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The Books I Read: May – June 2021

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

This is the first chick lit I’ve read in a while. The last one I think was The She-Hulk Diaries? And I only read that for a very specific giant green woman reason.

The setup is quick. In the first chapter, there’s a lot of telling, not showing, about exactly the state of her life: work, family, social. Boom, boom, boom. Going right to the high concept–that being the main character sees the ghost of her 108-year-old aunt at her funeral.

The problem with this book, which I was worried about (and my worries came true) are two big ghost cliches: 1) they’re assholes 2) they have indeterminate powers. It happens in Drop Dead Fred, Little Monsters, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Ghost Dad, and Field of Dreams. The plot moves forward because the ghost provokes the main character into doing something they don’t want to do. Usually, this is forcing them out of their comfort zone. (Not like robbing a bank, I mean. Although that would definitely be outside the comfort zone for most people.)

For example, the main character is a job headhunter. And the ghost makes her character shout and act stupid during an expensive lunch, losing her last potential client. The ghost is selfish, leaves her protege in the lurch more than once, talks about how great her old life was, and makes no effort to understand who she’s haunting or explore her new existence. Instead, she annoys a person.

This ruins her life, tears down the status quo, and forces the protagonist into change they don’t want to make. This is proper story-telling procedure, so it’s fine. It fills all the requirements. But it’s cliche. I know how the story’s going to progress before it does.

But knowing how the story goes isn’t necessarily bad–look at all those damn Hallmark Christmas movies. Same damn story every damn time. But they must be making money because they keep making them.

Seems like the whole point of chick lit is to watch the main character suffer. Have them be embarrassed or act in foolish ways, get pulled down a couple hundred pegs. Reminds me of the “Dramarama” section of Seventeen magazine where teen girls told their most humiliating stories, like throwing up in front of their crush. Maybe it’s a hurt/comfort niche combined with humor.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off track. Do I recommend this book? Eh, I’d give it a tentative yes. The beginning is cringey. The middle is pretty good. The ending wraps up too neatly. You won’t learn anything about the 1920s (in fact, they tend to treat it as this wonderful magical era where people drank and danced and were free and no one was racist or sexist or greedy or abusive). So you won’t learn any history. But you will watch a woman mortify herself and come out better for it. Like Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

It starts with a free verse poem, which I took to be an epigraph. Then another. Oh, a double epigraph, okay… Then another. Then another. Oh, the whole thing is like this?

You can finish this book in less than ninety minutes. The story is pretty much how you’d expect (what’s the name for the Christmas Carol trope where ghosts from a person’s past come back to teach them a lesson?).

Some might say it lacks depth, since it packs a small punch. But it’s a definite punch. It’s written by the same author as The Boy in the Black Suit, which I liked.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Well, it’s a long novel, so it gets a long review.

This was frequently cited in “Save the Cat! Writes a Novel“, so I decided to read it. It might be the last “classic” that I read, so I made a commitment to finish this one–the great American novel (along with The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird). But just because something’s old doesn’t mean it has value.

This book is about white people farming and suffering from time-sink fallacy–just because you spent a lot of time on something without making any progress doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. Like a video game where you just can’t make that jump. Here, it’s that the land is worth something to them. “Oh, I spent my blood, sweat, and tears on this land. I buried my brother over there. I dug my hands into it. Eight generations of my family lived here.” Well, now the land isn’t giving back.

Yeah, you may have invested a lot of time and money into your land, but now you’re not getting anything from it. Like keeping a car that doesn’t run and then getting angry when it’s repossessed. It’s the same reason people stay in dead relationships–you’re not getting anything from it, but moving out would be harder. Here, the farmers are using classic anger-and-denial defense mechanism, blaming the banks. Except you had a deal with the banks.

Once I wrote how I have no sympathy for the rich. This book gives me no sympathy for the poor. Half the book demonifies the businesses and banks ousting the poor farmers. But who sold you that land in the first place? It was their land in the first place. You basically got a small business loan. Then you have the guts to say “what do you mean I have to pay it back? I made no money this year, but it’s not my fault. No one bought my one-eyed cat statues. It’s not like I wasted it all on booze and bad investments.”

Well, sometimes you’re unlucky. That’s the risk you take in a job that depends on nature, a famously unpredictable mistress. Maybe a giant shipping boat gets stuck in the Suez Canal and your supplies don’t arrive on time. It’s possible to do nothing wrong, but you still have to pay the piper.

“Oh, the big bad banks are taking advantage of us. And so are these carpetbaggers. And car dealers. Woe is me, the shop paid only $15 for my precious child’s doll which has no intrinsic value to anyone but her. Everyone’s preying on me.” And then they steal and vandalize the shops because they’re desperate.

