So it took me the first half of Jason Shiga’s Empire State: A Love Story (or not) to work out the split chronology. Had I been more sensitive to the (in retrospect) obvious division of time (divided not just by plot events but by colour) I might have enjoyed the book the whole way through. As it is, I found the first half to be closer to pretensious and annoying than endearing or charming. But by the time our protagonist arrives in New York I cared about him and wanted his love plot to resolve in making out and babies. It doesn’t. Not a spoiler, folks, the parenthetical title gives it away.
The parenthetical title also gives away that this is a book by and for hipsters who like to read McSweeny’s and drink lattes that are appropriately foamed. Perhaps the best panels in the book (okay, a stretch and a lie) are those that depict a conversation about how annoying hipsters are when they’re talking about how annoying other hipsters are, not realizing they are the annoying hipsters about whom they complain. That Shiga is conscious of his hipster-ness and doesn’t (with the exception of those ironic panels) apologize (as he should!) being hip, is okay with me.
I loved the panels of Jimmy arriving in New York. Some might find the panels annoying because they are not oblique (and so hip), but far from annoying the scope entirely matches the experience of feeling small on arriving in a new city. In short I appreciated that form and content aligned, especially when I could see evidence elsewhere in the text of wanting to be jarring so as to jar. Annoyingly jarring.
I also loved the unapologetic consideration of what it means to be grown-up. A bit of a cliche at this point to describe a 20-something realizing that they’ll never feel properly grown-up (or at least a cliche for me because I think about it all. the. time) and not trying to resolve these feelings with any kind of revelation or grandiose decision to Act Differently, but just allowing that some people feel disoriented by their age and the expectations the world attaches to that age. Like having a bank account. Or knowing about espresso.
I also loved that it took me 1.5 hours to read. Something of a gift at this point in the reading challenge. Less than 20 remaining, folks!
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian belongs in several categories of 10-10-12: banned books, books with illustrations, and young adult fiction. It’s also made it’s way on to the (yet undisclosed and unfinished) list of best books I’ve read in 2011. The first person narrator’s honesty coupled with his humour make for a totally captivating tone, which quickly and effectively secures the readers’ concern and care for the brave, fragile and fierce protagonist. Such was this readers’ concern that as the story begins a gradual, but escalating, revelation of grief, I found myself a little weepy, but more than that, a little in awe of a story that so quickly and so honestly invites reader sympathy/empathy.
I should comment on the illustrations not just because this book is categorized (for me) in books with illustrations, but because the cartoons that pepper the pages serve Junior/Arnold as an outlet for emotions he doesn’t understand, and allow the reader yet another window into the complicated and fraught emotional life of a teenage boy.
I admit to being a little floored by how much and how quickly I came to care about Junior/Arnold.
It’s scandalous to me that this one appears on the ALA list of most frequently banned at schools in the US – a tragedy of its own kind that some readers will be prevented or hindered from finding their way to this remarkable story, when really, it ought to be put in the hands of every
teenager reader who has ever felt weird, or felt like they didn’t know how to feel (so… all of us).
Little to say about Berlin: City of Stones except that I liked it more and more as the book went on, which makes me think that I might need to continue with the series (how long is the series? I don’t know). My initial dissatisfaction was with the wide cast of characters and my apparent inability to keep them all straight, but as the book went on I worked them out, and so, enjoyed it more (definitely the case where the reader is at fault!).
I did enjoy the attention to Germany in the interwar period, as I find too often the historical fiction I read about Germany seems overly preoccupied with glamorizing Hitler, or making it out like Germany’s history was somehow an inevitability. This book nuances the emergence of National Socialism against a wider international history and a focused exploration of particular families and individuals who made decisions that impacted ‘history’ as we know it now.
I had to say the sexy scenes in the ‘Garden of Eden’ were just weird.
After a little meltdown last night about my rate of reading in the last month and a half, M. reminded me that 10-10-12 is not a race or competition, but is an exercise in me loving to read. And someone how that pep talk (that wasn’t, I don’t think, intended as a pep talk) gave me the zip I needed to finish off Un Lun Dun, a mostly terrific young adult fiction book with illustrations (which category will it fall into?).
China Mieville might be better known for his adult fantasy novels (or so my friends who read fantasy tell me), but Un Lun Dun (pronounced UnLondon) is deserving of its own credit and following. The book follows our un-hero, Deeba, as she finds herself in the world of UnLondon – a shadow city separated from London, but not necessarily different from the ‘real’ city in terms of xenophobia, class conflict, and most prominently, environmental concerns.
After several – unecessary – chapters about Deeba’s friend the “Shazzy” (I say unnecessary because they do not add to Deeba’s characterization and rather than advancing the plot, these chapters stall its development. What these chapters do offer is a space to sketch the setting of UnLondon in some detail, a “setting up” that might easily take place on Deeba’s second visit) Deeba finds herself tasked with battling “The Smog,” a malicious force bent on destroying both UnLondon and London by consuming it with fire. This (somewhat?) allegorical menace allows readers of any age to connect the consumption patterns of the modern city with environmental toxins and pollutants and makes a vigorous case for “nothing” as the solution to this problem. The solution of “nothing,” is to me a poignant conclusion for the novel as it advocates at one at the same time that “nothing” can be done to solve the problem/character of the Smog, and yet simultaneously suggests that it is by doing less, or by doing “nothing,” that we might combat it.
In any case, the climatic battle between Deeba and the Smog is by far the most engaging section of the book. The rest of the novel is something of a trudging affair, a journey that is not all about the journey and rather all about the expected climatic-awesomeness of the destination. That the climax did meet my expectations of awesomeness was pleasant, but I’m not convinced the slog to get there was worth it.