Field and Stream
1969 Vol. 74, No. 5
(via Shelf Awareness)
I bought Lucy’s new book Relish at Word last night and you can too.
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THE CUTEST. Also I fully support the inclusion of IN A SUNBURNT COUNTRY (one of my all-time favorite books) on that shelf.
I hope there’s a way I can say this without being annoying: Wrong title! It’s actually IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY, and in the acknowledgements Bryson credits the poem “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar for inspiring it, “in the hope of forestalling ten thousand or so letters from readers pointing out that it should be called In a Sunburnt Country. I know it should, but it isn’t.” I thought I remember a longer explanation about how “sunburned” reflections the casualness and warmth of Australians, but can’t find it.
Anyway, it’s the best, also one of my absolute favorites, go read it immediately.
Books in 2013:
23. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (3/17). If there’s one thing I can appreciate about mono, it’s that it brought back my ability to binge read. Sitting still for hours and hours, reading 300 pages in a day? I thought I had lost that (and totally blamed tumblr for zapping my attention span). But it’s back! It’s easier with YA novels (like this one) and it has yet to extend to my manuscript editing abilities, but I’m still proud. So: I liked this book. I got it from the library on the basis of John Green’s NYT review, which is so over-the-top gushy that no actual book could live up to it. The only part I wholeheartedly agree with is that Park’s parents are “two of the best-drawn adults I can remember in a young adult novel”—let’s get a book about the meeting and courtship of Park’s parents, please. And please none of that “And then his hand touched mine and a million little nerve endings exploded into fireworks and I became unhinged, the entire world collapsing into that one touch like my body was a black hole blah blah blah” give me a break. Do you know any teenagers who talk like that? Teenagers that you don’t want to smack some sense into? Also the ending is a total deus ex machina and Eleanor’s response to Park felt totally out of character. I mean, I liked it. I enjoyed reading it. But this one did not rock my world.
24. Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson (3/18). The whole time I was reading this graphic novel I kept remembering that Awl article on How to Write the Great American Novel:
“Why should I care about your story? You have a bad job and want to be doing something different but feel paralyzed because of something and so you gchat with your friends all day the end. Collins and Martin keep you reading deep into the night because at the end of a chapter Katniss’ head suddenly falls off. And you’re like, her head just fell off??? I have to keep reading. Like holy crap. And so you stay up all night furiously turning pages. What happens at the end of your chapters? Someone doesn’t reply to your email or something. Or, like, 9/11 happens. I’m so fucking riveted.”
Same thing goes for I Just Want My Pants Back. Maybe when these books were written the genre of “Ugh, so hard to be a totally typical white twenty-something dude trying to get laid and not go broke in New York” wasn’t so overstuffed, but now it’s full to the bursting. And all of these books are soooo boring. Not enough heads falling off!
But I did really like all the subplots (especially the one about the comic book writer trying to get the rights to his famous character back) that didn’t involve Sherman, the main character and Beck song protagonist. The “complains about my job 24/7 but won’t quit” thing and the “claims to be a writer but never sits down and writes anything” thing were fine, annoying over 600 pages but fine. The thing that drove me nuts, though, was Sherman’s girlfriend. She is the classical crazy girlfriend: lies constantly, always late, lives in filth, owes everybody money, makes a scene whenever she’s jealous, doesn’t have any female friends, is rude to your friends, drinks until she passes out on top of the coats at your house party, accidentally kills her dog by spilling alcohol all over her apartment floor and letting the dog drink it, buys two new dogs, one for her and one for Sherman, for Christmas. All the psycho warning signs. So you spend 600 pages waiting for Sherman to realize all his friends are right when they tell him, “Listen, I’m not sure your girlfriend is a good person…”, waiting for Dorothy to blow up in such a nuclear way that Sherman sees the light. And then she doesn’t. The book ends and they move into together. What! She thinks a funny prank is calling you hysterically crying, saying she got hit by a car and is in the hospital, when actually she’s sitting on your front porch! That’s not move-in material! I’m doubly annoyed that Dorothy was a one-dimensional cliche and the author didn’t bring the cliche to its logical cliched conclusion. Instead, all the 24-year-old couples move in together and stay together forever. I’m so sure.
Poor Liam is getting his ass kicked! But… uh, even I go swoony with Perry.
Liam was winning when I voted at work earlier and when I voted at home right now! And rightfully so—no teenage boy pulls off calling a girl “darling” like Liam does. I’d liked how the blogger only made the barest attempt to advocate for the other dude:
Liam: Liam is, by far, one of the sweetest male protagonists/love interests I’ve ever read about. With his penchant for oldies and nicknames (he calls Ruby, the protagonist, Ruby Tuesday and himself the Ramblin’ Man after the Allman Brothers’ song) and indefatigable sense of humor, Liam is definitely a catch. More than that he’s willing to take risks to be with the girl he loves, even if it means he could get hurt. And he’s so honest… I’ll take one to go, please. (PLL Trendsetter Emily)
Perry: Attractive AND wields a bow and arrow? Yes please!
