Post Book Hiatus: Ongoing

Hiatus

I hope everyone had a good holiday. Remember when I said that I would have a post ready by November 25? Yeah, that clearly didn’t happen. My brain short circuited several times this last week/weekend, what with the turkey, the family, and the cluster-fuck of people shopping along with maintaining a poor diet and exercise routine that extended for several days and eventually sent me spiraling down a deep, cavernous Low, which I’ve only recently recovered from. It wasn’t until Sunday that I realized, “oh, it’s Sunday…which usually proceeds sometime after Wednesday…”

Even if I had remembered, I wouldn’t have had anything to offer. I’m still chipping away at the lovely mess called ‘writing.’ The book review I originally wrote on Marie Lu’s The Rose Society was just plain awful. It sort of read like someone pumped with adrenaline who couldn’t muster anything except a cacophony of squeals and squeaks from a kid going to Disney world for the first time. I wouldn’t subject anyone to that kind of torture.

Now that I have submitted and completed my applications for graduate school (yay!), I have nothing except time…sort of. Let’s just say that my free time has been spent catching up on other things that I’ve neglected…such as binge walking the premiere of Marvel’s Jessica Jones (it was amazzzzzing!), the new season of Once Upon A Time (kill Zelena for the greater good already!), Supergirl (verdict is still out on this show), and The Man in the High Castle (only two episodes but I like it so far). There’s also Anime like Owarimonogatari, Steins Gate, and other shows I’m screening at the moment. While I realize this is a lot of TV watching, I figure slacking off on my book reading for a week isn’t going to kill me, but it’ll be the death penalty if I continue to watch TV for the rest of my life, for my bones and brain.

What I can offer are updates on things to look forward to in the next several weeks, however.  Post will resume on Wednesday, December 9.

Coming Soon!!!

My Week with Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince Part 6

Trigger Warnings and Microaggressions

Book Review: Marie Lu’s The Rose Society

Book Review: Alison Brosh’s Hyperbole and Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

 My Week with Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 7

Likeable Characters: Does it Matter?

Unlikeable characters picIn Paula Hawkins Girl on the Train, almost every character falls under the category of unlikeable. Gillian Flynn’s characters in Gone Girl and Dark Places evokes a similar, chronic umbrage that even their worst personality traits and immoral choices cannot compensate for; yet, after the chaos of voluntarily dropping ourselves into these characters’ circumstances along with knowing the well-founded and pitiful reason for these characters being who they are, the vast majority of readers cannot pull themselves away from the all consuming discussion: were the characters likeable?

I was dismissive of this topic at first and never put much emphasis in it. I still consider it a short-sighted way to gauge a book’s merit, and I think it can act as a form of discrimination, especially when people use the scapegoat of not liking  a book because they weren’t able to identify with any of the characters. When did we start treating these characters like celebrity friends?

Our purpose in reading has changed. Although why we read has its own myriad of answers, reading still cultivates a feeling of empathy, but when we remove the likeability from our characters, it seems to affect how we read the text. People usually don’t feel as generous or sympathetic toward a character doing terrible things regardless if people are well informed of the character’s motivations and circumstances, which says a mouthful of what people are willing to spare in terms of compassion.

Then again, reading isn’t just satisfying our own moral compasses and egos but a way to study the spectrum of humanity. As anyone who happens to turn on the morning news or has had their share of hardships, we can be hollow, cruel, and vicious creatures, which can be difficult for many to read. Some days leave you feeling like a hopeless cynic who wants to do nothing but hermit. And while you can gain so much from being exposed to this material, it’s not what a majority of people want to read. As the Guardian writes, people have an “appetite for easy, unthreatening fiction.”

