Friday, January 31, 2014

The Hours


Wow! Between work and actually reading these books, the blogging part of Project 84 has really fallen to the wayside. Which is a shame, because one of the aspects of this process I was most looking forward to was sharing my love of reading with the world, and sharing my journey through 84 books. But I haven’t forgotten about you, my awesome readers! In fact, I am making a point to devote more time to the actual blogging part of this blogging project.

With that in mind, Book 6 of Project 84 is:

The Hours

The Hours
By Michael Cunningham

The Hours is one of those books that I’ve been “meaning to read” for a long time. I’m a huge Michael Cunningham fan. I read A Home at the End of the World in high school, and loved it a ridiculous amount. I tell this story a lot – but A Home at the End of the World is one of those books where when I see someone reading it on the subway or train, I’m jealous because they get to experience it for the first time and I don’t.

So I had high hopes for The Hours…and it did not disappoint.

The book follows the lives of three women over the course of one day. The first is Virginia Woolf, who is living in the country and working on writing Mrs. Dalloway. Another is Mrs. Brown, a discontent housewife from the late 40s, who is planning her husband’s birthday party while also stealing away to read Mrs. Dalloway. And the third is Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian in the early 2000s who is planning a party for her old friend, a literary superstar who is dying from AIDS.

I want to outline more of the plot, but the truth is, there isn’t that much more to the plot – and therein lies the real beauty of this book.

I have read quite a bit of Virginia Woolf in my day. I became a little obsessed with her in high school, and took two classes in college that centered on her work. I have read Mrs. Dalloway, and had a vague understanding that The Hours was “based off that book”, but I had no idea just how much. The narrative of this novel mirrors Mrs. Dalloway in so many ways. In subtle instances – both Mrs. Brown and Clarissa are hosting a party – to more on the nose allusions - Clarissa’s name, of course, and the fact that her partner is named “Sally”. Even the prose, a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing complete with flashbacks, is reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway and other work of Virginia Woolf.

I could probably go into all the ways The Hours is a sort of bizarro-Mrs. Dalloway (even the title is stolen from the original title of Mrs. D), but this is a review of the book, not a comparison paper, so I will move on. Suffice it to say that I liked the ways that the two works are similar.

The Hours took a little while for me to get into. About 100 pages, actually, which is a lot in a 250 page book. I think I was expecting it to be more like A Home at the End of the World, and when it was more of a Woolf-esque stream of consciousness, it was a bit jarring. I was almost disappointed for the first half of the book – I had expected to tumble into it, and that didn’t happen right away. But, somewhere around page 100, the book grabbed me – and, after that, I was wrecked. I was almost haunted by the narrative, by the subtle truth of what he was saying, and of how these women lived. It was beautiful, and sad, but mostly real and true.

I could wax philosophical of how beautifully Cunningham nailed the struggles of the female experience. The dichotomy of wanting people to approve of you, but also not wanting to get stuck in a hell of your own creation. The realization, as he puts it, that:
“There is something worse than death, with its promise of release and slumber. There is dust rising, endless days, and a hallway that sits and sits, always full of the same brown light and the dank, slightly chemical smell that will do, until something more precise comes along, as the actual odor of age and loss, the end of hope.” – Page 90
I could break down the prose and the narrative. I could comment on the symbolism, and the incomplete male characters that served to fill a void in the lives of these women. But it was how I related to their struggles that I found fascinating. That made me turn the page:
“As she rubs Louis’s back, Clarissa thinks, Take me with you. I want a doomed love. I want streets at night, wind and rain, no one wondering where I am.” – Page 135
I related to all three of them, but they weren’t carbon copies of me. And there was something even more real in that – a realization of a sort of female shared experience, but that we aren’t all the same. In addition, I respected what Cunningham was saying about the Woolfian idea of suicide being almost noble, a release. There is more than one section of the book that focuses on suicide as a reality. And whether or not it was Cunningham’s intention, I couldn’t help but be marked by the selfishness of what suicide is. And I do think that’s at least part of what he was trying to say.

All in all, The Hours was an amazing book. I recommend it to just about everyone – but you have to be prepared for what the book is. It takes a while for it to grab you, but be patient. You’ll be so glad you stuck it out.

***

I am so glad that I finally sat down to write this post. I wanted to recommend this book so badly, and even if my review got a little stream of consciousness and Woolfian in it’s own right, I’m still really happy with this one.

Next Review: Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard (Expected posting date: Sunday, February 2nd) 



**All annotations refer to this version of The Hours, published by Picador in 2010**

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Orange is the New Black


I feel like I’m well on my way in Project 84, and I’m really starting to hit my groove when it comes to reading. Now, it’s time to get the posting under control! After the next couple posts of books that I’ve already completed, I am making it my goal to get the entries up in a more timely fashion – within 2 or 3 days of finishing the book. Hopefully life will stop getting in the way!

