Amy’s #CBR5 Review #4: NW by Zadie Smith

The landscape of the American novel is changing, and if it goes the way of NW and A Visit from the Goon Squad, I think I’ll be okay sticking to the old American novel, kthanks. Both previous mentioned books have a disjointed, half-finished feel about them. NW is a story about a girl named Leah Hanwell, whose life is turned upside down by a girl who comes to her door and begs for money. Leah gives her 30 pounds and sends her away in a taxi but then realizes http://bookcritics.org/images/uploads/zadiesmithnw.jpg(or realises, as this is London, after all) that she got scammed. Her mother, her husband, her friends tease her mercilessly for being such a “Mother Teresa” and the worst part is that Leah sees the girl around town later and harrasses her about paying back the money. But really, that’s not what the story is about…

The story is more about Leah and her lifelong friendship with Natalie (formerly Keisha) Blake. But that’s not what the story is about either. Maybe the story is about Leah and her struggles with her husband as he really wants kids and she is too afraid to have them.  Maybe it’s about Felix, a man from the same neighborhood as Leah and Natalie but with a totally different life.  Maybe it’s just about a random group of people living in the same geographical location whose stories connect sometimes but mostly don’t, how some of them came up out of poverty and some didn’t, how Natalie tried to get out of NW but ended up right back where she started and how Leah never left.

I couldn’t really tell what the book was about. All I know is that while the writing was engaging, I felt like the book wasn’t really going anywhere… and it was hard to keep paying attention or really caring about these people who were increasingly being described as more and more shallow and uninteresting.

Amy’s #CBR5 Review #3: King Dork by Frank Portman

Heartwarming and endearing as Love is a Mixtape, this book let me into the mind of a high school boy, someplace I thought I would never dare nor want to go.  The book begins just as the long-winded, large-vocabular-ied thoughts of a loner at the bottom of the high school food chain. The main things you ascertain is that his nickname is King Dork, he has exactly one friend (Sam Hellerman), he likes to make up fake band names, album names, and album covers with Sam, and he hates–nay, loathes–The Catcher in the Rye.

The story turns into a mystery, but the mystery isn’t the point of the story.  It gets lost in the minutiae of life: girls, high school, Sam being weird, teachers being stupid, families responding to their son going through adolescence.  I loved the book, and I thought it was witty but a bit detached: about high school but definitely written as an adult looking back fondly (?) on high school.

Personally, I don’t think of high school as The Best Years Of My Life, but yeah I do miss it every so often. Much like college, when you’re in it you don’t realize the awesomeness of having your friends around you at all times, but this fact does not sink in until much later.  What’s different about Portman’s writing is that it takes a two-tiered approach: at times it seems the tone is more wistful and older, not at all like the high schooler he claims to be.  But then he brings it back to the inner workings of a high school boy’s brain. Still, the way the book wavers between the two is a bit disconcerting, and even as I read it and wanted to believe that the narrator was a high school boy, I couldn’t shake the fact that I knew the person who wrote it was older.  The fourth wall stayed up.  The boundaries were drawn.

My favorite parts of this book were the ridiculous conversations between Sam and Tom, the making of the band names, Tom’s mom and boyfriend accusing him of doing drugs or contemplating suicide, and Tom’s tireless quest with a girl he “accidently” felt up at a Halloween party, Fiona. These were the parts of the book that really shone and made me feel like I was really “in it.” The ending was rushed and convoluted, and I remember several times that there would be references to things that may have only been mentioned once, at the beginning of the book. Despite this, it was a good read and warranted a pass along to the classic rock lover in my life.

Amy’s #CBR5 Review #2: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Billed by Vanity Fair as “The British version of Bossypants” (thanks, Vanity Fair!) I had a lot of expectations going into this book.  As much as I liked Bossypants, there was a lot of it I didn’t like, much to the horror and sadness of my sweet companion, who will hold a torch to Tina forever in his heart. This book was much more different than Bossypants in that it was far more honest, real, and soul baring than I expected, and it also dealt with things in a no-bullshit, “this is how it is” kind of way.  It was refreshing… and hilarious.  It was hard to read while commuting in quiet train cars, but essential to have on me at all times so I could whip it out and read parts of it aloud to friends.  

