. Inspiration doesn’t care about publication dates. But, there’s no reason why Messenger had to be so out of touch with the first novel in the series and its readers. She squandered this giant gem of emotional intensity, mystery, and human nature in favor of a frustrating book about magical powers and Christ allegories and, quite honestly, probably a quick buck. The Giver and its first sequel, (though I didn’t know it was a sequel when I read it) Gathering Blue, are poignant because they feature people doing horrible things, and people overcoming them. Messenger’s moral lessons were the equivalent of giving bad acid to Aesop and seeing where things led. 

Maybe I’d be a little less upset if the “ending” she forced upon us was not so badly written.

Reading Messenger was like seeing an ex-lover for the first time in years. There are familiar pieces, pieces that feel, though you hate it, kind of interesting. But most of it just makes you embarrassed. Your cheeks flush and you want to retroactively go back and alter the few kind things you’ve ever said about it because now, having seen what it became, it’s just so horrible. You would rather not ever have been associated with this. Some things just don’t need sequels.