The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) 3*

age of innocenceI suppose The Age of Innocence has a nicer ring to it than The Age of Social Constipation.  This novel is a 200-page social anthropology of Old New York, a chronicle of “the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease,” so if masturbatory dithering about individual desires versus tribal norms is your thing, maybe this book deserves a place in the canon.  I read this while trapped in the middle seat of an airplane, which was very thematically appropriate, and if I ever yearn for that middle-seat feeling, I know I can always reach for this book.

Set in 1870 or so, the story centers on Newland Archer, a young man who has all the privileges and burdens of belonging to one of the best families in New York society.  Newland is such a bore that it took several chapters before I processed that he is, in fact, the main character.

Or is he?  The book opens when Ellen Olenska causes a stir by appearing in public, and Ellen is the breath of fresh air that threatens to awaken Newland.  And then there’s his betrothed, the fresh and innocent May Welland, whom Newland continually underestimates.  The book is really about these two women, both of whom are very interesting, but we only see them through Newland’s eyes, and Newland only thinks he’s a keen observer of human nature.

I can see what the conflicts and great thoughts are supposed to be (the pointlessness of Newland’s restraint when it turns out that everyone thinks Newland has been having an affair all along; all the people who thumb their noses at the rules and are totally invited to parties; May Welland as a skillful player and courageous person who achieves the life she wants while following the rules to a T), and Wharton’s text is peppered with goodies such as “fierce spinsters who said ‘No’ on principle before they knew what they were going to be asked” and random quotables such as “The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.”  On the whole, however, it’s (intentionally?) airless and the cast of characters is rather hard to keep straight.  I can track the families and cousinships in Gone With the Wind and A Game of Thrones, so I blame Wharton for writing characters who read as White Man #15 and Rich Matriarch #2  I tried to grade on a curve since it’s an older book, but upon fact-checking it turns out that this was published in 1920, so there’s no excuse for its lack of narrative pull.

In conclusion, I can see why the Scarlet Letter-toting set might like this book, but frankly I don’t give a damn.  On these themes, I’d throw this out of the canon and replace it with The Outsiders.

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Fifty Shades of Grey – DRINKING GAME RULES

50 shades of greyThis book is so exuberantly, hilariously flawed that it requires a drinking game.

Drink every time:

  • Christian Grey acts like a stalker with poor impulse control.
  • Ana thinks, Oh my.
  • A stray Britishism pops up.
  • Ana’s subconscious [sic] or inner goddess requires slapping.
  • There’s gratuitous product placement.
  • You cringe on behalf of Christian’s servant-people.
  • Someone name-shouts during orgasm.

Chug when:

  • Someone’s mouth “forms a perfect O.”
  • A tampon is pulled.

Finish your drink when:

  • “Rectifying the situation” is used to refer to relieving someone of their virginity.
  • An actual, full-length legal contract appears in the text.

In a nutshell: Young, bookish Anastasia Steele meets 27-year-old business tycoon Christian Grey.  He has a dark past, majorly taut abs, a BDSM playroom in his fabulous penthouse, and a purported fear of intimacy that melts on contact with Ana’s magical vagina.

I was going to make a list of flaws, followed by a tally of the merits, but then I kept moving the flaws to the merit column because the flaws are so awesome, just like the pancake makeup in the Twilight movies.

–         The writing pulls the neat trick of setting the bar so low that I fist-pumped in triumph every time E.L. James did something right, such as understanding the distinction between “figuratively” and “literally.”

–         There are SO MANY ERRORS.  How can this e-book cost $9.99 when there’s well-written erotica available for $0.99?

–          Safe sex, yay!  James gets kind of Pavlovian with the ripping sound of a condom package, and I salute that.

–          Christian Grey, who probably owns a sweatshirt emblazoned “Byronic anti-hero,” is cold and distant but blows his game by saying dipshit things like “I’m like a moth to a flame” and “You beguile me.”  Not to mention, “I want you to meet my mother” right after they Do It for the first time.  HAHAHA HAHA HAHAHAHAHA, this book is awesome.

–          Despite the busload of flaws, I think the romance works.  Ana and Mr. Rochester Grey have very different neuroses, but of the same vector length, which is one of the keys to relationship success.  She’s judgmental and street stupid, he’s emo with a bad temper; they so totally deserve each other!  Win!

–          The meet-cute portion of the story is a delicious, delicious festival of cringe.  Remember how teen magazines used to have reader submissions where people would write in with tales of personal humiliation?  Ana is EPIC in her ability to fuck up in front of Christian.

