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The Other Goon Squad

{Three Chapters into White Teeth}

Tim: You know which book this has reminded me of so far? Here’s a hint – it’s my favorite we’ve read yet.

Debby: By the title to this blog… I’m guessing Goon Squad.

Tim: What? No, The Deptford Trilogy.

Debby: ……..

Tim: Ok, fine, just kidding. Yes, it reminds me of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Not in that its chapters are in any way self-contained like so many of the Goon Squad chapters, but this one has the same sort of shifting narrator. In fact, what’s notable when comparing the two is that the chapters feel so very not self contained. We go from one character to the next, and I haven’t felt like I could walk away from any of them yet. I won’t be surprised if even Mo comes back before it’s all said and done.

Debby: I will agree with you there. The shifting narrator dynamic is certainly unique– I’ve read too many “Young Adult” novels lately with extremely singular points of view. It’s refreshing to keep moving on, entering the minds of those around the situation. I am slightly frustrated by the fact that we have not retraced any of the storylines (some continuity might be nice?).

Tim: Not quite sure what you mean. Is it that we don’t return to the same perspective again?

Debby: Sorry. I didn’t really say that correctly. You’re right– the perspective is what’s bothering me. The storyline is, for the most part, very linear. I can just feel it going down the rabbit hole. Like as soon as Alsana finishes her raging, we will suddenly leap onto the back of the next person she encounters, like a flea on a dog.

Tim: The mechanic is intriguing to me, but I’m with you insofar as I’m not sure how long the book can keep it up. If all the story becomes is one backstory after another, that’s going to be a problem. I think it’s been very interesting how the blend of backstory and a present scene (usually in the background) has moved the plot forward bit by bit, even leap by leap in some respects (to borrow both your metaphor and describe the speed at which events are occurring in the “present”), but that seems untenable over the course of an entire novel. Eventually we’ll have to dig into Archie and Clara’s relationship with more persistence, I would think.

Debby: The problem is, I don’t know if Archie and Clara are all that interesting? Archie has already been confirmed a “boring” person, and Clara is simply desperate for a new life. I don’t know what kind of future they will find in this new house that will be able to hold my interest for the entirety of the novel. I almost hope we are introduced to more community members before the perspective switches back for good.

Tim: Hmm, good point. I had held out some hope for Archie after the narrator’s declarations that he was a changed man, but it seems that the changes haven’t been that permanent. Here’s the one thing I’ll say in Archie’s defense – well let me start with, have you ever read The Shipping News?

Debby: Nope, never heard of it.

Tim: It’s a novel by Annie Proulx that I almost stopped reading early on because it abuses it’s main character so badly in the early runnings. The man’s name is Quoyle, and he’s like Archie times seven. He’s uncontrollably overweight, mercilessly unskilled, and really pretty useless, except when he’s being used by other people. But Quoyle ends up being a compelling lens for seeing the story. So like I had no hope for Quoyle, I can see no hope for Archie, yet I believe he could still prove interesting despite himself. Perhaps not unlike our dear Oscar Wao, either?

Debby: Oh, Oscar. I’m not sure I need another Oscar in my life, Tim.

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Book Defacers

{Three Chapters into White Teeth}

Tim: This has, admittedly, pretty well nothing to do with the book as a piece of fiction and everything to do with my particular copy of the object. But that shall not halt me from airing a pet peeve: I hate writing in books. I got a used copy of White Teeth, and while I’ve been pretty lucky with used books from Amazon so far, this one has writing all through the margins of what looks to be the first quarter of the book. Safe to say I’ve ignored the scribbles so far.

Debby: Well, looks like we differ yet again. I love margin scribbles. I feel like I’m experiencing the book with someone else! It’s nice to know that another human has read the same lines and been moved by the same passages. My one caveat is when the margin writing is in poor taste. If the writing is not constructive or noting particular themes, then it can be rather obnoxious.

[Note: I just flipped through Tim’s book and the first bit of handwriting I read said “Poor Jehovah’s Witnesses- such easy targets”]

Tim: I just think back to English teachers in high school who made me – yes, made me, as in I got graded on it – write notes in the margins of my books, and how much that contributed to ruining the experience of reading to me. I will clarify that it’s a pet peeve that’s mostly confined to fiction. I’ve been known to underline nonfiction books from time to time. But the “poor taste” caveat begins to get at the root of why it annoys me in the first place. I like having the opportunity to come at a book fresh, form my own opinions uncolored by another commenter. Even if I don’t read the notations, their physical position on a page affects the reading of whatever paragraph they’re near.

