Reading Round-Up

Image courtesy ClipArt ETC

There are a lot of books I read this past year that I didn’t take the time to review. This was usually due to the very legitimate reason that I’d rather read more books than write about the ones I’d already finished. Also, it sounded like a lot of work. In retrospect, however, I realize that I like being able to look back on my reactions to books that I might otherwise forget. (Not that the books are forgettable, mind you—I just read too much to keep track of all of them.) I’ve started to notice that many bloggers who are ridiculously avid readers tend to write brief, roughly one paragraph long reviews, and no one even judges them for it! In the spirit of just saying no to verbosity (and, let’s face it, not overexerting myself), I thought I’d do a little one paragraph round-up of some of the books I read this year that I previously failed to comment on. (I sort of had to: I found really cute clip art for it.)

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell, is a book that I thought I would really, really like. It has everything a whimsy enthusiast like me could ask for: a family of alligator wrestlers, a teenage girl in love with a ghost, and even a Hell-themed amusement park called The World of Darkness. For some reason, though, the novel just didn’t click. It was too depressing, with no promise of redemption. Though Russell is a talented writer who knows how to turn a phrase, she is less adept at pacing, and there were times when I struggled to get through a chapter. The characters were sometimes memorable, but none of them were developed as much as I would have liked. Mostly, they frustrated me: I wanted to shake each of them and tell them that their lives didn’t have to be the way they were. But then, I’m not so sure that’s true. Swamplandia!, both the book and the alligator park, represents a world so removed from normal civilization that it is in some ways unreal. Though grounded in a reality, it is not one that I have ever known.

It’s rare that I encounter a book that is just plain fun, but that’s the best way I can describe The Secret Adversary, an early Agatha Christie mystery. The book is an enjoyable romp that, though largely inconsequential, is so darn appealing that it doesn’t even matter how silly it gets. The main characters, Tommy and Tuppence, are a completely charming duo of flat-broke 20-somethings who, due to their own boredom and poverty, wind up embarking on the adventure of their lives. Portraying themselves as detectives, they become involved in a plot with serious international implications. But, mostly, they just bumble around and have a good time. Though the stakes are high, there’s never any strong sense of danger. The Secret Adversary is a lighthearted adventure that simply entertains and delights.

 The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is another book I really wanted to like, if only because its cover had me convinced that it must be the best book ever written. Sadly, packaging let me down yet again, though that’s not to say that the novel isn’t worth reading. The biggest problem I had with The Night Circus was that it was not what I thought it would be. That is, it’s not quite as magical as I expected, at least not in the traditional, Harry Potter sort of way. The magic of the book lies in its visuals rather than in its plot; the story, though engaging at times, is nothing compared to the richness of the circus itself. If I could vacation in a book, The Night Circus would be my pick. Morgenstern creates a landscape so vivid and enticing that I’m legitimately bummed it’s not for real. The story, however, left me somewhat less enchanted. It matters, to be sure, but not every part of it feels as essential, as imperative, as the details of the circus itself. It seems clear that Morgenstern herself fell under her own spell, for she appears taken with every tiny facet of the circus, from the contents of each tent to the sweet aroma of the food sold there. I only wish she had been more interested in developing her characters, who remain, at the end, more enigmatic than the circus itself.


On Recommendations and Top 5 Lists

Is it normal to watch “Phineas and Ferb” even when you’re at least 15 years older than its intended audience and not on any psychotropic drugs? I’m asking for a friend…who posed the question to me…in reference to me. But I think it’s something we all want to know. Is anyone’s taste completely “normal,” “acceptable,” and “genuinely not embarrassing at all”? Don’t we all have those little quirks, those differences in taste that, depending on how unshakeable our confidence is, make either us or our dissenters seem like the weird ones?

When it comes to talking about what I like—the movies, the TV shows, the defining songs of the summer—I don’t mind being an individual (or, okay, trailblazer if you must), but I tend to play it a little safe. It’s okay to say you enjoy something that has only a small cult following, or even something that is knowingly not very good, but it’s tough to stand up and admit that your addiction to ABC Family isn’t a passing fad, or an exception to any rule…that it defines who you are. I like to play off my stranger interests as if they are a lesser part of me, but the truth is that if I really were to give an honest recommendation or to compose an accurate top multiple-of-five list, I’d have to include a lot of stuff that doesn’t come with a “critically acclaimed” label. (Note to self: Start sewing “critically acclaimed” labels into all my pairs of underwear. Sounds hilarious and not lame at all.)

