Fiction usually isn’t my thing, but I want to get better at it. So I’m reading nine novels in November’s thirty days and writing about them here. I’ll update this post as I go along. Some spoilers, natch. Update: Just made it through the ninth book, with only hours to spare. I’m very glad to have deepened my exposure to and enjoyment of fiction in its many faces, but just a little bit gladder to be able to read nonfiction again. Thanks for joining me on this fictional escapade.
Book 9 of 9: Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman
Reason number one I read yet another juvenile book: it was short and I was on a (self-enforced) deadline. Reason number two: ending my fictional month with the same author I started it seemed fitting. What a delightfully madcap yarn this one is. Beautifully illustrated too. I greatly appreciate in artists, specifically writers and filmmakers, the ability to tell different kinds of stories in different genres yet still retain their style throughout. That Gaiman can publish something as composed and heart-full as The Ocean at the End of the Lane (see Book 1 below) in the same year as something so zany as Fortunately, the Milk is a great testament to his durability and literary prowess. (Thanks to Jenny for loaning me the book.)
Book 8 of 9: The Giver, Lois Lowry
Continuing my accidental quest to read books most kids read in middle or high school, I was eager to pick this one up because I knew so little about it — the elderly bearded man on the cover being my only clue. (Bunny trail: I knew this was an unorthodox book choice for a twenty-something dude like me when a woman on the train asked me out of the blue why I was reading it. Turns out she was an eighth grade teacher who taught the book regularly to her students, so we got to talking about our love of dystopian stories and other great YA literature.) I was delighted to find in The Giver an excellent coming-of-age story sitting atop an undercurrent of dystopia and, as the book would call it, “stirrings.” While I’m not surprised it has been so frequently challenged in schools and libraries due to certain scenes, I’m glad adolescents are exposed to it because it meets them where they are in life. Like Jonas, tweens and teens approach junctions in their lives thinking they know everything, only to be challenged, sometimes painfully, when the curtain falls and real life reveals itself.
Book 7 of 9: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
I’ve been searching, so far in vain, for a book or movie that accurately captures my high school experience. This isn’t it, but it’s closer than most other depictions I’ve seen. Where it diverges most distinctly is the protagonist; I don’t subscribe at all to the “real men don’t cry” machismo thing, but Charlie cries so much in this story, often for no discernible reason, that I started losing some sympathy for him. Pull it together! I often thought. The epistolary style was the right narrative choice, because it was refreshingly different, and the stream-of-consciousness diary-like model is an expository format that most teenagers can relate to.
Book 6 of 9: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
A decade later, I’m still getting around to reading books I didn’t get a chance to read in high school. I’m a much bigger fan of Nineteen Eighty-Four (which I did read back then) than this one, but its focus on books and literacy is especially relevant to me after having gone to library school. The central theme seems at once antiquated and prescient, given that it was written in 1953 in response to the rise of television and McCarthy-era threats of censorship but also rings true with today’s book burnings and the dumbification of news. While the amount of and access to knowledge has never been greater thanks to the Internet, we’re losing something important in the increasing obsolescence of physical books. Books in reality aren’t being cast off out of fear, but disinterest. It’s fitting that the group of vagabonds at the end of the novel became books themselves, stand-in vessels for the knowledge being willfully destroyed. We ought to preserve as much knowledge as we can of whatever we can in whatever ways possible — through oral tradition, manuscript, digitization, or other means — and not take for granted the privilege of such knowledge. To do otherwise is folly.
Book 5 of 9: Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
This was like a fantasy thriller disguised as a high-school YA novel. Like the protagonist, I kept trying to figure out who, or what, Stargirl was, what she would do next, and why. Whether she had a grand life plan I can’t say, but what I did figure out pretty quickly was that she was a textbook example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a proto-Zooey Deschanel for the adolescent crowd. The ukulele and friendship with a rat were especially in keeping with the MPDG’s propensity for quirk and kindness. While a little MPDG-ness goes a long way, the moral of Stargirl’s changing favors within her peer group is a good one for teens to hear: It’s hard to see it in the moment, but you’ll regret not being yourself. (Thanks to Jenny for the recommendation.)
Book 4 of 9: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I get a special thrill when a book I’m reading has a word in it that’s also on my cool-word list. (This time it was crepuscular.) While this book, perhaps purposely, meandered a bit, I found the diary narrative to be pleasant and redemptive. Ames was almost too likeable and saintly, and very self-aware. But perhaps the end-of-life letters he was writing to his son brought that out in him.
Book 3 of 9: The Alchemist, Paul Coelho
It felt like my opinion of this book changed every few pages. Just when its hippyish mysticism became too Oprah to be taken seriously, Coelho dropped a surprisingly deep thought nugget that kept me reading. For example, amid talk of “listening to your heart” and discovering the Soul of the World (eye roll), the titular character tells the boy on the quest that “the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” A bit trite, yes, but it rings true. The central fable, though anchored by a few strong key points, seems overly simplistic and eager to fit into any and every spiritual worldview. Perhaps this is an effect of the language translation from the original Portuguese, in which no doubt the story would be more beautiful. (Thanks to Nainita for the recommendation.)
Book 2 of 9: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Read this as a youngster but didn’t remember it, so in anticipation of the movie I thought I’d revisit it. The boy in me enjoyed the zero-gravity battleroom scenes, which seem like high-tech laser tag. The biggest hurdle to clear for me was how well-spoken the kids were. I suppose that since it’s set in the future, Card made the choice to make kids sound more adult (though I thought kids are getting dumber thanks to the Internet, or “nets” as Ender’s Game calls it), but it’s jarring nevertheless. I never really grokked Ender himself, but I cheered for his struggle against The Man and was happy with how things ended.
Book 1 of 9: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
My entrance, beside seeing Coraline, into the Gaiman oeuvre. Since I’ve nothing to compare it to, I can only say that I really enjoyed this book’s lean, loving style and deep sense of wonder. A favorite passage:
“Do you still know everything, all the time?”
She shook her head. She didn’t smile. She said, “Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you’re going to muck about here.”
“So you used to know everything?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
The pièce de résistance was the view I had when I finished reading: