A Year of Reading: 2012

Woman with book

January

  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
  • Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

February

  • The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson
  • Matched by Ally Condie
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Never Have I Ever by Sara Shepard

March

  • Chime by Franny Billingsley
  • Two Truths and a Lie by Sara Shepard
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

April

  • Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  • The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
  • Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
  • Wonderland by Joanna Nadin
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

May

  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

June

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

July

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

August

  • Crossed by Ally Condie
  • The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Hide and Seek by Sara Shepard

September

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron

October

  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

November

  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • Passing by Nella Larsen

December

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Maus, Vol. 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
  • Maus Vol. 2: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  • On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

[Image courtesy ClipArt ETC]

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Why You Think You’re Too Good for “The Vampire Diaries”…and Why You’re Wrong

You think you’re too good for “The Vampire Diaries.” I know you do. I know it because I was once you, so young and naive. So full of opinions on what is “good” television and why you couldn’t possibly watch something on the former WB, something so thoroughly overpopulated with ridiculously good-looking people. Your argument against it probably includes an offhand reference to Twilight,  a reminder that you’re not 13 years old, and some lame excuse that you have better things to do. Let’s face it—we both know you don’t. And really, you’re just fighting fate.

It’s true, “The Vampire Diaries” has one of the more absurd premises you’ve recently heard: feuding vampire brothers both fall for the same mortal high school girl—and, oh yeah, everybody keeps diaries and stuff. And, sure, all of the witches and werewolves and werewolf-vampire hybrids and doppelgängers take some getting used to. You’re probably wondering what’s so great about the protagonist, Elena Gilbert, aside from the fact that she has pretty hair and is deep, or whatever, because she hangs out at the cemetery to write in her diary. And you might spend a couple episodes getting into it, maybe because you’re continually distracted by doing Google image searches of Ian Somerhalder before he darkened his hair, back when he was on “Lost.” But once you get hooked, and you will get hooked—it will sneak up on you, like an evil, centuries-old vampire slyly hanging out at a high school dance, and sink its teeth into your helpless mortal neck—you won’t be able to resist. You’ll breeze through the existing 60 plus episodes in less than a month, which is totally not embarrassing, okay? Totally. Not. Embarrassing.

And you’ll quickly understand that even though this is a show about vampires and love and looking hot even when you’re dead, it’s not another Twilight. It’s not another “True Blood” for that matter, and not just because a random passerby won’t mistake it for soft-core porn. For one thing, it is thrillingly plot-driven, focused not only on longing looks between a mortal girl and the boys who want to eat her but also real life-and-death-(and-undeath) situations. Everyone is in peril, all the time, and the enemies just as often come from within as from without. Action is constant: former adversaries became allies, former friends become foes, and sometimes former cheerleaders become creatures of the night who want to drain you of blood. Every episode is a roller coaster ride. Make that a roller coaster ride in the dark: you can never see what’s coming.

The first episodes set up a dramatic arc that a sane person—or, at least, someone not addicted to amphetamines—would assume could be resolved only over the course of a season (maybe more if your head writer is Veena Sud from”The Killing”). After all, Elena (Nina Dobrev) will need time to fall head-over-heels in love with vampire Stefan (Paul Wesley) before learning he’s a full-fledged, full-fanged predator, right? Well, since this is still a teen show we are talking about, and since, for fictional teens, a reasonably good first date will invariably result in the two protagonists proclaiming that they would die for each other, of course not. Elena quickly learns that Stefan is a vampire, and that he has an evil (but hot) vampire brother, but she decides she’s totally okay with it. Suddenly, it’s the two of them against the world, first taking on Stefan’s evil-but-hot (don’t forget hot!) brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder), but then moving on to even greater threats.

Basically, on “The Vampire Diaries” one scary villain has an even scarier villain behind him or her. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will mention that Damon is remaining in their hometown of Mystic Falls for a very specific reason, and that it has something to do with a vampire even more powerful (and treacherous) than he is. This person, in turn, has been on the run from an even more powerful vampire. And so on, and so forth. The plot twists are manifold, the mythology endless. A new mystery develops at every turn, forever feeding the addiction to find out what happens next. I was up to four episodes a day of this show when I watched the first two seasons on Netflix. That’s not an embarrassing personal failure—that’s just science. Don’t think this won’t happen to you. You’re smug, but so, so stupid.

So, to recap, you are not better than “The Vampire Diaries.” You may think you are, but try watching a few episodes and then giving up cold turkey. What’s that, you just found out about the secretive council of founding families that knows there are vampires living in their town? Oh, now you just discovered that Stefan and Damon’s former love, Katherine Pierce, looks exactly like Elena? Good luck trying to stop thinking about that while you go about your boring everyday duties like grocery shopping and explaining that your favorite tv shows are “Downton Abbey” and the news.

