Books I Don’t Want to Read

There are a lot of books in the world that I know I should read because they will, theoretically, make me a better person. Not, like, self help books (although I’m sure some of those would be beneficial too…how do people ever save money?). Books that will teach me about parts of the world I’ll likely never see, in the first person, in the past or the present. Books that will broaden my empathy and understanding.

But I don’t want to read them because THEY’RE UPSETTING. And not in the way Gillian Flynn is upsetting. Upsetting in a way that stays with me for a long time after I finish reading them because they are about the real cruelties that humans regularly inflict on one another. And usually they show how both the perpetrators of violence and their victims are, in fact, victims of the same circumstances. And the whole world is to blame.

We’ll call that the introduction to my book club’s newest choice, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I haven’t finished it yet. I’m actually nowhere near finishing it… I’m on page 19 and I’m stalled. The book is about a woman of Haitian descent who goes with her husband and their baby to visit her parents in their upper-class home in Haiti and gets violently kidnapped while they’re on their way to the beach. And…that’s all I know because all that happens in the first 19 pages. Other than that all I know is that one of my friends from book club texted me “So the word “gun” was just used as a euphemism multiple times in this book and I’m now hoping it can’t possibly get much worse… Upon further reading, I’m not even sure it was a euphemism and that makes it so much more disturbing.” And although I have reasonably deduced what happened already, really, I just don’t want to read that.

I also felt this way about Half of a Yellow Sun (a wonderfully written book about the 1960s civil war in Nigeria that made me empathize with a rapist and then gradually grow to hate everyone on the entire planet and want to never go outside again). Every time they left their house I was like “Nooooo! Stay home! Stay safe!” And they never listened. And that was a long ass book to worry through.

This one too.

So I’ll let you know more when I finish it… So, in like a year probably.

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My ongoing, completely one-sided, love affair with Amy Poehler

As I mentioned (forever ago, in a blog post I’m totally sure she read) I really wanted Amy Poehler to write a book. And then she did! (In 2014, I’m way late to the game on this one.) I’m going to pretend she did it as a special favor to me. It’s called Yes Please and it’s wonderful.

I suppose I should acknowledge that even if this book were bad I would probably still love it because of Amy Poehler’s general awesomeness. Parks & Rec is one of my favorite TV shows. And generally everything she touches is gold: Broad City, Mean Girls, Arrested Development, Inside Out… Her level of involvement in those things varies drastically. But she is somehow related to all of them and they are all great. Also she seems like an excellent person in real life. And Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls warms the cockles of my cold, cold heart. [Side note: Had to look up cockles to make sure I was spelling it correctly (I was) and apparently only in this idiom it means depths. If it’s not in this specific phrase it means mollusks. Words are weird, you guys.]

So the book is…not really a book. It’s kind of an overview of an autobiography with a lot of snippets of life advice and random pictures thrown in. All of which I felt was hilariously accurate and pretty obvious if very hard to follow in practice. I aspire to someday be as self aware and strong as Amy Poehler advises people to be in this book. Also, from the stories, it sounds like Amy Poehler does too. A lot of the stories are stories of her past mistakes and how she acknowledged and moved on from them but somehow makes them all sound very universal. Here’s an example quote full of things that are obviously personal examples but that is still, somehow (I assume), true for everyone:

“That voice that talks badly to you is a demon voice. This very patient and determined demon shows up in your bedroom one day and refuses to leave. You are six or twelve or fifteen and you look in the mirror and you hear a voice so awful and mean that it takes your breath away. It tells you that you are fat and ugly and you don’t deserve love. And the scary part is the demon is your own voice. But it doesn’t sound like you. It sounds like a strangled and seductive version of you. Think Darth Vader or an angry Lauren Bacall. The good news is there are ways to make it stop talking. The bad news is it never goes away. If you are lucky, you can live a life where the demon is generally forgotten, relegated to a back shelf in a closet next to your old field hockey equipment. You may even have days or years when you think the demon is gone. But it is not. It is sitting very quietly, waiting for you. This motherfucker is patient. It says, “Take your time.” It says, “Go fall in love and exercise and surround yourself with people who make you feel beautiful.” It says, “Don’t worry, I’ll wait.” And then one day, you go through a breakup or you can’t lose your baby weight or you look at your reflection in a soup spoon and that slimy bugger is back. It moves its sour mouth up to your ear and reminds you that you are fat and ugly and don’t deserve love. This demon is some Stephen King from-the-sewer devil-level shit.”

I would argue that this is excellent life advice (that I am personally terrible at):

Figure Out What You Want (image from Yes Please)You can see how many post-its I put in this book for things I liked and might want to come back to in this picture. It’s basically all the pages.

