22 October 2017

book review: john green, turtles all the way down.

[content note: incoherence, mental illness, minimal spoilers, bad Star Wars shipping opinions]

Not to be all, like, "having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card," about it all, but it does definitely pay to get your hold requests in early, because I've already read John Green's new book, and it's only been out for about five minutes, and I didn't pay a penny for it.

It's his best book to date. It's got a lot of Star Wars in it.

You know how sometimes you can watch something turn into a period piece? I went to see the movie of The Fault in Our Stars back when it was in theatres, and I remember thinking, this is the most 2014 movie ever; this movie will be dated in five minutes. This movie was dated yesterday. It isn't/wasn't a criticism, just a description. Green's new book, Turtles All the Way Down, feels always-already dated in a really similar way, even though I can't put my finger on exactly why. It's not the most 2017 book ever, because it's set in the United States and nobody talks about politics, but it is very 2017. I mean, I say "nobody talks about politics," but it is a book entirely about existential dread, so what do I know. The best friend character, Daisy, writes Rey/Chewbacca fanfiction, which is a very up-to-the-minute sentence. I have consulted a friend who is in Star Wars fandom and she says this isn't a ship people ship, ever, at all, and I think it's quite canny of Green to choose a pairing that won't get him implicated in fandom shipping drama.

I think what I'm trying to react to with all this is that all of his books are of their moments, in a way that's sort of expected of contemporary YA, but this is his first book since 2012, and so the effect is that his novel-world has skipped ahead nearly six years without missing a beat. It's disorienting, especially since in the interim I mostly stopped keeping up with what he was doing. The last time he published a book, the characters in it were older than I was, and now the protagonists of the new book look like kids to me. I don't really read YA anymore. What's big in YA these days? The Raven Cycle was big. Maggie Stiefvater's sentences aren't as pretty as she thinks they are, but talking trees are cool.

I'm also reacting to the fact that none of his earlier books had characters interacting with real popcultural objects quite like this. In The Fault in Our Stars they mostly interacted with fictional cultural objects, and in Looking for Alaska their cultural engagement was mostly with, I don't know, García Márquez. Millay. In Paper Towns everybody talked a whole lot about Walt Whitman. I don't remember about An Abundance of Katherines, because it's not a very memorable book. All I mean to say is that a lengthy argument about the personhood of Chewbacca sounds like a John Green thing to have, but not necessarily a John Green thing to write. It's a thematically resonant argument, though, because what this book is mostly about is what makes a person a person.

So the protagonist, Aza Holmes, has OCD, and a lot of her intrusive thoughts revolve around anxieties about her personhood—she's obsessed with her gut biome, the idea that there's more bacteria in her than there is her in her; she worries about her meds because she hates the idea of having to take a pill to change herself to become herself; she thinks of herself occasionally as possessed and occasionally as a fictional character, which is much less meta than it sounds. And then there's the damage that any mental illness can do to a person's sense of self. Most of us these days tend to think of our thoughtlife as the locus of our identity, but if your thoughts are awful and uncontrollable and other, what do to the youness of you? Is there a self that's more fundamental than what happens in your brain? If you believe in the soul, like I do, you think there is—but not everyone does, and even if you do believe in the soul, what does a soul look like? How do you find it? (It does occur to me that if my friends had that conversation about whether Chewbacca counts as a person it would immediately turn into a conversation about whether Chewbacca has a soul, whether Christ died for Wookiees, and whether the Wookiees are even fallen beings, or are they like the hrossa. Nobody in this book mentions the hrossa, which is normal, but nobody really mentions the soul either, which is interesting.)

The central plot is a semi-detective story, about attempting to find information about a missing billionaire, but that's not where the real interest of the book lies. I don't want to make it seem that the central plot is unimportant, and I don't want to make it seem as though I didn't like it, but if you were to ask me what this book is about I would think of OCD first and billionaires second. It's a book about being a teenager living with a chronic mental illness. Green is really good at describing intrusive thoughts; the scenes where Aza gets caught up in her spirals are incredibly intense and affecting, and while Green is still not an amazing prose stylist there's a few lines from those passages that have stuck with me. What I like about this book, right, is that it's a book about OCD without being a Book About OCD in the sense of being didactic or issue-driven. I like that she's already medicated and in therapy when the book begins, so it's not one of those stories about a character discovering that she's mentally ill but instead a story about a character learning more about what her mental illness means in her life. It's an upsetting book—there's some places near the end where I almost cried—but not bleak or manipulative. It's positively optimistic.