I don’t like being dishonest or misrepresenting myself, but it’s a delicate dance between forging a stronger connection with someone (I assume this is what engaging in a Ron Swanson quote-a-thon is called) and opening yourself up to ridicule (also known as admitting in public that you even know what “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is). Usually I tend to freeze up, caught in that purgatory between what I perceive to be the expected answer and what I feel to be the truth. This is why, when it comes to recommending pretty much anything, I am completely terrified. Will this be the time that I am finally reprimanded for liking all the wrong things? (Or, worse yet, all the obvious things?)

I worry that I’m never equipped with the right tools for evaluation. Am I not sophisticated enough to notice how jejune that movie is? Am I too pretentious to realize that book has no substance? (And, on a side note, am I even pronouncing jejune correctly? Kind of French-y and with utter contempt?) Don’t get me wrong: I’m comfortable with the things I like when I’m by myself or surrounded by the people who revere me…but I tend to panic when I have to share an actual opinion with people who haven’t formed an actual opinion of me yet.

Say, for example, I work at a library. (I do, so this should be easy.) Say someone walks in and asks me to recommend a book to read this summer. (This never happens. No one cares.) I’m not one of those people who can confidently say, “Well, gosh, stranger, I just read the new James Patterson and it was pretty swell.” (Or, if the person walks in wearing a beret or playing a ukulele or something, “Hey there, how about the new Dave Eggers?”) I need more information on this individual before I can even consider sharing something about me. Does she look smart? Is she wearing glasses? I had better not mention that I sometimes like to read The Lying Game books. Does he look like he wandered in here on a dare from his fraternity brothers? I’m going to look like an ass if I spend any time extolling the virtues of that Nathaniel Hawthorne biography. (Is a bro-ography a thing? I would recommend that.) I’ve witnessed real people (not holograms—that’s something you need to check for these days) offer real opinions as if it were nothing. I have no idea how they do it.

Real, for me, tends to be a fluid concept. (See: seven of my past nine boyfriends.) Sometimes what I think is real is actually just what I am willing to reveal of myself in a given context. Conversely, sometimes such limitations are not based on how “Cathy”-cartoon neurotic I am, but rather how thoughtfully I want to respond to another person’s needs. (Okay, this is still neurotic, I guess. Ack!) I hate to recommend books that I liked when I’m not so sure that the person I am recommending them to will like them as well. It’s not always easy to see where tastes overlap and where they diverge; seemingly similar people may like some of the same things for very different reasons. Thus, if someone asks me for the best book I read recently, I can’t necessarily give the most honest answer. …Can I? Is that really what people want when they ask for a recommendation? Even if it would mean their slogging through, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is either an amazing book or just a handy weapon depending on your taste?

Despite my skepticism, I actually read a lot of lists with “Top,” “Best of,” and “That Will Change Your Life” in the title. (I also read a lot of lists with “Bottom,” “Worst of,” and “That Are Killing You” in the title because I am kind of a pessimist.) Although I don’t always agree with these lists, I usually don’t feel betrayed or think less of the person who wrote them. That is, I can recognize and accept differences of opinion when it comes to someone else. I sometimes try to think of the lists I would create given the same criteria to fulfill. I’m never 100% honest. I wonder why I even assume honesty should be the goal.

When I reflect on it, I realize that nobody considers me an authority on anything, so I shouldn’t stress too much about how well I’m recommending things. I’m sure my own mother would take my report on the weather outside with a grain of salt, so I can’t really stress if my top five best YA books are a confusing muddle of what I really really like and what I think is most likely to endure.* And honesty—complete honesty—isn’t necessarily the best tool in an evaluation. (In some ways it’s lazy, ignoring so many other factors in order to privilege the half-formed opinions of a girl still wary of using the oven). I can still always hold back when I want to impress.

So that just leaves one final question, one conundrum to resolve: Seriously, is it okay that I’m watching “Phineas and Ferb” at 25 years old?

*My list includes Feed by M.T. Anderson; Going Bovine by Libba Bray; Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork; Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King; and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, if you were wondering.

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