Book review: Office Girl

Office GirlOffice Girl by Joe Meno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I thought I was reading about millennial hipsters, riding their bikes around snowy Chicago, defacing public property with paint pens. (I like this book’s alternate title: “Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things.” It suits the story much better, as only a fraction of the book is from the “office girl’s” point of view.) Soon I realized I wasn’t reading about millennial hipsters at all. The story takes place in 1999, making them . . . GEN-X hipsters!

The first section of the book (Odile) didn’t quite captivate me. Parts felt like creative writing exercises. Long passages of internal monologue, chapters in list-form, quirky line drawings, and a Tao Lin-esque writing style felt contrived rather than original.

It all pulled together once the point of view character switched to Jack. Finally, the contrivances fell away and the story and characters began to emerge. Odile and Jack ride through the snow on bicycles. They’ve semi-ironically started a new art movement. I was no longer annoyed with them at all. I liked them, I felt for them. I even enjoyed their fake art.

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Book review: The Woman Upstairs

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read the now-famous interview with Claire Messud before I ever picked up The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer asks Messud about her character Nora: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud responds: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” (She goes on to list many other fictional bad boys of literature.)

Implicit in Messud’s response is the idea that we tend to embrace unlikable male characters—the Humbert Humberts, the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of our fictional worlds—more readily than female ones.

I agree: we readers shouldn’t need our books populated with likable characters. Still, I love so many books because I love the people who inhabit them. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls. I don’t know if I wanted to be their friend or if I wanted to be them, but I definitely liked them. I loved them.

But perhaps, as Messud suggests, this is an unsophisticated way of reading. We grow up, we learn to look for more than kinship and friendship in our characters: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud says. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” In other words, we don’t have to love them; we have to believe in them.

So I went into The Woman Upstairs knowing that Nora wouldn’t necessarily become my friend. And sure enough, she wasn’t an especially pleasant person to be around for all those pages. Nora describes herself as “the woman upstairs.” She’s not quite the woman in the attic, the one who goes nuts and burns down the house. Nor is she downstairs with all the other characters. She’s the woman down the hall you say hi to but don’t know anything about. In Nora’s case, she’s thirty-seven and already resigned to spinsterhood. She figures life has passed her by.

But there is a bit of irony in Messud’s angry response to the interviewer’s question: The Woman Upstairs is a book about friendship. When Nora befriends the family of one of her pupils, life opens up to her. Friendship awakens her the way love awakens people, shakes them out of old routines and reveals opportunity. So then, the question of whether Nora would make a good friend becomes relevant to the story. Is the family as enthralled with Nora as she is with them?

The book reminds me (and many other reviewers) of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Barbara Covett was a “woman upstairs,” too. It’s difficult to take these self-professed nobodies, push them to the center stage, and expect everyone to watch with rapt attention. Heller pulls it off, giving schoolteacher Barbara enough wit and realness to make her misanthropic views bearable. More than bearable—fascinating and funny.

In The Woman Upstairs, Nora was too much inside her own head, and her voice began to grate on me. (Weirdly, I kept reading her interior monologues with the inflections of Hannibal Lector.) The ideas and themes in the novel captured my attention and imagination, but the details of Nora’s personality and life (she is a popular teacher who loves kids; she’s beautiful; she’s a runner; she’s the “woman upstairs;” she’s a thirty-seven-year-old childless spinster) didn’t add up. Messud doesn’t ask me to like Nora; she wants me to believe in her. I just couldn’t do it.

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Book review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best book I’ve read all summer! Okay, I know this isn’t saying much. I think I’ve read only twelve books so far. But still. I loved it. I cried at least five times, six if you include this morning when I retold the entire story to my seven-year-old. I choked up when I recounted the ending, and the waterworks started up all over again. She didn’t really get it. Partly because she’s seven and partly because I had to give her a sort of G-rated version of story.

I bought the connection between Eleanor and Park, and I wanted them to be together. It’s a deceptively simple thing for a book to make me do. How many rom-coms have I watched or books have I read that tried to do that and failed? I’m left throwing popcorn at the screen or tossing the book aside, yelling, “You’re all wrong for each other!” or “He’s a jerk! What do you even see in him?” or (most damning) “Who cares?”

I was dreading the ending. [Spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of this review if you don’t want to hear my thoughts on the ending!] I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy.[I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy. (hide spoiler)]

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My familiarity with the landscape added to my experience as a reader of Wild, seeing the trails and little towns I know so well through the eyes of a novice hiker with zero backpacking experience.

Due to extreme weather conditions, she made the wise decision to skip over the highest passes with the most spectacular vistas, along the John Muir Trail. I have backpacked along bits and pieces of it myself. (Don’t be impressed; my dad was the outdoorsy sort who dragged me along and carried all the water and food.) Bypassing this section of the trail was a disappointment for her and me, the reader who now prefers to get her dose of wilderness adventuring through books.

It took me a good fifty pages to acclimate myself to Wild. Strayed’s prose style verges on melodramatic, with many, many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines:

I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.

It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

Her writer’s hand is too heavy, her sentences cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. This isn’t my favorite style of writing, but once the trail scenes picked up, the prose became less distracting, and I was able to immerse myself in the story.

