How to do what’s right?

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis. It is the early 1960s and he is a fan of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr – it appeals to his innate sense of right and wrong and if he can just keep doing the right thing, everything will be fine.

It’s not. He, while trying to get to his college-level classes that he is taking whilst still in high school, hitches a ride with someone who’s just stolen a car. He gets sent to a reform school, Nickel in the book, but based on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, a boy who has come back for his second time.

Their friendship is good and realistic and also a metaphor for how to live responsibly: do you always stand up for what is good and right (Elwood) or do you do what you have to to get by (Turner)? What is the better way to live? The book is not always clear.

It also brought home the precariousness of being Black in the South during and before the Civil Rights Movement, and not for the first time. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Emmett Till, you know how precarious life was for Black Southerners. But I mourned for Elwood and his intelligence and his promise, getting sent to a reform school where terrible things happen because he hitched a ride with the wrong person.

I read The Nickel Boys in one sitting, basically, getting up only to eat dinner. The prose is good and the story is tight. Highly, highly recommended.

Absurdism + Depression makes for good storytelling

The Bell Jar is a classic, and classics… well, lots and lots and lots has already been said about them. I find it difficult to write about them.

There are two things that I found striking about this book. First, the visceral-ness of Esther’s (the main character’s) depression. She is depressed and Plath, who committed suicide, communicates that very effectively. Second, and in marked contrast to the downer of the depression is the absurdity of so much of the actual plot of the book: food poisoning an entire room, at least one failed deflowering of the main character, and the ridiculousness of Esther’s quasi-fiancĂ© Buddy

In fact, these two things play off each other very well. Esther’s depression highlights the surrealism of the plot and the surrealism of the actions throws into relief just how far gone Esther is. She should be having very emotional reactions to everything that’s happening. But all the action is presented very flatly. It’s very effective.

I would recommend The Bell Jar very much. It’s short but effective.

Don’t read this book

The Art Forger looked like it should be good. It really did: a struggling artist solving a puzzle, exploring ideas about authenticity and what it means for something to be real, art history, drama around a theft…

But I just didn’t care. I really didn’t. The Art Forger might have been the wrong book for me right now, but I didn’t enjoy it and I stopped reading it after my required 50 pages (I allow myself to stop reading a book after 50 pages in – that’s enough time for me to get over any initial adjustment period).

Memory and nostalgia

Daisy Jones & The Six is a novel written as an oral history about a band (The Six) from the 1970s that ends up collaborating with a singer (Daisy Jones). It’s a lovely story with women who are all strong and navigating a very male-dominated scene – rock n roll in the 1970s. The story and the characters are solid and rich and I enjoyed it.

I especially love the fact that it’s told as an oral history. Personally, the 1970s are a decade that it takes a certain amount of editing to make seem romantic in any way. I mean, the 1973 oil crisis, the 1979 oil crisis, the Iran hostage crisis (apparently everything was a crisis in the 1970s), the Nixon impeachment, the Me Generation… I was very young in the 1970s, but my general impression was always that they were a hot mess. Nostalgia for the 1970s has always felt very ironic to me.

But “nostalgia… is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts & recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Just like the song says.

An oral history might, in fact, have been the only way Daisy Jones and the Six works. You need that separation-through-time factor, as well as the fact that people’s memories are faulty to make a drug-fueled rise of a rock band seem appealing in what is otherwise a disaster of a decade. The distance is the way you remember only the good bits: the songs you love, your youth, your friends, what it was like to be riding a wave of success, falling in love, marriage, learning how to stand up for yourself, the birth of your first child…

And aren’t those the important things anyway? The oral history format allowed me to focus on those things and forget the general miasma that the 1970s always conjures for me.

Recommended.

Generation X Literature: Pattern Recognition

I’ve been feeling my Gen X-hood lately; I’m not sure why, it’s just there. I’ve been listening to the Indigo Girls (their debut album came out 30 years ago) and REM; Welcome to Night Vale isn’t explicitly about Generation X, but it might as well be; if something’s been written about it lately, chances are I’ve read it.

Generation X, the book, was checked out of the library, so I chose Pattern Recognition instead. It’s a book very much of its immediate post 9/11 time. The main intrigue is about mysterious video clips that are posted online pre-you tube on whatever sites they can be hosted on. The internet is a big enough deal that it provides a place for people to come together to obsess about the videos, but not a big enough deal that you tube yet exists. And there’s a general sense of paranoia about the world and not being able to trust your immediate environment that was particular to the post 9/11 days.

But most of-the-moment of all, Cayce, the main character, her job is as a cool hunter. Someone who looks for trends in the real world for companies to make money on. As if that’s not a person who lives on social media or the internet in general these days. As if we could get a whole country to think of the same thing as cool, as if the trends don’t manifest themselves online.

There is an enjoyable underlying weirdness to the characters that I find particularly endearing. The characters aren’t wearing their weirdness as a character trait, not unless it’s a plot point. They just happen to be a bit off from “normal” because of what they enjoy or how they make money or because they just are.

I like Pattern Recognition, but at least part of that is because it is so particular to its time and I want to spend time with the characters in their weirdnesses. Recommended because of these things.

#actuallyOCD

Someone I love was recently diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, aka OCD. This is a specific kind of anxiety disorder, less about being neat and tidy, and more about not-so-fun things like sometimes disturbing thoughts randomly popping into your head and being convinced something bad is going to happen if you don’t do x. Whatever x happens to be, and it’s specific to the person.

John Green has OCD. (This is a lovely podcast where he talks about it.) Turtles All the Way Down is about a teenaged girl with OCD. So I read this book not from an enjoyment standpoint, but from a help-me-learn-what-it-feels-like-to-have-this standpoint.

For me it did a good job, especially showing Aza’s deterioration because of her refusal to regularly take her medication. (Seriously: TAKE YOUR MEDS, KID. Love, a mom) It’s all handled with a deft and loving touch and explains so, so much.

Turtles All the Way Down helped me, the story was enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what living with OCD is actually like.

No one’s a hero

What does it mean to believe in God? What does it mean to believe in another person?

Phoebe has gone missing, and her boyfriend (ex boyfriend? it’s unclear) is looking for her. They are both college students; he has recently lost his faith in God, she recently lost both her mother and her piano dreams. They’re both at a small New England college and they meet.

But then she gets involved with a group that’s a little intense. Phoebe is Korean-American and the group leader spent time in a North Korean gulag. The group (cult?) starts out being about helping the North Koreans but turns into something very different.

And then things happen. The Incendiaries is a slim little novel that felt much bigger. Definitely recommended.

Why are all detective stories based in the 1930s?

Murder at the Flamingo was a promising start to a murder mystery series. There’s enough set-up so that you understand who the protagonists are and where they’re coming from. (Maybe too much? It could have done with being slightly faster paced.) But the mystery is still intriguing. I stayed up too late one night because I just wanted to know who did it already.

DeLuca has chronic anxiety – not something you normally see in a dapper 1930s detective – and Van Buren is a lovely heiress who’s decided she wants something more from life than being a lady who lunches. She is definitely a bit stereotypical, but I still liked her.

I’ll look for the next one when it comes out.

Good vs evil makes a fun read

I totally read Vicious because I liked the Shades of Magic series. I liked Vicious, too – the idea behind the book is that superheroes exist and two college students (one of whom is named Victor Vale – an ideal comic book name) figure out how to turn themselves into superheroes. But something goes wrong and instead of becoming heroes, they become supervillains instead.

And that’s really all you need to know going into it. They’re friends and then they become supervillains and it’s a good story. It’s not intellectual, but it is fun and it invites you to think about the nature of good and evil, but only if you really want to.