Friday, February 27, 2015

Fiction | Shedding Light on the Outlier Crowd

| No comments:
Working on my goal of reading off my "to-read" shelf, I picked up Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which had been quietly waiting its turn since at least 2009. There's a very good chance that I added it to my shelf back then based mostly on its cover art, because, I must admit, I had no idea what it was actually going to be about.

Apparently, it's quite a famous little book. Tales of the City is the novelization of what was originally serialized as short stories published in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the mid-1970s. Further, Tales of the City is only the first in a series of nine novels that Maupin would later publish, mostly in the 1980s. These stories quickly became pop culture icons for their currency, relevancy, and depiction of lifestyles that were rarely given much light during this era.

The story follows a cast of characters sort of centered around a young woman from Ohio named Mary Ann Singleton, a new resident of the city who visited on vacation and impulsively decided to never leave. The action happens at 28 Barbury Lane, a tenant house where Mary Ann finds an apartment and meets a slew of unique, eccentric individuals that color her life and fill the pages of this novel. There's Mona, coworker and fellow tenant with a hippy side and questionable sexuality; their boss with a secret side, Edward Halcyon; Edward's high-maintenance daughter Edie and her bisexual husband Beauchamp; the hopelessly romantic gay neighbor Michael, known lovably as Mouse; and the incomparable, mysterious landlady herself, Anna Madrigal. Pepper the pages with a few more folks here and there, and you've got a certified ensemble cast, crafted by Maupin to illustrate the diversity and chaos of San Francisco in the late-70s.

It's clear when reading Tales of the City that, stylistically, it has probably set the stage for a great deal of what has since come. Its narrative style, setting, and tone feel incredibly familiar as a consumer of culture in 2015, but I imagine it must've seemed very groundbreaking around the time of its original publication. Maupin writes an honest story of realistic scenarios on topics and characters that would've been very counterculture at the time—and probably rarely represented in the media or literature. Its intent isn't to be monumental literature—rather to reach an outlier audience and tell their story. For many, it's become a beloved classic, often mirroring their own lives and struggles in finding a sense of place and self. To me, it was an entertaining snapshot into a handful of lives, but I didn't have the same deep connection as many; I'm not rushing to devour the rest of the series.

If you've read Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, you'll find a similar style and tone in Tales of the City, which features an era two decades later. Regardless of my personal reaction to the book, it's a good one for anyone to read because of its clear influence on story structure and LGBT representation in media, and because there's a good chance something in the story will connect with you, too.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Read Harder: Last-Ditch Adolesence

| No comments:
It's official—I've begun the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge! First up?

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Category: A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25

"Riding on a city bus along the route that you have taken from your job, from the movies, from a hundred Chinese meals, with the same late sun going down over the same peeling buildings and the same hot smell of water in the after shower air, can be, in the wake of a catastrophe, either a surrealistic nightmare of the ordinary or a plunge into the warm waters of beautiful routine."

Chabon was twenty-four when his debut novel was published in 1988. It was quite the fairytale success for a budding young writer. Chabon began writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh as an undergrad, continued to work on it in grad school, and submitted it as his thesis for his MFA, at which time his advisor sent it to a literary agent, it was published, and became a bestseller, quickly escalating Chabon to literary celebrity.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is the story of Art Bechstein, a young man who has just graduated college and is making his way through that restless summer before real life must, inevitably, begin. His dad is tied to mob work in some vague financial way—all we're sure of is the connection, never what he actually does. Art, though, is trying to find something legitimate to do with his life. Things are already weird enough without his mom around anymore, further straining the unusual relationship with his dad.

Art's summer adventure begins without a climactic event, but it does begin swiftly with an introduction to a charming young man named Arthur Lecomte, unlike anyone Art has ever before met. Arthur and his small ring of acquaintances quickly seduce Art with their opinions, their lifestyles, and their relationships, causing Art to deeply re-evaluate his own life, self, beliefs, and actions.

