Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Title Three: A Room With A View by E.M. Forster

I've had this book floating around for about eight years, and I never read it. I felt like I should read it, because it was listed as one of the top 100 English language novels of the 20th century or somesuch, but I never got around to it. So, I did the one thing that I knew would make me read it: I made it my cigarette book.

What the hell is a cigarette book, you ask? It's the book I read when I smoke cigarettes. Kind of how some people have bedtime books or bathroom books or what have you. Whenever I have a cigarette (at home, not while driving or at a bar) I need to multitask, so I read. At least the reading part won't give me lung cancer. (And please spare me the warnings; I read the box.)

Let's go back to the book. I wish I didn't have to. Please don't make me read this ever again. Eating A Room With A View would probably be more interesting and palatable than reading it was. Lucy Honeychurch goes on a tour of Italy with her spinster cousin Charlotte as chaperone. In their pensione they meet several drawing-room type characters, including a certain Mr Emerson and his son George. Lucy and Charlotte's rooms have no view, but the Emersons' rooms do, so the gentlemen propose a switch, since ladies like to look at things. There are several pages worth of British babble and blather, mostly on the part of Charlotte, about the impropriety of accepting rooms from gentlemen and blahblahblahwhatevercakes. Over the next few days, Lucy and Charlotte's sightseeing path crosses with other pensioners, including Mr Beebe, Lucy's pastor back home in England; Miss Lavish, a tacky old lady writing a novel; someone named Mr Eager, who seems pointless to me; the Misses Alan, a pair of spinster sisters; and the Emersons, of course.

There are a murder by a fountain, postcards, a carriage ride, the River Arno, violets in the countryside, and a kiss. George kisses Lucy when he is overcome by her beauty against a field of violets. They are seen by Charlotte, the dried-up old prune, who begs Lucy to tell no one (since Charlotte, as chaperone, would be blamed for the loss of Lucy's virtue and OH MY GOD, we get it). Lucy decides that she cannot stay in Florence and goes to Rome, where a Mrs. Vyse and her son Cecil are visiting.

The novel brings us back to the pastoral Eden of British suburbia, centered on Lucy's home, Windy Corner, where she lives with her widowed mother and 19-year-old brother Freddy. Tennis, tea, piano-playing, gossip, gardening, and visiting all take place. It's all veddy, veddy English. Lucy has managed to get herself engaged to Cecil; no one likes Cecil, including Lucy (though she doesn't know it yet), because he's a pretentious bore (and a boor), but it's a good match, so everyone is congenial. When they go visiting, Cecil is rude; country life is too quaint and boring for him. He proceeds to mold Lucy into his version of what a woman should be, and it looks as though they will be married in January and I will be released from this waste of a tree, but some deus ex machina brings tenants to a vacant house in town - not the "Miss Alans" [sic] as was originally intended, but the Emersons! Duh-dun!

Moving along. Cecil is condescending and obnoxious, Pruny Charlotte comes to visit and gets in everyone's way, like that annoying relative who comes for holiday dinners and apologizes all over the place for being a bother while secretly hiding dinner rolls in her purse, and George comes over to play tennis with Freddy. Cecil reads a book aloud, which turns out to be the story of Lucy and George's Italian indescretions, written and published by Miss Lavish under a pseudonym. Lucy realizes that Pruny Charlotte told Miss Lavish everything, George kisses Lucy again and declares his love by a hedge, Lucy realizes that she doesn't love Cecil because he wants her to be someone she isn't and breaks off the engagement. Everyone is delighted by the news, including Mr Beebe, because no one likes Cecil. Lucy decides to travel to Greece with the Alan sisters to get away from Windy Corner and George, but a chance encounter with Mr Emerson in the rectory library (seriously) reveals that the Emersons are moving to London because George has "gone under" with his unrequited love for Lucy and cannot stand to be reminded of her when she swans off with Cecil. By the by, nobody outside of the family knows yet that the engagement is off, for some stiff-upper-lip reason. Lucy figures out that she loves George and that Pruny Charlotte engineered the whole thing out of misplaced guilt, or something like that. The book ends with Lucy and George married, in Italy, with none of Lucy's family or friends speaking to her because they disapprove of the match, in British fashion, but Lucy and George don't care because they are IN LOVE, and that is all that matters. The whole point is that Lucy only ever pictured Cecil in a drawing room with no windows, but George gives her the view. I need some Tylenol because the anvils have given me a killer headache.

