Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fake Bookish Neurosis: Dystoparanoia

Dystopian Dioramas by Lori Nix
I'm currently listening to Claire Danes' narration (fantastic, btw,) of Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale, which I've read a few times already & am re-reading in preparation for World Book Night. If you are not familiar, a) how is this possible and b) it's about a near-future society in which a right-wing religious "cult" has overthrown the US government and re-ordered society into biblically "traditional" roles, which basically means women have been re-relegated to property, on this earth solely to procreate and serve men. Independent thought police abound. It's not so great for the men, either - they're held to strict moral codes as well. Sounds fun, right?

The most terrifying thing about speculative fiction such as The Handmaid's Tale is the relative ease with which such a society could just... well, happen. Already paranoid about all this information sharing that we do, either wittingly or unwittingly, such dystopian novels - especially this one, which shows how easily the cylons/right-wing-nuts/borgs/alien invaders basically could flip a switch and take over - only heighten this dystoparanoia. I find myself thinking, with every post I make on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or the internet at large, "Oh, here's further evidence for the future religious dictator-oppressors to use against me! But it's not like I haven't given them enough already, so what the hell."

I have created quite the case against myself. That thing I just posted making fun of young anti-marriage equality people for their intolerance and lack of spelling ability? Yeah. The New Genesian Republic won't stand for such positions in a person's history. (That is, assuming I still have the status of "person.") The stuff I post speaking out against rape culture and for women's bodily autonomy? I'm sure I've violated several somethings in the Book of Leviticus, which would no doubt used against me at my "trial." I mean, maybe they wouldn't even go to such efforts, since merely being a woman will be a crime of some kind. Or women wouldn't have any rights to violate anyway. That video of the sneezing panda? Evidence of my lack of proscribed compassion, obviously. Raising money for rescue animals? Not a counter to the hilarious cat antics posts, no. Clearly I should have been focusing on human needs instead.

After that, my dystoparanoia takes a lovely turn, nightmaring about the future in which not only are we ruled by alien/cylon/borg/extremist-nut-job overlords, but, of course, the devastation we have wreaked upon the planet will be no longer deniable, except that it will be interpreted as some god's way of punishing human deviance and immorality, further supporting the authoritarian cause, instead of as what is the obvious, inevitable result of previous generations of consumerism and corporate greed.

Ironically, I slept quite well last night.

Anyone else suffer from this side-effect of dystopian fiction?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The premise of The Tale of Lucia Grandi: The Early Years by Susan Speranza sounded incredibly promising: a 110-year-old centenarian recounts the details of her life to a biographer. The book begins with an eager, young graduate student wanting to record a biography of Lucia's life - excellent, I thought, that could be interesting, a biographer's insights and observations, but the story is told in Lucia's first person, not the biographer's. In fact, the biographer disappears completely after the prologue. Lucia also warns us at the very beginning that maybe she'll "just make it all up," which made me wonder if unreliable narrator issues would come into play - but no, that is dropped as well. Also, Lucia is 110 at the beginning of the novel, but was born in 1951. Why is she so old? Why are we getting her story from 2061? How does that color her perception of the 1950s and 60s? What's the world like 5o years from now? What does that add to the story? It seems to have no bearing on the rest of the novel, though, so the choice seems a little arbitrary, unless it is to become evident in later volumes of Lucia's life.

What the reader is left with is a somewhat disjointed telling of all Lucia's sufferings, and sometimes the sufferings of older family members whose sad stories are recounted incompletely before they disappear completely from the narrative. Pretty much everyone in the novel is horrible and/or is made to suffer horribly. The victimy mentality was a little much to take - I mean, I get it. Lots of people have super horrible lives. Suburbia was and is no idyllic land of merriment. But I need a reason to keep reading, and more awful things happening isn't a compelling one for me.

Lucia did remind me a little of Sally Draper on Mad Men, if her father was a police officer instead of an ad exec, and if they lived out on Long Island instead of in Westchester. I kept longing for a similar tone or narrative flow, but it was not to be. Where Mad Men succeeds in its melancholic disenchantment, with flawed, searching characters and glimmers of hope and growth, Lucia Grandi fails. Many of the characters (with, of course, the exception of Lucia, and the few people she likes), particularly the parents, are not merely flawed, they're just awful. Their humanity is missing.

This book is still not without potential. Despite her inability to find much joy, Lucia's life was interesting, and I did want to know what happened to her, and if she'd ever overcome all her hardships. I think the novel might have worked a little better if it had been told in the third person - no 5-year-old does that much naval-gazing on her own, but we all can find reasons for things we did as children once we have the perspective and experience as adults - or perhaps as a conversation between biographer and subject, similar to The Thirteenth Tale - where the reliability of the narrator can be toyed with. I was disappointed that that little kernel never reappeared.

To sum up, you should read Lucia Grandi if:
  • You love the literary realists and enjoyed Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser. 
  • You like your characters to suffer. It's character-building.
  • You've been missing your time spent with the strict nuns in Catholic school.
  • You don't mind a few caricatures for characters. 
Don't read Lucia Grandi if:
  • You're looking for a fast, light read. 
  • You like a little hope and redemption in your novels. 
  • You like all reasons for narrative choices to be self-evident.
  • You believe every character should contribute to the overall narrative in some way.

*I received this book through of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review. I'm not the last word - see what others had to say

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple: Read This If

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple has been popping up everywhere I look for the past several months. When I read a little about the author and discovered that she used to write for Arrested Development (and Mad About You and Ellen), well, I knew I had to read this immediately.