Debby: I remember those good ‘ol days! I was the queen of book-notations. I even remember using color codes for various themes or symbols. It made it so easy to write papers, because I could always find the texts I needed for quotes. Now, students can do “word searches” on their kindles or ipads. Back in the day, though, I needed old-school tools.

Tim: And as much as I enjoy actually sitting down and talking about a book like we do here, I HATED those papers, which seemed to be the only things book notes were useful for. I had my tab-strewn copy of The Sound and the Fury, but that didn’t help me enjoy the book.

Debby: Well, to be honest, I wrote a 12-page paper on a rather unique subject in The Sound and the Fury: golf. As in– what the first three pages of the book are about. I didn’t bother taking my amazing note-taking skills further than that.

Tim: Hey, I remember that paper! I read over it while you were working on it. You were talking about Benjy’s observation of people “hitting,” and what he was seeing was others playing golf. There was other stuff, too, but that’s about all I recall at the moment.

Debby: I honestly can’t remember anything else about the book, besides Benjy’s impressions of the sport of golf (or as Mark Twain likes to say, “A good walk spoiled”). So does that prove my margin writing works? Or that I have a very short-term memory?

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The Tales of Alvin Maker

Tim: About a month ago now, I left for a vacation (not that my vacation was a month long, just that it started a month ago) and instead of reading The Moviegoer, which I was not enjoying, I instead started a book series by Orson Scott Card called “The Tales of Alvin Maker.” It’s a curious and often wonderful little series of books, and I’ve had the pleasure of tearing through the first four (of six) in sequence. The first book, Seventh Son, introduces the alternate-history early America in which the books are set, as well as a quasi-magical element that permeates this version of history. Many, if not most, characters have one or another sort of “knack,” a special ability of sorts that’s more like a heightened sense than anything truly supernatural (with a few exceptions). The main characters are wholly fictional, but there’s also a delightful undercurrent of stuff pulled from actual history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin are all mentioned by name (the third of whom is very briefly present), and my particular favorite example is William Blake, the poet, who wanders in and out of the story at various times as a bard in the classical sense – a wandering storyteller, a nomad. The story goes plenty of interesting spots from there, but the setting alone, and the not quite magical realist, not quite fantastic way that knacks are woven into the very fabric of the world, hooked me almost immediately. If you’re looking for an easy, but not mindless read, I highly recommend the series.

Debby: Sounds pretty interesting! Could you give me an example of a “knack”? Just for curiosity’s sake.

Tim: Sure. So the main character’s name is Alvin, and his father is a miller by trade. After they’ve moved out to a new town on the frontier, they need to cut a new millstone. So the father and Alvin’s brothers (he’s one of the youngest) go out to cut one, but instead of one of the older men, it’s little Alvin who’s entrusted with the cutting. As he explains it, he’s got a feel for the stone, knows where the natural fissures run, so he knows how to cut a perfect stone where it breaks free with almost no effort. There are also examples of more classical knacks, like dowsers (people who can sense water, and so know where to dig wells), but it’s usually more like if someone became a carpenter, it’s probably because they’ve a natural affinity (added to learned skill) for seeing how wood can fit together just so.

All this becomes especially interesting when the religious ingredient is added. In America, most people accept knacks as like any other skill. But in England, knacks are outlawed, viewed as witchcraft. And then, of course, there’s the idea of how these quasi-supernatural gifts fit in with Christianity, and religion at large.

Debby: Woah. Okay now my interest is piqued. For some reason, my mind jumped to Neil Gaimon’s “American Gods,” in which he also addresses religion in American society (in a completely different way, I’m sure, but the element of fantasy seems to tie these two authors together in my mind). Supernatural gifts and such are so downplayed in modern society. We have “talented” musicians and “world-class” athletes. We have “geniuses” and “moguls,” but we like to think of these things as accomplishments of nature and nurture: you’re either born a genius or you work hard to develop these talents. Having uncanny, supernatural abilities is beyond our rational thinking in this day and age.