–          Ana has two cartoon characters that provide windows into her interior life (because first-person narration isn’t enough, what?), which E.L. James refers to as Ana’s subconscious [sic] and Ana’s inner goddess.  Like the Microsoft paperclip that used to pop up in Word, they manifest for no reason and grow more irksome each time.  (Ana’s inner goddess mimes her feelings by doing a hula dance, hiding behind the sofa, or swooning onto a fainting couch.)

–          The British have invaded Seattle!  Although purportedly narrated by an American girl, this story is speckled all over with charmingly misplaced Britishisms.  It’s amateur night at the editing desk.  No, who are we kidding, this novel wasn’t edited by anyone.

–          I don’t know what’s less believable, that Ana has never masturbated or that she doesn’t have a laptop or email account in 2011.  See note above re: editing.

–          This dubious book has the dubious distinction of  having the most true-to-life contractual negotiation I’ve ever read in my fiction-reading career.  The Dom/sub contract appears in its entirety (except Schedule C – Food), including subsequent markup rounds.  Ana comments on legal drafts more astutely than most junior attorneys I have known, which just…I don’t know.  She didn’t catch the redlining errors, though, so I’ll have to mark that on her next performance review.

–          I don’t know much about the theory and practice of BDSM, but even I can tell E.L. James doesn’t know a damn thing.  Some people are rightly offended, but honestly I can’t take this fuckwittery seriously enough to be offended.  It’s like being upset about bad science in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  Btw, it’s labeled BDSM, but the kink factor is totally mainstream, like the “spicy” Chinese food in the food court at the mall.

In conclusion, this book is optimized for drinking games, preferably in conjunction with a dramatic reading with friends.  I mentioned the name-shouting during sex, right?  It would only take 5 people to do a full-cast rendition (Christian, Ana, Ana as narrator, Ana’s subconscious [sic], and someone to mime Ana’s inner goddess).

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton) 5*

the outsidersSome books stay good.  No, they stay gold!

But seriously, it really is still good, even down to the Robert Frost bit.  Sodapop and his beautiful hair, Johnny and Gone with the Wind, Dallas collapsing under the streetlight…  It’s a double time capsule: me in eighth grade, Ponyboy in the 1950’s when even cheerleaders barrel-raced at the rodeo.

I heard or misheard somewhere that there’s a Jewish doctrine that there must be 20 righteous people at all times or else God will destroy the world (permutation of Sodom?).  Along the same lines, there are certain books that make me feel humanity has a chance, and The Outsiders is one of them.

Hollowland (Amanda Hocking) 4 out of 4

HollowlandFrom the first line onward, Hollowland is a surefooted summer blockbuster that hits every mark.  If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have thought that Amanda Hocking was a professional screenwriter with 20 years of Hollywood experience, not a 26-year-old caregiver at an assisted living facility.  It’s hard to believe that Hollowland and My Blood Approves were written by the same person.  Hocking’s learning curve is something fierce.

The premise is very similar to 28 Days Later: An ultra-contagious pathogen transforms humans into rabid beasts, and the only hope is to quarantine the survivors until the zombies die off naturally.  The story begins as a quarantine zone is being breached, and 19-year-old Remy goes off in search of her little brother.  Along the way, she picks up some interesting companions on a roadtrip odyssey through the shattered United States.

This book is an action movie, and it is a perfect action movie.  The pacing is fantastic, the setting is otherworldly, the characters pack authenticity into very little dialogue, and the fight scenes are awesome.  Remy is one tough girl, and Hocking really gets the self-defense dictum that Everything is a weapon.  If a zombie is after you, and all you have is a bunk bed, then a bunk bed will have to be your weapon.  A can of olives might have to be your weapon.  A chair…dude, it’s your lucky day if you have a chair to throw.

By the way, this  book is free.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) 4*

cover artFirst off, I admit that I misted up a little bit on page 11 — page e-fucking-leven — when Arnold Spirit (known on the rez as “Junior”) concisely explains why hunger is not the worst thing about being poor.

On page 26, I laughed out loud at this:

Yep, I have to admit that isosceles triangles make me feel hormonal.

Most guys, no matter what age, get excited about curves and circles, but not me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like girls and their curves.  And I really like women and their curvier curves.

I spend hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars: Yep, that’s right.  I admit that I masturbate.

I’m proud of it.

I’m good at it.

I’m ambidextrous.