In the last few years, our culture has undergone economic changes. Despite the recession, people are still significantly more well off than they would have been fifty years ago. Finances, health, and well-being have increased, which subsequently, has fostered a belief, attributed much to the new generation, that places an emphasis on self-worth. Millennials want to do work that is fulfilling. They want to know that the work they’re doing is making a difference somehow, but they also want to know that they’re not going to spend every waking hour in an office doing a monotonous job, not after the sobering realization that a perfect education cannot promise anything. People are still seeking employment. Some are working for positions they’re overqualified with salaries below minimum wage. Our healthcare system has problems and isn’t as affordable despite its name. Even though things are improving, several people are still struggling.  There’s a tendency to forgo the challenging books with unlikeable character and prefer characters they can relate to and inspire them. It’s a healthier way to self-medicate. Having a likeable character in a story isn’t necessarily bad in terms of characterization, but as Claire Messud puts it after a reporter blithely asked her about a certain prickly female character in her book, “[People] read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

Our criteria and rhetoric has become heavily biased in terms of how we rate and appreciate characters in books. In a society that already has in place a double standard system, with unlikeable female character tending to be judged more than their male counterparts, our own impartiality limits our exposure and engenders the prolonged problems of not having enough diverse characters.

The other issue stemming from only generating the likeable characters will result in trite material. As Zoe Heller argues, “to insist that the fault always lies with our shortcomings as readers is to attribute to literature an infallibility it does not possess.”  A likeable character is a pleasing person and we’re essentially creating a nice version of Frankenstein’s monster that is an aesthetically, well-behaved, non-ambiguous character. If we seek fault, then it’s part of the travesty of not wanting to find mix-matched parts to assemble.

Whether we like or dislike a character shouldn’t affect our final verdict. It’s actually distracting us from having more meaningful, complicated discussions. This is not to say that you should kill your feelings just yet. They’re a great plateau to jump off from that can lead into the more thought-provoking conversations.

If we simply regard a character based on our overall impression of them, we can easily end up being misinformed and end up misunderstanding the people in our own lives. Characters are, of course, fictional, contrived from the inner creative circuitry of the writer’s mind. If nothing else, we can find more than just entertainment injected into the ink: we can find ourselves, people, strangers, another world, the new, the ugly, secrets, and lies.

Post Blog Post: If you think I’m exaggerating or aren’t taking me seriously about the scrutiny of female characters, just Google: unlikeable characters in books. Then click on ‘Images.’

Can a Book’s Ending ‘Make’ or ‘Break’ a Story?

download (2)When I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake during my undergrad days, discussion trickled in like a broken faucet. No one had anything to say—that is before everyone finished reading it. The conversation we had was ambivalent; some argued that the lead up was anti-climactic while others delivered eloquent reasoning for the lack-luster sequence of events in favor of a detonating finale. It conclusively came down to one thing: the conclusion and its effects on the novel as a whole.

In this last year of reviewing books, I’ve included endings as a part of my criteria and had considered the concept of a book’s conclusion without too much thought, but then I started to wonder because of my own novels that I’m writing. For years, I’ve mulled over how my story will end. Comprised of three books, my novels involve several, ambitious characters seemingly familiarized with what they want only to have their circumstances abruptly change. While I’ve known how each book ends, I didn’t know where these characters would end up, or if they could end up in a place so unexpected. This lead me to think about the nature of endings, the misplaced certainty they hold, the satisfaction they bring, and their pseudo finality. In other words, can endings really ‘make’ or ‘break’ a novel?

The first thing I noticed: endings are not a natural occurrence in novels. They are literary devices that significantly and noticeably change the trajectory of stories. We know intuitively when we are approaching an ending, signified by a story’s climax followed by a quick procession of events leading to a conclusion. Sometimes these conclusions provide answers, refute our preconceived notions, or abandon us, giving us yet another wrinkle in our foreheads and a void of uneasy answers. Endings are intentionally perplexing because we perceive them as a natural occurrence, when endings are inventions that are part of a sequence in the art of story-telling.