When we’re not on the trail, we’re excavating Strayed’s past. Four years before her trek, her mother died, and Strayed self-destructed. She lashed out, made questionable decisions, and left her doting husband. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came years later. Much of the book digs back into the past, unearthing Strayed’s demons. These sections lagged; I longed to get back on the trail. To not appreciate this part of the book is to not appreciate Wild at all, you may be protesting. How she lost herself after her mother’s death and found herself again on the PCT was, after all, the entire raison d’être of the memoir. But I was there for the nitty-gritty survival details: rationing food and water, counting miles and blackened toenails.

Strayed came to the trail only half prepared. She hadn’t broken in her boots and her pack had to weigh more than fifty pounds. But was she playing up her incompetence for the sake of the story? She had practically memorized her guidebook and knew how many miles she’d be able to hike and when she needed to pick up each box of supplies. If you were really spontaneous and impulsive, you’d botch that up. Or you wouldn’t arrange to get supplies mailed to you along the trail at all, imagining you’d nourish yourself with birds and lizards.

Some people can’t stand characters like this. (And I know Cheryl Strayed is not really a character but a real person—we have fourteen mutual Facebook friends, as a matter of fact!) It can be a challenge to root for characters who do stupid things, who act without considering how awful it would be if they died of thirst or fell off a cliff. Strayed reminds me of another character/real-life adventurer, Christopher McCandless. People ask the same questions about him: was he a free spirit, someone to romanticize and admire? Or just selfish and possibly mentally unstable?

I am a romantic—but also a very practical person. I would never do what they did. I wouldn’t venture “into the wild” with ten pounds of rice and a rifle, like Christopher McCandless. Nor would I set off on the longest and most difficult hiking trails on the continent after reading a few guidebooks and a buying some cargo shorts at R.E.I.

But who is going to read a memoir about the summer I didn’t journey into the wild or try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Who is inspired by the time I didn’t do something dangerous and somewhat crazy . . . and instead stayed at home and worked a minimum wage summer job? I love to read about people like Christopher McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. They can be foolhardy and sort of inspiring and—here’s the main thing—compelling characters—all at the same time.

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Before Before Midnight

kelley_before_midnightSpring break, 1995. I caught Before Sunrise in the movie theater. An American guy and French girl meet on a train. When the train stops in Vienna, he convinces her to spend the day with him. They walk around the city all day and night, knowing they’ll have to say goodbye in the morning.

I wanted that. All of it.

Continue reading on Propeller.

Book Review: Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons

A Thousand PardonsA Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Finally that day arrived. The beginning (and by beginning I mean the first seven pages) was just as good as I remembered. The novel opens with a checked-out husband and frustrated wife on their way to marriage therapy, explained to their eye-rolling daughter as “date night.” Dee’s writing is crisp and I always enjoy bummed-out-in-the-suburbs stories, so we were off to a promising start.

The subsequent pages don’t pack the same punch. A Thousand Pardons feels a bit underwritten, almost like an early draft of a novel before it gets fleshed out with atmosphere and characterization. The biggest element missing throughout was a believable emotional landscape. The characters act like robots. Within the first couple chapters, Helen’s husband engages in a public scandal with a younger woman and the couple gets a quick divorce–and Helen doesn’t have any sort of emotional reaction. She’s not angry or sad or embittered or . . . anything. And their daughter’s response is bizarre, too: she figures her dad and the younger woman were both adults, so she doesn’t blame them. What kid understands when her dad does something like that?

I did enjoy Helen’s career trajectory, even if it wasn’t entirely believable that she could go from housewife to “crisis management” genius in a matter of months. The final plot thread has Helen coming to the rescue of an old acquaintance, an A-list star who finds himself in a troubling predicament. The resolution to this thread–which serves as the conclusion of the entire book–doesn’t ring true.

Despite the problems I had with the book, I still zipped right through it. Dee’s prose is so expert and engaging, he makes even the long (and frequent) expositional passages go down smoothly. A Thousand Pardons is a disappointing follow-up to The Privileges, but still contains enough of that Jonathan Dee magic to make it work.

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Write It So You Can Read It

Here’s a little exercise I like to give my writing students: think of your favorite book or movie. Describe it with three adjectives. Then list three adjectives to describe your own writing. The point is to see how much the art you create matches up with the art you like to consume.

In 2009, I did the exercise along with my students. Three adjectives that describe one of my favorite movies of all time, Before Sunrise: affecting, insightful, and romantic. My writing—a blog and book about raising babies in an eco-friendly manner—would best be described as practical, informative, and useful.

As much as I loved blogging on the The Green Baby Guide (a lot), and as much as I had to say on the subject of cloth diapers (more than you can imagine), I simply wasn’t writing what I wanted to read.


Amazon describes Before Sunrise like this:

A French grad student named Celine (Julie Delpy) meets an American boy named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) on the Budapest-Vienna train. They get off the train in Vienna and hang out for a while.

So basically, boy meets girl and they hang out.

Now, whenever I start wondering what I should write about next, I think about all the stories that have affected me. What do I like to read?

I like stories about suburban couples who risk everything for an unattainable dream and then end up miserable in the end.

I like stories about nuns who realize they aren’t cut out for the abbey and run around the Alps with seven children dressed in curtains.

I like stories about best friends who get married, get divorced, and try to stay friends.

I like stories about pioneers who battle plagues of locusts and long, cold winters.

I like stories about writers who date models and snort cocaine.

Years after my revelation, I finished Broken Homes & Gardens, a novel best described as a startling cross between The Sound of Music and Bright Lights, Big City.

Just joking. Broken Homes & Gardens is a boy meets girl and they hang out for a while story. My characters don’t snort cocaine or run around the Alps in play clothes made out of curtains. I have to save something for my next book.