Monthly Archives: January 2012

Family Visits = Less Reading

I am very excited to have family in town visiting, but it does cramp my style a bit when it comes to my reading schedule. I love spending time with them though, and they traveled quite some ways to see me, so I really can’t complain.

Point of the matter is that I have not forgotten or abandoned my blog — a review for my current novel (The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern) will be up in the relatively near future. I’m still slogging through The Book Thief as well; we shall have to simply see when I finish that. I keep setting it aside for other books. Perhaps an indicator of my feelings toward it? I’ll review it eventually, I’m sure.

Until next time, happy reading!

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Review: Damned

Chuck Palahniuk has done it again. Though I had a few initial reservations, Damned has climbed into the ranks of my favorite novels. While not nearly as disturbing as some of his other novels, Palahniuk maintains the level of dark, subversive humor and social commentary that launched Fight Club (both book and film version) into acclaim as a cult classic. Of course, I shouldn’t say “not nearly as disturbing” as if it’s a bad thing — in my opinion, it’s not. I respect Palahniuk’s work greatly, but there have been a couple of his novels that gave me nightmares. Haunted, as a matter of fact. Speaking of Haunted, I recently learned that Palahniuk himself confirmed that the short story “Guts” is responsible for 73 people fainting during readings and other events. I myself didn’t faint, but I did feel nauseous for close to an hour.

Pardon my digression — now back to Damned. The story follows thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer, who wakes up in Hell after dying (she thinks) of a marijuana overdose. The story is told more or less linearly, though Madison intersperses her narrative in Hell with relevant flashbacks and memories from her time alive. Each chapter begins in an excellent mockery of Judy Blume: “Are you there Satan? It’s me, Madison.” Madison will then launch into an anecdote concerning the events in Hell, especially her adventures with her new-found friends. There is Babette, the prom queen; Patterson, the jock; Leonard, the nerd; and Archer, the rebel. Sounding familiar? As even Madison reminds us, it’s The Breakfast Club in Hell. Madison is not quite a psycho, but she’s certainly a loner. Of course, being young and not particularly fashionable has given her the distinct advantage of having sensible footwear to protect her feet from the appalling landscape of the underworld. Highlights include the Plains of Broken Glass, Mountains of Nail Clippings, and the Sea of Wasted Sperm, just to name a few.

The action begins fairly quickly, with Madison first watching a Patterson get eaten by a demon she mistakenly identifies as Satan. She’s mortified by her mistake, and begs Satan’s forgiveness, even as she acknowledges the irony of her situation. Archer springs Madison, Babette, Leonard, and Patterson from their cages, and the five of them set out to explore Hell. Along the way, they meet more demons, as well as many historical figures and celebrities. As it turns out, Hell is pretty A-List. Lots of things can send you straight down after death, Madison learns, and not just the expected major sins. Honking your horn too often, dropping the f-bomb too much, peeing in public pools, and farting in elevators are all missteps that can leave you irreversibly damned. Also, using racial and/or homophobic slurs are pretty much a lock on your soul’s destination.

Madison is not exactly sure what particular sin relegated her to eternal damnation, but she settles in to Hell rather quickly. Leonard begins teaching her about the various demons in Hell’s power structure, and his lecture includes one of the best points Palahniuk makes in the novel: “all the demons of Hell formerly reigned as gods in previous cultures. […] One man’s god is another man’s devil. As each subsequent civilization became a dominant power, among its first acts was to depose and demonize whoever the previous culture had worshiped. […] As each deity was deposed, it was relegated to Hell. For gods so long accustomed to receiving tribute and loving attention, of course this status shift put them in a foul mood.” Palahniuk — as he so successfully skewered consumerism and gender identity in Fight Club — has once again stripped bare another societal issue: religion. Whether we like to admit it or not, Palahniuk is right. Through Leonard, he gives a litany of historical examples of religions that previously flourished but have been denounced over the years as new churches gained power. Of course, he points out, “if civilization lasts long enough into the future, one day even Jesus will be skulking around Hades, banished and ticked off.”