Tim: Well, and that’s so funny, because the people in this book, and those who know the most about knacks especially, would consider them both a pure expression of unadulterated nature and (at their peak) an act of pure creativity.

Debby: Oh really? Well. That’s different than what I was picturing. But still fascinating in its own right. Pure creativity, though? How does one use pure “creativity” to cut a rock better?

Tim: Ah, and now we’re getting into mild spoiler-y territory. But I’ll forge ahead anyways. So for most people, they participate in the natural order. So for instance, one skill that Native Americans have that white folks don’t is the ability to run great distances through the forest because they are so in tune with the natural order that the earth makes space for them and gives them energy. Brush literally parts and then comes back as if no one had been there. But then the people who understand the world on an even deeper level – these people are few and far between, and they are able to re-make the natural order, build new creations, and not because they bend something to their will, but because they “teach” the thing the way that’s best for it to be. It’s a little hard to explain, but it’s basically two sides of the same coin. The rock is cut and even dressed as a millstone (i.e. the bottom is sharpened in a pattern for grinding well) when it comes free of the quarry because the cutter has shown the rock how it ought to be.

Debby: Hmm… I’m a little skeptical. But I’m still interested in this particular perspective. I’ll take those books on loan whenever you’re ready to part with them, Tim.

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On Travel Guides

Debby: For the last month, the driving source of inspiration (and motivation) in my life has been my upcoming trip to Costa Rica. I leave in two and a half weeks, so the mad rush to plan/shop/pack/talk-about-said-trip has kept me rather occupied. I got some time off of work, corralled my friend Jimi into coming along on my hare-brained adventure and found a killer airfare package. Then, I did something that any normal person would do: I purchased a travel guide. Unlike a normal, rational person, though, I read the travel guide cover to cover. I traced routes on the maps, added to their “suggested packing list,” and read through the reviews of every single hostel in the country. Since we are bringing only backpacks and maps (no technology for a whole week? GASP!), I felt this undeniable need to transfer all Costa Rican knowledge to my head. Now, I feel the need to tell the world about the greatness of Lonely Planet Travel guys.

Shameless Plug: Lonely Planet is written by travelers for travelers. You can feel the presence of those who have “gone before you” from the very first pages. They aren’t trying to sell you on the country: they know you already want to go there. The travel guide simple tells you all those practical, logistical, even comical answers to the questions you have floating around in your brain. From “Do I need to rent a car?” to “What should I wear during the rainy season?” to “Which hostels cater to surfers?” this book says it all. I am avoiding all Lonely Planet books for the next six months so I won’t be tempted to the point of madness to pursue further jaunts.

Tim: The thing I like most about your idea for this trip is the adventure of it all and (not the biggest point, but still) being disconnected from things technological for a little while. One of the most romantic notions in all of history/literature/etc. to me is the the idea of setting out to travel and not knowing what lies beyond. If you go back a thousand years (or less, often enough), you have societies which are wholly contained in their little corner of the world. There are rumors of what lies beyond, but no one’s been there, no one knows for sure. Which I guess is a somewhat contrary notion to buying a travel guide and studying up on exactly what’s there, but I think that, because that sense of adventure remains even when I hear you talk about this trip, it underscores what a nervous thing it must have been to cast aside your entire world and venture forth. As scary as that is, it’s still so romantic (speaking in a very classical sense of the word) to me.

Debby: Aww.. Tim. So your vacation to Texas wasn’t all that romantic? Sounds like you need another trip soon. Hang on! I’ll find you a book….

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Break in the Action

Debby: I spent this past weekend up in Portland, Oregon, both to celebrate the 4th of July and to put as much distance between myself and work as generally acceptable. It was a delicious four days: I enjoyed the fresh air almost as much as all the ice cream. I also neglected to read my book for this week. So Tim is having to put up with me, once again, and my procrastination. But, I believe this is a perfect time to discuss other, fun reading material. We aren’t stuck with our “65 Books…”