The functionality of endings, however, is a very interesting phenomenon. Have you ever noticed that the endings cannot be found or preserved in the real world? It’s because after we say our goodbyes or part ways with people, the novel discontinues following the characters’ lives, which subsequently creates a kind of time capsule that readers can revisit. But we know that life keeps going; we just can’t witness it in books and nor should we. It’s not only impractical (because no one wants to read that many pages…), but the art of writing the novel would quickly and abysmally become perfunctory and would be incapable of evolving as it’s done over the years. As much as we want to argue that some books accurately reflect the condition of living, we can’t overlook that endings makes us self-consciously knowing that they don’t.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines endings ‘as the last part,’ a ‘termination,’ or ‘death.’ It’s true life has beginnings and endings, i.e., we are born and then we succumb to the side effects of mortality, but when we perceive endings in our lives such as graduating, relocating, or losing a job, we redefine it in a different context. When something ends, we perceive it in subsidiary terms in hopes of finding closure. Even though that specific event ends, the effects from that experience insert itself in your already cultivated thoughts from living. Thoughts bleed into our everyday moments and can easily throw us back to that moment in the past by something as small as a green scarf or white pearls. This is why we cannot have real-life endings: our thoughts are too complex.

A book’s ending also has the uncanny effect to work externally and internally. For example, the last line in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is famous for a single piece of text that’s been analyzed and interpreted in a hundred different ways to mean a thousand different revelations:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It gorgeously aligns with the tragic character Gatsby who yearns to relive the past, but most readers will agree, we extricate meanings from books and compare them to our lives. We are existential creatures trying to find the hidden patterns and place meaning to them. The endings found in literature reflect this ideology and before a philosophical debate erupts, it’s also this quality about ourselves that allows us to create stories and invent endings to aid us in defining the moments in our lives.

So it’s not surprising why we put a great deal of stock in how books ends. Stories are perhaps one of the most successful instruments in devising meanings, construing symbols and metaphors, and cataloging life. There’s a lot we can take from a story and decipher; yet, an ending acts as a wild card, an independent variable from the rest of the story. It has the unpredictable way of sabotaging a story by abruptly changing it and leaving us alone with our thoughts. It’s no wonder, including myself, why endings cause readers to vehemently purge their cathartic feelings and feel emotionally bruised for days.

But I still haven’t answered my question from earlier. Do endings ultimately decide the value of a story?

The answer is: well—yes and no?

I’d be remised if I overlooked the other contributing aspects of a book that unify and create a coalesce piece of work. Characters and the writing are bolsters in any story, and I’m more forgiving of an ending that breaks my heart and ditches me in my own pit of despair.

On the other hand, there are some stories that do not try or are afraid to take that plunge into the scary, dark cave and opt to take the bridge with a rainbow arching over it. There are endings that remove the characters in favor of something more exciting and morph into something utterly different. When this happens, I do take offense, not only as a writer, but as a reader who’s invested her time in reading said amazing prose and getting to know these characters only to feel cheated by the author’s reluctance to follow through with the story.

And that’s the sad beauty of stories: the unsaid commitment that these books will end in xxx number of pages. And if you’re lucky, you’ll read an ending that will stay with you and replay in your head countless times before calling it quits.

The Funny Thing About Depression and Reading

photographing-landscapes-6eAfter I’ve read a sentence six times and fail to retain anything I’ve read within the last five minutes, I think I know what’s wrong. I’ll tell myself that I’m tired. The book isn’t interesting. I’ll pick it up another time. Just keep reading. You just don’t feel like reading. Just wait. It’ll get better!

These reading dry spells can last for weeks and sometimes even months for me. Most readers have run into this at least once or twice, but with Depression, it can potentially annihilate all your interests and love for books.

The thing is most professionals will suggest reading books. It’s one of the many, many, MANY methods in countering the effects of Depression. I haven’t tried them all, but I know from experience, reading and depression do not mix. It’s like breeding a porcupine with a sheep and creating this seemingly soft but prickly thing. There’s never been a time when a book pulled me out of one of my Lows. Reading brings comfort and lets my mind actively engage with something. As long as I can concentrate, can feel something, and can stay in the present long enough to visualize the story anyway. Depression is a vacuum that mercilessly cleans you out. It removes the parts that make you who you are, so it makes sense why it can be hard for me.

