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The Nobel Prize and the Great Catch-Up

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Working in a bookstore, I was very excited all this week for the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. There was a lot of speculation–personally, I really wanted Murakami to win, simply because I could say “Oh yes, have you read his magnum opus, 1Q84? I thought it was brilliant! I love how he uses surreal, fantastic storylines to capture the essentials of human existence.” So basically, I wanted bragging rights. And if it wasn’t Murakami, then I was looking forward to familiarizing myself with a brilliant author I hadn’t read before, as I did last year when Alice Munro won.

My dreams were ruined, however, on Thursday morning when I checked online and saw the winner. Patrick Modiano–some French guy I’ve never heard of, nevermind read. Oh well, I figured, we’ll get some of his books in and I can check him out. I’m sure they’re very interesting.

Nope.

Not that they’re not interesting. I don’t know if they’re interesting. I can’t know if they’re interesting, because none of his work is even available in the United States. I don’t even think it’s been translated into English. And, seriously?

I’d like to ask everyone reading this (so, you know, Mom) to think about the point of the Nobel Prize. Is it to tell some French guy, “Hey, you’re a pretty darn good author, even if no one has seen fit to translate your work,” or is it to reward someone whose work has had a positive effect on the world, captured something of what it means to be human in a way that people can relate to? And, above all, isn’t the point to get people to come buy books so we can make money? (Okay, I realize that’s not the point. I was still hopeful, though.)

Anyway, I’m a little disappointed. I don’t think I’m the only one, because even the NPR host on the show we were listening to sounded a bit confused when discussing it–he admitted he’d never read Modiano in a tone of voice that sounded more like, “As a matter of fact, who the heck even is this guy?”

Fortunately, all was remedied the next day when Malala won the Peace Prize. At least she’s written books we can sell.

And now for the catch-up. I keep reading, and I keep not updating here because I’m busy reading and doing a million other things that go into functioning as an adult and it’s hard to convince myself to take an hour to update my little blag here. But I’m in the middle of book #40, and I’ve only written up through book #21, and at this rate, I will never succeed in blogging about 50 books this year. So! Five books at once seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Here goes!

Book 22: Neuromancer by William Gibson

I’m fairly new to reading science fiction. I’ve been reading fantasy for a while and I’ve read a bunch of the fantasy classics, though still not nearly enough, but when it comes to SF I’m pretty much at a loss. So when I was at Porter Square Books in, oh, April or something, and they had a display of SF classics, I got excited and picked up a copy of Neuromancer to help build my nerd cred a bit. It’s a little science fiction classic that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards! There is no way this could possibly go wrong!

Except, you know, if it did.

I hated Neuromancer. In fact, for most of the time I was reading it, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. It’s a teeny tiny paperback, and it took me two weeks to slug through it. If I hadn’t already taken up a line on my meticulous little list of books for this project, I would have stopped after 50 pages. And I really don’t like abandoning books.

Okay, you probably want more than why I hated this book. I think it’s a situation where, in its time, it was amazing. It was exactly what people wanted from science fiction (and, in my opinion, the reason genre writing still has a fairly terrible reputation)–it was driven entirely by the plot and the world it took place in. This isn’t a story, this is a daydream about the types of technology that the future might hold. The characters have absolutely no depth. Half the words are cyberpunk tech lingo that is never explained. I spent a bunch of time going back and looking for the explanation of what certain words meant–did I read that part when I was falling asleep and not register it at all?–but found nothing. It seemed like I was just supposed to accept everything because “wibbly-wobbly techy-wechy,.” The characters are introduced, participate in the plot for a little while, disappear, than reappear later on and get some description–which threw me off, because with no description to begin with, I had tried to form my own mental image that the new description didn’t work with at all and as a result, I just had no idea who the character was. I think in the last 15-20 pages, I finally started to kind of understand what was going on…and then it ended. Halfway through, I’d even looked up a summary, thinking that the beginning would sound familiar and having read the summary would help me follow along. This didn’t work. And you know that this strategy did work for? Ulysses. This book makes less sense than Ulysses.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this book if you hate yourself. Or if you go back in time to the 80s when apparently this was good.

