Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Secret History

By Donna Tartt

Four Things I Liked About The Secret History:
1. Secret society
2. College
3. Mystery
4. Suspense

I’ve been intrigued by this book on the Top 100 List for some time now. Maybe it’s the innate fascination with anything “secret,” the compulsion to be included. It’s also set at a college in Vermont, which a) adds to the air of seclusion and mystery and b) have you ever noticed how few novels actually deal with the college years? It’s rather remarkable, considering how romanticized the freedom of those years is. And they’re arguably a period even more fertile for character development than the teenage years. You’d think authors would be all over that! But they’re not.

Anyway. The Secret History opens with the murder of one member of an exclusive group of friends. It then rewinds to the beginning, working its way back to the opening scene, and then spending the rest of the novel detailing the aftermath. The story revolves around an entitled, eccentric, and somewhat depraved group of 5 students who make up one unconventional professor’s elite classics seminar. Richard, the narrator and new arrival to Hampden College, is initially drawn to the group by their heady aura of mystery and sophistication; they were apart from the rest of the student body and also, seemingly, above. He soon learns, however, that they harbor a dark secret, and once he’s involved, there’s no going back…

The Secret History is one of those books that only ever divulge just enough to tantalize you with the promise that the rest is forthcoming, which works well to keep the reader interested, but can also be kind of frustrating. Especially since you never know whose story you can trust or to what extent the narrator is reliable – or mislead himself. This would have been a five star book, but it got a little too wrapped up in itself… like it was so enamored of how interesting it thought itself that it couldn’t tell when it was losing its audience and ought to find a natural way to finish up quickly.

Books Read This Year: 97
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Looking For Alaska

By John Green

Five Things I Like About Looking for Alaska:
1. Alaska’s “life library”
2. Boarding school
3. Pranking
4. Quotable quotes
5. Realistic romanticism

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of John Green, person and author. I’ve read Looking for Alaska before. But lately my copy has been making the rounds as I’ve been recommending it to uninitiated friends and family, and I started to feel a little sheepish about enthusiastically pressing my copy into other people’s hands while unable to rehash the finer details afterward. So I decided to reread it.

Miles “Pudge” Halter is a bit of a nonentity at his public high school in Florida. With no social life to speak of, the only things he’s got going for him are good grades and a penchant for memorizing the last words of famous people (pretty cool things, true, but not super satisfying to a 16-year-old). In order to seek the “Great Perhaps” that will hopefully add an air of mystery and/or excitement into his mundane existence, Pudge transfers to Culver Creek boarding school for his junior year. There, he meets the manic, alluring, inimitable Alaska Young. Alaska takes Miles by the hand and pulls him into her labyrinth, spins him around until he’s sick from dizziness, then leaves him there to find his way out alone, with nothing but inscrutable riddles of clues – “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth?” “Straight and fast” – to guide him (metaphorically speaking).

A fan of Young Adult literature, I will freely admit that the vast majority of books in the genre pander to the shallow side of young adult taste. Not John Green. John’s books appeal to the adult side of young adults; the side that’s starting to ask existential questions; the side that’s becoming disillusioned in a genuine way (not that angst-ridden “No one understands me” phase that so many teens seem to go through); the side that’s trying to make sense of a world unfiltered by the rosy lenses of childhood as they weather the transition from childlike naiveté to the realities of adulthood without losing hope or becoming wholly disenchanted. John Green introduces teens to the less idealistic adult world without being overly escapist – by introducing fantastical loopholes – or demoralizing – by painting a bleaker picture than necessary.

Conversation Starter: Have you ever had an Alaska in your life? What happened?

Books Read This Year: 94
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

By Mindy Kaling

Three Things I Liked About Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns):
1. Girl talk
2. Humor
3. Homebody Hollywood

I haven’t actively followed The Office in two or three years now (though they are all on Netflix instant, and I would love to catch up if I ever find myself with enough spare time to watch 4+ seasons), but when I did, Kelly – played by the funny and talented Mindy Kaling - was one of my favorite characters. I liked her even more when I learned that this lovable ditz was played by someone with Ivy League brains! Smart and funny is always a winning combo in my book. Anyway, so even though I don’t follow The Office anymore, when I learned that Mindy was releasing a book, I knew that I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what this oh-so-likable bundle of contradictions (smart and driven, goofy and fashion-obsessed) had to say. As it turns out: a lot. Mindy is a self-described chatterbox, and somehow, that translates to the page.

Reading Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is like having one of those long, tangent-ridden gossip sessions with a best friend. It’s fun, witty, a little frivolous – just like a good gossip should be. It was fun to get the scoop on Hollywood from someone who worked her butt off to get there, who is neither jaded nor star struck nor affectedly humble, but simply someone happy and proud to be where she is. She hasn’t lost her excitement over things I’m sure plenty of other stars take for granted (photo-shoots, red carpets, etc.), but she’s also realistic about them, portraying both the glamorous and the not-so-glam. I gave it only three stars, though, because as fun as it was, it felt kind of like it was still in the editing process – late in the editing process, to be sure – but still at that point where the editor might say, “Hey Mindy, this draft is really good. I laughed, I snorted, I sympathized. But I think it needs a little more direction. Let’s see what we can come up with.” And then they would decide that, yeah, maybe there was a little somethin’-somethin’ they could add to make it feel a little more robust, to fill it out around the edges. I’ve got to say, though, that its slimness did suit my purposes perfectly; it was a great book to pick up and set down a little absentmindedly last week. With the impending end of the semester tugging my mind in 5 different directions at once, I had no extra mental faculties to spare for keeping complicated plot lines straight anymore.

Books Read This Year: 98
Top 100 Progress: 48/100