It can be frustrating to people looking at someone with Depression from the outside. It might be tempting to say ‘cheer up’ or even advise that person take some Advil (oh how I wish I were kidding about that last part.) It’s more complicated than that and having to explain the reasons can turn into a cornucopia of pervasiveness and sound like half-ass excuses for laziness. As much attention as the mental disorder has received lately, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about mental illnesses, except that there’s no cure, just methods on how to manage it. Reading just sadly isn’t one of them for me. How I wish a stack of books could be my anti-depressants when it’s a source of uplifting energy for others. Interestingly enough, books contain some of the most heartbreaking, dispiriting material imaginable.

Goodreads has a list dedicated to the most depressing books of all time starting with The Diary of a Young Girl. They’re not wrong though, with characters such as Jay Gatsby and Edna Pontellier as the poster models of repressed adults. A copious amount of books are saturated with brooding and volatile themes along with dismaying and tragic content. It’s almost impossible to find a book that doesn’t expose us to at least some traumatic experience involving sexual abuse, rape, alcohol/drug addiction, molestation, murder, disability, cancer, bigotry, racism, suicide, etc. So why do we continue to read these books if they’re only filled with joyless and heartbreaking moments? Because they’re good for us.

Books, mainly literary fiction, evoke tangible responses and affects how we emphasize with our other fellow human beings. We’re able to discern another person’s pain, internalize it, and grow as people. It’s the contradictory and hopeless, tragic stories that have engendered timeless classics that are profound and memorable. Maybe not the most pleasant of truths (when is it ever), but all of us have suffered at one point and are able to relate to another because of our pain. Books are bulky, accessible, jacket wearing doses of good-for-you humanity.

As I learned especially after being diagnosed with Depression, there are steps that I can do to avoid triggering a Low. This involves reading regularly and maintaining a routine. I realize how contradicting this may sound, but it’s actually not. Reading does not trigger Lows; it clearly does the opposite. I’m doing something I enjoy. Reading is a form of self-care for me.

When I was in college earning my English degree, I used to have to read an average of six to eight books a week and then have to write a mature, critical argumentative paper praying that I wouldn’t accidentally mix up one miserable guy encumbered by his gynophobia from another (a summation of American Literature). What I remember most about this time was not the late night papers or the books I read but the overwhelming, global mental breakdowns. I really thought the only way to survive college was to suck it up and keep going because everyone else seemed well-adjusted. If they could do it, so could I. The crippling Lows and panic attacks were just something I thought would go away on their own. I thought I would grow out of them. Classic self-denial-twenty-three-year-old me.

Looking back, I was missing balance and neglecting myself. It’s important to take time for yourself—just don’t go crazy and realize you just spent the entire day binging on that new TV show or shopping for all the pretty clothes you want to buy (I’m frugal.) Workaholics like me are terrible at taking breaks. We wear ourselves down like a pair of shoes. And, I admit, I still struggle in taking time for myself, as I sometimes interpret not working as ‘wasting time,’ when it’s not.  While doing something consistently keeps me in a check, and yes, happy, it’s still good to unwind with something else.

Before when I was Depressed and suffering Lows, I wouldn’t do anything. I’d wait for the Low to pass like a Cold. I would try and just read when, in actuality, I was just sitting in my room with the curtains shut and becoming a paperweight. A change in environment and activity ends up being the best thing for me to do, even though, I admit, forcing myself outside and interacting with other people feels like the total opposite of what you want to do with every bone in your body pretending like they’re crystallizing.

The brain is funny like that, and as I grow older and “wiser,” I’m coming to terms with mine and the things I have to do to be mentally healthy. If I want to do things I love, such as reading, I have to put the book aside once and while, go out, not be a hermit, socialize, interact with people, say more than two sentences, play with my dog (it’s an activity!), smile at someone, hold open the door, maybe eat a salad, walk or run, take a hot bath, write, write more, and sleep because the best part of books is that they’ll wait for you until you’re ready.

NoteI’m not a doctor, a therapist, or any kind of expert. You’ll find no prestigious degree noted in my fancy bio. If you or someone else you know is suffering with Depression, Anxiety, trauma and mental illness, please seek professional help. They know what they’re doing and can help make your life suck significantly less. I waited longer than I should have, and as a result, suffered to the point where my issues turned critical. Don’t do that to yourself. Talk with medical professionals in your area and learn what your options are. And I realize that therapy can be stupidly expensive, so find options that work with you. Some clinics offer sliding scale fees making therapy affordable and less likely to trigger financial stress. Make sure to find someone you’re comfortable with, and if you’re on medication, find the right balance, which may not happen right away. This may take some experimenting, but it’s worth it. Your first time with a therapist might be scary and new, but you will definitely reap the benefits as long as you take it seriously. This is about you and your health. Your pain is just as real as any physical one. Okay. I’m done with the public service announcement.

The YA Book Stigma

imagesWhen I visited my library last week, I gravitated toward the young-adult section. With Trial by Fire secured in my hands, I thought I would look for something else within the genre.

I stood in front of a tower of books, my eyes perusing the selection and flitting occasionally at the people around me. I noticed an old man behind the reference desk. He wore a lopsided grin and then, quite noticeably, shook his head in my general direction. I shrugged it off and dismissed it, as one should do instead of making assumptions. Then standing next to me were two teenagers, and it didn’t take long for me to feel the out-of-place age gape.

Ten years have gone by since I was sixteen. The library I went to didn’t have a designated shelf for YA literature. There was children fiction and adult fiction. That was it. I had to hunt for books aimed at my age group, which left me mostly with Sarah Dessen books or books on bullying, drugs, or romance–the last thing I wanted to read. Sure there were other books, but the YA books published today offer more audacious and experimental content than their predecessors. Books such as the Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, or Libby Bray’s The Diviners are mature stories with young-adult characters confronted with real adult problems. In spite of YA’s growth in popularity and myriad of subgenres, critics and fellow book readers continue to castigate the genre and its older readership.

Last year, Ruth Graham’s article was posted on Slate shaming adults for reading YA, suggesting that it’s “replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers.”  I would be concerned too if a well-known genre was on the brink of extinction, but there’s no indication of literary fiction or even adult fiction dying out soon. Graham identifies literary fiction as the genre being faced with this ostensible annihilation, as if YA will monopolize the book market and that book publishers will cease production of all literary-fiction books. Literary fiction does tend to be read less than other genres; however, as long as there’s a market for it and a kindle of interest, I doubt there will be a shortage of literary-fiction books any time soon. Graham’s treatment of YA is astounding and seems more territorial and didactic. Telling anyone what they should be reading has a tendency to backlash and ruins the overall reading experience.

Graham further expounds on the problems with adults reading YA books. She pointedly clarifies that it’s not that having adolescent characters is the issue, citing contemporary, literary author Megan Abbott, but that YA books require adults “to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” This implication is problematic in two ways. It suggests that adults reading YA are psychologically regressing, but regression is impulsive, a result of a defense mechanism. If adults are casting out their “mature insights” when reading YA, then there would be some kind of threat triggering this event. Adults’ maturity remains safely intact as it’s unlikely that years of experience can be washed away so easily. Graham may also be assuming adults are reading for scholarly reasons and overlooks the entertainment value of YA books. When reading books, most people are reading for pleasure.

The other problem besides what Graham insists will cause adults to regress is that she presumes that in order to fully appreciate adult literature, one must have the maturity, not the intellect, to comprehend it. The implication made also suggests reading YA will negatively interfere with an adults’ capability of reading adult literature with age as the only determinant. She excludes other factors such as sex, race, and social class that can significantly affect our views and shape our experiences. In addition to this credulous statement, it belittles young adults themselves. As she implies, they won’t be able to really appreciate adult literature and inadvertently discourages young adults for even trying. Graham discredits young adults and their capacity to translate complex text and ability to relate emotionally.

