Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, lit, rapture, reading, the leftovers, tom perrotta
The conceit behind Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is fantastic: the long-awaited Rapture finally comes, decimating lives and families not only because of the sudden disappearance of so many people, but because the people who are left behind are so often the ones who had held some expectation of being raptured themselves. The religious are left to grapple with the meaning of an event that is commonly thought of as “the rapture” but that doesn’t match their own conceptions of what that event should be, while others focus their concerns more on the day-to-day of life without a husband, a child, or in the case of one woman, her entire family.
Perotta doesn’t get too far into the details of the event, the Sudden Departure, which sort of works within the confines of this novel. In other areas, that vagueness becomes frustrating, as some of Perotta’s characters seem more markers of a character type than real people. The Leftovers is a loosely plotted novel with more of a focus on the courses of characters’ lives (or more correctly, in some cases, their emotional lives) than on the political or social events that follow the Sudden Departure. The downside of this is that the social, largely religious, movements Perotta describes, often seem too vaguely realized to warrant serious consideration on the readers’ part. The prophet Holy Wayne, the Guilty Remnant cult, the Barefoot People who in reaction to the rapture devote themselves to the pursuit of pleasure, read more as devices for moving characters’ lives than as actual, explicable, movements.
If there’s one thing Perotta gets right here, it’s the sense of a transitional moment. His characters, by and large, are trying to figure out their lives after they have been so rudely disrupted by the disappearance of loves ones, either to the Sudden Event itself or to the emerging groups like the Guilty Remnant cult, which requires not only that its members stop speaking, but that they cut off ties to their former lives – with the only exceptions coming when they appear to haunt, in a sense, their former families on a holiday.
Perotta’s prose is fairly unadorned and makes for easy reading, and works best with his youngest characters, where he can most easily display that sense of transition. There’s Jill, daughter of the mayor of Mapleton, the town where the novel finds its center, who is dealing with the loss of her mother to the Guilty Remnant and her brother to the prophet Holy Wayne, and whose attempts to find herself are the typical teenager moves of drastic haircuts and ill-advised friendships and romantic pursuits. Her brother, Tom, who drops out of school to follow Holy Wayne, and who then becomes infatuated with one of the prophet’s teenaged wives, spends much of the novel with no clear sense of his direction after the prophet’s fall from grace. The fumbling efforts of Perotta’s teenaged characters to find themselves following the Sudden Departure are believable precisely because they so closely mirror what these characters would be going through anyway. Given the shock of the disappearance of huge numbers of Mapleton’s residents, there’s no real question that the students at the local high school would feel unmoored, a loss of any clear direction in the face of the fact that so many lives were abruptly disappeared.
With the older characters, though, the lack of detail regarding either the event or the underpinnings of the religious movements that spring up in its wake, undermines the plotting. It’s not that it’s hard to believe that an adult’s life wouldn’t be disrupted when she saw her family, or the family of a friend, vanish, but that because the novel is so closely tied to Mapleton there is no real sense of scope. What makes the disappearances these men and women are dealing with different than the deaths of family members in a car accident, the loss of a spouse to an infidelity, a child who moves away and cuts off contact with the family? Perotta’s explanation of the Sudden Departure may be enough for the reader’s understanding, but it is not enough to illuminate so much of what comes later in the novel:
And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn’t some ancient rumor – a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire – or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea. (2)
And that is about as clear an explanation of the event as Perotta will ever offer. This lack of detail places The Leftovers into a particular camp of cross-genre writing which treats the sci-fi-ish event at its heart as a jumping-off point rather than as an event worthy of explanation in its own right. I’m not going to deny having a certain fondness for this breed of writing, but its potential for failure becomes so evident in The Leftovers: that by failing to ever explain the Sudden Departure, or even to fully explore why it has such an overwhelming impact on lives not directly touched by the event, Perotta weakens the event that should be structuring and holding together his novel.