My biggest objection to this book also has to do with Star Wars. I am very consistent. The problem is: everybody in this book has a hobby that carries them throughout the story. Daisy has the Rey/Chewbacca thing, their male best friend/Daisy's love interest is an artist, and Aza's love interest stargazes and writes poetry. It's jarring that Aza has no interests of this kind of her own, and that I still have no idea what she would be doing left to herself. Does she read? Does she watch TV? We really don't know. Possibly it's meant to reflect the fact that her mental illness has taken over her life to the extent that she has little time, energy, or focus to spend on anything else—which makes perfect sense as far as it goes, but which also makes it even stranger that nobody comments on the disparity. If it's a choice on Green's part, it's a choice that for all the world looks like an error. It also makes some conversations late in the book ring a little false. Daisy accuses Aza of focusing on her own problems to the exclusion of listening to what other people want to talk about, but because essentially all their conversations that haven't been about the detective plot have been about Daisy's interests, the idea that their conversations always focus on Aza... is really not borne out by the evidence. They talk about Star Wars a lot, and it's a subject on which Aza seems to move between disinterest and active distaste. (And it's actively bizarre to me that the narrative treats Aza's failure to read Daisy's fanfiction as a genuine failure to be a good friend.)

That complaint being laid out—and it is a major complaint: much of the book rests on that relationship—there's still a lot to like here, and I do still think it's Green's best work. It's a John Green book, so it's a very quick read and and there's some credibly bad teenage poetry and James Joyce is brought up more often than strictly necessary. If you're into YA, or you liked his previous novels, I recommend it. I'm glad he's publishing again. Green, not Joyce. Joyce is dead.

26 March 2017

the truest moments of human connection it is possible to experience as a university student.

In honor of prospie weekend. I don't believe I have any high school aged readers, but I implore my readers to please send this to any high school students they know; these are the facts the brochures will not tell them, because college brochures are universally useless.

1. That feeling when you bump into someone, and neither of you is at fault, or both of you are, and the two of you apologize in the same breath, as though you're both speaking with one voice. You'll never feel as connected to anyone as you do in those moments.

2. The immense tenderness you feel when you see someone in the dining hall reading a book you love, and say nothing.

3. The camaraderie of the midnight fire alarm, especially in the winter. No one's actually frightened, because everyone knows that all that's actually happened is that a freshman has tried to make popcorn, but everyone is underdressed, and everyone is either furious or resigned. Someone was in the shower, and everyone else is telling the story of the time that one time alarm went off when they were in the shower. There really is true camaraderie in that: solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris, to coin a phrase.

4. The communal joy of the first really warm day—not the first day without coats, I mean the first day when nobody's even wearing sweaters, and you're so thrilled at the sight of strangers' bare arms—people have arms! you'd forgotten!—that you think, Is this what it was like to be Walt Whitman? The answer is yes.

5. One time last semester I was walking to my 8:30 in the rain and an elderly education professor I'd never met shared his umbrella with me, and it was kind of wonderful? I'm not sure how universal this one is, but it was really nice. What a great guy.

6. Night class.

7. Eight AM Greek reading class.

8. It is genuinely possible to experience a great deal of true comradeship working in theatre, but I'm not gonna talk about it. If you've experienced it you know what I'm talking about and if you haven't any description will be obnoxious to you, because theatre people are never more obnoxious than when they're trying to tell you their feelings about the theatre. The thing about artists, right, is that we all believe the medium we work in is the highest form of human creativity, and the thing that makes theatre people different from the rest of us is that they don't bother pretending otherwise. They're not really that much more up themselves than normal artists, but they're infinitely more upfront about it. (I'm... kind of a theatre person? It's Schrödinger-y.)

