Sunday, September 1, 2013

August Reading

Here's what I read this month.

1. All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award in 1992, was the second McCarthy novel I read this summer, and the fifth (out of ten) of his novels that I've completed. This might be his most complete, satisfying, and artistically accomplished work, which is saying a lot considering that I'm comparing it to Blood Meridian, The Road, and No Country for Old Men.

All the Pretty Horses is a tightly-mapped, perfectly-told adventure story. It has an upstanding hero in John Grady, a convincing love story, and a refreshingly low body count. It contains neither the stomach-churning brutality of Blood Meridian nor the bleak nihilism of The Road, yet it somehow matches the power of both of those. In short, this was an amazing read.

The compelling love story between Grady and Alejandra, set as it was in an unforgiving landscape where survival is always in question put me in mind of A Farewell to Arms, one of my favorite novels of them all. (My wife, not so much.) The more of McCarthy I read, the more I understand this the body of work he has compiled is hugely impressive and important; we don't get many writers like him.

2. Slam by Nick Hornby

Here are some reasons I decided to read some young adult fiction in July:
  1. After two back-to-back Cormac McCarthy novels, I needed a little levity.
  2. This little post about Things that Book Snobs Say put me in my place a little bit.
  3. With school starting up, I wanted to put myself into the shoes of a teenager again.
The reason I immediately gravitated toward the Nick Hornby novel, Slam, were:
  1. I didn't know he'd written a YA novel.
  2. I had recently had Hornby on my mind, after having a conversation with my friend Sean at Sean's Ramblings about Hornby's merits.
  3. After our conversation, I had re-read "Otherwise Pandemonium" in the Thrilling Tales collection and found it as good as I had remembered it.
  4. I then read chapter one of High Fidelity just to see if it stacked up to how fondly I remembered it, and found that it was even better.  It's just a great piece of work.  
  5. I wanted to start thinking in lists again, like this.
So, I started in on Slam and realized that it was a lot more graphic and frank than I expected from a YA book.  It's sixteen-year-old main character, Sam, has impregnated his girlfriend and must deal with the consequences.  The book is fairly R-rated throughout, and is not that much different in content than High Fidelity or his other novels. (I actually had to check the back of the book to make sure it hadn't been incorrectly sorted into the YA section of my library.)

Sam is a huge fan of Tony Hawk, and he keeps a poster on Hawk on his wall and compulsively re-reads Hawk's autobiography, Hawk--Occupation: Skateboarder. In fact, Hawk--Occupation: Skateboarder, a real book, is the pre-text for Slam, which would have really excited me when I was a senior in undergrad and was actively interested in things like pretexts (especially when they were self-conscious or pop-culture related.)  As it is, though, the whole Tony Hawk fascination sort of takes a back seat as Hornby ramps up the drama of the novel and the story gets going. And, besides, didn't he do something with a character who was fascinated with Kurt Cobain in About a Boy? It seemed half-baked to me.

Similarly half-baked was the supernatural twist that shows up three times in the novel.  It doesn't pop up the first time until the novel is well underway and chugging along with its own momentum.  When Sam suddenly travels forward in time (spoiler!), it comes across as an unnecessary divergence from the story. Actually, it felt like a remnant from a previous draft of the novel, as if he had started off writing a time-travel novel before he realized that the time-travel was subordinate and cut all those scenes out.

Also, he had already done something with a sexually active teenage character who flips forward in time in "Otherwise Pandemonium."  I felt as though I had heard it before.

But what was great about Slam (remember "Slam" by Onyx?) was that it was incredibly readable. Sam's voice is compelling and charming, and the events are realistic and gritty enough for a book intended for young readers.  I wanted to pick this book up again moments after putting it down, and even as I was embarrassed for the characters in in, I rarely felt my eyes rolling in my head.

In other words, it was a much better book than The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was so bad that I'm still pissed off about it, three months later.

3. Firegirl by Tony Abbott

My experience with this book shows that I don't understand young adult fiction. Firegirl won the Golden Kite Award for excellence in children's literature, but I did not have any fun reading it. I thought it was tedious, repetitive, and anticlimactic. The characters were all depressing. The teacher in the book should have been fired for gross incompetence, and I kept wondering why none of the characters had cellphones.

4. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

This is more of what I hoped for in young adult literature. The story of Coraline, a gifted but bored girl who slips through a disused door to find an alternative universe fraught with danger and evil, is wonderfully dark, naughty, twisted, and funny. It's part Alice in Wonderland and part Edward Gorey, and it was a welcome change to the dull young adult fiction I had just finished.

I had never heard of Coraline when I borrowed it from my library, nor did I realize that it was made into a movie. I didn't know the author, whose name I didn't recognize, was the author of The Sandman, which I have heard of but never read. So I really was stepping into this one blind.  A few days into the book, I asked my students if they knew Coraline. Most knew the movie but were surprised that it was a book.

(My wife, who is a fan of The Sandman series, informed me that "Nerds like Neil Gaiman.")

The book lagged in places, and it lost points for me when the tone needle moved past Darkly Whimsical and into Gratuitiously Gross.  Despite its flaws, I was happy to read it, and I'm looking forward to watching the movie.   

5. "Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain" by Jessica Mitford

This essay, which explains how bodies are embalmed and prepared for funerals, in one of the most morbid and disheartening things you'll ever want to read. Not only did I read this in July, but I read it for the second time. I don't know what I was thinking.

The AP language teacher at my school complained that all the readings that make up her curriculum are depressing or morbid. I told her that I had a book at home that she might like to use in class, so I went to my bookshelf, found a collection of essays, and flipped through the table of contents.  "Ah, yes," I thought to myself. "I remember this essay, 'Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,' and I recall that it was terribly depressing and gross.  I think I shall read it again."

So I sat down right there and read it. Later that day, ashen-faced and shaky, I had a frank conversation with my wife about how I do not wish to be embalmed after death.

Want to have a go at it? Be my guest.


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  2. I never thought of Slam as being a YA novel. Is it simply because the main character is a teenager? I remember enjoying the book throughout and was pleased with the ending. In my opinion, a few of Hornby's books start strong but don't always finish that way (A Long Way Down comes to mind).

    I've never read a Neil Gaiman book. Should I try one?

    1. I was also surprised it was classified as YA, but that's what it is. It was published by G. P. Putnam's Songs, which is a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, and it was labeled with a YA sticker by my library.

    2. Oh, and "Coraline" is the only Gaiman book I know, but I would certainly recommend it.

  3. Love the Hornby. He visited U of Memphis once and read his short story "Nipple Jesus". Worth checking out if you haven't already. Rarely disappointed in a Hornby novel. And his contributions to The Believer are always hilariously informative.