Tim: What with the World Cup semifinals going on, I think I got scarcely farther than you, but I’ll take it. Yeah, I’ve had time to sneak in a book or two in between the ones on our list. Within the last few weeks, I finished World War Z, which was honestly a bit of a weird choice for me. I am NOT a zombie person. I just don’t find them that interesting. At the same time, I’ve always had a bent for history, and what proper sci-fi lover doesn’t like a good apocalypse story? I ended up really enjoying the book, and it was precisely because it almost never was about individuals surviving zombie attacks, like you see in most zombie horror movies. (I haven’t seen the film version of World War Z, by the way, and have next to no inclination to.) Instead, the book leveraged the zombies as a stressor to put humans in unique situations and introduce new societal stressors. This history of how people often ingeniously reacted to the epidemic was compelling, and that’s really how I addressed the book: a look at history and epidemiology. I actually thought it was a little short. It never quite hit the tone of desperation that it seems to try to convey in the middle, so the eventual slow victory is less a climax than it ought to have been. Still exciting, though, and I’d recommend the book.

 

Debby: Speaking of the World Cup, there are a strange number of people from Brazil reading our blog as of late. Are these actual Brazilians? Or just a bunch of people bored at the Brazil/Germany game who decided to bust out their phones and ended up stumbling across our endlessly thrilling blog? A mystery….

Needless to say, I read two books this past week that were mildly entertaining. One was a current bestseller called The Golem and the Ginni, by Helene Wecker. While the concept was rather engaging (give me Middle Eastern magic anyday!), the plot was a rather slow burn. I read to the bitter end, but it was overwhelmingly predictable. The second book was called Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. It was given to me by my roommate, along with the description: “This was my favorite book growing up. I always read it during finals week in college or, like, whenever I was stressing out.” Since I have been eternally obsessed with Ancient Egypt, I plowed through it on the airplane home without a problem. It was silly and fun and mildly engaging. I won’t be reading it regularly, but I would’ve adored it as a twelve-year-old.

Anything else fun you want to read this summer, Tim?

Tim: Every so often, I sneak in an Ernest Hemingway short story or two. My brother was actually just telling me about a Hemingway novella he read, so I’ll probably read that when I see him in a couple weeks for vacation. I guess I should pick out some material for that trip, as there will be ample reading time. I know I was looking for my copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian right before I read World War Z and couldn’t find it. Perhaps I’ll hit up a used books store and see if I can find anything. I actually really want to read Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son series, which is a little older, so maybe I’ll be able to find the 2nd book cheap somewhere (I’ve read the first in the series). Glancing at my shelf, I haven’t read Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, so maybe I’ll snag that, too.

Debby: You haven’t read that, yet?? Well. Maybe you shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon. The movie portrays all the really engaging aspects of the book (possibly better than the book itself). But, I would love to hear your thoughts on the language (spec. the translation) and plot development.

I’ve got a few other “fun reads” on my list this summer. I borrowed a copy of the graphic novel, V for Vendetta, and am looking forward to diving into that. I’m still new to the graphic world, so I might need a little help analyzing the work as a whole. I had the chance to stop by Powell’s bookstore in Portland and pick up a number of books, including Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and Melissa Banks’ Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Both have been bestsellers in recent years. Oh! And I made an impulse-buy on Amazon after hearing that my favorite college professor recently published a book entitled, Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood (Dr. Christina Bieber-Lake). Umm… does that not sound amazing?

Tim: Sounds pretty cool. What is Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing? Is that a novel? Non-fiction?

Debby: Don’t worry, Tim, I don’t think it’s actually about hunting OR fishing. Why would I want to read about those things? I believe it is simply a witty, anecdotal book about a young woman growing up in modern America and encountering love, relationships, and the dreaded workplace. Maybe it should have been on our “65” list!

Tim: “Don’t worry?” I was hoping it was about hunting and fishing! Maybe we should add a Robert Ruark book to our list instead.

Debby: It’s a good thing Google knows who Ruark is, because I certainly didn’t until exactly 30 seconds ago. My first thought was “Roark” from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and I got a little excited. But, umm… this Ruark guy. He looks a little… outdoorsy.

Tim: Yup! And I can’t claim to have read much of his stuff, but my Granddaddy gave me a copy of The Old Man and the Boy a while back. Good stuff. And incidentally, I haven’t read any Ayn Rand.

