After reading The Fault in Our Stars last year and seeing many positive reviews of John Green’s earlier work I decided to start at the beginning of his oeuvre and have a read through. That brought me to Looking for Alaska. It also didn’t hurt that it made the top ten most frequently challenged books list of 2012 for having offensive language, being sexually explicit, as well as being unsuited for age group. I had to see what all the fuss was about.
We start the novel meeting Miles “Pudge” Halter’s life growing up has been uneventful. He’s virtually friendless and has decided that attending his father’s boarding school will be the change he needs to seek his “Great Perhaps”. When Miles arrives at Culver Creek Boarding School his life becomes the opposite of uneventful. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself; is funny, sexy, and a mess. There was Miles’ life before Alaska, and his life after.
The book itself is set up in two sections, Before and After. We’re with Pudge throughout the novel and his various adventures with new friends Alaska, the Colonel, Lara and Takumi as he navigates the events of his junior year of high school and how his relationships with all these people effect the person he is becoming. While I don’t believe in banning books, I did have moments where I blanched knowing my 14 year old niece read the scenes containing a blowjob and the vast amount of underage drinking, and then I was immediately mad at myself because I did a lot of underage drinking and smoking and was well versed in various sexual acts even though I had yet to personally take part in them at a similar age. The characters on the page are very real, but also have that signature John Green touch of being slightly enhanced from anyone you actually know. I whole-heartedly suggest Looking for Alaska make its way onto your to read list.
There was something about the description of Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer that drew me in – cousins in 19th century England encountering boys and magical intrigue? Sure, why not.
This novel’s main characteristic is that it started its life as a letter writing game between two writer friends as an exercise to hone their skills. The plot of the story was not discussed between the authors, they simply took turns writing from their particular character’ perspective laying out the various components as they went. What this does for the reader is to create two novels happening simultaneously with shared characters while also delivering a cohesive plot.
I promise it’s better than that description makes it sound. As an amateur writer who scribbles for fun the very idea of embarking on such an exercise scares the bejesus out of me. Not only did Patricia Wrede to and Caroline Stevermer publish this story but they continued on with these characters for two more books. This is the case of two writers finding a perfect match and defining clear character voices in Kate and Cecy keep the reader interested and able to separate the different voices.
The only detractor I can really lay out (besides some rather stupid decisions by the antagonists, but really – aren’t they supposed to make stupid decisions every so often?) is that since most of the secondary characters are already known to our two leads they do not do a great job of making them distinguishable for the reader. For the early part of the book I had a tough time telling the difference between the various aunts and gentleman callers.
Our Band Could Be Your Life documents the American independent scene from 1981-1991 through the stories of thirteen bands: Black Flag, The Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mudhoney and Beat Happening. Michael Azerrad’s definition for indie in his prologue is simple: labels, or bands that were releasing on labels, which had no affiliation whatsoever with the Big 6 record labels of the time. Perhaps even simpler, indie meant doing everything yourself with little or no budget.
The book tells thirteen different tales of do-it-yourself perseverance, or “jamming econo” as the Minutemen would say. Ten short years saw the birth of the American punk, post-punk, hardcore, noise rock and twee pop movements. Indie rock oases popped up all over the US: Southern California, D.C., Minneapolis, NYC, Chicago, Boston, Seattle. While these bands did not all tour with one another, the reader understands that there was both a nationwide independent camaraderie as well as local scenes throughout the country.
Our Band Could Be Your Life focuses on chronicling the day to day life of the bands and the realities of what they experienced to make their music. Azerrad‘s experience as a journalist shows through in the writing. This is a book made of 13 independent stories which are linked together by commonality of experience. At times Azerrad is wordy and circles back onto the same themes multiple times and for that reason alone I suggest reading the thirteen chapters as independent works. Don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time with Our Band Could Be Your Life, I found myself reading chapters in between other books (A slightly mind-melting experience reading the Mudhoney chapter in between Shine Shine Shine and Beautiful Ruins.)
I can understand how this book would rank higher for other readers. And I understand that in many, many ways this is a beautifully crafted novel which opens up one layer at a time. That Jess Walters weaves the narration in such a way that the reader grows with the characters and sees the growth, the humanity, and the lives which are built out of the beautiful ruin of the choices we make.
That being said, this one didn’t light up my heart.
First, the basics: Beautiful Ruins is the story of Pasquale and Dee, and the week that their lives intersect in Italy in 1962 and again 50 years later. It is also the story of the lives of the people who bring them together and keep them apart. It’s a story which tries to tell us something meaningful, but doesn’t fully land on that idea until the last 30 or so pages of the novel. The book wanted to say something profound about love, hope, doing the right thing, and knowing our place in life – and most emphatically what wanting something more than what is our destiny can do to our psyches. These are big ideas and meaningful places to meditate.
But, nothing got deep into my soul with this one. I was entertained, and intrigued, but not particularly moved. And that’s what’s keeping the star count low. The other main problem for me was that the voices of the characters blended too easily in my mind. Having read Where’d You Go, Bernadette this year and having those voices be so crisp and clean I felt this novel didn’t reach the same level.