Also, the artwork inside the book is charming and concise.  My favorite might be the doodle to illustrate Junior’s anxiety about not having the money to pay for his date’s meal at Denny’s: The pancakes of doom are piled up on the plate of fate.  Next to them are the butter of shame and the syrup of regret.

pancakes of doom

So why does this fictional semi-autobiography fall one star short of 5?  It just doesn’t quite end right.  We start with a poor, smart boy who both stutters and lisps and has abnormally large feet, and somehow we wind up with a freshman starter on the varsity basketball team.  What exactly…happened?  Did you take off his glasses and defrizz his hair, and suddenly he was a supermodel?

This book was like a long taxi ride with a really fun, charming driver who tells you all about himself, and the ride whizzes by in a flash and you feel like the world is a warmer place because you got to know this really cool person from another walk of life.  Then when you open the door you realize that, without warning or apology, he’s dropped you off 6 blocks away from the address you gave him, and you grudgingly leave an average tip because it was a really interesting conversation and you are basically in the vicinity of your destination even though you’re wearing heels today and the wind is kind of brisk.

Anyway, you should read this book because it’s banned, and then you could leave a comment or something because all my commenters have drifted off to distant lands.  Am I the only person who hates Coach?  I would totally stiff Coach on the tip and not feel bad about it.

Locke & Key 3: Crown of Shadows (Joe Hill) 5*

Omega key Animal key Harlequin key Musicbox key Angel keyAmazingly, Joe Hill is sticking to the high standard he set in the very first book of Locke & Key.  Three books in, we circle back to see our very first baddie, the wonderfully named Sam Lesser.

Ah, Sam.  How have you been?  Is death treating you okay?

Kinsey is showing her steel now, and she has two adorable boys (fast-talking Scot Kavanaugh and “I’m not your ethnic sidekick” Jamal Saturday) who are both semi-secretly in love with her.  And they go!  To the drowning cave!  Hooray!

The heart of the book, however, is with Nina in the final pages.  Of all the characters, Nina moves me the most.  She’s a hip and beautiful widow, a not-gonna-talk-about-it rape survivor, and an openly alcoholic mom.  Joe Hill draws flaws with the grace of a master.  The magic is rich, and the artwork is beautiful, but in the end this series is entirely character-driven.

Nina missing the magic

Here’s a snippet:

NINA: [As she catches Kinsey going through her dresser drawers] I turned a blind eye to you tiptoeing into the house the other day after you went for a swim with those boys till almost dark.  I can forgive you being a little wild.  But not being a sneak.

KINSEY: That’s funny, Mom.  I can forgive YOU for being suspicious and mean and angry all the time – after what you went through in Willits, you’ve earned it –

NINA: You don’t know anything about it.

KINSEY: — But I have a harder time forgiving you for being a shitty, irresponsible drunk.  Waking Tyler up in the middle of the night to cry all over him.  Like he isn’t dealing with a few things himself.

NINA: You mouthy little… I ought a –

KINSEY: Christ, you’ve already been drinking.  I can smell it on your breath.  At least you’re only driving YOURSELF.  I can’t imagine you taking Bode in the car.

TYLER: [Appearing in the doorway] Go for a walk, Kinsey.

KINSEY: Or what?  You going to drag me out?  It’s my house too, Tyler, and you can’t scare me into –

TYLER: I know I can’t.  That’s why I’m asking.  Please.  Be done here.

NINA: I don’t even know who you are anymore, Kinsey.

KINSEY: [Leaving] You got that right.  You don’t know.  You crash the car driving drunk, I’m not going to cry over it.  I’m all cried out these days and you know what you’re doing.  In theory.

TYLER: Christ.  Will you.  Get.  Out?

Next panel: Mom, she didn’t mean –

NINA: [Leaning over the dresser, not looking at Tyler in the doorway.]  She meant every word.

TYLER: You know…we’ve talked about what happened to Dad in Willits but we…we never talk about what happened to…

NINA: Will you leave me alone, Tyler?  I need a second.

[The empty doorway behind her, Nina drinks.]

Locke & Key 2: Head Games (Joe Hill) 5*

giant key ghost key head key anywhere key shadow key echo key gender key healing key

I’ve already enumerated the reasons why this series is just so good.  The story gets even juicier (!) now that Lucas is on the scene.  Who’d have thought that we’d one day look back with nostalgia on the days when Sam Lesser was the worst that could happen.

In addition to being wickedly wicked, Joe Hill is wickedly funny.  At one point, a supernatural evil creature asks for computer help to send “one of those, what are they? I-mails?”

Everything else I have to say involves non-specific spoilers which probably don’t spoil things, but also probably don’t make sense. Continue reading