Debby: Oh, you poor dear. You have sooooo much reading to do. Because, we all know Atlas Shrugged is just a “classic.” To be honest, I really did enjoy it. It just took me a period of months to do so.

Tim: To read it or to enjoy it afterwards?

Debby: Ah. Good question. Probably a little of both. It is the very definition of a “tome.” But, it also influences your thought-patterns for months afterward. Ayn Rand weaves all of her political, economic, and social ideology into a captivating story and, to a degree, it all makes such perfect sense. I was vocalizing my extreme capitalist/humanist views for months afterward, before finally reining it all in. She just gets to you!

Tim: Hmmm well perhaps another vacation. But now I’ve just ordered The Tales of Alvin Maker: Volume One from Amazon. Alternate history colonial America (that’s deathly afraid of magic), here I come!

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Second Sex

{Finished with Lucy}

Debby: While this book was published in the early 90s, the setting is about twenty years earlier (late 60s, early 70s). On a number of occasions, Simone de Beauvoir’s book “The Second Sex” is referenced. Second Sex was published in 1949, the year of Lucy’s birth (Coincidence, Ms. Kincaid?). Lucy is quite obviously a coming-of-age novel, steeped in a staunchly feminist worldview. Yet Lucy explicitly rejects the passage Mariah offers her from “The Second Sex,” saying, “I had to stop. Mariah had completely misinterpreted my situation. My life could not really be explained by this thick book that made my hands hurt as I tried to keep it open” (p. 132). I’m curious to know why Beauvoir’s theories are handled to obviously, but dismissed so abruptly. Thoughts?

Tim: Well, I am completely unfamiliar with de Beauvoir’s book, but I shan’t let that stop me from speculating wildly. (Hopefully not too wildly or speculatively, though.) I think a lot of it has to do with Lucy’s aggressive rejection of being tied down by any sort of tradition, person, or cultural expectation. At multiple points she goes out of her way to describe how she wants to situate herself outside the norm. This works the same. Lucy likes sex because it feels good. That’s clear from the first time a boy fondles her breast and she discovers sexual excitement. Lucy’s biting, blunt nature cuts through a lot of the cultural ornamentation of Mariah and Lewis’s house and society, and the book’s sexual ethic is handled with a similar directness.

Debby: I’ll make sure to loan you my copy! I like the idea of Lucy rejecting any one particular “doctrine” on the female sex. Beauvoir’s book is mostly concerned with women’s oppression throughout the centuries and how “it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority.”

Tim: It is funny how much she objectifies men. Also funny: it didn’t bother me. Not quite sure why that is. Maybe I just didn’t care enough about Lucy. Poor Paul, though.

Debby: All I’m trying to say, with regards to de Beauvoir, is that “The Second Sex” covers exactly the issues that Lucy deals with in the book: from birth control, to daddy issues, to independence and intelligence, to attitudes towards sex. I just found it interesting that Lucy’s character, who loves reading and desires to be a woman worthy of significance, would so caustically brush aside de Beauvoir’s work. Especially when so much of the feminist movement during her time was instigated and propelled by Simone’s brilliant and challenging writing.

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The End is Where We Begin

{Finished with Lucy}

Tim: So let’s start with this: What did you think about the ending?

Debby: I was sitting at our local Peet’s Coffee Shop, enjoying the cool evening air (and a delicious caramel macchiato), when I arrived at the end of this novel (novella? It’s short enough to be in that category, almost). I interrupted my reading buddy, Laura, to dramatically read the last paragraph aloud. It was THAT absurd. What a ridiculous way to end this book. I don’t understand it, like it, want it. I thought the entire last chapter was distorted, giving everything before it a vicious slant that spoke to the darkness of Lucy’s character, rather than the genuine and attentive person she truly was. I think the author took a lot of qualities that a young woman should pursue with zeal and twisted them into something deeply isolating. In summary: I was insanely frustrated by the ending.

Tim: I think I arrived at mostly the same conclusion by a very slightly different path. For me, the last chapter felt like a very natural extension of the rest of the book, absurd though it sometimes seemed to be. As the book progresses, we more and more see Lucy as a spiteful and unfeeling person. The directness she takes with others goes from seeming a cultural artifact to a personal one. Even when she’s talking about the people she “loves” – the children, Mariah – she tosses them to the side so easily. I actually didn’t quite buy that she was at a point where she was ready to collapse in emotion like she did at the end of the book. The first half of the book had me intrigued. The second half, especially the last quarter, felt like it wasted my time.

Debby: Hang on. I want to argue one of your points real quick. I don’t think Lucy is “spiteful and unfeeling.” I think she is spiteful because she doesn’t want to feel. She shuts out anything and everything that reminds her of home, of her mother, etc. The memories we glimpse of her past are all tinged with anger or frustration, because that is NOT what she wants her life to look like. She doesn’t want her future to be attached to her past.

Tim: Well, yes, I meant unfeeling in that she consciously shuts others out. It may be to cover up stuff that’s painful, but even in those glimpses of her past we see, there are reasons to be angry, but not reasons to be so aggressively antagonistic to everything that has to do with that life. She talks a lot towards the end about things that would have killed her if she let them in, and I see this a lot more as weakness in her character than a genuinely traumatic series of events she’s had to shut out. The stuff she lets us in on is never that bad. Again, I think she’s just a mean person. Maybe the end of the book is supposed to make me sympathetic, but it was very, very difficult for me to care about Lucy after seeing the way she disposed of so many people.

Debby: Wow. I saw her past quite differently. Her mother named her after Lucifer??

Tim: Ok, but do you really believe that was her namesake and not just something a frustrated mother said and regretted?

Debby: That thought literally never crossed my mind. I’m trying to remember if we are ever explicitly told when her mother became pregnant, but we do know that her father was the sperm donor on at least THIRTY children. Lucy specifically acknowledges that her mother married him for the peace of mind of having a secure relationship, even though it was to a crummy man who carried a ton of baggage (includes crazy, murderous ex-girlfriends). My assumption was that she got pregnant, tried to get rid of the pregnancy (which she explicitly teaches to Lucy at a young age) and failed. That is just about the worst predicament a woman can be in. Lucy despises her mother for “[throwing] away her intelligence” (p.123) and submitting to the culturally acceptable safety net of marriage and homemaking. Lucy’s birth was a spite to any dream her mother might have had, her very own devil.

Tim: I go back to an idea we’ve already talked about some, that Lucy isn’t a reliable narrator. I believe the facts that can be pulled from the stories she tells, but not her interpretation of the information. We also know that Lucy’s mother loved her pretty unconditionally – despite some very mean words and actions from Lucy, her mother continues to pursue and look after her. We’re also told that Lucy’s mother never envisioned anything higher than a nursing job for Lucy, that she couldn’t imagine her daughter as a doctor. Given the time and culture her mother would have grown up in, that seems reasonable, and it would have colored her own dreams as well. I still argue that none of this merits the vitriol Lucy expresses towards her upbringing and to the majority of the people in her life. She could have kept up a loving relationship with her mother and pursued medicine on her own terms if she were so inclined. We see repeatedly how Lucy uses people and rarely seems to attach much emotional weight to her relationships. Some of this may be motivated by her past, but can we agree that she’s carried those “lessons” way too far?

Debby: I agree that she takes everything to the extreme. But I don’t think Lucy is as inaccurate a narrator as you seem to believe. In that same passage I was referring to, Lucy states, “I am not like my mother. She and I are not alike… She should not have thrown away her intelligence. She should not have paid so little attention to mine.” (p.123) I think those two statements are deeply connected. She sees her mother as a passionate, commanding, god-like individual who was only subdued by the fact that she had a lousy husband and too many mouths to feed. Her mother submitted to her own fate– a fate that Lucy refused to incline herself to.

Tim: Sure, I agree with that. And we may be rapidly approaching “Agree to disagree” territory, but for me that never adds up to the anger and hate Lucy expresses not only to her mother but to many people in her life. Those are perhaps catalysts for the action which the book captures, but the ending – where Lucy is completely isolated – seems like a gross personal overreaction to issues which she could have overcome by taking similar action but just being nicer about everything. And I hate even using that word because I’m not sure “nice” is necessarily that important. But Lucy doesn’t interact with people symbiotically once in the book. She uses people, and she comes by something approaching a real relationship only when people get past these outrageous defenses by accident.

