I have 18 books on my reading challenge for 2016. Incredibly, I’m a third of the way done and we’re only barely halfway through January — and that’s with work and school. I believe it’s because I picked some pretty good ones.
Rather than one ridiculously long post, I’m going to break this up.
3. A book with more than 500 pages.
It was time to get around to this one:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve seen this book described as a murder mystery, which is inaccurate. You know what’s coming, you just don’t know when or how. The mystery is in the aftermath, which is half the book and even more fraught with tension than the first half. The whole thing is a high-falutin’ study of human nature and our yearning for beauty – “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” – which hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks started contemplating it.
I really got into the characters, which is interesting given I didn’t like any of them. Well, maybe I liked the narrator a little bit, but only because he wasn’t really rich, just trying to look like he was, which is even more fake, so never mind, I don’t really like him after all. I’m having a hard time buying the concept of college kids who aren’t legally old enough to drink but still guzzle top-drawer Scotch from leaded crystal highball glasses and use chafing dishes and dress in custom-tailored suits and silk ties. But then, I’m not disgustingly wealthy and did not attend a hoity-toity private liberal arts college in New England, so maybe this is just me having no idea how the better half lives.
I saw a couple of reviews complaining that it’s a ripoff of Brideshead Revisited, but that didn’t bother me since I’ve never read Brideshead Revisited. I probably will now. I enjoyed Tartt’s writing style and I’ll probably read her other books just for that. While the story moves slowly, it does grab you, being richly told, with a lot of literary themes and classics references and a level of introspection that surprised me from such snooty, snotty kids. Perhaps self-absorbed can also be self-aware. There were some subplots that left me dissatisfied as they weren’t explored too deeply or resolved – Charles and Camilla? Henry and Camilla? Francis and Richard? Hello? What was up with all that? What happened? Why bring it up if you’re not going to finish it? And then there’s Julian, who may be the biggest mystery in the book. Or is that just another reflection of life itself, that we don’t always get to know the how or why or the way it ends up? In real life, a lot of things just fizzle out without going anywhere, but I’m used to having things tied up neatly with pretty bows when I read about them in books. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing the point. It may just be a paradox, that the Greek Clique’s very cohesion was what blew them apart.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” It did leave me thinking after I’d finished it, which for me is the sign of a good book.
4. A book with bad reviews.
Because sometimes books piss people off by jabbing at the comfort zone, and that can be a good thing:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading Lolita was a foray into both the land of classic literature and the land of banned books. It is as difficult to review as it was to read. Nabokov was a genius with language in ways I can’t begin to understand, no doubt partly because he was trilingual (Russian, French, English) from childhood, no doubt partly due to his synesthesia. The literary references, word games, allegories and motifs are innumerable and I’m sure most of them went over my head. No, I probably don’t really get it, and I never will, because while the writing is gorgeous, the novel itself is too disturbing for me to read again.
The rich prose pulled me in, to fascinated horror as events unfolded. Our unreliable narrator seems perhaps not-so-unreliable: he paints a grim picture of himself throughout, acknowledging his own depravity, his compulsion and lurking and plotting, his madness, his crimes against the young Dolores Haze. At all times he fully admits he is a paedophile, vile and a danger to nymphets everywhere while at the same time professing his undying love. Part of Nabokov’s artistry lies in the reader’s understanding of Humbert’s love and Humbert’s suffering. The pinnacle of ecstasy is synonymous with the abyss of despair. The brilliance of this book is that I can come away feeling sympathy for a monster and not a little impatience with Lolita herself, which of course is completely bassackward, and all of it leaves me with that uncomfortable squirmy feeling in my stomach.
One lesson here is that maybe it doesn’t matter what you write about so much as how you write about it. This is one of the things art is for: to pull us out of our comfort zones, to view the world through another lens. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this book, but I do appreciate the experience of reading it.
6. A book that was published the year you were born.
Hombre by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Late to the party, as usual, but I love discovering a new favorite writer. Elmore Leonard has crossed my radar several times over the years but I’d never read anything by him until now. I will now be reading every other book he wrote. I don’t think I’ve seen dialogue done better.
I am intentionally not gushing, because I wish I could write like Elmore Leonard.
9. A book based on/turned into a television show.
Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This was part of my reading challenge as a book made into a TV show. I picked it because everything else I could find was either more goddamned vampire/zombie/werewolf crap, which we should be over by now, or else I’d already read it.
This one also happens to be YA. I’ve read some YA books that were excellent enough to break out of the genre and really impress me.
This is not one of those books.
Not only is this written for teenagers, it reads like it was written by a teenager. “He gestured at the police cars and random news vans…” They’re not random; they’re there because of the crime. It’s an irritating word misusage and teenagers are generally the culprits.