…I’m prettty sure everyone knows what “‘Downton Abbey’ and the news” is a euphemism for. You only wish Dame Maggie Smith were a centuries-old vampire…instead of, you know, just centuries old.

The Lying Game

Remember when you were a teenager and your biggest thrills came from playing hilarious practical jokes on anyone and everyone you had ever met? You know, like convincing a girl that a murder had been committed in front of her locker, and reporting to the police that a baby was abandoned in a dumpster? Remember what a riot it was when you rubbed it in everyone’s stupid panic-stricken face and urine-soaked pants that you had totally fooled them? …No? Well, if you weren’t a teenage sociopath, don’t worry: you can experience all the fun vicariously in Sara Shepard’s The Lying Game, the first in a YA series inspired by those high-schoolers who thought Mean Girls was an instructional video.

I’m no longer a teenager, so I might not be as hip and with it, but it seems that if you’re not into vampires and werewolves, you’re probably all about selfish, upper middle class girls who get their jollies from inflicting pain on others. True, in The Lying Game, as well as in Shepard’s other popular series, Pretty Little Liars, the meanest mean girl always gets hers (disturbingly enough, by being murdered), and the other girls—mere followers—are, alone, never as keen on the treachery. But that doesn’t mean that they’re innocent. In fact, in this book, the evidence seems to suggest that one or all of them may have been responsible for sacrificing their queen bee. Which means…well, if you’re reading it, maybe you’re not so innocent yourself. These types of books aren’t so much cautionary tales as they are dark fantasies, a chance for readers to indulge the desire to play their own pretty little lying game. Basically, if you want to be a “good girl,” read Jane Eyre or something.

The Lying Game—and its ilk—is fashionable but disposable. The girls wear $200 jeans and listen to Katy Perry on the radio. In three years, 90% of its references will be obsolete, but for the moment it feels completely relevant. I suppose for the right audience—that is, not 24-year-old grad students who host knitting get-togethers—the situations are actually somewhat relatable. The girls shop at the mall, sneak swigs of stolen alcohol, and schedule spa days together. They’re just like their teen readers, only more glamorous…and way more secretive. The secrets and scandal are what really make the book appealing. This is no character study, but it doesn’t need to be; it succeeds for what it is: a quick, compulsively readable guilty pleasure with plenty of high school melodrama.

The plot, an overwrought absurdity that shouldn’t work, is as follows: Sutton and Emma are twins separated at birth who grow up unaware of each other’s existence. While Emma is placed in a series of foster homes in Nevada, Sutton leads a charmed life in Arizona, having been adopted as an infant by a loving and well-to-do family. Just weeks before her 18th birthday, and the arrival of her legal freedom, Emma is set up by her future sex offender foster brother, who tries to convince his mother that Emma has stolen a large sum of money from her. To prove his point, at least according to his logic, he shows both his mother and Emma a particularly gruesome, snuff film-esque YouTube video of Emma being nearly choked to death by a locket. …Only, it isn’t a confirmation of Emma’s kinky proclivities. In fact, it isn’t even Emma. This girl is Emma’s twin sister, and, what’s more, she’s dead.

We know Sutton is dead because she tells us. That’s right: Emma’s twin, who is now somehow fused to Emma’s consciousness, seeing what she sees, is narrating from beyond the grave. She is dead before the book even starts, but she has no idea when her death occurred, or how. She cannot communicate with Emma, but she desperately wishes she could when Emma emails the twin she has found through Facebook…and gets a response. This mysterious response sets off the action of the novel, in which Emma goes to Arizona to meet her sister, only to end up taking over her life. While Emma waits for Sutton to materialize, no one suspects that she is an impostor—even when she flat-out tells them this is so. Her friends, her sister—even her parents—think that Sutton has just gotten a little nicer. That, or she is up to her old “lying game” tricks, modifying her behavior as part of the prank.

The Lying Game, which is just what it sounds like, is a contrivance that further adds to the mystery of Sutton’s death. Did she die at the hands of one of her friends, due to a prank gone wrong? Did she anger the wrong person, prompting disproportionate revenge? Emma doesn’t learn the extent of Sutton’s pranks and elaborate lies, so anything is possible. Unfortunately, this is as true at the end of the book as it is at the beginning. Shepard clearly knows how to stretch out a series indefinitely, so the revelations in this first book are few. Sutton’s fleeting flashbacks all appear to add up to a single event, though of course it takes her the length of the book to recall it. Similarly, Emma’s detective work only serves to piece together this same event, making much of Shepard’s writing repetitive and unsatisfying. One of Emma’s most interesting theories, that Sutton is playing a lying game with her, is disappointingly impossible due to the narrative structure we have been given since the beginning. In short, there are a lot of possibilities with the story, but the execution is fairly lackluster.