It sounds like I’m ragging on the oppressed and siding with big corporations, hypocritizing what I said before about the rich. Not so. I might sympathize with these people… if they weren’t so incompetent.

The Joads wait way too late to leave a bad situation. They drive to California with too many people, in a hacked-up car with no tires, going to a state they have no firm proof has their salvation, just a flyer with promises of a land of milk and honey. This is a novel about a bunch of rubes being fleeced. They act like turkeys staring up at the rain and wonder why they’re drowning. But that’s how capitalism works–it thrives on ignorance.

The Stupids Take Off: Harry Allard, James Marshall: 9780395500682: Books
Alternate book cover

And then there’s other stuff the family does. Like they decide to bring their dog at the last minute (they actually have two dogs, but one doesn’t come so they leave it abandoned on the farm–that thing’s going to die). Then they stop at a gas station and let everyone out. The dog wanders by a highway and immediately gets run over and dies. No one notices it, no one calls for it. Pa’s response? “Guess I oughta tied him up.”

They say you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat their animals. And you could say “it was a different time, people treated animals differently back then, yadda yadda yadda.” My counter-argument is you could say that about any time–slavery, segregation, Indian reservations, sending the mentally disabled to sanitariums, fat-shaming. You could always say “that was just what you did back then”. Except if you take a close look, there are ALWAYS people who know better. There are always dissenters.

If you take the dog with you, you should take care of it. At least you could sell it if you’re low on money. Or eat it, if you’re really desperate. (Don’t get all eww on me–there’s an adult breastfeeding scene at the end of this book.)

Every chapter alternates between the story of the Joads and some essay/narrative around some aspect of this time period–farming, diners, traveling, jails. One chapter is themed around the old “man vs. machine” trope. “Horses are better than tractors because horses have a ‘living sense’, but a tractor is a cold dead thing.” John, are you saying farmers should prefer the implement that needs feeding, has half the longevity, one-quarter the power, parts that can’t be replaced, and dies from exhaustion if run straight for three hours? Get over yourself. No farmer, today or yesterday, would give up their implements for the old ox-and-plow.

tom joad | Explore Tumblr Posts and Blogs | Tumgir

A little about the main character: Tom Joad isn’t strong enough to be a main character. Even as a hub for other characters to revolve around. He doesn’t have anything to make me connect to him. He’s not one of the big five: sacrificing, principled, sympathetic, winsome, or smart.

The novel’s more of an ensemble piece. But even ensembles have a distinct main character. A Game of Thrones has hundreds, but the story revolves around Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Daenerys.

But Steinbeck doesn’t give Tom a strong enough presence to be a protagonist. What do I mean by that? I know what Tom Joad is meant to do, but I don’t know why. He’s meant to take Preacher Casy’s place (or Casy’s his mentor*) to become a leader for the people. To act as their voice, unite them, speak up for their rights. But why? We know he’s self-sacrificing, because he went to prison defending someone in a fight. But what does that have to do with becoming a union leader.

*By the way–fuck Preacher Casy. Steinbeck’s supposed to make me sympathetic toward a priest who raped a thirteen-year-old girl. And all that happened is he lost his job. I hope he’s burning in hell.

I’m not saying every book needs to have a likable character, but you don’t have to bore me with it. It seems like the trend in classic American literature is that everyone should be dumb stubborn assholes–The Old Man and the Sea, As I Lay Dying, Stranger in a Strangeland, Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye. At some point, someone decided “Great literature is about deplorable people. I have spoken.”

And in the ending, we don’t even see Tom Joad step up and make the big change he’s been building toward. He just says what he’s thinking about doing and wanders into the grass, never to be seen again. And the story keeps going without him. We’re left with the supporting characters.

 SORRY, THAT STORY DOESN'T USUALLY GO ON FOR 450 PAGES, BUT I GOT INTO A SERIOUS THING. AND THEN I FORGOT HOW IT ENDED. | image tagged in beck on futurama | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

Every time I opened this book I wondered “What am I supposed to get out of this. What am I supposed to learn? What is this supposed to teach me (as a writer)?”

Okay, there is one positive I can take away. Everything is so beautifully detailed. Every nuance. Every word is illustrative. Every tiny little facet of this time period is explored like a Beethoven symphony. To a fault. This would never fly with the short attention spans of today, and rightly so.

When I was writing my first novel, I got criticized for a scene where someone saves a turtle. It was motif-building and characterizing, but it didn’t have to do with the story. So when I read every detail about skinning a rabbit I have to ask “What does this have to do with the story? What does this add to the plot?”

So in the end, this book is an illustration of life in the dust bowl/depression years. But as entertainment or “this is what books should be”–no. I don’t know what place this has today, but it’s not for me.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I think the person who wrote this might be crazy. Like Riddler/Morarity levels of planning.