While I do have a day job, it is not the kind of job that requires me to work tirelessly from 9 – 5.  Shamefully I spend most of my time consuming vast amounts of online articles and various other forms of media. (Youtube, Pinterest, Facebook.) I blame my short attention span and inability to get another job on the fact that no other job that I know of would allow me to have such blocks of time where I completely zone out and veg on the internet. In my perusings, I have come to a few conclusions: woman’s worst enemy is not the patriarchy, it is not other men, it is actually other women.  Moran adds to this conclusion her own point about feminism: If the men aren’t fussing about, neither should the women. So simple! So revolutionary. After a rough week of dealing with #MensRights and other things of that nature, this book was a palate cleanser.

She also uses the book as a platform to discuss serious issues like whether or not have children, or how it was when she had her abortion.  As someone who was raised and still professes to be Catholic, to me the issue was always very black and white.  Even as I went through college and began to know people who got abortions, I was never able to add it all up in my head. It still seemed “evil” and “sinful”.  Moran breaks it down easily and over a single thought: “the worst thing in the world is to have a child who is not wanted”, my thought process began to finally shift.  Maybe that makes me naive and impressionable.  I’m not sure. Just reading a statement free of religious contexts and moral clouding really opened my eyes to a new perspective.

Lest you think this book is chock-full of tough issues and political pontificating, there is plenty to like in this book that is just plain funny and worth passing on to others.  I recommend it to nearly every woman I know and if I could it would be a birthday gift to my girlfriends for years to come.  It wasn’t Bossypants, not even close.  But was strong and smart and funny, and it made me proud to be a woman.

Amy’s #CBR5 Review #1: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

*I am ashamed it has taken me up til now to post, but I have been reading, I swear! just not writing…!* Congrats to all those who are reading and writing at an alarming pace!

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Dystopian future novels were all the rage last year and while I did get into The Hunger Games and plowed through books 2 and 3 in relatively short order, I thought it might be nice to go a little old school and find a book that may have lived on my high school reading list.  (Hey, those High School English teachers tend to know what’s up.) For some reason I had never gotten around to reading The Handmaid’s Tale because I thought it was something to do with medieval literature (don’t judge a book by it’s title) and was too busy reading other things like Jane Eyre, which I didn’t even really particularly like.

Reading the internet like one does, I kept stumbling on strong feminist writers and couldn’t escape Margaret Atwood. She seemed infinitely more approachable than Ayn Rand and The Handmaid’s Tale called out to me across the years,so having it at my local library was just the push I needed to get started.

I have to say, I wasn’t blown away by The Hunger Games (until the very end when I cried for more than is reasonably acceptable).  I don’t really even consider dystopian future novels to be my “jam.”  But The Handmaid’s Tale was beautifully written and built slowly, with just the right amount of details revealed per chapter.  I read the book on the edge of suspense, with a mounting sense of dread, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  That is not to say that reading this book was an unpleasant experience.  Rather, it was thoroughly pleasant and mind consuming, much like when I read Neverwhere.  It was almost so beautifully written that it just barely covered the atrocities occurring within the pages.

I also really enjoyed how the book broke the fourth wall.  When it starts you’re given as little details as possible.  The story progresses like a “normal” story in that you, the reader, are detached from the character’s problems.  Soon she begins to address you, plead with you, tell you that she needs to remember or else she will go crazy. You evolve to be her constant at her side, almost a guardian angel, and she lives for you, knowing that she has to keep talking to keep from going mad. You become complicit, and also unable to escape, as trapped as she is.

I didn’t know how the story would end. I knew it was coming soon because pages were running out.  The epilogue was what really made it.  I loved how intellectual it was, and how it sounded like a real conference, a real post-mortem.  It also served as a smooth transition out of book-world into the real world.