Excuse the cliché, but for me, 2011 expired with a whimper rather than roaring to its close with a triumphant bang. The year ended filled with a lot of stress and mental exhaustion due to school, and I spent the last week or two doing some heavy thinking about where I would like 2012 to take me. Because my brain was preoccupied with so many other tasks, my reading slowed down a lot—I read just one book in December, and that was at the very beginning of the month— and I was just so tired that for the first time in four years, I entered books into my spreadsheet and didn’t bother to write anything about them. And the thing is, the last three books of 2011 were ones that I would normally have tons to say about, but my brain was stubbornly moving towards hibernation mode and the thought of generating words just seemed far beyond my grasp, so I gave myself a reprieve and simply logged them and left them. I do still want to mention my last three reads of the year so that I have a clean slate delving into 2012, so I’m going to do a mega-post here and talk about THREE books instead of devoting one post to each book. Without notes, I probably don’t have enough to eloquently say about each one to justify unique posts (remember, I have a notoriously bad memory regarding books anyway, and when I’m stressed, my memory gets even worse), so while I almost never do this, here I go.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This book had been on my TBR list for at least two years. I think I first became aware of Tartt when I started reading Tana French, because many people talked about how her books reminded them of The Secret History. Initially as I started to read Tart, I didn’t see the similarities, but with time I could see how there were certain echoes of it in French’s second novel, The Likeness. I can’t say that I would necessarily have picked up on the threads that connect the two on my own, but having had the seeds planting in my mind, I do acknowledge that the two do have a passing resemblance to one another.
On the surface, The Secret History is a book that should be a home run for me. It’s set at a small liberal arts college involving a small group of students who are Classics scholars and tells the story of how they turn on and kill one of their own. These elements are like my literary kryptonite, so I was fully expecting to love this one. In the end, I enjoyed the book a good deal, but it was not the head-over-heels love affair I had hoped for, I must admit. At times I found Tartt’s writing a bit stodgy and florid, and while that precisely fit the pretentious, over-educated characters she was writing about, it could also get annoying at times. Yes, it’s clear that Tartt is a clever woman and that she has written a clever—even intelligent—novel, and yet it had a faint whiff of someone trying just a tad too hard to me. It was also needlessly long, I think, in that it went on for nearly 600 pages in a very small typeface, and I think the book could have been just as powerful if a good 150 pages had been cut from it. I think the book can be read as a series of interesting character studies, and I think it also says something about how intense experiences that bond us irrevocably to other people can also be the very things that push us apart, but my brain is still tired and I really don’t want to think about those things too deeply. It’s a book that can be read for plot (though doing so will probably be exhausting to the reader since, as I mentioned, it’s a long book and the pacing is not exactly swift), but there’s certainly stuff swirling under the surface too.
Maybe this is a case of my expectations warping reality, or maybe my brain fatigue (not to be confused with brain fever) got the best of me, but the end result is that I liked The Secret History a good deal, but I did not love it nor do I fully understand why so many people seem to froth at the mouth when talking about their undying love for it. Certainly a case of wanting to/expecting to like it more than I did. I might try it again in a few years time and see if time and second-reading allow me to appreciate it more than I did.
The Submission by Amy Waldman. Generally speaking, 9/11 is not an event that I have a strong urge to revisit in fiction. It’s up there with the Holocaust/WWII as something that I recognize a lot of writers feel the need to explore through fiction, and yet it just holds no appeal to me. And yet, when I heard the premise of The Submission, I was undeniably intrigued. Waldman centers her book around a group of jurors who have been set the task of choosing the winning design for a 9/11 memorial. When the group eventually settles on a design, they are horrified to discover that the man behind it is a Muslim. What follows is a gut-wrenching and infuriating look at prejudice and intolerance in America, and an examination of the scars 9/11 left in its wake, not soon to be forgotten.
The Submission is an incendiary novel. I think it’s impossible to read this book and not feel something. The characters in this book are maddening, because they are sometimes cowards, sometimes ignorant, sometimes stubborn beyond reason. But I think the reason why I was so frustrated by them is because I felt like even if Waldman sometimes pushed their boundaries to the extremes, almost into caricature territory, I still recognized people like the ones she presented are ones that do exist in the world, and that is what makes me mad. That these people are not just confined to the pages of fiction where they can provoke but ultimately be forgotten and will do no harm. I don’t think that The Submission is a perfect novel by any means, but what I did like about it is that no one escapes unscathed. Not the 9/11 widows, nor the Muslim architect, nor the politicians, nor the reporters. All have opportunities to do what is right, but they all also have the chance to behave less than valiantly, and in the end each character winds up doing a bit of both. There are no outright heroes or villains, because while I think it’s clear that Waldman’s sympathies lie on the more liberal end of the spectrum, I think she does a good job of showing the damage and difficulties that lie with both extremes.