That is all; those are all the times you will feel human connection in university. You will also read some really good books.

4 February 2017

january bookblogging.

1 & 2. Gerald Morris, The Squire's Quest & The Legend of the King. These are MG/YA, from a Gawain-focused Arthuriana series I used to be a fan of when I was younger. These two, which I never got around to (well—I might have read The Squire's Quest; I didn't remember most of it, but there was a gag about the filioque that I thought I recognized) cover the end of the story. The tonal shift from what had been a fairly lighthearted series is a bit awkward in places, but ultimately very well-handled. I especially loved the very end of The Legend of the King.

3. Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Note from log: "I repudiate it." A strange little book, twee and authoritarian and fundamentally deeply materialistic. Even her sensible tips are delivered in an absolutist tone that makes them hilarious. As everyone says, she's especially bad on the subject of books—the right time to read a book, see, is when you first encounter it, so any book you own that you've not read yet can be got rid of straightaway. She also doesn't believe in re-reading, though she does believe in feeling sorry for your socks.

4–10. C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. Re-reads, obviously. At this point I'm not reading for plot even a little bit, but just to discover all the delightful little details I've forgotten over time. Can you believe that I didn't remember Bism? or Reepicheep losing at chess because he makes all his pieces do the stupid self-sacrificing things he would do in a real battle? et cetera, et cetera. As usual, Dawn Treader is my favorite, Silver Chair is the most effective/successful as a novel, and The Horse and His Boy is much easier to love than to like.

11. David Lodge, Changing Places. I have a documented weakness for campus novels; this one is very funny, very self-aware, and very good.

12. The Lais of Marie de France. This was for a medieval lit class; I am pleased to report that it's really wonderful, and totally mental in that way all the best medieval stuff is. One of them is about a werewolf!

13. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing. This was for my Literature of the Digital Age class. Goldsmith is a poet who thinks, among other things, that we have so much text now that what we really ought to do now is focus not on rearranging and recontextualizing what we've already got—"context is the new content." Most of my classmates had mixed-to-negative feelings about all this; my final feeling, as expressed to a friend of mine in the class, is that I kind of want to beat Goldsmith up in a parking lot, but just the once, and after that I'll be more or less okay with him. I don't want to pass judgment now beyond the thing about beating him up, but he's always interesting and there's a lot here worth talking about.

14. Lev Grossman, The Magicians. What if Harry Potter, but anhedonic, and also consuming heroic quantities of alcohol? It's all a bit Donna-Tartt-does-J.-K.-Rowling, and while I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone else it worked for me on that score. I really like campus novels. Unfortunately the protagonist is intensely boring (some of the supporting characters are quite good, and I'm powerless to understand why they spend any time with him) and once everyone graduates, which happens a little more than halfway through, things get a lot less interesting. It turns from My Harry Potter Fanfiction, By Me, Lev to My Narnia Fanfiction, By Me, Lev—and Lev Grossman is not great at writing Narnia fanfiction. (There exists a version of this review that consists solely of the sentence "I could write better Narnia fanfiction than that," and in a lot of ways that kind of sums it up.)

15. Emma Donoghue, The Wonder. You know when you've read too many books by men, or one book that's extremely By A Man, and then you open a book by a woman and it's like you can breathe properly again? Coming straight off the back of The Magicians I was pre-disposed to like anything that didn't keep describing its female characters' breasts at me. I was also positively inclined because I'd read Donoghue's last-but-one book before this, Room, a novel about a kidnapping narrated by the victim's five-year-old son. It was very well-regarded, deservedly so; this one's been less talked about, but for my money it's better. I knew straightaway that it wouldn't be as praised generally—it's a historical novel, and it's very unusual. The protagonists here are Anna, an eleven-year-old Irish girl who's inexplicably stopped eating, and Lib, a Nightingale-trained English nurse who has been hired to watch Anna and get to the bottom of what's happening. Donoghue is one of the best in the game at writing child characters, and as such she manages to make Anna both believable and lovable and her story intensely gripping. This book is hard to recommend, because it's very upsetting in ways that are hard to warn for without spoiling the plot, but I loved it.

16. Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic. A gorgeous, timely little book about Japanese picture brides. It's written all in the second-person plural—I don't believe I've read anything else that uses that technique, but here it's surprisingly immersive and affecting.

29 January 2017

odysseus at o'hare.

ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροντῶν ἐς γαϊαν ικάνω;
ἦ ῥ' οἵ γ' ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεοθδής;
Odyssey 6.119-21

He clutches papers, wonders, who lives here?
True men like me, the sort who fear the gods?
When I washed up in Scheria, he thinks,
they washed me, fed me—then they asked my name.
But things are different here. They question you,
your place of birth, your business, your last stop.
They do not follow Zeus, the god of guests,
or do his rites of hospitality.

My wife is waiting for me, he says, please—
and others say the same. My husband's here,
my daughter, I have papers—languages
he does not know, for he speaks only Greek,
Homeric Greek at that. He is alone,
and prays this country has some kinder gods.

26 January 2017

double dactyls.


fig 1: King John.

young Philip Faulconbridge,
son of his father he
wasn't at all—
learning his getting was
gave Phil a reason at
last to stand tall.

fig 2: Doctor Faustus.

Faustus of Wittenberg
summoned from Hell
one whom the adjective
fit like a glove (i.e.
really quite well).

fig 3: Le petit prince.

A. Saint-Exupéry,
flyer of planes and a
writer of books,
once drew a picture whose
made it look hat-like and
earned him odd looks.

fig 4: Ninety-Five Theses

Martin of Wittenberg
wrote out some theses and
stuck them on high:
reading this treatise most
many good Germans bid
Rome a good-bye.

16 January 2017

a small seasonal sonnet.

Or, lines written on the back of an order of service.

It's ordinary time that fills our lives,
not feast or fast but only keeping on,
a time of laundry, homework, butter knives,
of fitful nights that yield to weary dawn.
Green robes, library fines, week after week
(this season's so much longer than the rest)
till we've forgotten what we meant to seek,
that strange far thing we thought might be our quest.
But festive seasons still mark other times,
echoes of joy throughout the sullen year
to teach that truth that animates our rhymes:
this world is Christ's. We're meant to seek him here,
in striving to unpick each tangled thread,
in ordinary life, in wine, in bread.

7 January 2017

bookish resolutions.

I see this post was accidentally published early; on the off-chance anyone saw that, I apologize most earnestly.

I grant, Reader, that New Year's Resolutions are very silly; I do not grant that this is reason enough not to do them. I have several.
  1. Take fewer books out of the library. I do not mean by this "read fewer books" or "buy more books" or anything of the sort—what I mean is that I've a tendency to check far more books out of the library than I can realistically read. This is largely because I grew up without regular access to a public library, and so treat every visit as though it may well be my last. I often wind up returning books I've not read, which is just depressing. (It gets worse when I'm stressed—the less time I have to read the more books I borrow.) This year I mean to check out no more books than I can sensibly read and turn in on time. I can always go back.
  2. Read Crime and Punishment. Because I can. In general I want to read more of that sort of long thing I'm always meaning to get to, even if it means I read fewer books in total. (I'm not scared of long books, truly, but I seem to have fallen into a pattern of not reading many.) Also Dad's always nagging me about Russian literature, so. I'm also meaning to read some Bulgakov.
  3. Read more short stories. For no other reason than that I enjoy them, and in particular I should like to read more anthologies. I've historically had trouble with anthologies, because you wind up paying a great deal and often only enjoying a few stories, but I live near a library now, see point one. I think I've mentioned here that I believe a good short story a greater accomplishment than a good novel; I stick by that, which makes it even stranger that I read so few shorts in practice. To begin with I've been reading The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume One, and it's got in it one of the best stories I think I've ever read, Ellen Klages' "In the House of the Seven Librarians."
  4. Read more diversely. I've put this last because it's really the most important one. My reading lists are mostly women but still almost all white, and I'm ready to start doing something about that. I don't mean this in a grudging eat-your-vegetables kind of way—having a more diverse reading list is more fun. It only takes a bit more time and thought, which I'm usually too lazy for.