Debby: The thing is? I don’t think Lucy truly hates anyone but herself. I think she sees her own failures and places them in a context where they reverse into successes. The more she isolates herself, the more superior she can feel to the rest of society. The more she criticizes her mother, the further she feels she can distance herself from becoming the same person. I think this book captures a very specific “point” in a young woman’s life: the point in which you try so hard not to be all the things you despise in others, that you cross into a self-created isolation. Lucy weeds out all feeling, so as not to feel specific ones. I don’t think she’ll stay on her island. I don’t think anybody truly can. But I do think a lot of people need to feel that separation in order to reassess the value of community, and the security that comes from relationships with others (no matter the level of “falseness” one might feel).

Tim: Ok, if you want to say she “behaves hatefully” rather than “is hateful” I have no issue with that. I agree that it does go back to a lot of deep-seated personal insecurity. The degree to which she isolates herself and the methods undertaken to do so I find to be extreme. Over the course of the first half of the book, especially, these were just beginning to be revealed, and so I found her to be interesting. It was the full revelation of the nature of these qualities that eventually grew repulsive, and I think that’s exactly what we’re saying – her approach to self-actualization is a matter of several important degrees further than most go.

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Little Pill

(Halfway through Lucy)

(Debby would like it noted that she was rather sleepy when this post was composed, and thus may not have fully articulated everything she meant to. Poor Debby.)

Debby: Let me go ahead and get this out of my system: Lucy is a little punk. I understand that her circumstances are less than wonderful, but her attitude is cynical and her words and thoughts are often cruel. I understand that we’re going for “honesty” here, but this is a short book that relies heavily on Lucy’s disdain for it’s main attraction. Again, I totally get that she has reason to be unhappy. But since when is cynicism a theme?

Tim: Well, and the way the whole thing hides behind this shroud of cultural revelation. At one point I got to thinking, Lucy really sees herself as the magical negro. All these stupid white people are running around like headless chickens, and here she is with the wisdom to reveal their stupidity. And she’s probably right, at least in part. But yeah, she’s a punk right down to her choice of friends (which I thought was funny). If not for her growing love for Mariah – if we can believe that love is what it really is – she seems very much like a robot, or an idealized spirit, or something like that. Lucy’s real family, I think, will hold the key here. Everything we know about her relationship with them looks like it should be healthy and positive, but Lucy clearly doesn’t see it that way. There has to be more of an answer than teen angst.

Debby: One thing I do appreciate about Lucy, though, is how self-possessed she is. While she admits that there are so many new things to take in and experience, she quickly and concisely acknowledges that they are “new” and takes them in stride. No googly-eyed rapture for Lucy. She is systematic, alert, and aware of her surroundings. For a young girl, far away from home, this is a huge feat.

Tim: I think that’s why her character remains interesting. She has the capacity to be unfazed by anything, it seems, and that cloth cuts both ways. At times she seems cynical to an unhealthy degree, at others, a confident young woman we can root for.

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‘Ol Unreliable

(Halfway through Lucy)

(Debby would like it noted that she was rather sleepy when this post was composed, and thus may not have fully articulated everything she meant to. Poor Debby.)

Tim: Let me start out discussion of this book by saying I’m now halfway through the book and have very little idea whether (overall) I like it or not. Which is a weird feeling. That does not, however, mean that there aren’t things to talk about, and the foremost of these has to be the character of Lucy herself. I am deeply interested by Lucy, and while I believe she is at times quite insightful (I’m sure we’ll have to devote another post entirely to the cultural dynamics she brings up), I don’t believe for an instant she’s a reliable narrator. The fun in her is that she’s so subjective while being dispassionate and objective in her own mind. It could also be a post unto itself, but the example that springs to mind is her attitude towards sex and love. She seems too calculating. Particularly given some minor traumas in her life it seems we’re still likely to uncover, I think it’s, in part, a careful facade to keep from getting hurt.

Debby: It’s interesting that you use “sex and love” as an example of Lucy’s facade. I found her knowledge and interaction with her physical side the most honest and least fabricated part of her narrative. For instance, when she explains that she was “sucking [Tanner’s] tongue because I had liked the way his fingers looked on the keys of the piano” (p. 43), we are confronted with her deep innocence. I loved when she continued: “Someone should have told me that there were other things to seek out in a tongue than the flavor of it.” Instead of viewing this as a calculated facade, I see glimpses of an idyllic young girl who has been separated from her family– and all the people who might have told her what it is to kiss a boy.