The Leftovers, at end, is a fun book, but it’s hard not to finish it with a sense of mild disappointment. Perotta closes with a sense of hope and movement, the idea that people might find a way to move past the event into restructured lives, but with so little exploration of why this event has had such an outsize impact on the social and religious structure of this town – even accepting that such changes are the obvious outcome of such an event – it’s hard to care too much about these characters and their vaguely explored reactions to the event. The Leftovers reads more like a thought experiment than like a fully-fledged novel, with an appealing plot device withering thanks to Perrotta’s apparent assumption that such a device might stand on its own, with no real development or explanation required over the course of the novel’s 350 pages.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Comics, Nonfiction | Tags: book review, books, comics, comics journalism, joe sacco, journalism, reading
One of the pleasures of coming back to the States after a three-year absence has been finding how busy the comics journalist Joe Sacco has been. In 2009 he published Footnotes in Gaza, and this year Journalism, a collection of short pieces previously published in magazines.
Journalism is a near-perfect addition to Sacco’s work for those who are already fans, and a perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with his work, or with comics journalism, or with comics altogether. For those not ready to make a commitment to one of Sacco’s longer works, like Safe Area Gorazde or Palestine, Journalism acts as a handy introduction to his style and intentions. Sacco includes a short preface and some written background on each of the comics, and although I’m a longtime fan this was my first time reading his thoughts on his work. Sacco raises some pressing questions about the state of journalism and about how comics journalism fits into the idea that journalism should be objective. It is, after all, hard to argue the objectivity of a form which can so readily reveal its maker’s thoughts on the people he deals with. As Sacco writes, “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful” (xiv).
On to the comics: Journalism collects pieces published between 2001 and 2011, ranging from just a couple pages to forty. The comics are divided into sections based on theme or location, but what unites most of these comics is their overarching concern with, as Sacco writes in the introduction, those people who are seldom heard. This includes everyone from American soldiers and Iraqi trainees in Iraq to the members of India’s very lowest caste to the overwhelming numbers of unwanted African migrants who land each year in Sacco’s homeland of Malta as they struggle to make their way to Europe.
Sacco’s comics are uniformly excellent, with his notes (describing everything from why he decided to focus on a particular story to problems encountered while reporting to disagreements with the publications that commissioned the comics) adding another layer to the reading. As ever, the only truly cartoonish character in these strips is Sacco himself, with blank eyes behind his glasses, mouth half open, the stylistic differences between his renderings of himself and those he interviews serving to reinforce the fact that he is an interloper here.
Somehow, the risk of taking advantage of a subject seems more acute when they’re represented visually, but by making his relationship with his subjects so clear, Sacco never does so. The moments when he chooses not to represent something are striking, as when a woman shows Sacco a photo of her dead daughter. Having shown so many other aspects of this woman’s life, Sacco leaves the photograph unknown, drawing nothing more than the outlines of the photograph (p. 68):
Sacco records his own impressions of his subjects’ lives along with his images, and it is this that makes his comics so powerful. Sacco never pretends to be an impartial observer, to be recording these stories in some objective way; and he seeks, again and again, to remind us of this. When Sacco draws his subjects speaking directly into the frame, as if to the reader, he occasionally draws a partial view of his own face, listening, to remind us that these stories have been interpreted. He includes panels in which he sits across from a subject, and others in which his notepad is visible, another reminder of how subjective the work of journalism is. (Below, a panel from page 97.)
One of Sacco’s (many) talents lies in giving the reader a sense of just how overwhelming these stories are. Frames overlap one another, and chaotic scenes are often given the bulk of a page, as the narrative unfolds in frames placed at the margins of this central image. Sacco shows, too, a certain claustrophic nature to the journalist’s work, as in the panel below (p. 137). Interviewing detained refugees, Sacco is surrounded by women trying to share their stories, as he drips with sweat. Images like these remind us of the degree to which Sacco curates these stories for us, sharing, as he writes, those that he wants to tell.
Sacco’s Journalism is that rare book that is just as pleasurable for the long-term fan as it is for the first-time reader. Journalism is a wide-ranging collection that manages to feel cohesive even as Sacco shifts continents and tells stories as different as those of American soldiers and female refugees from Chechnya. A fantastic collection, whether or not you’re a comics fan. (Though you probably will be after finishing.)
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: book review, books, bossypants, reading, tina fey
New back in the country, suffering from a constant if low-level anxiety about job hunting at a terrible time for job hunting, and trying to catch up on three years of American culture (Bieber to Jersey Shore to…oh god, I know that even these references are out-of-date and passe)? You couldn’t ask for a much better book than Tina Fey’s Bossypants.