Separately, but also probably part of my reaction to the book was that I went in knowing that it is being adapted into a movie. I wish I didn’t know that before I read it because I thought about who would be cast to play the famous parts while reading.
There is much about Flow which aggravates me. Some things are quite simple and would’ve been easily corrected. An editor unafraid to attack with the red pen and hack up chapters and suggest deleting entire ones could easily have saved the reader from repetitive information. But other than being needlessly long and repetitive there was a larger problem.
The authors, in attempting to be friendly are instead insulting to even marginally informed women. Flow is a book written in a ‘aw shucks ain’t that interesting’ way that aggravated my last nerve.
The beginning of the book is broken into seven chapters and covers 100 pages. Several of these chapters should have been edited down and combined. Chapters Two and Three (Where We Are Today and So How Did We Get Here?) as well as Chapters Four and Five (Hysteria and Seeing Red) cover the same information twice and each pair could share one introduction and launch into the related topics. Instead pages of retreading occur. The second half of the book is another seven chapters and while generally independent of one another there is a return to information we have already been presented as if the author expects that we are going to pick this book up and read only one chapter which interests us and not the entire work.
The structure of the book strikes me as odd as well. Discussion of current understandings of a ‘normal’ period is back in chapter eleven! There are some facts hidden in the back of the book which would’ve been nice to have upfront. Alleviate some fears and “am I the only one?” type questions and then set about telling the story of how so much information about a body process which occurs in half of all humans is hidden from public understanding by various forces. As the title implies. This is not a book written that way.
Things that I wish were mentioned earlier (just to name a few):
- Menstruation can often aggravate chronic illnesses and disorders (migraines, insomnia, asthma, arthritis).
- Your chances of endometriosis increase the longer you put off having your first child or by not having one at all.
- An oophorectomy, removal of the ovaries which is commonly performed in tandem with a hysterectomy, performed before menopause can put a woman at greater risk for dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
This book also leans heavily on the side of being anti-medication. I support informing people about exactly what they are putting into their bodies, and would hope that before going on long-term medication women and men would research what it is made of, I detest the way the authors have placed themselves into the ‘what you’re doing is gross and weird’ camp. All the while claiming that they are about your right to choose for yourself while making light or making fun and then laying on the guilt. This is NOT conducive to a conversation.
This is most glaring when discussing where estrogen replacements come from. While the manner in which it is harvested and its source may disgust the writers, it is unfair to say that ALL women who take it are taking it because they fear aging. Plenty of women are on estrogen replacement because their bodies don’t produce any or enough estrogen and the lack of estrogen leads to other health problems. THIS IS NOT ADDRESSED BY THE AUTHORS. Instead it’s the launching pad to talk about the fear of menopause. Is it interesting and necessary to talk about historical social stigma related to menopause. Absolutely. BUT IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO ATTEMPT TO GROSS THE READER OUT BY TALKING ABOUT PREGNANT HORSE URINE TO DO SO. I admit the connection is extremely strong between the desire to postpone menopause and the development of these drugs, but the delivery was heavy-handed and annoying.
The only reasons I gave this book two stars was the wonderful amount of historical advertising placed throughout and the timeline which divides sections one and two. Don’t read this book. Skim it for pictures and make a list of things to read from the bibliography.
After reading pyrajane’s review of this book I knew I had to read it.
The details in Shine Shine Shine are the making of this novel. Lydia Netzer makes several conscious choices as an author which allow for a type of story we’ve heard a hundred times seem fresh ad new by changing the angles through which we view it. At the epicenter of the story are Sunny and Maxon. When Maxon met Sunny, he was seven years, four months, and eighteen-days old. Or, he was 2693 rotations of the earth old. Maxon was different. Sunny was different. And they were different together. This pair is the great love in the novel, and they are also the center of its dysfunction.
By eliminating possessive pronouns throughout much of the narrative Netzer keeps the reader on their toes. I was immediately intrigued and put completely off balance throughout the first half of the novel. There is a little bit of many different genres flitting in and out. It’s the story of a family, it’s the story of a child with autism, it’s the story of damaged adults, it’s the story of birth and death, and it’s a story about robots colonizing the moon.
I’m intentionally leaving out lots of detail about the story, not because it’s unimportant, but because I want you to discover the details for yourself. Be warned that it may be a very slow start, but it picks up. Be prepared to dislike at least one character at any given time, but also know that your opinion may change as you move farther into the plot. This is the story of the things we do to protect what we love, even when we don’t understand the choices. The non-understanding will lead to disliking but that’s all okay.
“Sometimes it comes to that desperate state, when you have to cling to each other and be alone. When no one else can truly matter. She thought, Ours is one of the epic loves of our generation. Possibly of all time. Who cares if no one sees it, walking by? This story is a love song. Who cares if history won’t remember?” (195).