I want you to know that I love all things British. I love British books, and television dramas, and chat shows. I love saying "chips" instead of "fries" and I have always wanted to visit the UK. England, Wales, Scotland, the whole of it. I want to walk on moors and eat teacakes and see Westminster Abbey and ride in a black cab. However, I do not ever want to have to read this "pointless, repetitious, and exceedingly dull" (to quote David Tennant in a Children in Need sketch) piece of fiction again.

It's time to find a new cigarette book.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Title Two: Please Stop Laughing at Me... by Jodee Blanco

When you were growing up, where did you fit into the social hierarchy? Were you one of the cool kids, the nerds, the jocks, the stoners? Were you a misfit, either by choice or by fate? Did the thought of interacting with your peers fill you with dread and self-loathing? I remember where I existed; do you?

Jodee Blanco was a misfit, a freak, and an outcast. Please Stop Laughing at Me... is her account of the pain, longing, desperation and humiliation that she endured for the greater part of her school years, begininning around the fifth grade and extending until her last day of high school. Part of Jodee's problem was her upbringing - the only child of two intelligent and well-meaning parents, Jodee was raised to think and act as a sort of miniature adult and taught to act and react in the way that you or I, adults ourselves, would. Jodee was a popular girl until she befriended a mentally challenged student in her Catholic grade school; once word got out that she was hanging out with a "retard," she herself became labeled a freak. At first Jodee attempted to distance herself from her new friend, but internal guilt and external parental pressure led her back into the friendship and down the road she would travel, painfully, for the rest of her school life.

Things became so bad for Jodee that she had to switch schools, more than once, and endure hideous treatment - after a particular disastrous party incident, Jodee found herself relegated to an outcast status so brutal the the class loser refused to talk to her. Her shoes were tossed in unflushed toilets; her clothes were stolen from her locker and destroyed; she was beaten after school. Jodee's parents were convinced that the problem was hers and forced her into psychiatric treatment while teachers told her that she needed to work the problems out for herself.

As Jodee passed into high school, her life remained a living hell. A genetic deformity made her an even greater target for the cruelest of predators: the popular girls. Don't think for a moment that they were tossing out generic "freak" and "loser" comments; Jodee's classmates would threaten to kill her and refused to even allow her in the cafeteria at lunch. One day they pushed her into traffic when she got off the school bus. The threats, taunts, and physical and mental abuse continued until Jodee's last day of senior year, when she took a leap of faith and asked a classmate and former friend to sign her yearbook. Smiling, he scribbled with a black marker and handed it back for her to read: "YOU'LL HAVE TO FUCK YOURSELF, WE HATE YOU, BITCH."

It's interesting how easy it is to forget what it was like to be young and so unsure of yourself; Blanco has the ability to suck you right back into a time in our lives that most of us would rather forget. Growing up, I cared a lot about what people thought about me. Self-esteem wasn't something I had in spades. It's easy to look back, as a fulfilled, functional adult, and think "It turns out okay." It's easy for two reasons: one, it's true, for the most part; two, we have that sort of misty haze separating our adult selves from our adolescent selves - that cushion that time gives us. Blanco kicks that cushion out from under us and tears away the haze and forces us to look and to remember. Please Stop Laughing at Me... is brave, raw, and 100% worth reading.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Title One: The Year of Fog by Michelle Redmond

For my first foray into the Challenge, I chose The Year of Fog, a novel that looked intriguing to me when I saw it at Target. The basic premise is repeated in the voice of the narrator throughout the book as she returns, over and over, to the moment in which the year began: Abby, a freelance photographer, walks on Ocean Beach in San Francisco with her fiance's six year old daughter, Emma, on a cold and foggy July morning. Abby's attention is diverted for a moment when she stops to photograph a dead seal pup and glance at the highway; when she looks back, Emma is simply gone.