Apart from the theology, Madison learns that Hell has two major industries: internet porn, and telemarketing. Madison doesn’t relish the idea of helping add to the ever-rising Sea of Wasted Sperm, so she opts for telemarketing. As it turns out, Hell makes every effort to ensure that their telemarketers call you at the worst possible time. And no, they do not respect the “Do Not Call” list in the slightest. In fact, they make more certain to call if you’re on the list. Madison proves to be quite the recruiter for Hell, urging people not to fear death and to just accept that their time left is probably too short to reverse their fate. The points she makes leave you wanting to argue for your salvation, but inwardly cringing because you know she’s probably right.

Madison’s new friends help her adjust to the afterlife, even going so far as to bribe the demonic bureaucracy into giving her a “salvation test”, a sort of polygraph in which your answers can determine not only what you were consigned to Hell for, but also if you’ll have to stay there forever, or potentially have the hope of attaining Heaven or reincarnation. Madison panics during her test, because she can’t tell what the right answers are. They’re questions about homosexuality, women’s rights, race, the church, and of course, other religions. Madison wonders, “Is God a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic ass? Or is God testing to see if I am?” Again, Palahniuk forces the reader to consider their own beliefs, and wonder if they really conform to what God (if you believe in God) would want us to be doing and saying.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers as to what happens (though the novel ends with a “To be continued…” so I can’t give away the ending completely), but let me just say that I fully support the idea of Hell being a place where there is still a chance to reinvent yourself. Madison spent her life being a nice, plain, unassuming girl, allowing herself to be bullied and mocked just so she wouldn’t be alone. In Hell, at Archer’s urging, she lets her teen angst run wild and goes on a mean spree, which delightfully includes Madison punching Hitler in the face and then ripping off his iconic mustache. She also castrates Caligula and bites a demon. It’s hilarious, and kind of satisfying, because many of the people she goes off on are the historical tyrants and murderers who really deserve it. Sidenote — the true story of how Archer ended up in Hell broke my heart, especially because Palahniuk tosses it in so casually between Madison’s rampaging episodes.  The reveal of who Patterson, Leonard, and Babette really are, as well as when, where, and how they died, is also really interesting. Madison eventually also realizes the truth about the events surrounding her death, and man — they make you want to run to your family and demand that they all tell you they love you RIGHT NOW.

As I mentioned, Palahniuk left the novel open-ended. I’m really hoping this means a follow-up novel in the near future. Madison’s one annoying habit (insisting to the reader that she knew big words and wasn’t stupid) petered out over the course of the novel, and her snarky, self-deprecating humor was easy to identify with, even if I’m no longer an awkward thirteen-year-old. Palahniuk said he wrote this novel to cope with his mother’s death, which puts the work into an interesting light. The notion that his own fears and hopes were addressed in Damned makes it even clearer that we all have to come to terms with our own mortality and some point. Regardless of individual beliefs, Damned is a solid novel; a novel that uses humor and relatable characters and events to take us to places that no one really wants to go. Don’t worry though — believe me when I say you won’t mind either the ride or the destination, given the deftness with which Palahniuk crafts it.

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My Reading Roster (at the moment)

I have been rereading some old favorites recently, but I have started a couple new books as well in the past few days. I began Damned by Chuck Palahniuk, as well as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I’m a big fan of Palahniuk, so I’m definitely reading that one for my own pleasure. Zusak’s book, on the other hand, I’m reading mainly to see if it would be appropriate to include in my World War Two unit for my 8th-grade students. (We had sort of a free-for-all in allowing them to pick companion books to the Holocaust/WWII unit this year, and it ended up being rather more trouble than it was worth. Not that that affects how I might view The Book Thief. It won’t. I’m just looking for alternative plans.)

Anyhow, I’m liking Damned pretty well so far. It’s living up to the description — given by Palahniuk himself — as being “kind of like The Breakfast Club set in Hell.” There’s the jock, the princess, the nerd, the rebel, and the loner. All are in their teens, and none are willing to tell the truth about why they ended up in Hell. My sole complaint is the narrator’s tendency to repeat variations on the phrase: “Yes, I know the word [insert impressive word here]. I may be thirteen and chubby, but I’m not stupid.” As the story continues, I hope that repetition will fade.