With that in mind, Book 5 of Project 84 is:

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black
by Piper Kerman

Like a lot of people this year, I got very into Orange is the New Black on Netflix. I was turned on to it by several friends, and they were right. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the show. The plot is good, the characters are unbelievable, and the writing is really solid. Not to mention it has a killer opening theme song by Regina Spektor.

The book…was a little less satisfying. But still an interesting read.

Whether you’ve seen the show or not, the book follows a similar narrative. It is a memoir by Piper Kerman – a pretty, blonde, upper middle class woman who was sent to jail for 15 months based on a 5-year-old drug charge. In her 20s, Kerman had been involved with international drug trafficking, drawn into that world by a girlfriend who was attached to an African drug lord. The self-described “WASP” ends up at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut and served 15 months.

The book centers on her experiences in prison. The women she met, the observations she made, and what she learned about the American prison system. It’s full of hilarious and sometimes horrifying anecdotes, but the main purpose of the book seems to be a push for necessary prison reform in the United States.

I’m fairly forgiving when it comes to memoirs. I’m not going to pick apart the writing – or, of course, the narrative – of a person who’s trying to share their story with the world. Memoirs are written not really as a literary undertaking, but because the writer has an interesting and compelling story to tell. I have at least three memoirs on the list for Project 84, and this will be true for all of them.

I guess I just expected this book to be…grittier. I’ve read more than my fair share of prison memoirs, watched documentaries…(I keep wanting to say “I’ve watched Oz,” but I feel like that’s not helping my case very much, haha), and I’ve come away from all of them with a similar “holy shit, people live like that?” sort of feeling.

Reading the book, Piper’s situation in prison just doesn’t seem so terrible. There’s little violence, quite a bit of “freedom” within the prison walls, and the prisoners seem to develop an intense sort of camaraderie. I’m not suggesting that I would want to trade places with any of them, but I also didn’t break the law. For prison, Danbury Correctional seems…fine. They have a hair “salon” room where the women can do each others’ hair, Piper goes for coffee “dates” in the morning with fellow prisoners, and at one point they even have a “Children’s Day” where they throw a makeshift carnival for the mother’s behind bars and their children.

The prisoners refer to Danbury as “camp”, and that’s exactly what it seemed like to me…a really terrible summer camp.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t agree with Piper’s overall thesis: that prison reform would do a world of good for the American prison system. I could explain in detail the specifics of what I agreed with, but we’re probably better off if I use her words:
“Nothing about the daily workings of the prison system focuses its inhabitants’ attention on what life back on the outside, as a free citizen, will be like. The life of the institution dominates everything. This is one of the awful truths of incarceration, the fact that the horror and the struggle and the interest of your immediate life behind prison walls drives the ‘real world’ out of your head. That makes returning to the outside difficult for many prisoners.” – Page 124
“Our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. Instead, our system of “corrections” is about arm’s-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night.” – Page 180

The point that prison focuses so little on the rehabilitation of prisoners is not only true, but a valid rebuke of the system as a whole. Neither I nor Piper is saying that prison shouldn’t exist, nor that it should be “lighter” or that punishment isn’t important. When you break the law, you should be punished, and it should be harsh. But is it really in anyone’s best interest to put prisoners back out on the streets who are only going to reoffend and end up back behind bars? Wouldn’t it be a better allocation of taxpayer money to make sure that some resources are put towards preventing against re-offense? Piper has been working on this problem for far more time than I have, and even includes resources in the back of the book to get more information. But even though I thought her time in prison wasn’t “so bad”, in reading this memoir, I couldn’t help but agree with her that the system could use some alteration.

The real saving grace of this book was that I really liked Piper. I felt for her. She understood that she had done something wrong, that she had broken the law, and that serving her time was important. She didn’t blame anyone else for putting her behind bars, she didn’t blame the system, she knew that she had done something that would hurt others and, most importantly, was against the law. My favorite line in the book is:
 “Because I would appear as a government witness, the AUSA, the woman who put me in jail (well actually, that was me; she just prosecuted) got to prepare me.” – Page 283 
And it is because I like Piper, because I can’t help but feel for her, that I am so willing to get behind her premise. And it is also the reason I recommend the book to my blog readers. Yeah, some of her personal examples led to eye rolling, and her experiences behind bars weren’t horrifying – but her thesis and reason for writing the book rings true:
 “The lesson that our prison system teaches its residents is how to survive as a prisoner, not as a citizen.” – Page 298
***

5 posts down for Project 84! And I have one more book that is already finished which I will post the review for within the next couple days. I seem to be hitting my groove with the reading and entries, and I’m enjoying the cross-section of literature that I’ve chosen for myself.

