Gimme Gimme Gimme some gimmicky books

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Dorst and Abram’s Ship of Theseus atop my personal notes from the book. Newcastle Brown Ale for encouragement.

I love me some gimmicks with my books! Gimme a secret message! Gimme backward pages! Gimme a decoder ring! Wait – Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams (my favorite living genius, besides Neil Degrasse Tyson) did give me a decoder ring of sorts in Ship of Theseus, and I was thrilled. I was excited like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, hiding behind a locked door frantically deciphering the secret message. Ship of Theseus came with postcards, marginalia (in several different colors!), newspaper clippings inserted betwixt the pages! So much fun!

Ship of Theseus is a meta-book within a book within a book. It comes looking like some 1940s library discard, complete with library sticker and Dewey Decimal code. To explain the plot and book-within-a-book may cause me to spin around and fall down. Suffice it to say, the book is a whole world, and two grad students are along for the ride with you, and their commentary is written in the margins with different colors for different readings. According to the online experts, you’re supposed to read the story (an adventure tale replete with mystery), then read the comments in order of color as you go along. Some people do this chapter by chapter, others read the book four or five times to get the different comments. Different items are also inserted into the book in between specific pages: a postcard, a photograph, a decoder wheel (splee!).

The only hiccup . . . a minor glitch . . . a slight bump in the road . . . was my overzealousness. I treated Ship of Theseus like a dissertation. I began to drown in my own notes. I started carrying a briefcase with me everywhere I went so I could have the book, my notebooks about the book, others’ notes about the book, in case epiphany struck. Eventually, like my attempts at sewing and learning how to play the theremin, I put it down and haven’t picked it back up again. Still, just looking at it on my bookshelf fills me with an over-eager sense of adventure, not unlike an 11-year-old boy playing Dungeons and Dragons.

But the gimmicks are so enjoyable. Poo-poo on other onliners who decry such approaches with their snobbery and holier-than-thou attitudes. Gimmicks, for lack of a better term, can create a reading experience. There’s the book, oh yes, but there’s so much more.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl came with an app. An app! Enhancement for scariness! The book was a frightening mental trip. Loved it. Ate it up. Especially the “extras” you get with the app: short “movie trailers” relevant to the plot. After a while you wonder, is this real? It sure seems real . . .

Another gimmicky approach is in The Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones. The story follows a young girl in a world where every person is born with 100 crystals in their body that slowly deplete. People lose crystals through injury, accidents, sickness … and at zero crystals, death. The pages of the book count down instead of up, and you realize as you read that your time is drawing to a close.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, perhaps the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, manipulates the reader mercilessly. I knew I was being manipulated, and I didn’t care. The pages are sometimes printed in a spiral and you have to keep turning the book in your hands, or the words are backwards, or there is only one word per page and this makes you flip them maniacally as your heart is racing during something horrifying. During one crucial plot point Danielewski inserted one stanza of music. I ran to the piano, plucked out “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and freaked out. This book made me afraid of my own bathroom.

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House of Leaves. Mess you up!

The “gimmicks” are not gimmicks. The author is putting you in the story, even more so than just by reading words on a page. It’s The Neverending Story come to life. And I love it. Gimme more.

 

 

 

 

 

A Good School – Richard Yates

a good schoolI am a total sucker for prep school stories, and A Good School doesn’t disappoint. Yates delves into the private lives of the prep school boys and their disillusioned professors without the pitfalls of sentimentality or melodrama. There is no doubt that the tales related in this novel are semi-autobiographical.

Set in early 1940s Connecticut at a second-tier boys’ school, Dorset Academy, A Good School mainly follows the newly-admitted-at-reduced-tuition Bill Grove. Pigeon-chested from a family of divorce, Grove is a lackluster student who only thrives while working on the school paper. So many adolescent concerns are addressed here: trying to break in as the “new kid,” wanting to be besties with another boy and not knowing how to handle it without being smothering, being smothered by another boy who thinks you’re the bees knees, all while trying to pass French and find a tuxedo for the dance. The sexual hazing is fierce at Dorset, and there is a touching scene with a boy and his father who are both trying to accept it and move past the humiliation. These stories all happen under the threatening future that as soon as they graduate, they will be fighting in the war.

There are several privileged rich boys at Dorset, but, much to the surprise of many professors, there are several boys in attendance from lower-income households as well. It comes as no surprise, then, that Dorset is in bankruptcy. These boys and their parents are clinging with a tenuous grasp to the idea that Dorset is still “a good school.”

This is mostly a coming-of-age tale, although Yates also includes the stories of some of the professors: the cuckolded handicapped professor, the nonchalant French professor doing the cuckolding, the sexual awakening of Dr. Stone’s blossoming daughter. These stories present a well-rounded view of Dorset Academy, but also touch on the human condition, and include the failings and unwitting triumphs of these men struggling to find purpose at a floundering institution.

The closure of the school, and the final chapters that focus on Bill Grove reminiscing about his time at Dorset, are under the shadow of a sense of resignation and anguish, but also nostalgia.

This a fun story with dark undertones. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Burgess Boys – A review

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Compared to Strout’s other novels that I’ve read, the famous Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, and, most recently, My Name is Lucy Barton, The Burgess Boys was a disappointment. This novel will not let you down if you’re seeking relatable character development and subtly crafted family dysfunction that Strout adroitly molds into her novels; however, this one fell flat for me.

Based on the flap copy, I expected this story to focus on the inflammatory tale of a young boy, Zach, arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque in a small town in Maine, and the racially-divided townspeople’s reactions to this hate crime. Strout introduces some Somali characters here, but never takes them anywhere, and occasionally drops in mild epithets to explain the complacent attitudes of the Mainers towards the immigrant Somalis, but that’s as far as it goes. This aspect of the story just eventually faded into nowhere. Instead, Strout takes a left turn and begins to explore the relationships among Zach’s mother, Susan, and her two brothers, Jim and Bob.

The Susan/Jim/Bob dysfunction was mildly interesting, but not nearly as introspective as the relationships explored in Strout’s other work. These characters were slightly more one-dimensional: the difficult sister, the ignored but has a heart of gold middle brother, the asshole litigator eldest brother. I didn’t really care for any of them. The minor characters were much more fascinating – the Somali refuge, the woman minister whose aims are only vaguely described, Bob’s conflicted ex-wife. Those characters would have possibly made a more interesting story than the trio of Maine upper-middle-classers dealing with a long ago family tragedy.

My main complaint with this book? Jim was a self-indulgent, insecure, arrogant asshole and everyone kowtowed to him. Over and over and over again. “It’s okay, Jim, we know that you were rude to everyone, but you’ve had a difficult time keeping up with all your lies. Poor Jim! Come here and give me a hug!”

Kill him, already. Come on, Bob, throw a drink in his face. Kick him out, Susan, and slash his tires. I kept waiting for this to happen and it never did. It left me exhaling at the end with a “that’s it?” expression on my face.

If you’ve never read Strout, start with Olive Kitteridge or Amy and Isabelle. They’re both awe-inspiring. Try this one if you’re a die-hard fan, as I am. I’ll keep reading anything she puts on paper and I’d love to take her out for tea. Call me, Elizabeth, I still love you!