What follows is Abby's account of her search for Emma; woven in with mathematical ratios regarding the area of a circle, references to articles and books written on the psychology of memory, and photographic jargon are the threads of Abby's relationship with her fiance, Jake, showing how that relationship changes in the weeks and months following Emma's disappearance. Jumbled in haphazardly are memories of Abby's first lover, a much older man named Ramon; her encounters with a client and a fellow parent at a support group (both of whom she almost sleeps with); and entirely too much San Francisco tourism hype. I appreciated, at first, Abby's account of the various neighborhoods and landmarks that she visits in her hunt for Emma, putting up flyers and handing out leaflets. However, after a while, I don't need to be told that she's in the Haight again, or revisiting Golden Gate Park at night, or standing somewhere while the lights of Pac Bell Park shine in the distance. I get it. The book takes place in San Francisco. I don't need to be smacked in the head with that fact every other page. Nor do I need a Zagat's guide to the San Franciscan restaurant scene; the name dropping becomes anvillicious after a point.

Some chapters are only a page and a half long, and seem jammed into place and choppy. They mostly involve snippets of psychology with regards to memory, and while that premise is interesting, Redmond tends to get a bit too clinical in discussing the hippocampus and the amygdala. (You probably have no clue what those are, and that's okay, because you're not a brain surgeon.) There is also a recurrent subplot in which Abby's mother finds revealing photographs of Abby, taken by Ramon, while Abby is away at college; Abby's parents believe that she is a sex addict and ship her off to a pseudo-camp/rehab in an attempt to "cure" her. This really has nothing to do with the story and I found myself impatiently skipping over the all-too-frequent references to these events.

The heart of the story is Abby's search for Emma, which she refuses to give up. Caught in a tricky place as Emma's almost-stepmother, Abby cannot let go even when she feels that she has no right to hold on. Jake blames her for Emma's disappearance and Abby cannot forgive herself; for this reason she continues to push on, searching for any clue, retracing her steps and visiting a hypnotist in an effort to find what she missed. A distinctive surfboard becomes Abby's "Rosebud" and she follows a hunch thousands of miles in her last attempt to find Emma and bring her home.

One thing is obvious from the title: at the end of a year, the search for Emma will end, whether she is found, dead or alive, or Abby gives up. Throughout that year Abby comes to realize that she loves Emma more than she loves Jake, and while she can live without the latter, she exists in a shadow world without the former. Overall, the premise is excellent and the climax is both satisfying and bittersweet. The book itself could benefit from more judicious editing and less distraction, but it was an enjoyable read.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Temporary Lockout

I realize I've been notoriously absent since I joined the Challenge, but I have very good reason - this week I started a new job and am in the final hours until a wedding in which I am way too heavily involved for being a mere bridesmaid. I am going to attack this mofo with a vengeance after October 12th. Prisco, I'm coming for you!

Saturday, October 4, 2008


So, I'm open to suggestions for my reading list. I've a few ideas for my first few reads, but please feel free to toss some ideas my way.

Hello, fellow book geeks!

At the encouragement of my beloved Zombie Vanquishing Queen, Ms. AlabamaPink, I am throwing my hat into the Pajiba Cannonball Read ring. My mission, as I have chosen to accept it, is to read and review 100 books in 1 year. My interests are diverse: fiction, memoir, nonfiction; sci-fi, mystery, historical fiction, biography, autobiography, Brit lit, etc. The key rule to the challenge is that each book has to be at least 200 pages; this means that I can't include one of my top 10 books, The Little Prince, so instead I'm just going to tell you that you need to read it.

I haven't decided on my first read yet. I figure I have the weekend to mull it over.