This was totally unintentional, but the apparent theme of my fall reading list? Depressing ‘R’ Us. Not that any of these books were bad, per se — we just had a whole onslaught of “whomp, whomp” themes. Manipulative friendships, religious cynicism, multiple suicides… it was a whole big bucket of WHEEEEEE!
So let’s get started on this parade, shall we?
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
I’ll start out by saying that since this is an Atwood book, it is, of course, wonderfully written. But Cat’s Eye is wildly uncomfortable. This is the story of Elaine, who returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her painting career. While there, she recalls her entire childhood and young adult life — and it’s in the remembering of that childhood that shit gets WEIRD.
If I had to pinpoint one theme of the book, it’d be this: children are horrible and cruel and do terrible things to one another. Enter Cordelia. Cordelia, Elaine’s supposed best friend, is the ringleader of a group of girls who do awful things to Elaine. Just awful. And this is what makes Cat’s Eye such an uncomfortable read — all the terrible things these children do? They all read true. Children can be absolutely cruel and manipulative — but often aren’t seen as such, because come on, they’re children!
About halfway through the book, Atwood pulls a masterful switch on us. I don’t want to tell details, but at a high level — Atwood slowly transforms Cordelia from the antagonist into… well, not the protagonist, for sure. But sympathetic, yes. And that’s why I think Cat’s Eye is worth the read — to watch a master author at work. Sometimes being uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
Oh man. Here comes confession time. I’d never read Travels with Charley, but enjoy a lot of Steinbeck’s other work. So after our California road trip adventure, I decided it was high time to pick up this book. I know a lot of people who love it, and I mean come on, it’s a classic! Man road trips across the country with beloved dog. What could be better than that?
The whole time I was reading it, all I could think of was…
I’m sorry, you guys, but most of the time Steinbeck just came off as a cranky old man who was frustrated by the direction his country was headed. Everybody was doing everything wrong! Kids these days! IT USED TO BE BETTER WHAT IS HAPPENING TO AMERICA!
Did anyone else get this impression while reading this book? Was it just me?
Now, it must be said — since this is Steinbeck, there are moments of beautiful lyricism and insight. The last third of the book seemed to hit its stride (once he reaches the West coast — Steinbeck just can’t hide his love for the Best coast). But the rest was a bit of a slog, and if I hadn’t been committed to finishing this one, I may have set it down early. AND THAT IS MY AWFUL CONFESSION.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
This is the one book that breaks the depressing mold… which is odd, considering that it has a murder-mystery-suicide at its core.
I’ll admit it — I never would have picked up this book (let alone found it) if J.K. Rowling hadn’t been revealed as the author. Even still, I didn’t have super high expectations. I thought it’d be a fun read, but I knew it wasn’t going to be Harry Potter.
And then I couldn’t put it down. The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t the best written book I’ve ever read, nor the most original — but it’s fun. It’s just plain fun. The characters are interesting, the plot intriguing. You turn each page thinking, “What happens next?” Which is a quality I remember the Harry Potter books having — sitting at the kitchen table, unable to set the book down, NEEDING to know what happened next. Ms. Rowling, bless you for that — we need books like this, books that get people interested in reading.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
THIS. This was the surprise read of the season. Several friends recommended it, but I knew nothing about the plot. When I started reading it, all I felt was a big fat “meh.” White middle-class 20-something explains family drama. Yup, I thought, I’ve read this before. I almost set the book down, but for whatever reason decided to continue on just a liittttle bit further.
And then — the twist. The thing that makes this book NOT your regular family drama. There had been hints dropped along the way, but I’m not always so quick on the uptake. And in case YOU, dear reader, are not so quick on the uptake… I’m not going to say what The Twist is. I’m not even going to hint at it. Which makes the book pretty damn difficult to review. So I’ll just say this: I ended up LOVING this book. It’s going to be on the 2014 Favorites list, for sure. It made me think, it had me emotionally invested, it had my mind-grapes muddled for days. I read the end on an airplane, which was a TERRIBLE IDEA. I had to stop reading several times because it got me too worked up. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not THE best-written book I’ve ever read, but the plot — and the questions and moral ambiguities the plot raises — more than make up for it. Seriously, go read this one.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Last winter (OMG almost a full year ago??) I read Slaughterhouse-Five and LOVED it — and to my immense shame, I admitted that I’d never read any Vonnegut before. So I thought, “Ok, let’s try another.” And Cat’s Cradle… man, this was one cynical book. Cat’s Cradle seems to be Vonnegut’s anti-religion creed, anti-society creed — the prose equivalent of giving up on all mankind. And that’s really saying something, because Slaughterhouse-Five ain’t exactly unicorns and sunshine. But I mean, look at this:
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it: “Nothing.”
Fantastic prose — DEPRESSING AS HELL. I’m definitely going to be reading more Vonnegut, but this one wasn’t top-of-the-list for me. I consider myself a realistic; I don’t necessarily consider myself a cynic.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This is a case of “Not for me.”
Last fall (HOW, HOW HAS IT BEEN A YEAR), I read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wasn’t crazy about it, but enjoyed it enough that I wanted to check out Murakami’s fiction.
Norwegian Wood is objectively a good book. It’s a quiet book about important things (suicide and depression, mostly — I KNOW HOW TO PICK ‘EM, AMIRIGHT?). Just like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the writing quality is high — even beautiful in spots. There is no doubt that Murakami is an excellent writer. But about halfway through… I got bored. I thought maybe things would pick up, so I pushed on. And then I got to a point where I was far enough along that I couldn’t NOT finish, but dammit I just wanted the book to end. So, yes, I finished this book. Mostly out of spite. Good work, me.
But I can’t call this a “bad” book. Because it’s not a bad book — even as I was desperately trying to finish it, I could tell that. It just wasn’t for me. I think these days I need more plot — less introspection, more action. My college self probably would have loved this book — heck, I would have wanted to write this book — but we change, and as we do, our tastes change. Others would enjoy this book. Just not me, not now.
That wraps up the Fall Reading Fun Times. Dear LORD I need to chose some more uplifting books. Any recommendations? Have you read any of these?