This book is hilarious. And slightly sad, and definitely heartfelt, and, well, real, despite the absurdities and caricature nature of the characters. I'm no McArthur genius, but I could definitely relate to Bernadette's antisocial tendencies (minus giving all my banking info to a virtual assistant) and sarcasm and sense of failure. Her daughter Bee's adorableness shines through the pages as well. In a family of quirky smartypants (her dad Elgin is a Microsoft guru), she's probably the most down-to-earth and adult character in the book, though her dad has many words of wisdom, such as:
It's for survival. You need to be prepared for novel experiences because often they signal danger. If you live in a jungle full of fragrant flowers, you have to stop being so overwhelmed by the lovely smell because otherwise you couldn't smell a predator. That's why your brain is considered a discounting mechanism. It's literally a matter of survival. 
When your eyes are softly focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins. It's the same as a runner's high. These days, we all spend our lives staring at screens twelve inches in front of us. It's a nice change.  
Bernadette had a bit of a breakdown after a scoundrel neighbor destroyed one of her greatest accomplishments. That's why she's a little loony seizing on all the bad and seeing obstacles where there really are none. She moved her family (before Bee was born) to Seattle to escape her failure, in a sense, but she continuously finds reasons to distance and disassociate herself with anyone around her:
People are born here, they grow up here, they go to the University of Washington, they work here, they die here. Nobody has any desire to leave. You ask them, "What is it again that you love so much about Seattle?" and they answer, "We have everything. The mountains and the water." This is their explanation, mountains and water.
She is so snobby it's painful, but in a funny, clueless way, not in a snide, mean way. She feels superior because she is superior, but no one knows she's a genius because of her refusal to engage with anyone. She calls all the moms from her daughters school 'gnats' because they are constantly pestering her to get involved in school community stuff. Because she's a mom and that's what moms do. She's Chandler, Monica and Phoebe all wrapped into one, with a super high IQ on top, or, bottom, really, since it might be hard to find that bit.

Anyway, you should totally read this if:
  • You found Arrested Development hilarious (though this isn't nearly as absurd as many of the plotlines in AD). 
  • You have a child in school and have sometimes found dealing with other parents...challenging. 
  • You've ever felt like a failure but seen the absurdity of identifying with it.
  • You're looking for a quick, funny read with a lot of substance. 
  • You appreciate character development - this is definitely character driven. 
Don't read this if: 
  • You are humorless and many would describe you as "no fun."
  • You truly believe yourself to be faultless parent of the year. You will just find this book offensive.
  • You're looking for a dark and gloomy read.
  • You're totally clueless. But then, if you were totally clueless, you'd probably lack the self awareness to know so. 
  • You hate Antarctica. And you can't stand penguins.

Friday, March 8, 2013


How could you not be compelled to pick up a novel entitled Special Topics in Calamity Physics? That's definitely what first peaked my interest. STCP (I seem to have a strong penchant for acronymizing all long titles lately, for brevity's sake, of which, of course, I've just defeated the purpose with this wickedly long parenthetical) by Marisha Pessl is one of the cleverest books I've read in a while, which both bolstered and hindered my overall enjoyment of the story. Sometimes the cleverness just took on a life - and trajectory - of its own, wandering through mazes of tangential paths of wit and whimsy without a a mere thought of finding its way back to a narrative flow.

It must be noted that I listened to the audio for this one, which was delightfully performed by Emily Janice Card - she managed to breathe much life into the (often annotated) asides and clever comparisons that conspicuously peppered the narrative, but obviously, that makes it hard to skim over the (what some might consider) somewhat superfluous text, and even if I had been reading with my eyes and not my ears, such skimming would lead to confusion because sandwiched in the middle of the random book titles and oddball similes, an important plot point inevitably could be found.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the story - I did, in fact, in the end, appreciate much of what amused me in the beginning and annoyed me in the middle. Blue van Meer made for quite the quirky, smartypants heroine, with an equally quirky upbringing and smartypants father. After moving around the country every semester or two, they settle - for a whole 8 months - in a small town in North Carolina for Blue's senior year, where she is thrust unwittingly and unwillingly into a strange group of misfits (she - or the entire population of the school - calls them the Bluebloods) by an idiosyncratic teacher she meets in the grocery store. Many of the eccentricities later come into play after a series of mysterious events culminate in Part 3 - the partial wrapping together of these elements without tying them together with a neat little bow more than made up for the meandering nature of Parts 1 and 2.

You really should check out STCP if:
  • You've been longing for a story of the high school experience told with the nuance and insight of a John Hughes movie.
  • You like a little mystery to go with your high school shenanigans.
  • You don't mind a book that sticks the song "Somebody's Watching Me" in your head on autorepeat.
  • You like clever. No, you lurvvve clever.
  • You like big books and you cannot lie.
  • You want to torture or confound (or spark much discussion in) your book club.
You should take a pass on STCP if:
  • You're not a fan of lots of references you may or may not get.
  • You like your plots to move quickly, without fluff.
  • You really do need your plots wrapped together in the end with a shiny bow, no crinkles or loose threads to speak of. 
  • You value brevity over feats of literary (and often long-winded) wit.
  • You have the attention span of a gnat.

If anyone's read this & feels like discussing at all, let me know. It's definitely a discussion-worthy one. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

FLPM Giveaway Winner

Congratulations to Heather from Between the Covers, winner of her very own autographed copy of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr! I hope you enjoy it, Heather, and can't wait to hear what you think! If you didn't win, please find yourself a copy, and enjoy - and remember, it's a book best read in a short period of time. Thanks to all who entered the giveaway, and a special thanks to Viking Penguin for generously providing the extra copy.

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