But that this, while still completely true, is somewhat less important (although I did text a picture of it to a bunch of tall jerks I know the second I read it):Short People DO NOT Like to be Picked Up (image from Yes Please)

Also, as you can see from these images…this book does not have all that many words in it. I mean, sure, it is not all artsy-layouts, but there’s more of them than you’d think. So it’s a pretty quick read if you’re bored sometime. I hear the audio book is also excellent because she reads it herself (and Seth Meyers reads the chapter he wrote) and that it’s hilarious. (Disclaimer: I have not actually listened to the audio book. People have just told me that it is also good.) I know some people who were a little indignant about how short the actual text was and how some of the text is dedicated to writing about how hard writing is. And while those things were not my favorite, this book still is.

So, in conclusion, here’s one more quote from this wonderful human’s book: “Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please. I love saying “yes” and I love saying “please.” Saying “yes” doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying “please” doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. “Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request.”

Do Whatever You Like (image from Yes Please)

 

Gillian Flynn???

I think I am in love with you, Gillian Flynn.

You also scare the bajeezes out of me.

Probably this is partially my fault for only reading your books when I’m alone in strange cities on business trips. Somehow I read Gone Girl alone at night in a hotel in Pittsburgh, Dark Places alone at night in a hotel in Boston, and Sharp Objects at night in an AirBNB also in Boston where I was alone with the stranger whose room I was renting (who turned out not to be a murderer, but I didn’t know that at the time). None of those were a great time to be reading interpersonal horror* (a phrase I’m making up now but for which there probably already exists better terminology…someone let me know what it is and I’ll fix this). Why do I make obviously poor situational reading choices? Like when I started reading Preacher comics on the airplane while I was sitting in a middle seat. My seatmates definitely assumed I was a monster. I should definitely work on that.

Back to you: you are an excellent writer. You and Tana French are the only two people who write books that I genuinely cannot put down once I’ve started reading them. I worry about your characters while I’m out in the world unable to read more because I’m doing dumb things – like working. Your characters and the world you writer for them feel real – and, again, terrifying. I’m honestly sort of annoyed I’ve never seen any of your books shelved in the horror section of a bookstore. (To be continued: I have a whole rant about how book stores sort things based on useless trivia like the author’s gender. BUT ANYWAYS.) And I will fight anyone who says they could have guessed the endings of your books before they read them. A+ for plot twists that don’t seem cliche.

And on top of all that, you seem like a really kickass person, based on the few interviews I’ve read of yours. Particularly this one with the Guardian where you respond to the recurring accusation that your books are misogynist because none of the women in them are likeable. But there are a bunch of others that are also excellent.

I especially liked this bit from a post on your website:”I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important.”

In conclusion, please write more books before I go on any more business trips so I can have something terrifying to read while I’m gone.

*Interpersonal horror: (as defined by me) horror but where the monster lives inside someone you love. Like how interpersonal violence is the smaller cruelties that people exact against each other every day instead of, like, the bombs of movie violence.

The Hobbit, Movie v. Book

I know, I know. I’m months late to the party on this one. I did see the movie while it was still in theaters – that special film 3-D IMAX version even. But after I watched it I decided I needed to reread the book before I could have any real opinions on it.

When I first heard they were making The Hobbit into a movie, I was pretty excited. I read the book in middle school and it was GREAT. I couldn’t remember details beyond that the characters were charming and well developed and the story was enthralling. (I definitely didn’t remember the orks being quite so nightmare-inducing.) Then I heard that it would incorporate a lot of the Silmarillion and be three movies LONG and my enthusiasm waned.

The movie did do a great job of casting with regard to how the characters described in the book and just general quality actors. They stole people from everything I love (I’m still kind of mad at Mitchell for leaving Being Human). Also, Martin Freeman is great in everything. (Sherlock, Hitchhiker’s Guide, seriously everything he touches) How is he doing that?! Oh and Lee Pace.

Full disclosure: the pro that tilted the pro-con list on my decision to see it in theaters was finding out they had cast Lee Pace – the Pie Maker from Pushing Daisies. As it turns out, he’s in it for all of five seconds and I might have missed it if I didn’t know he was an eight-foot tall blonde man in real life. So, logically, he’s an elf. (He’s the one who’s leading the army over the ridge as the dwarves are fleeing Rivendale and decides to turn around. In case you missed it.)

