It is a sad day. I wanted to review Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids, but guess what? Apparently two-day shipping is no longer literal (yet another reason to boycott Amazon! The only thing standing in my way is already having a Prime account and my own cheapskate personality). In the meantime, I’d like to share two fiction books I’ve read recently, both of which blew me away (one in a rather more positive way than the other).
–No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July
I picked this short story collection up at a used bookstore (hurrah for my conscience and supporting local retailers) because I wanted to dip my toe in the waters of this new-fangled hipster-lit movement (after all, I’m an aspiring fiction writer and, by association, I’m part of this whole Generation Y-skinny jeans-Vampire Weekend crowd, right?). Also, I figured it was best to build up to reading anything by Tao Lin, the veritable deity of hipster-lit, who wrote a novel titled Eeeee Eee Eeee (after the sound dolphins make) and another titled Richard Yates (which stars Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment as … themselves. Yes, postmodern fiction confuses me too).
July’s collection of short stories is unlike anything else I’ve read, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I like that she always writes in the first person, and I also admire how she’s able to slip into the skin of just about anyone, ranging from a middle-aged woman with a crush on Prince William to a young lesbian in unrequited love.
But there’s an oddly creepy tone to these stories, and it starts to get old and well-nigh pretentious about halfway through the book. Nearly every story involves melancholy sexual deviance of some kind, and July doesn’t let her characters off easy, twisting their relationships into hideous shapes just when the reader wants someone to wind up happy, for once. At the risk of exposing my Puritanical roots, I get really annoyed by books that imply that a person’s life is little more than their libido. Sex is a powerful motivator, of course, but writers shouldn’t exploit the titillating nature of sex writing by letting it do all the heavy lifting at the expense of other plot and character developments.
I’d still recommend aspiring writers read this, if only to get a clue about what the publishing world is looking for nowadays. There are some real gems in here, don’t get me wrong; my issue is mainly with how contrived and kitschy (in the not-good way) July’s writing feels, if taken as a whole.
–The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
These young adult novels were such a sensation that there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of or even read them by now. If not, consider this a PSA: if you are even remotely interested in sci-fi, let alone dystopian settings or the morality of war, you will love these books.
The setting is North America far in the future, after natural disasters and a nuclear war have decimated the population, which is now divided into a Capitol city and twelve surrounding districts, each of which find themselves under the brutal Capitol’s thumb.
Protagonist Katniss Everdeen is from relatively poor District 12, which mines coal for the rest of the country (I suspect this district is located the remains of West Virginia, while the Capitol is lodged somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, for reference). Poaching has made her a skilled archer, while the death of her father, in addition to squalid living conditions, has made her hard-hearted, cold and calculating. Katniss isn’t your average heroine–she’s tough and she often makes ethically and morally questionable decisions.
As punishment for a quashed rebellion, the Capitol televises an annual battle royale, wherein every district must deliver one boy and one girl to fight to the bloody death in an arena filled with sadistic booby traps. The Hunger Games isn’t the first book or film to deal with this subject matter (see The Running Man, for one), but it’s inventive: combining reality TV with adolescent mayhem makes for compulsively readable and thematically rich material.
Two of the things I appreciate most about the series are that evolves significantly in the third book, re-inventing the plot instead of recycling the battle-royale structure over and over, and that it’s not afraid to highlight ambiguous actions and characters, rather than making everything black-versus-white.
What books have you guys read lately and enjoyed (non-fiction recommendations always welcome)?