Next Review: The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Expected posting date: Monday, January 27th)



**All annotations refer to this version of Orange is the New Black, published by Spiegel & Grau in 2011**

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Atonement



I have been getting behind in my blog posting. I’m keeping up okay with the reading – I have 5 books completed and am close to finishing the 6th – but, as you can all see, I’ve only posted 3 blog posts. So I’ll be trying to focus a bit more on the posting in addition to the reading.

The good thing is, the books just seem to be getting better. I keep giving myself a mental pat on the back for my selection, because I would recommend 4 of the 5 books I’ve read so far, a good return. I even found myself moved to tears by this last 1001 Books to Read Before You Die book.

With that being said, the 4th book of Project 84 is:


Atonement

Atonement
by Ian McEwan

In an attempt at full disclosure, I have to come clean right away: Atonement was not an easy book to get through. You know how sometimes you pick up a novel and it feels like you’re just flying through it? You can’t wait to get home so you can read more of it? And when it’s over, you feel like the time flew by?

Atonement is not that book.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I thought this book was beautiful. The writing was top notch, the imagery was incredible, I cared about the characters. I mentioned it at the top of this post, but the last few lines of the novel actually moved me to tears. I found it touching, and compelling, and, above all, sad. But that does not mean it was an easy book to get through.

I want to start with the plot summary, and I’m going to be a bit liberal with my use of the spoiler cut. Keep in mind that I won’t be ruining the book for you if you read what’s under the cut – and most people know the basic plot from the movie that came out a few years ago – but I want to be cautious in case someone wants to go into it blind.

The book begins during summer vacation at the Tallis family’s estate. The only son, Leon, is coming home, and his younger sister, 13-year-old Briony, has written a play to herald in his return. She has elicited the help of her 3 cousins – 15-year-old Lola and her twin brothers – who are visiting while their parents go through a divorce.

Meanwhile, the novel switches perspective to Briony’s sister, Cecilia, who is engaging in a complicated courtship with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. After reading a letter not intended for her eyes, Briony decides that Robbie is dangerous for her sister, and that she must look out for Cecilia.

Spoiler
After witnessing an intimate encounter and believing that her sister was “attacked”, Briony tells the family that Robbie had sexually molested her cousin, Lola.

The rest of the book takes place in the aftermath of Briony’s confession. It takes us to war with Robbie, to the hospital where Briony is training to be a nurse, and all the way to Briony’s old age. As expected, the theme of the novel is Briony’s “atonement” – knowing the horrible thing she did, and working to make it right.

The plot of this book is interesting and compelling, but I would argue that it’s not the plot itself that makes Atonement intriguing. The real content of the book centers around an entirely different idea than atonement: rather, it is what McEwan has to say about perception.

It starts early, before the incident itself, with Robbie suddenly discovering that he is seeing Cecilia differently:

“Robbie stared at the woman, the girl he had always known, thinking the change was entirely in himself, and was as fundamental, as fundamentally biological, as birth.”

Later, when Robbie is trying to reconcile why Briony did what she did, he hearkens back to a time years ago, when Briony confessed to a crush she had on him. He has decided in his head that this must be why she lied – because she was jealous of her sister, jealous that she had what Briony wanted.

But an older Briony has a very different memory of the “crush” he believes has led to so much of his pain. She says:

“He was startlingly handsome, and there came back to her from years ago, when she was ten or eleven, the memory of a passion she’d had for him, a real crush that had lasted days. Then she confessed it to him one morning in the garden and immediately forgot about it.”

See? It’s all about perception. It’s all about how we reconcile an event in our minds. Is it true? Does it matter if it’s true? All of those are questions posed to the reader, and questions that you can’t help but consider.

Spoiler
Briony lies about seeing Lola's attacker, and identifying him as Robbie, because she has convinced her 13-year-old mind that Robbie is not good for her sister. It is her perception that destroys two – arguably three – lives.

It is through these differing perceptions, these no doubt unreliable narrators, that I become most connected to the book. Are the characters always realistic? No, not really. But that idea that our perceptions color reality – in fact, our perceptions form our reality – and that other people can be affected by those perceptions is very realistic. It’s a way to look at the world that I find not only compelling, but worthy of further consideration.

I feel about these characters. I feel real emotion while reading. When she makes up her story, I’m so angry at Briony. I’m so angry at her. I feel terribly for Robbie. He saves those little boys, and then his life is ruined. I might actually hate Briony, but also feel badly for her. Like her decisions were the best she could do.

I cried at the end, and I was shocked. I knew I felt for this book, I knew it evoked emotion – but there’s something so sad about this story. It’s beyond a sense of “I want this to end differently”. In fact, I think there’s a real beauty in the way the book ends. I want the events to be different. I want it to not have happened. But it did. And that’s so real for me.