Books in 2013:
22. The Love Song of Johnny Valentine, by Teddy Wayne (3/6).
Usually when I read a review that uses the phrase “tour de force” I’m like uh huh, ok, who are you friends with at the publishing house? But for this one, yep, I’m on board. The concept is very simple: Justin Bieber narrates his sad life. There are differences, like Johnny Valentine became famous at age 11 and he’s from St. Louis, not Canada, but otherwise, it’s the sad life of a child pop star a la Justin Bieber. Young voices are tricky, especially in adult novels, but Johnny’s works because he’s incredibly mature in a lot of ways (recognizing the ways fame and publicity operate, judging the musicianship of himself and others) while completely naive of others (girls, momagers, what a real childhood would be like). From sneaking into a club to a fake relationship with a Disney starlet to a photo op at a children’s hospital, all the rites of passage for teen celebrities are depicted. It could feel corny or trite, but Johnny is so sympathetic that your hearts breaks at his struggles to gain some control over his life.
If you’re at all interested in the behind-the-scenes of stardom and the music industry, or you’ve ever wondered why Justin Bieber is such an annoying little twat, read this book.
On a sidenote, it was a bit funny reading this a few weeks after Room, since both have boy narrators in extremely sheltered situations with uncommonly close relationships with their mothers. A lot of shared themes—except that one takes place on a pop tour across the US and one takes place mostly in a sex bunker.
23. Urban fantasy manuscript I’m editing for work (3/7). Not gonna name it for the usual reasons. I will say that I was supposed to finish this editing in early February, and I had nothing but time while I was out sick, but instead I read 11 books for fun. Je ne regrette rien!
The rest of my monocation books:
18. I Just Want My Pants Back, David J. Rosen (2-27). I saw the first episode of the MTV series and wasn’t interested enough to watch the rest, but I’m always willing to check out a book that’s supposed to capture my life as a broke, directionless, twentysomething New Yorker. And there were definitely a lot of moments that made me cringe in recognition, although I found it grossly unrealistic that someone barely making rent would take so many cabs. Plus, spoiler: he never gets his pants back.
19. My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me, Hilary Winston (2-28). So Winston wrote for My Name is Earl and Community, and dated an asswad who wrote a “novel” after they broke up that featured a shrewish fat girlfriend characters and recounted some of their real conversations nearly word for word. I don’t blame her for being “I WILL DESTROY YOU” pissed. But did she need to write an only intermittently funny book about it? No, I don’t think so. I was hoping there’d be more about her successful career as a sitcom writer (a notoriously male-dominated field), but alas. I will say that one part that made me laugh out loud is her story of getting really drunk at a dinner party, making out with a fellow guest on the balcony, excusing herself to go puke up 2 bottles of wine, then coming out to find the whole party waiting with concerned looks. And she said something like, “It was as if I was at a murder mystery party, but I was the one who did it. It was me, in the bathroom, on my knees.” That made me laugh not only because it’s a good joke, but because I’ve done the exact same thing (and now you know how I got mono, if you bothered to read this review!)
20. My Life Next Door, Huntley Fitzpatrick (3-1). It was cute but melooooooooodramatic. First, I’m of the firm opinion that the best teen books, movies, and films are 5% parents and 95% actual teens. I am so not interested in parental drama, and the second half of this book is crammed with it. And I’m not sure if I’d prefer realistic My So-Called Life drama like “How are we supposed to keep the spark in my marriage when my husband refuses to take ballroom dancing classes?” to uber-soap opera drama like in this book. I want to spoil it but I won’t—just imagine a Stepford mother with zero morals and her mustache-twirling evil boyfriend, whose dastardly deed threatens the romance of the teen couple (who are very cute and swoony and fun. Too idealized but somewhere in the neighborhood of believable). My point is that one is deadly boring and one is less boring (for sheer “Are you fucking kidding me?” factor) but more silly, so you can’t take the other storylines seriously. On top of that major plot flaw, the characterization was spotty—not a whole lot of third dimensions. But the thing is, I rather enjoyed reading it (the first half more than the second). It’s fast, it’s light, it’s an interesting premise, the main character/narrator is relatable and likeable, and the boy next door is quite dreamy. It’s not Twilight bad.
21. Getting Over Garrett Delaney, Abby McDonald (3-1). This one I LOVED and wholeheartedly recommend. It’s about a high schooler who’s been in love with her best guy friend for years, but he’s always seen her as just a buddy. When he goes away to camp and says he’s fallen in love with “the one,” Sadie decides she needs to get over him for good. The unrequited love kicks off the plot but the story’s really all about her discovering who she really is on her own—plus making cool new friends at her summer job, reconnecting with a childhood friend, having fun adventures. No “I never felt complete until I met you! All my problems are solved now that you’re my boyfriend!” here. PLUS it strictly observes the 5% parents rule. PLUS PLUS one of the things Sadie realizes on her quest of self-discovery is that loving Bring It On and 10 Things I Hate About You doesn’t make you a dumb person, as the world cannot run on Truffaut movies alone (at the beginning Sadie and Garrett are those kind of insufferable teenagers who think they’re better than everyone because they’ve read The Dharma Burns). Anyway, this book is funny, smart, and sweet—it was the perfect book to end my sick leave with. I can’t wait to read Abby McDonald’s other books, too; she really should be the next Sarah Dessen.
Books in 2013: This one gets its own entry because A) it’s the BEST and B) that’s a damn good-looking cover—
17. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2/26). I need to start with a flurry of adjectives, such as: brilliant, epic, warm, lovely, gorgeous, killer, exhilarating, so good that after the last sentence I was overwhelmed with emotions and had to hug this book to my chest and rock back and forth for a few minutes. To briefly sum up the plot: in the 60’s, a beautiful starlet leaves the set of Cleopatra in Rome for a remote island fishing village, and the young Italian man running the pensione where she stays tries to figure out what brought her there. In present day Hollywood, the now elderly Italian man reappears at the office of a legendary film producer to track down the actress.
But oh, that’s just the surface. The story is told through a collage of perspectives and modes—there’s several first person narrators, mixed up with an excerpt of an unedited memoir, first chapter of a novel, a script, a film pitch. It reminded me of A Visit From the Good Squad in its ambitiousness and wide scope, but that book left me with a clinical reaction of, “Hm, very impressive.” And two years later, the only things I remember about it is that one chapter was a Powerpoint presentation and after Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer she said some shitty things about women who chose to write chick lit (which is neither here nor there, I’ll admit). But Beautiful Ruins is written with real heart and warmth—you fall in love with the characters, the setting, the small moments of connection across languages and decades. Plus: Richard Burton at his hard-drinking worst/best!
No matter which way I look at everything, I can’t get past this strange contradiction that seems to lurk behind everything we do. Because no matter what, or who, we end up choosing, all of us feel like we’ve failed somehow.
Kayla feels guilty for planning for a future with Blake; Dominique feels guilty that she won’t with Carlos. LuAnn dropped everything to make it work with her guy, and I’m filled with shame every time I think about how I did the same thing, building my life around Garrett without even realizing it and then working just as hard to take that version of my life apart, piece by piece.
So are we supposed to win? On the one hand, the world tells us that Capital-L Love is epic, and all-conquering, and the meaning of everything, but on the other, it drills us with this message that we shouldn’t make any sacrifice or effort to pursue it, because that would makes us weak, unempowered, desperate, silly girls.
But it’s not silly to want that connection, and it doesn’t mean we’re weak just because we want to share our lives with someone.
Books in 2013: After finishing Room I decided to tackle Year of the Gadfly, which I got for Christmas and was very excited to read. It has all of my favorite elements: exclusive prep school with a dark side, secret societies, a precocious teenage girl narrator. But after a 5 hour cross-country during which I only read 45 pages, I knew this one wasn’t worth strugging through 400 pages. No particular reason I can put my finger on; maybe it’s just TOO close to the prep school books I love like Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landeau-Banks that it feels like a retread? Or maybe it’s just a “Eh, not for me” situation. Anyway, here are the books I have read since coming to Arizona for my monocation (shout out to the Mesquite location of the Phoenix Public Library!):
13. The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life, by Tara Altabrando. All-night scavenger hunt during senior week, with long-simmering crushes revealed and rivalries decided once and for all? Of course I loved it. The only part I didn’t like was the very real point when everyone on the scav hunt team starts to hate each other and wonder, “Why are we doing this? Are we gonna get through this without killing each other?” I’ve done a number of hunts with friends over the past few years, and that part was just too real.
14. Liar & Spy, Rebecca Stead. Her previous middle grade novel When You Reach Me just blew me away, so I had very high standards. This book was good, very good, but… left me a little cold. A little underwhelmed. Didn’t have that extra oomph. Still very smart, very well written.
15. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, David Sedaris. This book was the worst! Completely pointless and nearly humorless. It’s like Sedaris wanted to write a book about all the lowly, petty behavior human beings engage in but thought it would be too depressing, so he changed the humans to various animals. Didn’t work—still the most misanthropic book I’ve ever read. His editor should have taken him out for a long, boozy lunch, picked up the check, and said, “David, my dear friend, you’re a world class writer, but this… might be better left in the bottom of your desk drawer.”
16. I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron. Well, it made me go look in the mirror and admire my neck. It’s a very slight book, almost weightless, and the parts about aging didn’t make much impact—but the parts about being a young adult in New York were fantastic.