Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Paint it Black by Janet Fitch

This book is thoroughly depressing, but so very well written that I quite willingly stepped into Fitch's carefully cultivated world of misery.

My primary goal in reading fiction is the element of escapism, and I judge the quality of writing by the ease into which I can slip into an existence other than my own. While iced in on a cold, rainy Saturday, I felt transported to LA, circa 1980, immersed in the decadent of punk rock / art scene.

Josie Tyrell came to LA with nothing but a desire to escape the tow yard in Bakersfield and her white trash family. While working as an art model, she met Michael, an art student and Harvard drop-out with famous, wealthy parents who wanted to live in the "true world". He wants to be part of Josie's world, one in which people take care of themselves, one in which he's not controlled by his parents and their history, he wants to be his own person for the first time in his life. Michael though, despite his desires, suffers from depression, more severe than he or Josie or his mother, Meredith, can understand.

One day he tells Josie he's going to his mother's house to paint and a few days later Josie receives a phone call informing her that he's been found dead in a hotel room, a gunshot to the head in an apparent suicide.

That's how the story begins. The rest of the novel is Josie's attempts to understand what happened, what went wrong, the signs she might have missed, a place to lay the blame. But instead she discovers more secrets and lies and confusion, and more questions than she will ever find answers.

Josie finds herself forming a bond with Michael's mother, the only other person who knew him. They cling to each other because no one else could possibly understand their shared pain. Josie is drawn into the world that destroyed Michael and is then faced with the decision to succumb or pull away.

Because of the superb writing, the characters in this story feel so real. Josie's memories of Michael's gradual slide into darkness, her fear and admiration of Meredith, and her struggle to continue a new life, one without the only person who ever made her feel real. Michael was the first person who didn't look at her as if she was trash, and yet, the more she learns about him, the more she begins to question what she believed was their love.

I suspect it could be the result of my own unstable mental state that I felt so connected to Josie. Not because I know anything about living in California or being an art model or having a boyfriend that committed suicide, but rather because I could relate to her determination to have something more, something better than her past told her she could have - even if that meant being left with nothing.

There's a scene near the end of the book when Josie's sitting in traffic wondering why she couldn't have been satisfied with something simple.
Pg. 345 - In an alternate universe, she would be going home from a day at the bank, the Auto Club, the State Farm office, thinking about her own kids and what she would make for dinner in her suburban kitchen in El Monte. Tuna casserole with potato chips crumbled on top. Her young husband picking them up at day care. What was so wrong about that? Something simple and basic, attainable. She wanted too much, that was her fault, not just Michael's love, but everything everything everything. Genius and wealth and culture, art and achievement...

I read that passage and immediately felt like I knew the character and understood everything she wanted. The burning a person feels when they escape a small town and yearn for something more, something so out of their reach. The easy way out is right there in front of you, but if you take that path, you know you'll never have a shot at what you really want. So you opt for nothingness rather than simple mediocrity.
Pg. 383: She liked the city, people close all around, crowds, the feel of something happening. Music, nightlife, being on the list, the girl everyone wanted to know – the possibility of more than dishes and diapers and the grocery store.

You hold onto that possibility as the world crumbles around you.

This is a story about people trying to pull away from that which controls them, without letting go, because they can't or they won't. This is about coming to terms with a past full of horror and degradation or allowing it to destroy you, actions and words that you can never take back, memories that you have to learn to live with, set them aside and move on. Most of all, this book is about trying desperately to find something beautiful in a world that is filled with ugliness. Josie didn't even know there was beauty in the world until she met Michael. But then Michael gave up his search, overwhelmed by the process, leaving Josie behind to continue looking on her own.

I really liked this book.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

Sometimes, after reading a book like this, I wonder if maybe I'm just not as intelligent as I think I am. Maybe I'm simply too dense to "get it". I picked up this book because it was on several "best of" lists at the end of last year, and I liked the title – Twilight of the Superheroes.

The book is a collection of several unrelated short stories. Overall, I didn't feel like the stories had much substance.

When I read something, I want to be entertained or informed, surprised or amused, I want to be taken to a new place, a different world, or I want a connection with my current state of existence. I felt none of that with the stories in this book.

The stories never revealed much about the characters, they touched on the ideas of family and relationships and the breakdown of such. They all felt if they contained the potential for something more, but never quite got there. If anything, after I read the stories I felt like, "why did I just bother reading that if I wasn't going to learn anything more about these people?"

If someone else has read this and loved it, feel free to let me know what I missed, because I was fully expecting to like this and am disappointed that I didn't.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Finally read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I have to admit I'm disappointed.

I bought the book the week it came out last summer. I started reading it and had to stop shortly into the novel because I was disturbed by the direction the character of Snape was taking. I love Snape. I've got a thing for bad boys, not so much bad, but misunderstood. The dark, mysterious loner, the inept social skills and the brilliant mind. Plus, Alan Rickman portrays that characters in the movies and I think he's so sexy and even more so when decked out in the Trent Reznor circa early 90s look.

A few pages in, things were not looking good for Snape and I stopped reading. A common trait about women who love bad guys, we prefer to stay in denial when others are trying to point out his bad traits.

Now though, with the announcements being released about the last book – title was revealed a few weeks ago – I felt like it was time to finally get that book read. I couldn't avoid it forever and it would be stupid to have read the first five books and then just stop.

Over Thanksgiving I bought a paperback copy of the book because I had quite a bit of traveling planned for the next few weeks (ie lots of time spent sitting in airports) and didn't want to lug around the hardbound copy of the book.

I managed to get through the 600+ pages in a few long sittings. Never once though did I feel like the story grabbed me, propelling me through the pages unable to put it down. It did however provide a nice escape while spending time in airport waiting areas. However, when not stuck somewhere waiting, it was something of an effort to pick up the book.

With each book, I find I like the character of Harry even less. That doesn't at all lessen my interest in the story, but it does diminish my emotional attachment to the main character. When I read stories about school situations, I tend to compare it to my own school experience and try to figure out which students would be part of which clique. Harry, the "chosen one" and star athlete would be the kind of student I would have avoided. I guess you could say I would have been more of the Neville and Luna type of student.

Well, if you've read the book, factoring in my feelings for Snape, you know exactly why I was upset by the ending. I wasn't that bothered at all by the part of the book that was supposed to be upsetting because I was too angry about what happened to Snape.

I didn't particularly enjoy reading this book, but I am at least anxious to read the final book, in hopes of some sort of satisfactory resolution.