You know those activity pages that are a big mess of threads and your goal is to follow the thread to the end? This is like that. There are sixteen main characters! Sixteen! For a children’s novel! Each has a backstory and needs and wants and who’s related to who and how and it’s impossible to keep them all straight. The narrative doesn’t allow getting used to one before using the other.

From The Stand, I learned that the best way to get audiences used to an ensemble cast is you introduce Character A, then Character B, then back to Character A, back to B, then introduce C. And so on. None of that here. This is just a mess of people. POVs switch mid-chapter without scene breaks. Even the movie Clue didn’t have so many characters.

Everyone’s in this “game” set up by a dead man for these people who live in an apartment building. They need to find out who killed the guy and divides them up into arbitrary pairs (though are they so arbitrary?) Events happen, characters are brought together, problems are solved, then it turns out none of that development mattered. They had the clues in front of them all along and just needed to talk to each other.

It’s weird. It’s non-linear. I don’t know how it won a Newberry. And I don’t recommend it.

Sweet by Emmy Laybourne

Is there such a genre as romance/horror? If not, this could start a trend. Or you could call it “horror among YouTubers”? Like Road Rules – Semester at Sea, I guess.

A drug company invents a new kind of combination food sweetener/weight loss supplement. Like you will eat and literally lose weight instead of gain it. Plus it makes food taste better. And they’re using this cruise ship to promote/publicize it. They’re so confident they paint a line on the ship’s hull when they leave to show everyone how much higher it is when they dock.

I wouldn’t say it’s horrific. More of a thriller, because there aren’t really supernatural elements. More like The Crazies or Cujo, since the allegory is sugar addiction. But those were good movies. Had good scares. This takes a long time to get going, and the precursor is the romance I mentioned. It has a very chick-lit beach read kind of feel. I can see reading this on a cruise itself. If you were the Wednesday Addams/Lydia Deetz (come to think of it, any Winona Ryder role) type, you’d like it.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Why is there so much “sick kids romance” I’ve read. The Fault In Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl and now this (not counting crappy movies like Clouds). And it plays just like a Sick Kids Romance.

I think I’m too old for this kind of book, for young love stories. I see them and I’m like everyone reacting to The Little Mermaid now.

I’m forty. I’ve been married for fifteen years. I’m on antidepressants. I get no thrill from hand-holding anymore. A younger me might’ve.

Also, I knew the ending so all I saw was Room, where a monster is keeping her prisoner. Room and its concept terrifies me. I feel like the book should have explored that aspect more–the PTSD that comes from being trapped in a single place for all your life. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave. This book puts a syrupy family drama onto it that feels facetious.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton

I love Crichton. I famously brag that I finished Jurassic Park in a day when I was twelve (although now that I have the Internet, I see that’s no big accomplishment). So I was looking forward to this.

But I was worried that it’s also his most derivative. Crichton is famous for science fiction with a realism twist. This just looks like a straight Western. No science added.

The beginning has a ton of infodumping about the era. In fact, each chapter necessitates some infodumping about Victorian history just to explain why XYZ character was doing this or the mechanics of ABC setting just to explain the behavior. This takes you out of the story and makes it feel like a textbook. Is this narrative non-fiction?

Then there’s a static narrative of our heist heroes casing the joint or meeting up or making plans. There’s no character development. Even Ocean’s Eleven had the George Clooney/Julia Roberts subplot. Also, every character had some charisma. This is dry as hell. Maybe it’s better for history buffs who like texts over fiction.

Then I read ahead and it really lost me when one of the targets, they get to him through the fact that he has syphilis and he thinks sleeping with a twelve-year-old girl will get rid of it, which was the style at the time. I don’t care if that was the age of consent back then or that’s what backward Victorians believed. I don’t want to read about it.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is just not for me and that’s fine. I am so far removed from the subject matter, I couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad. I know emotionally I hate it, but that’s because I don’t understand it. The author throws around so many British labels and stores that have no meaning to me, it might as well be using Klingon.

That’s because she’s not really a shopaholic, more of a fashion-aholic. She notices what everyone’s wearing and characterizes them based on that. The first few chapters are about her bending over backward to buy a scarf from a fancy store. So fancy, she saves the bag and hangs it up in her room. She doesn’t want “stuff”, she wants “image”.

She also doesn’t seem competent in anything. A good character should be good at something in life, even if they’re bad at everything else. Ross from Friends is a terrible person, but at least he’s respectably winsome. Dwight Shrute might be a bootlicker but at least he’s good at his job. Dolores Umbridge is deplorable but she got the Hogwarts Express running on time. But this shopaholic, she’s not heroic or principled or sympathetic or smart or charming.

This is like my article on dance. I don’t understand this universe, so I hate it. But rather than rate it low, I’ll just leave it for the person it is meant for and move on.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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