Tim: I agree, but that’s kind of my point. A few pages later, she continues the story with Tanner: “I noticed his hands on my breasts, first rubbing delicately and then very hard, producing an exciting feeling. I do not remember how I knew to do this, but I pressed his head down to my chest, and as he licked and sucked by breasts, I thought, This must never stop.” There’s just a hint of true emotion there, just a hint of Lucy cutting loose. It happens at other times, too, with some of her interactions with Mariah, or with the children. It makes me wonder not about the facts of her story, but of the feelings.

Debby: Hmmm.. Like how she “loves” Miriam? I think that’s a beautiful picture– Lucy bonding with this precious little one, always carrying her through the woods and such. I think the distinct contrast between her harsh moments and her gentle ones are dramatic in the story.

Tim: And that’s really all I’m saying. Lucy is narrating the book, not a third party, and we do get at least glimpses of other sides to her, even if most of what we see is a dispassionate look at the world. She’s self-assured and saying what she believes to be true, but there’s just enough discrepancy at some small points that we can see she’s not God. Does that make sense? Like with other first person narrators, you often get parts of the story where they tell you how wrong they were. Lucy doesn’t seem to believe she could be in any meaningful way. It’s like seeing shading at the edge of a circle – it lets you know it’s really a 3D object.

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I Hate the Last Chapter of This Book

(At the end of  “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)

Tim: Seriously? I really liked this book, but the final chapter, those couple of pages entitled “The Last Letter” are really bad. It reminded me of the movie Stranger Than Fiction, where the author played by Emma Thompson changes the ending to her book so Will Ferrell’s character won’t die. The literary scholar played by Dustin Hoffman hates the change, says it severely damages the book as a whole. I’m not quite so extreme on this case, but the end of the book seemed so perfect without it. There’s the bit talking about Oscar’s copy of Watchmen, which concludes with “ ‘In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’ “ As on-the-nose as that admittedly is, that felt like the real ending of the book, or at least the one it should have had.

Debby: I can’t say I was a huge fan, either. Although, I did like how he paralleled “one last chapter” with the “one last box” that randomly shows up from Oscar. He probably wasn’t too thrilled get another abrupt reminder of Oscar’s brief life so out of the blue. We, as the reader, experienced this randomness along with the narrator. Or maybe he was making yet another Lord of the Rings reference? Remember how the Return of the King film had like dozen “endings”. Come on and finish it already!

Tim: Yeah, that’s where my mind went, too, although the movie is waaaay more guilty of doing it badly than the book, and Oscar wasn’t alive for that. I guess I buy the randomness parallel, but it still seemed like a bad decision on the author’s part, and one of only a very few. Structurally, the whole middle of the book where we learn about Beli’s life still didn’t do a whole lot for me other than make her childrens’ stories more interesting and nuanced, but it was still interesting enough on its own that I didn’t really mind.

Debby: The narrative itself was certainly odd. I enjoyed all the character development, but the story felt so rocky, jumping between time and persons. It never particularly bothered me, as I felt the book was still interesting, I just don’t think it ever really gained momentum until the end because the chapters never picked up where the last one left off.

Tim: I think the weirdest part for me was having Lola’s chapters in first person. The rest of the book felt like it was narrated by Yunior, but by the end I was questioning whether I should think of the book as a collaboration between Yunior and Lola.

Debby: I honestly hadn’t put those two things together. I think that since they’re the only remaining members of the cast, they’re left putting all the pieces together. I could see Yunior asking Lola to write her story and incorporating it into his tale of Oscar… And that also explains why they had to be at least amicable in the later years. Although, it’s kind of weird how connected he feels to Lola’s daughter?

Tim: Hmmm I like that interpretation/explanation. And I guess the thing with her daughter is kind of strange, but less so when you take into account the interconnectedness of their cultural communities. I don’t know, that felt very natural for me. I believed Lola would trust Yunior with her daughter, especially after his marriage seems to have reformed him (somewhat).

Debby: Hmm.. I’ll take your word for it. Think we’ve hashed this book out quite well.

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