Yeah, I know. I am the last person in America to read this book, and there’s not even really a point to reviewing it because…everyone beat me to it. But still, I wanted to jump in here and set the stage for forthcoming reviews; thanks to my “review” of Bossypants it should be clear that my brain spends most of the day hovering anxiously about three feet above my head, scanning job boards, and that a solid 50% of what I write in coming weeks will make no sense. (Much like this post.)
So, on to Bossypants! Tina Fey’s style is so conversational and welcoming that even if you are the most distracted person on earth (me) you will find yourself quietly dying (of laughter, or a generalized worry that you are in for a rude awakening re: the American economy) as you read stories about her father, Don Fey, “one boss, bold, bladed motherfucker” (48).
Bossypants covers a lot of ground, and can roughly be divided into sections of family anecdotes, stories about running 30 Rock, and explanations of SNL skits. The first two were my favorites; some of the SNL sections simply felt tacked on for length and way too long, with complete transcripts of skits. I imagine that this book on the iPad could just feature the videos instead of these transcripts (can they do this sort of thing for books on iPads? I am guessing yes, but, let’s face it – as with most new technology, I have no clue), and it would be vastly improved by the substitution. It’s vaguely interesting to read about the birth of some of these sketches, but over thirty pages of such description comes off as an attempt to pad the book.
Bossypants suffers from a lack of focus, but I expect as much when approaching a collection of essays and skits written by a comedian/writer of bits for comedians. The faults in Fey’s book were not enough to keep me from being that weirdo bursting into laughter every few pages, and using my iPhone (yes! I have an iPhone now! I am truly an American again!) to find videos like this one.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Classic Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, charles dickens, classics, classics club, david copperfield, literature, reading, victorian lit
David Copperfield is not the first book by Charles Dickens that I’ve read, so I’m not sure how I maintained my (wildly incorrect) ideas about Dickens’s writing up to this point. Four or five years ago I read and loved A Tale of Two Cities, but because I was reading an electronic copy (this was before e-readers, kids!) in my spare moments (usually while bored and tired) I held onto the notion that Dickens’s writing was valuable mostly as a sleep aid. I read bits and pieces of something-or-other by Dickens in a high school English class, and while I found the writing over the first pages to be surprisingly energetic and funny and modern, those impressions faded away as I began, hopelessly, to count up the number of pages I had left to read.
Enter, now, David Copperfield, purchased because at the bookstore here in Tirana, the Oxford World’s Classics cost about a third as much as other paperbacks. ($9 vs $25.) David Copperfield follows its titular character from birth to…well, not to old age, but to maturity – to marriage, to children, to career success. Copperfield’s world is populated by people drawn in sometimes hilarious strokes, from villanious characters like Murdstone (the second husband to David’s mother), Uriah Heep, and David’s school friend Steerforth; to the vapid Dora; to the well-meaning but constantly indebted Micawber; to those few characters who are true and constant: Peggotty (his mother’s housekeeper), David’s aunt, and Agnes, daughter of the lawyer to David’s aunt, and always available for advice and commiseration.
Even to someone, like me, who knows only the broad outlines of Dickens’s life, it’s obvious that there are autobiographical elements to David Copperfield. (It helped that this was frequently pointed out in my copy’s footnotes.) David runs through a string of careers. In his youth he goes from being a schoolboy to a child laborer to a vagabond, back to a schoolboy. He embarks on several careers as an adult, seemingly unable to rest once he has mastered and become respected in one arena, eventually ending as (hey!) a writer of fiction.
Because I’m not well-versed in Victorian fiction and don’t want to make a fool of myself, I’m going to skip the traditional review this time out and focus, instead, on how wrong my expectations of the book were. This is always fun!
1. Dickens never knows when to stop writing, and I will die of boredom before finishing the book.
Granted, there are many instances when it is obvious that Dickens was being wordy because the book was serialized – the more he wrote, the more he got paid. (I couldn’t help suspecting that Uriah Heep’s habit of declaring himself “umble” about five times per sentence was meant not only as an amusing quirk, but to pad Dickens’s word count.) I was hesitant to read this novel because it is so long, and I suspected that I would finish David Copperfield with a sense of being tricked into reading a story that could have been told in half as many words.
And, honestly? It probably could have been, but I’m glad now for all the verbosity and introspection and introduction of characters with bizarre quirks worthy of a chapter’s examination. Because it’s so wordy and so driven by its characters, rather than by plot, David Copperfield became a book I could sink into. It is (prepare yourselves for this insight!) a good read for the same reason that serialized TV dramas are so much fun to watch: you’re able to return to the same characters day after day, and follow the sometimes meandering course of their lives. (Most people say that The Wire is Dickensian. I, apparently, say that Dickens is The Wire-ian.)
2. Everyone says Dickens is funny, but he probably isn’t.
No, Dickens is pretty funny. The humor comes largely from the characters – after spending eight hundred pages with them, you can predict how characters will act in certain circumstances, and it’s funny to see how true they hold to the central tenants of their being, even in the most ridiculous moments. (See, for instance, the chapters leading up to the Micawber family’s departure for Australia, and how many times other characters have to pay off Micawber’s debt to prevent him from being shipped off to jail just as he seems about to escape it all.) Dickens even manages to make the death of David’s mother briefly, darkly, funny, as Mrs. Creakle strives to break the news gradually.
“When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,” said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, “were they all well?” After another pause, “Was your mama well?”
I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.
“Because,” said she, “I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.”
A mist arose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.
“She is very dangerously ill,” she added.
I knew all now.
“She is dead.” (117-118)
3. Dickens’s work is the airport fiction of the 1800s./900 pages of Dickens will be too hard to read.
These are opposing points, I know, but I mention them both to further illuminate how stupid our ideas about certain authors, genres, periods, whatever, can be. To the first, I now say: yeah, Dickens’s writing is pretty light; David Copperfield is not a novel that leaves me feeling a need to examine and critique its structure, though there were moments when I was surprised to see Dickens playing with things like the question of how David’s memory influenced his writing. There’s one moment, about halfway through the novel, when David’s present knowledge takes physical form in his record of the past:
A dread falls on me here. A cloud is lowering on the distant town, towards which I retrace my solitary steps. I fear to approach it. I cannot bear to think of what did come, upon that memorable night; of what must come again, if I go on. (436)
Moments like this, and the humor and comic timing of other passages, elevate this novel, but it is, at end, a novel that was written for the masses. As someone who believes there is a real art to writing novels that are light and entertaining but still engaging, though, you know that I liked this.
As to the other point: 900 pages of Dickens is hard to read mostly because the book is unwieldly. You can’t really read David Copperfield while you’re laying in bed, and if it weren’t for the fact that I were donating the novel, today, to the library here in Tirana, I am pretty sure I would have ended up pulling the binding apart to make smaller, more manageable sections. But, er, I meant the actual reading of the novel – and, no, this Really Long Novel was not hard to read.
4. Dickens will put me to sleep.
Occasionally, yes. But Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins put me to sleep just last week, so clearly I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to these things.
This was the first book completed off my unreasonably long list of classics I plan to read over five years. Woo hoo! For a real review of the novel, I recommend reading Adam’s take over at Roof Beam Reader.
Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: book reviews, books, dystopian lit, karen thompson walker, lit, literature, reading, the age of miracles, ya lit
Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is another entrant in the seemingly endless string of YA dystopian and apocalyptic novels parading their way across bookshelves recently. It’s been a few months since I’ve read any, because there is such a bleak sameness to so many of these novels. Apart from The Hunger Games, which in the third novel delves into the politics of Panem, there’s rarely any exploration of the dystopian world or system beyond what it does to the lives of one character and her friends and family; the dystopias are always created by humans, with the strong suggestion being that there are, then, people who may fix the system; and they end on notes of hope, so different from the uncertainty of the final words of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the most advertised dystopian novels are really “dystopia-lite.” There’s Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, in which a virus causes people to become infertile once they’re out of their teens, so that teenagers become responsible for the survival of the human race; but most serious questions raised by this premise are brushed away in favor of questions of style and insipid teenage conversation, with the Serious Religious Issues treated more as an accessory than a real issue. Slightly heavier is Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, in which love is treated as disease; but though Oliver here suggests a brutal regime, and shows a willingness to imprison or kill off her characters for the greater good, there is throughout the novel a sense that the dystopia is already crumbling, that there is more hope for her characters than a true dystopia could provide.
Enter, then, The Age of Miracles, which happily avoids so many of the problems with YA dystopian literature by placing its characters in an apocalyptic, rather than dystopian world – a world that, by its very definition, has severe limitations in the Hope department. Walker shows us the infancy of a newly apocalyptic world, tracking what these changes and uncertainties do to people, rather than presenting (as so many of the earlier mentioned YA dystopians do) a world that, seemingly so far past saving, is finding new possibilities and hopes.
The world of this novel is changing rapidly for reasons that no one can explain or understand. As The Age of Miracles opens, days are growing longer for no readily apparent reason. Julia, the narrator, is a girl who can sense no change in her world, who even after learning that the earth’s rotation has slowed can sense nothing wrong in her world, or begin to understand why one day, which feels like the day before it and the day before that, is so different from all others. As she writes,
I was eleven years old in the suburbs. My best friend was standing beside me. I could spot not a single object out of place or amiss.
Walker never offers a real explanation for what is happening to the world, which seems fitting given the age of the narrator and the nature of the catastrophe. That the world is slowing, every day, doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t need to, given that it serves simply as a device to force humanity into a situation from which there is no escape. At first many people attempt to ignore the changes in the length of days (Julia’s mother is the only member of her family who seems to grasp the seriousness of the problem, though her declamations are treated more with rolled eyes than sympathy), and America manages to stay in sync with the new days. School and workdays are pushed back, and Julia begins each morning by the TV, waiting for the school’s starting time to be announced. Julia’s father reassures her that this problem, whatever its source, will be fixed soon enough:
“I want you to think how smart humans are,” he said. “Think of everything humans have ever invented. Rocket ships, computers, artificial hearts. We solve problems, you know? We always solve the big problems. We do.”
Of course, this is one problem that can’t be solved, and that’s where The Age of Miracles finds much of its strength. Walker asks not how her characters can fight back against an unjust society, but how they learn to live with the fact that their world is falling apart around them. Although Julia’s father tells his daughter that humans always solve the big problems, Walker creates a world in which the biggest problem can’t be solved – in which humans have to, instead, answer the smaller ones, like how to grow food as the days become so long that Clock Time is totally disjointed from night and day, and how to deal with the temperature changes that result from 72 hours of light followed by 72 hours of dark.
Julia’s concerns are those of any 11-year-old girl, though, so that while this is an apocalyptic novel it is, just as much, a coming-of-age story. When the family of her best friend Hanna, a Mormon, moves to Utah, Julia is left in a social environment she cannot navigate without her friend. The absence of a true 24-hour day doesn’t free Julia from the cruelties of her peers or from the weight of her first crush or from her uncertainty over what to say about the dying mother of that crush, or from her confusion over what to do when she sees her father in the house of a neighbor who used to be Julia’s piano teacher. For all the ways in which life has stopped, with birds falling from the sky and plants refusing to grow, Walker shows us that life also continues, in much the way it always has. And rather than offering her readers a world of unmitigated horror, in which all characters realize what they’re facing, Walker writes of the thrill that disaster can hold, especially for a pre-teen girl like Julia.
We were girls in sandals and sundresses, boys in board shorts and surf shirts. We were growing up in a retiree’s dream – 330 days of sunshine each year – and so we celebrated whenever it rained. Catastrophe, too, like bad weather, was provoking in all of us an uneasy excitement and verve.
Unlike the authors of so many other YA novels, Walker doesn’t offer false hope to her readers. Whatever Julia’s father says early in the novel, no member of Julia’s family seems to truly expect things to improve. They know things will change, but only expect those changes to be for the worse. What Walker does, really, is to take the nightmares of being eleven years old – the way that other people can make decisions (to move, to have another child, to divorce) that change your entire world, with nothing you can do to return things to the way they used to be – and write them on the scale of the world as a whole. In following Julia’s attempts to grow up in a world that offers no certainties, Walker has written a novel that is often bleak, but just as often finds moments that are much the same in Julia’s dying world as in the world of the reliable, 24-hour day. The Age of Miracles finds its best moments in these intersections of the apocalyptic and the mundane; and taking all these moments together, the novel is a happy proof that there are writers eager to test and play with the conventions of both the popular dystopian or apocalyptic novels and coming-of-age stories.