This was a book that I could not help but be affected by. Even though there were elements that bothered me, I was moved by it. I was initially bothered by the fact that Waldman chose to have an epilogue to her novel, one that takes place 20 years in the future, so that we have a chance to see what happened to all of the main players after the memorial brouhaha has died down. I am on the record as generally loathing epilogues because I often find them too pat, too convenient, a nice way of wrapping up a story, when I often think it’s best to leave novels a bit open-ended so that I can think about them afterwards and feel like their stories are still going on. So I was all set to hate this epilogue for offering up a tidy ending to a novel that was gloriously messy… and then I reached the end of it and I began to cry. So some people will wind up hating this book, and I can even see why you might, but this is a book that literally moved me to tears and I honestly can’t remember the last time a book did that.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. After The Submission, I needed a book that was blatant fun and none too serious. I had read plenty of raves about Ready Player One across the book blogging world, so when it came in for me at the library, I figured that was as good a sign as any.
Apparently this book is being heralded as a love story to the ‘80s and geek/nerd culture. It follows the travails of Wade Watts, a teenage outcast who hails from the year 2044, a grim time, as the earth is now a burned out husk, having been stripped of its natural resources to fuel wasteful and destructive human civilization. The only means of escape is to a virtual reality known as the OASIS, a place where anything and everything is possible. Upon his death, James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS revealed that he had left “easter eggs” hidden throughout the OASIS galaxy; the person who is able to find these eggs and conquer their tasks will be named his sole heir and be granted control over Halliday’s company and given his fortune. For years millions have hunted for the first of these eggs, but Wade is the first to actually beat it… and then? The game is truly on.
I started off really enjoying this book. I mean, really, who doesn’t love a good quest novel? I love books and movies that involve a hero journeying off into the great unknown in pursuit of fame and glory, meeting devious riddles and challenges along the way. And if those puzzles involve geeky trivia and pop-culture references? All the better! But it didn’t take me very long to realize that Ready Player One wasn’t going to be the holy grail of quest novels, at least not in my eyes. Part of this certainly has to do with my age: although I was born in the ‘80s, most of my formative years were actually spent in the ‘90s, so many of the loving references that Cline throws in weren’t ones that held special meaning for me. Additionally, many of the references were ones that I think only hardcore videogamer geeks would really have a softspot for, and while I enjoy videogames, I didn’t spend my youth in arcades playing PacMan or playing text-based RPG games on a computer, so having so many of Wade’s tasks revolve around playing video games didn’t do tons for me. As an aside, while I think that video games can be fun to watch and are even more fun to play, they don’t exactly make for scintillating reading. They are such a visual medium that reading about Wade facing off against a dungeon lord where the two are playing an arcade game was really anti-climactic. These showdowns didn’t feel vital, and much of the lead-up to them also felt rather brittle and spiritless. Sure Wade has to travel through a treacherous labyrinth to face the dungeon master, but much of the description involves merely mentioning that Wade knows how to avoid all the traps so that in fact he faces zero obstacles to reach his big boss battle. I just never felt like there was a real depth of description or that there was all that much adventure in what is supposed to be an adventure novel!
This brings me to my other huge qualm with the book which is that I actually felt that rather than paying homage to geek/pop culture and weaving in references and material in a clever manner, Cline throws all subtlety out the window and just goes for overt name dropping. If you’re the kind of reader where just the mere mention of a DeLorian (from Back to the Future, don’tchaknow?!?) causes you to get the vapors, then you’ll probably want to get to second or third base with this book, but I think you need to do more than just make conspicuous references to other material in order to write a great book. Describing a car as “the car from Back To the Future” is lazy and uninspired, because as an author, you don’t actually have to work to build something for your reader, you’re just capitalizing on work another artist has already done. What’s worse is that you’ve now relied on a description that only a reader who is familiar with your source material will get. If I’ve never seen Back To the Future, then I don’t have any idea what this car now looks like. Why not describe the car to readers so that to those with the background, they get that you’re describing a DeLorian, and for those who don’t, they still know what the car looks like? By letting your readers fill in the blanks because you’re just hinting at a reference, you look more clever and readers can better feel like they’re “in” on the joke. Relying on specific references like “we were now in a room that looked just like the living room in Family Ties” not only dates the book and truncates its shelf life (I wonder how much readers who were born in 2011, the year this was published, are going to want to read this book), but it also makes it seem unoriginal to those who get the references. So much of Cline’s novel revolves around ephemera that he himself is not the genesis of that to be honest not much of it felt fresh to me. I resented all the obvious reference dropping in lieu of actual writing and world building on Cline’s part, and while I can’t claim to be immune to the lure of a quest, this one was actually pretty banal and listless. It’s a shame because when Cline actually acts as an author rather than someone listing off names of things from the ‘80s, his world-building was actually pretty compelling and their were some good bones to the novel. I read to the end because it was easy, but I said about 60 pages in that I didn’t think it was going to be a very good book, and the remaining 324 pages of the novel just solidified that thought. A quick and easy read, yes, but great storytelling, no?
So there you have my final three reads of 2011. As you can see, it was a mixed bag! Next up, I’ll try to put together a little summary post where I hit the high (and low) notes of 2011 and maybe even make a few charts! Yay!