The Secret History

I don’t quite know why it took me so long to realize it, but I love a good mystery—the subtle sense of danger, the page-turning pace, the questions of how and why. I think for a long time I thought of the Mysteries section at the library the same way I thought about the Romance section and even Fantasy, in that I, as a serious person, read serious books by serious writers and those writers weren’t sent to mingle in such subsections. Serious books were with the rest of the fiction where they’d at least have a chance of sitting on the shelf next to a Hemingway or a Brontë. But as I’ve gotten older, I hold myself to far less rigid standards. Great writing takes all forms. You just have to know where to look.

When it comes to mystery, I think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History might be one such place to start. The story hits you with full force from the very first sentence on the very first page:

“The snow in the mountains was was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Immediately, we know where we are and begin to see where we are going.

Our protagonist is aimless, small-town boy Richard Papen, whose older, wiser self narrates the story. He tells us of his junior year of college at an elite liberal arts school tucked away in the mountains of Vermont. There, he manages to ingratiate himself with a group of misfit students in an exclusive Greek program. But the more intertwined he becomes in the lives of the others, the more things start to unravel.

The Secret History does not feel like a beach read. It does not read breezily. Instead, it is a book to bury yourself in. It’s a book suited for the dead of winter, and it’s the book I read throughout back-to-back polar vortexes. With the first page telling us the “who” and some chapters later giving us the “why” the central interest in The Secret History comes from our need to see the full picture. How is this resolved? Where do these characters end up?

That said, it was missing some of the immediacy I’ve come to love when reading mysteries. While I was eager to see where the story would go, I didn’t fly through the novel. Thoughts of it didn’t dominate my mind, and it was easy to set it down for a day before picking it back up again.

I admit, I was a little disappointed at this, though I don’t really blame the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but my expectations got in the way. It was hard to adjust to a book that felt more like the literary fiction I was intending to take a break from than the lightning quick read I thought I was about to get.

Overall, some sections moved a bit slower than other, but nothing really felt superfluous. The book’s language is rich and packed with Greek literary allusion (which I am not ashamed to admit regularly flew over my head). The characters are largely all terribly unlikeable people who do unspeakable things. There is, quite simply, a lot going on in it, and I think a second read might do me good on this one.

Even though it’s not quite what I expected, I’m glad I read this before trying The Goldfinch. If you walk into it prepared for its intricate language and a somewhat slower than rapid fire pace, I think you’ll be as happy as I was.

Eleanor & Park

tumblr_mvi680gVhe1qzxcgdo1_1280

You don’t have to read YA fiction to notice the trend that’s been going strong since Harry Potter. First came the boy wizard, and then came Twilight, Eragon, Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments. Even Hunger Games doesn’t stray too far from the path in its eschewing of reality for a horrific dystopian future. So when buzz about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park started drifting my way, I noticed. Because what sets this book apart is that its title characters are, well, normal. They don’t have special powers. They’re not “the chosen ones.” They don’t save a nation from unspeakable forces. Eleanor and Park do something that felt much more magical than any of that—they fall in love.

Told from its title characters’ points of view in alternating chapters, Eleanor & Park explores the lives of two wayward teens in 1986 middle America and their blossoming relationship.

I purposefully chose to read the book in September, in the heart of back-to-school season, in the midst of my annual rewatching of My So-Called Life. I set the scene for myself because I had a feeling that the book would just fit into my heart better that way. And it did.

I found myself lingering over pages in this lightning quick read, rationing chapters, hesitating before turning the page, just so I’d get to spend a little bit longer with it. Just so I wouldn’t finish it too fast. Which, of course, is exactly what I did with all of my favorite books in high school. Eleanor & Park felt more honest than almost any other portrayal of teenage love I can think of. When I finished it, I wished I could have gone back in time and found this book when I was still 16.

It’s a supremely easy read. I don’t think I’d call it groundbreaking, either. It’s just refreshing. It’s like a comfortable old friend. Just seriously consider picking it up the next time you’re in the mood to remember high school without all the bullshit of having to actually be in high school.

[originally posted October 30, 2013]

An Experiment

I’ve been blogging consistently since I was about 14 years old. I had a Xanga. No one read it because I didn’t want anyone to read it. I didn’t tell anyone about it except my best friend, and it stayed that way until college. Then I prepared for study abroad and started a new blog, and a group of about five of my closest friends were aware of it, though I still kept a private blog just for myself (and again, maybe my best friend). What I wrote was a fairly thorough diary of my life and nothing more.

When Tumblr rolled out, I was a senior in college. Everyone I knew signed up for it, but I had no idea what to do with it. The format was foreign to me—it didn’t seem meant for writing and that was all I ever did. But I kept up with it, posting regularly and writing less until I hardly really wrote anything at all. It didn’t take too long to realize this, and for a long time, I hated it but did nothing. I had an audience there, albeit a minuscule one, and I didn’t feel I could go back to hiding everything I wrote.

But late last year, I decided to give myself a challenge.

I was reading more than I had in what felt like my entire life. I was an English major in college, yes, and literature was always my best subject. Yes, I remember being 6 years old and wanting to be a writer. But I never made enough time to read for fun, for myself. Then suddenly I found myself going through a book or two a month. I was always reading something, and it was the most consistent I’d ever been at anything. At around the same time, I was looking for something to dedicate myself to as a way to force myself to write again. I needed some kind of timeline. Some kind of deadline. Something—anything—to compel me.

And then it hit me.

If I reviewed every book I read, I’d post at least once a month. It was an achievable goal. It was realistic.
It was the push I needed.

And now here we are, a good five full months on the dot since I started that project for myself and I haven’t skipped a beat yet.

So where does this leave you?

Well, the experiment will continue. Everything I read, I’ll review, and I’ll review it here. I’ll also be moving over my existing reviews to get started. So everything from my thoughts on Jane Eyre to why I hated Hope: A Tragedy and where I think contemporary YA fiction is going will be here. These are reviews for no one and everyone, and if no one finds this little blog, that’s okay, too. Because most of all, these reviews are for me.

Welcome.

hello, there

This is me.