 

Book 23: Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

My friend explained this book to me at work one day and my immediate reaction was: Why was I never required to read this during writing classes in school? She let me borrow it, and I picked it up as my “I’m moving and need to be reading something that I can be sort of distracted for” book. It was perfect for that. Exercises in Style isn’t a novel–it’s the same short story told 99 times in a different style each time. The story, essentially, is this: The Narrator is on a bus. Also on this bus are two men, one of whom has a silly hat on and sounds like kind of a hipster, the other of whom is older and annoyed at the hipsterdom and keeps stepping on his foot. There is an altercation. Later, Narrator sees the man with the funny hat being told by a friend that the top button on his coat is in the wrong place.

It’s not an amazing story that’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life, but what you can learn from reading it in so many different styles might, especially if you’re a writer. The first style, “Notation,”  is very straightforward. It has precise descriptions and no extra words, and as such, it felt like reading a lab report. The style “Metaphorically” was only possible to follow because I already knew the outline of what happened, and a great demonstration of why yes, metaphor is great, but it should be used sparingly. “Retrograde” was told pretty much backwards, and it read very much like a memory, which can remind us when we’re writing memories that the brain jumbles things up quite a bit when we’re looking back. Some of the “styles,” however, were questionable: For example, in “Anagrams,” every word (or sentence, to be honest I’m not sure which it was) was jumbled up. It was impossible to read, and calling it a style seemed like a huge stretch. Overall, it was a fascinating read, and much of it seemed like it would be very useful in writing classes.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this book if you like hats, plaited cords, or buses.

 

Book 24: The Cuckoo’s Calling by “Robert Galbraith”

Wow, that circle is kind of obnoxious, isn’t it?

Everyone knows by now that this is really by JK Rowling, right? So if you’ve been following me, you know how I feel about JK. I’m not of the opinion that she can do no wrong, definitely not. I really wish she hadn’t published that article by Rita Skeeter about the DA members all grown up, because now we’ve got people saying “Neville’s an alcoholic?!” and completely forgetting that nothing Rita Skeeter ever wrote was even remotely reliable, so instead of feeling like, “Yes! More Harry Potter!” I feel like I read a horribly inaccurate tabloid article about some of my best friends.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, was not an unwelcome revisitation to the world of Harry Potter. It was something completely different. And, just as I did when I picked up The Casual Vacancy, as soon as I started reading it, I felt like I was home. Her writing style remains the same, familiar and pretty much perfect–I think I found one word in the whole book that I thought didn’t quite belong, and that’s the sort of thing I pay attention to. I’ve read criticisms that her style doesn’t work for adults–the formality and language makes more sense when talking about kids–but I’ve only ever heard Americans say this, and I think it’s more of a culture thing than a style thing.

I feel I should quickly address the pseudonym thing: This book kind of flopped when it came out. She wanted to write under a different name so people wouldn’t expect Harry Potter and compare the two, which I think makes perfect sense. Her publishers, however, knew who she was and marketed it as if everyone else did, too. This was not marketed as a debut novel; it was marketed as if everyone would automatically buy it because it was JK. And that doesn’t work. Especially when it takes forever to come out in paperback and when the cover really looks like a silly chick flick.

I’m not a big mystery reader, so I can’t say how this compared to other popular mysteries. I’m sure I would think it was better written than most, but from what I’ve been told, it didn’t add anything exciting to the genre. And I’m okay with that. I don’t need everything JK writes to be the next Harry Potter, because as I’ve discussed, there’s no such thing. What mattered to me is that the characters were well-developed, relatable, and interesting; it was extremely well-written; and the plot was interesting. Don’t pick this up expecting another Harry Potter, but if you like her style and mysteries and you pick this up expecting to really love it, you won’t be disappointed.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this if you like green dresses, cameras, and fantasizing that Billie Piper will be cast in a film adaptation.

 

Book 25: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Holy crap, you guys, I loved this book. I think I’m about 10 years too old for it to be socially acceptable for me to love everything John Green writes as much as I do, but dammit, he’s just so good, and this is no exception.

This is a book about two high school boys named Will Grayson who meet accidentally and how things change for them afterwards. It’s about love, but not romance: It’s a friendship book. It’s the sort of book that you can only really write for young adults, because what adult is going to pick up a book about friendship? I mean, maybe some would, and friendship is important in adult books, but as the main point I’m not sure it would work. And the thing is, that’s a problem. Because it matters. It’s not something that we should just ignore once we’re all grown up. And there’s this great little part toward the end but that isn’t really much of a spoiler so I’m putting it here:

“When you date someone, you have the markers along the way, right: You kiss, you have The Talk, you say the Three Little Words, you sit on a swingset and break up. You can plot the points on a graph. And you check up with each other along the way: Can I do this? If I say this, will you say it back?
“But with friendship, there’s nothing like that. Being in a relationship, that’s something you choose. Being friends, that’s just something you are.”