Chabon has crafted a coming-of-age story, post-adolescent years, of a young man who is very much a product of his time and place (in this case, 1980s Pittsburgh) but feeling a great deal of uncertainty about himself. Art begins a relationship with a young woman named Phlox, but his growing connection to Arthur, a captivating young gay man, essentially destabilizes his entire sense of self. Further, he's unnerved by the new connections his friends are forging to his father's organized crime world, and he still can't figure out what normal is, or should be, between himself and Dad. There are too many confusing connections between too many confusing parts of his life that make each piece difficult to figure out.

Now, it's been a very long time since I last read Catcher in the Rye, but I was constantly making connections as I read Chabon's debut. [Thankfully,] Art isn't quite so cynical and rebellious as his 1940s counterpart, but the themes are nearly identical—alienation, identity, belonging, loss. To me, it feels like Chabon has crafted an updated (at the time) take on a somewhat familiar story—and that's not to say it feels entirely derivative or simply rehashed; the beauty with both stories is that these big ideas, these themes, are ones that endure in life and literature from era to era, and they can always benefit from a retelling.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Fiction | The Passion of Love & War

| No comments:
When I read Robert Olmstead's The Coldest Night, it was the first adult book I'd picked up in at least a month. It was Thanksgiving Break, and I was looking to binge on books for my full five days of vacation. [See, I told you I was behind in the posting.] Mostly what I was hoping to do was to cross some titles off my never-ending "to read" list, and I essentially just picked whatever was available as an immediate eBook download from the library.

What I didn't expect was to be as engrossed in this story as I was. The Coldest Night follows a young blue-collar working boy named Henry as he falls deep into a love affair with a rich girl whose family are determined to keep the two apart. Seventeen-year-old Henry grows up very fast as he and Mercy throw caution to the wind and let passion guide their lives together.

On the one hand, this novel gives us the star-crossed lovers romance. But then it becomes almost an entirely different book as Henry is taken to the cold, violent battlefields of Korea at the war's most deadly moment. Here, Henry experiences passion of another kind as he witnesses men at their rawest, fighting for survival. It's a jarring transition, being ripped from the passion of young lovers wrapped in the lush warmth of a New Orleans summer to the vast and cold fervor of a battlefield halfway around the world. If you were reading this book in several sittings, it might feel particularly disconnected as you lost sight of Henry's overarching story. 

Despite two parts to the story that so sharply contrast each other in tone and setting, something about this just works

I read nearly all of it in a day, because it is written with an enthralling urgency that leaves the reader hungry to finish. [And I would recommend you also read it in as few sittings as possible!] The writing is succinct but draws attention to the heaviness of both situations, so it's never bogged down by flowery verbosity. I think Olmstead has crafted a novel that is less about the actual plot or characters in the story, but more about the sensations and images conjured by these experiences. I think it's one of those books you have to read deeply to enjoy, or at least with a mindset that is open to an atypical reading experience. Ultimately, it's a story of passion and the deepest evidences of humanity in two powerful, contrasting situations. It shows dark and sad moments but also the beauty in those moments that demonstrate how life always has the ability to rebound and blossom. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Book Riot's 2015 Read Harder Challenge

| No comments:
As you have probably noticed, my reading selections as of late haven't been too diverse. I read what books from my personal shelves I can when I can (mostly holidays and breaks), but I have a constant list of middle school books to read, particularly as I try to tackle all 20 books that my Battle of the Books participants have to read before our school-wide competition in May.

Because I no longer have my beloved Idlewild book club to broaden my reading horizons, it's up to me now—I'm all on my own!

Luckily, I stumbled upon Book Riot's 2015 Read Harder Challenge. Their list of criteria is specific enough to ensure varied reading but broad enough to still allow me plenty of choice with the titles.

I've already covered a few of these so far in 2015, but those don't count; I'm starting this challenge today! I can't wait to get started brainstorming and building lists of options. [Please share any good recommendations that you have!]

If you're looking for a good challenge this year, I hope you will join, too!