The movie is, as my rereading confirmed, pretty true to the book. Except that the beauty of the book, in my opinion, was that it’s a quick paced adventure (aka: no dawdling). So the characters, though flawed (and thus believably well-rounded), never get on your nerves. Not even Bilbo and his oft discussed buttons (Tolkien really wanted you to know the status of Bilbo’s buttons at every turn) and handkerchiefs. The movie does not have that going for it. It’s weighed down with character backstory, a lot of history and what seems to be real-time walking.

I also  much preferred Beorn, the bear-man of the book, to Radagast the Brown, the woodland-creature-obsessed-semiwizard of the movie. I’m assuming Radagast is from the Silmarillion that the writers/directros felt was necessary to include – I suspect there was a lot of Silmarillion in there that I didn’t understand and that there will be even more in the two movies still to come. But I really do not care enough to read the whole history of Middle Earth. Sorry, Mr. Tolkien, you seem really smart and all but inventing whole languages is just too much. The movie did represent Gollum perfectly though; he was somehow both scarier and more sympathetic than in the trilogy. Good job, CGI toad-man.

Ultimately, as is almost always the case with me, I enjoyed the book more. In this instance I love the book for its brevity which is not the usual way of book to movie conversions. And I seriously question the creators decision to include so much of Tolkien’s other material – it feels like it’s just dragging things down when they could have made it into its own series next (infinite LOTR films and money for them!) or included it in the already pretty weighty trilogy films. Why you gotta mess with the book I liked the best, producers?

Fun fact: The Hobbit book doesn’t actually describe the elves physically. If I hadn’t already seen the trilogy movies, I definitely would have imagined miniature flying humans with wings. Can anyone who has more recently read the other Tolkien books vouch for them having always been tall Lee-Pace-like creatures?

Let’s All Worry About Jaunting!

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

So, on a personal point I have a problem with books where I don’t want to know the main character – not legitimately nice or endearingly crazy * cough * Wuthering Heights then it’s not for me.

But this book is really good. I love some smart sci-fi and this definitely fits the bill. Interplanetary war? Check. X-Men-like evolutionary capabilities? Check.

And still, and I wonder this a lot not just with sci-fi (but pretty often with sci-fi) to write a female character so poorly…do they have to have never spoken to a female human? Probably including their own mothers? Because, if you’re going to acknowledge that men’s actions are motivated by something external you can’t then turn around and say “She did that because she is a lady and, as we all know, they are crazy.” It’s one or the other – everyone’s crazy or everyone’s motivated.

So yes, I would definitely recommend that people (who already like sci-fi) read this – I will, in fact, be giving it to a friend for their birthday this weekend – but I would also preface that recommendation with “You know the reason I am the most frequently off put by books? This has that in it.” The friend I am giving it to thinks Richard Feynman’s book is good so it’s safe to say they aren’t often offended on behalf of ladies in books.

Wuthering Heights Wins at Everything

Wuthering Heights is, quite seriously, my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it easily a dozen times and every time I notice something (or somethings) that I never have before.

The characters are amazing. They are all intriguingly damaged. Romance is mostly between good girls and bad-for-no-reason boys. The boy sees this nice girl and realizes that he could be nice to her and they could be nice together and then they skip around. Or some such nonsense. (Occasionally I am a fan of skipping, but this book is better than that. This book contains 0% happy skipping.) It is a cautionary tale about how love makes people miserable and insane. This story tells you what happens at the end of the uncontrolled love road – if you are a sociopath and/or none of your friends has the decency to slap you and tell you to get it together (or if, in the case of Catherine and Heathcliff, you have never had any friends). Hint: it’s brainfever.

I do love a frame. I feel like this is a plot device under-utilized in books but over-utilized in, say, mystery TV shows. We are shown the eventual outcome and then the story jumps backwards – about 30 years in this case. And then we all get to be detectives with Lockwood. PLUS two stories in one!

Unreliable narration just makes me happy. It leaves the entire interpretation up to the reader. It is a story that seriously expects more of you. Lockwood is wrong about everything. And he’s decidedly un-omnicient. (There has got to be a better way to say that.) He’s actually pretty stupid; he mistakes Heathcliff insisting his new tenant sleep outside in the snow for shyness. C’mon, that’s priceless.

You have to read it twice. I know this is bad news because it is written in a dense, old style that’s time consuming and the characters are all basically jerks but, I promise, everyone who’s terrible gets what they deserve. But even if I told you everything that happens in it, and I will if you ever foolishly mention this book in my presence, you would still have to read it twice. The first time you adjust to the flow of it and realize that the plot is never going to go where you think it will; the second time it’s amazing. AMAZING. Plus Kate Bush wrote a song about it with a ridiculous video. AND Kate Beaton felt it deserved two comic strips. So the two best Kates I can think of approve.

In conclusion, it wins at everything.