This felt really important. Of course, it’s a bit different as an adult. There are a couple of checkpoints, depending on the type of life you have, but even those are only good for a select few friends. There’s the “be in my wedding party” checkpoint, or the “be my kid’s godparent” checkpoint, I guess. But even just “Hey, let’s make plans” is kind of a checkpoint as an adult: Unless it’s a work friendship, you don’t see each other automatically, so each time you make plans to see each other, you’re saying: “Yes, I care enough about you to make some time in my hectic adult life to spend with you, because you matter.” It doesn’t feel like that when you’re younger, and we forget that. Relationships do the opposite, though: I feel like once you reach a certain point, you lose checkpoints. You get married and have kids, and there aren’t any more “I’m at this point, are you here with me?” because you’ve hit all those points. So maybe you’ve got to find a way to check in with each other.

Anyway, this book isn’t all serious. I think it’s the funniest book I’ve read all year. At least once, I laughed so hard while reading in bed that I woke Mike up, though he fell right back asleep and didn’t remember later on. So it’s important, and it’s hilarious, and basically, you should read this book.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this book if you like Law & Order, glass bowls, Oscar Wilde’s ghost, and porn stores.

 

Book 26: Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I guess I went on a little bit of a YA kick in August. I’d heard a lot about this book since it came out, but mostly what I’d heard was that it was full of pictures. In fact, most of the descriptions I’d heard made it seem like it was just a book of pictures and not an actual story, so if you’ve heard things that make you think that, I’m here to help.

This is a really great YA fantasy book. If I’d read it in high school, it probably would have been one of my favorite books–as it is, I really, really liked it, and I can’t wait for the sequel to come out in paperback. It’s about a boy who goes to investigate something from his grandfather’s past and finds a school full of impossible kids. It uses old photographs as illustrations, and they’re seamlessly integrated into the text. I guess for a while it was really trendy to take surreal pictures of your kids, possibly much as planking and pottering and all these other silly picture fads are now. (Or 5 years ago. I can’t keep up with these things.) They build the world, though, and even know realistically you know they’re fake, they feel like proof: Look, these kids are real. This really happened. And it almost makes sense: If they were real, wouldn’t they have to hide? Wouldn’t it be necessary to pretend it was all a trick?

Unfortunately, I forgot to take notes as I was reading, because I am an addict and couldn’t put it down. I was left with hopes for the sequel and a burning desire to know what my talent would be if I were peculiar. If you’re looking for a fun fantasy adventure story, I highly recommend this one.

Book Recommendation that Completely Misses the Point: Read this if you like Ireland, psychiatrists, or caves.

 

So, that’s my update! I hope it wasn’t too much at once. It was helpful for me. Maybe I’ll do it again sometime! And I have a couple of series coming up that I can include all in one post, so maybe I’ll blog about 50 books after all!

Coming Soon…

27. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
28. Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny
29. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
30. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
31. The Alchemyst: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
32. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
33. The Magician: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
34. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
35. The Sorceress: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
36. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
37. The Necromancer: Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
38. Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
39. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
40. A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

Hey, did you know you can follow me on Instagram? My username is–wait for it–ohrachael. I try to post Friday Reads every week, so it’s a good way to know what I’m actually reading even when I forget to update here for a long time, and it’s also a great way to keep up with what my cats are doing!

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About Rachael

Hi. I'm Rachael. I realized one day that, even though I read a lot of books, I often have a hard time remembering them later on. I guess that happens when there's so much to try to remember! So I started The 50 Book Project, with the intention to read and blog about 50 new (to me) books in 2014. I read a lot of fantasy, but I'm trying to branch out and experience new stuff. Any questions? Suggestions? Let me know! Comment, or email me at dearohrachael@gmail.com.

3 responses »

  1. I love your blog so much. I have a little notebook full of books I mean to read, and a quarter of them are there because of you!

    Reply
  2. I love your book reviews! There are some Modiano books in English here: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Modiano/e/B00JEAXBKS. Not that I’ve read any of them. 🙂

    Reply
  3. See, I’m not the only one that reads your blog!

    Reply

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