Atonement was not easy to read. It slows in the middle, and some of the detail can be hard to get through. That being said, I enjoyed the book. Hell, I cried at the end – so it had a clear emotional effect. If you have a little time to invest to a really great book, I would recommend Atonement.

***

I have already finished Book 5, so I’m hoping to get the review up within the next couple of days. Even though it’s taking me a little longer than expected to post the entries, I’m enjoying Project 84 so far. It’s kept me reading, and I’ve already finished 5 books that I’ve been “meaning to read” forever.

Next Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (Expected posting date: Tuesday, January 21st)


**All annotations refer to this version of Atonement, published by Random House in 2003**

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sharp Objects

I approached my third selection for Project 84 with understanding trepidation. My first “fun” book of 2014 ended in some disappointment, and I was concerned that my second choice would follow in the same vein. Luckily, I was wrong. This second “fun” choice was exactly what I wanted these books to be: an entertaining, easy to read page turner.

With that in mind, Book 3 of Project 84 is:

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn

Earlier last year, I read Gone Girl, the most recent Gillian Flynn novel that graced the NY Times Best Sellers list. I had mixed feelings about the book, or so I thought at the time. But I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then, a few months later, I found myself reading Dark Places, another Gillian Flynn book, which I devoured in a little less than a week. And when I was putting together the list for Project 84, the first book I thought to add was Sharp Objects, the only Flynn book I had yet to read.

Evidently, I’m more of a fan than I thought.

Sharp Objects takes place in the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri. Chicago newspaper reporter, Camille Preaker, is sent by her editor back to Wind Gap (her home town) to investigate the second murder of a young girl to take place in less than a year. Early on in the book the reader learns that Camille has a strained relationship with her mother, with whom she is staying, and that she spent some time in an institution for cutting herself (more specifically, for carving words into her skin). Both seem to stem from the death of her sister at a very young age.

And, like the first two Flynn books, I devoured it.

Like I said, it’s tough to give interpretation of a book like this without ruining parts of it – and that’s the last thing I want to do. I don’t even want to put spoiler cuts, because I think Sharp Objects is the type of novel you want to go into “blind”, in a way. I admit, I don’t read a ton of mysteries, but I know that, if it were me, I wouldn’t want the twists to be ruined.

So I’ll try to stick to the things I can critique without giving away too much of the plot.
 
My favorite part of this book – which could be true of all three Flynn books – is the complex characterization. None of her characters are perfect people. The hero is flawed. She makes mistakes, she says the wrong thing, she’s downright insensitive at times. She’s also not a particularly good journalist, and there’s something really genuine about that for me. What kind of damaged 30-something alcoholic woman would be able to churn out genius articles? She wouldn’t, and Flynn knows that. She would also be immature, and make mistakes, and not be very self-aware. Flynn knows that too. I thought those were all excellent choices, and part of what I connected to in the book.

And, through that connection, the twists along the way become even more jarring, especially when it comes to the characters. The villain we know turns out to only be half the trouble. The suspect becomes the love interest. The victim becomes the aggressor. The character of whom I early on wrote in my notes:

“__ is my favorite character. She’s weird, and I adore weird.” – Lana’s Notes on Sharp Objects

…turns out to be someone I don’t sympathize with at all. But it’s so long before I found that out that I already felt truly connected to her. It’s what makes this book fascinating. It plays with even the reader’s emotions. Is it the best written book I’ve ever read? Not even close. But there was still something intriguing and genuine about it to me, and, if nothing else, it made me turn the page.

I also love the way that Flynn allows the reader to do some of the work. She introduces clues early on and then refers back to them later, but doesn’t connect the dots for you as the reader. You’re supposed to do that. You’re supposed to figure it out. For example, early on Camille makes an offhand comment about how the killer could be an “androgynous man”. Later on, she mentions that one of the characters is “androgynous”. It makes that person a suspect without directly addressing him as such. I like doing part of the work myself, particularly in a mystery novel.

So, in conclusion, I liked Sharp Objects. I think Gillian Flynn is talented, and I’d recommend all her books to a reader who wants entertaining, easy to read mysteries. The book’s exciting, engaging, and doesn’t take long to hook you. Every now and then, it’s good to have a wild ride.

***

I am very aware that I haven’t been doing a good job at sticking with the “expected posting dates” of my blog posts. I hope that’s not driving anyone too crazy, the posts all just seem to be a little longer than I anticipated, which leads to extra work. I’m going to try and give myself an extra day or two for the next few, and see if that keeps me honest with the “expected” dates.

Next Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan (Expected posting date: Wednesday, January 15th)



*All annotations and page numbers refer to this version of Sharp Objects, published by Shaye Areheart Books in 2006*