I’ve only just begun The Book Thief, so I’m reserving judgement until I’m a little further along.

Reviews will be up with I finish!

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Review: The Jane Austen Book Club

I picked up a copy of The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler, mainly due to my affection for Jane Austen’s own works. I read most of Austen’s oeuvre while in college, and though I admit that her works can seem a bit one-note if read closely together, I truly enjoyed all of them. Like most Austen fans, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, hands down. I watch the movie versions on a fairly regular basis, to cheer myself up, indulge my inner mushy romantic, and just enjoy the language and culture of the era.

Since I had picked up Fowler’s novel on such a whim, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’ve read other Austen-based books, and they’re all over the spectrum — some excellent (Pamela Aiden’s These Three Remain, the concluding novel of the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy), and some not so great (Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy). This book, however, didn’t really fit the mold of the other books I had read, and this was to its benefit. In The Jane Austen Book Club, Jane Austen and her novels are a vehicle, more than anything else. The novel is about five women and one man who come together once a month to discuss Jane Austen’s novels. They meet once a month, and the novel is broken into sections according to the month, current novel, and host or hostess of the meeting at the time. Through this structure, Fowler manages to both continue the storyline of the whole group, while still focusing in turns on the individuals and their life stories.

The characters — Jocelyn, Bernadette, Prudie, Sylvia, Allegra, and Grigg — are of differing ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles. They’re brought together by their common affinity for Austen, though each has their own distinct views on her work. Fowler presents the stories in an interesting way; the narration is first-person plural, using “we” and “us”, but never “I” outside of the characters’ dialogue. It’s never clear who the narrator is, or even if they’re one of the characters at all. Fowler occasionally takes us inside the mind of the characters, but typically only during the section in which they are hosting the book club meeting. She does an excellent job of sharing stories from the various perspectives, highlighting what each character knows versus where they’re guessing to try and fill in the blanks. It’s actually very Austen-like, as it occasionally results in the same sort of comedy of manners and social interactions that Austen herself was so skilled at portraying.

Fowler is fully aware of the Austenian archetypes, and refers to them without hesitation. It gets somewhat meta-literary at times, but avid readers probably won’t mind this, as it gives them something to bond with the characters over. This is a good thing, as at the beginning of the novel I was not a fan in the least of several of the women, and had no opinion at all of the lone man in the group. This changed over the course of the book, thank goodness. Fowler presents the characters flaws-forward, delving through both their memories as well as their current lives in a series of interwoven vignettes. Though initially off-putting, I found myself warming to the characters as I saw them more and more through each others’ eyes. Whether intentional or not, Fowler seems to be reminding the reader that, while we may have biases and prejudices that color our interactions with those around us, we tend to be most harsh in judgement of ourselves.

Much of the novel, like Austen’s works, is a character study. The unspoken rules of book club meetings, friendship, and relationships, are a major theme, as the characters consider their own lives through the lens of whichever of Austen’s novels they happen to be reading that month. My favorite scene comes late in the book; all of the women and men, both major and minor characters alike, converge at a fund-raiser for the Sacramento Public Library. This is where manners begin to fray and people begin to let their true colors fly, similarly to many of the ball scenes in Austen’s novels. Prudie and Bernadette provide much of the humor, and Bernadette becomes my official favorite character of the novel. Much of their fun is had at the expense of a somewhat self-important author, who the ladies seem to relish repeatedly putting in his place. Fowler slips in an indication that the writer may have in fact gotten the last laugh, however.

This was a quick read, only about 250 pages. I enjoyed it, but it definitely wouldn’t be for everyone. Fans of Austen will likely enjoy this book, as it not only mirrors her novels but also discusses her life and work at length. I can’t imagine, though, that someone who was not a fan of her would appreciate Fowler’s novel. It’s not quite chick lit (a term and genre I typically loathe), but it comes rather close at times. The true measure of my liking of this book will be next time I purge my bookshelf to make room for new material. Will this book maintain its place, or will I trade it in at Bookman’s for something new? As of right now, I really can’t say. Until then, however, it’s got a positive position on my bookshelf.

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