Still, a book written for teenagers, by a teenager, dealing with teenager issues, is not necessarily a bad thing. S.E. Hinton knocked that stuff out of the park; John Green more recently. But that’s not what we have here. The plot consists of various flashes of adolescent drama cobbled together as a vehicle for four spoiled rich brats to parade their endless Kate Spade pajama pants and Chanel lip gloss and Gucci sunglasses and blue fur-lined clogs bought in Iceland and APC skirts and John Fluevog cowboy boots. This label-dropping conspicuous consumption is diarrhea on virtually every page. In between hurriedly pushing their hair into fashionably messy ponytails and looking for their BlackBerrys, they do some actual teenage stuff, like make out with their sisters’ boyfriends and crash other people’s Porsches when they’re drunk and stay skinny by vomiting up their food and find out they like kissing other girls and shoplift at Tiffany and bang their English teachers in disgusting bar bathrooms. But mostly they flash their Paper Denim jeans and whine because they can’t take their yappy overbred dogs to school in their Prada handbags.
The constant mention of The Jenna Thing did not rope me into reading the next book to find out what it was. I know how to Google stuff. More spoiled rich white girls behaving badly.
I only finished the book in the hopes it would beat one night’s bout of insomnia, which still plagues me despite the soothing ways of Angela Carter and The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. It didn’t help. I suffered through the next day with a hangover fashioned of no sleep and the memory of this awful book.
17. A popular author’s first book.
I’m qualifying this one, since Gaiman’s first published works were mini-series, graphic novels, comics, and television scripts. Also, his first published novel was a collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Stardust is his first published plain-old-novel novel, written solo.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I loved this book, a wonderful fairy tale, or should I say a Faerie tale? Deceptively simple, beautifully told in the prose only Gaiman can write, it has all the elements of the classic once-upon-a-time-in-a-land-far-far-away fable, with all of the different elements coming neatly together in a beautiful magic circle at the end.
18. A nonfiction book.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have no idea why I’m so fascinated with Mt. Everest. I am not the slightest bit athletic, hate being cold, and am terrified of heights. When I read about the drugged, underwater feeling of hypoxia and knowing there was “7,000 feet of sky on either side” and that “I would pay for a single bungled step with my life,” I literally had a panic attack. I love nature and the outdoors, but at my age and with the sorry state of my knees, my idea of outdoor recreation is enjoying a few beers around the campfire, on terra firma, well away from Himalayan precipices and crevasses. Oh, and I like canoes, too.
I know Krakauer was criticized for his criticism of unskilled climbers and a wealthy socialite who added to the work of the Sherpas by bringing along a CD-rom player and a printer and an espresso maker, for chrissakes. I have to take his side of it. He did not stint on noting the contributions and failings of anyone, including himself, but to me it is obvious that less skilled and frivolous climbers increase the danger to everyone else. (Krakauer particularly pillories Ian Woodall, who deserves it as far as I can tell. I tried to find something from Woodall’s point of view and found a book, Everest: Free to Decide by Woodall and his girlfriend Cathy O’Dowd. It has a lukewarm rating and four, count ‘em, four, reviews on Amazon, none at all on Goodreads, and the closest library that has it is 800 miles away, so I’ll take Krakauer’s word for it, which is backed up by others. Anyhow, I can’t imagine how Woodall would defend lying about his experience and qualifications, among other things, and refusing to let others use his radio for a rescue effort when people were dying.) That aside, I have to agree that the commercialism of Everest is a bad thing, if for no other factor than the amount of garbage human beings leave behind themselves.
The upshot is I don’t think Krakauer did much blaming beyond citing Woodall’s refusal of his radio, which is pretty serious dickdom, and questioning guides who decided not to use supplemental oxygen, thus lessening their ability to make rational decisions and to assist their clients when needed the most. He related several different incidents and cited the contributing factors, generally altitude sickness and miscommunication, but not leaving out ego, inexperience, and mountain fever. These incidents in and of themselves might not have been disastrous, but taken with the intrinsic perils of such a climb served to create the perfect storm, almost as deadly as the storm that trapped so many climbers near the summit, hypoxiated, frostbitten, hypothermic, debilitated by altitude sickness, exhausted, weak, and lost.
Krakauer explained technical matters so I understood them, without being condescending. His insights into the personalities and desires of the men and women who seek to conquer Sagarmatha, “the goddess of the sky,” are sharp and perceptive. He spins a good yarn, full of terror and heroism.
The illustrations by Randy Rackliff are stark and striking but I would have enjoyed some photographs as well. I kept stopping to Google photos of the Khumbu Icefall and Hillary’s Step and the Balcony. The endpaper map helped a little but I would have liked a more detailed map of the route.
Except for putting it down to Google photos and maps, unputdownable.