I was impressed with this book for its ability to hold my interest, though disappointed in the way it settled for mediocrity. The mystery was compelling, and the Lying Game an interesting plot device, but the characters were too frustratingly interchangeable to make any of the action count. I was bothered by the disposable quality of the book: from it’s excessive number of contemporary references to its repetition and lack of direction, it was clearly not intended as a lasting artifact. It will be worth owning for exactly as long as it takes to release the last book in the series. No doubt, the future books will be just as entertaining as this one…but once they’re done, you won’t need to think about them ever again.

Kathleen Recommends…Great Moments in Television

“Pretty Little Liars”

When you watch a lot of television shows made for preteens with personality disorders, you stumble upon some great moments that, frankly, you wouldn’t find anywhere else. On ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” a texting-happy blackmailer will stop at nothing to torment the four main characters…not even the bounds of good taste. In one deliciously demented scene, the mysterious “A,” having just stolen from Hanna the money that Hanna’s mother unlawfully “borrowed” from an elderly client, offers to let the pretty little liar earn the cash back in an unorthodox way. “A” sends Hanna, only recently free from her hellish days as a chubby girl called “Hefty Hanna,” to a local bakery to pick up a box of smiling piggy cupcakes. If Hanna eats them all, she will get her money back. Desperate to recover the lost money, Hanna complies, giving viewers many gratuitous shots of a pretty blonde girl crying into her cupcake. It’s weird, voyeuristic, and yet terribly inspired. Each bite is a triumph of trash TV.

While its artistic merit may be in question, one thing’s for sure: you don’t see that on “The Good Wife.”

Summer Reading

Image courtesy cmcgough via Flickr.

.I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve always been pretty serious about planning my summer reading. Or, at least, I’m serious enough to take the time to compose a list of books I want/need/ought to read—whether or not I actually get around to reading them is another story. I’ve always thought of summer as my chance to make up for all the times that I could have been reading but wasn’t, a golden opportunity to fill in those gaps in my literary knowledge. Frankly, there are only so many times that I can pretend to have read Pride and Prejudice and A Tale of Two Cities before someone finds me out.

Since it’s almost the beginning of May, and since spring semester is over in about two weeks, I figured I should start thinking seriously about this year’s summer reading list…and maybe look back on the list that I made last year in order to see what I could do differently.

Last year, I was ambitious. I chose 12 books (plus substitutes) and even made a schedule. I stuck to this schedule for exactly seven weeks, during which time I read A Confederacy of Dunces, four short novels by Marguerite Duras (The Square, Moderato Cantabile, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night, and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas) and As I Lay Dying. I was doing pretty well, but for whatever reason, it didn’t stick. Instead of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I was reading Stephenie Meyer’s The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner. After that, there was no going back.

I guess the problem with summer reading is that you inevitably end up choosing a book or two that makes sense at the beach. Sure, I’d like to eventually read Infinite Jest, but it’s pretty tough getting sand out of more than a thousand pages. It’s just safer to stick with short, easy, inconsequential works of mediocrity, you know? And if I had to think too hard, I might forget about other things, like applying sunscreen. If I had stuck to my list of David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, I could have easily gotten burnt out and burnt up.

So, it seems, I always succumb—at least after a while—to that whole “summer is a time to relax” mentality. I defend my choices in various ways: it’s “research,” I’ve already exceeded the recommended yearly allowance for great works of literature, someone lent me this and I need to give it back…. Mostly though, I think I’m just not a serious enough student to spend a whole summer with Soren Kierkegaard, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov. (Except in my screenplay, in which we all rent a beach house together. Spoiler alert: hilarity and hijinks ensue!) Even my brilliant plan to present my reading list in syllabus form wasn’t enough to keep me on task. I decided that from July 25-31 I wanted to read what I felt like—to Hell with you, Appointment in Samarra, even if I’d probably like you under normal circumstances.

So, anyway, this year, I am just compiling a list of some books I would like to read. Period. No schedule. No debate over literary merit. Maybe I won’t even set myself a goal of how many books to read.

Tentatively, my summer reading list is shaping up as follows:

  1. Vanity Fair — William Thackeray
  2. The Lovers — Vendela Vida
  3. Bossypants — Tina Fey
  4. Swamplandia! — Karen Russell
  5. Sense & Sensibility — Jane Austen
  6. The House of the Seven Gables — Nathaniel Hawthorne
  7. Super Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart

A total mix of new and old, light and serious. I don’t even have a reason for choosing them, other than that they all looked interesting. If I read them, that’s great, but if I don’t, oh well. I’m trying something new, easing up on the summer reading madness this year. Ultimately, I just want a list to take with me to the library, a guide so that I end up choosing books I’ve been wanting to read, rather than whatever I find. Yes, this probably means another year of not reading Ulysses, but I’m okay with that. You know that most of the people who claim to have read it have only read that one chapter anyway.

…Pervs.

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