Graham is just one example of critics shaming adults reading YA. Critics snub the merit of YA books and often demonstrate a high, elitist opinion. But what critics realize or don’t give credit to is the amount of revenue YA produced in 2014, and how the YA book market kept the book market afloat. In spite of YA’s commercial success, critics repudiate the literary aspects of YA and are convinced that only young adults should read young-adult literature.

This notion might have had more weight to it 50 years ago, when YA was originally a term designed to indicate the intended age a book would most appeal to. YA has gradually shifted from an age classification to a genre since then. Over the years, YA underwent several changes, from formulaic plots and horror, to paranormal and dystopian. From only a few books on a shelf to a section in the bookstore, YA encompasses a plethora of subgenres that seem to have one commonality: transitioning. Whether the teen protagonist is a werewolf or a symbol in a dystopian world, YA plots occur during a time in the protagonist’s life when he or she feels stuck between times and places, from adolescent to adult, or more fantastical, one world to the another. Characters struggle with identity and sexuality, alcohol and drugs, abuse and survival, issues of degrading health and mental illness, etc, with these topics also prevalent in other adult-related genres. Of course YA’s inclusion of more adult-related themes has led to discussions debating about its mature content and even causing some YA books to be banned. The term YA became intermittently synonymous with its targeted audience and genre.

But what is the appeal of this genre? Some might argue the popularity of this genre should be accredited to the John Green Effect, which does warrant some discussion. John Green certainly has caught the media’s attention in the last year with the theatrical debut of The Fault in Our Stars, but most of his success can be contributed to his fan base and social media plate forms. It’s not only the book-to-film adaptation of Green’s novel that has done well. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Divergent have done substantially well too, hooking moviegoers and having them direct their eyes at the written source. This is one explanation as to why so many adults are diving into young-adult literature.

The other explanation is the economic and social changes. The effect of the recession has recent graduates (infamously dubbed Millennials, or my personal favorite, the Peter Pan generation) unemployed or underemployed. As a result, they are living at home with their parents. The lack of income and independency postpones traditional adult milestones such as marriage, purchasing a house, or starting a family. The effects of the economic environment has left adults in a stagnant, awkward transition resembling stories found in YA literature; these stories offer palpable and relatable scenarios. Millennials are possibly turning to YA books for comfort. Why should adults be shamed for that?

Critics are also quick to dismiss YA as a low-brow form of literature, yet the genre is surprisingly experimental and versatile. Yes, it doesn’t always conform to conventional rhetoric or meet the criteria of true literary fiction. YA redefines the concept of literary prose by incorporating chunks of dialogue, email formats, and texting vernacular into fewer, simpler lines. We are a multifaceted culture and communicate in a variety of different ways. It’s not as though adult fiction doesn’t show this, but it’s more apparent in YA, with its subjects and audience’s generation more fluent in technological innovations. Usually literature is a reflection of the current times, and it’s good to see what post-modern writers are doing with it. This doesn’t mean YA contains less in story when it comes to content. YA literature has produced some thought provoking ideas exemplified in Lois Lowry’s The Giver. While it was written for a young-adult audience, it’s harbors dark themes of solidarity and conformity. Sometimes the best pieces of literature can be said in few words.

And we cannot forget what YA is doing for the younger generation. By expanding on subjects that have been considered taboo in the past, YA authors are reigniting young adults’ interest in literature. This same phenomenon is also being carried over to adults. If more adults are reading because of YA literature, then how is that bad?

What I see is YA authors taking more risks and challenging the traditional, literary conventions, not sabotaging literary fiction or, more nefariously, poisoning adults’ minds. As much as I like literary fiction, it’s enthusiasts and advocates have a way of sometimes taking themselves too seriously.

So to those readers shaming others: less judging, more reading.

Sleepwalking, Meg Wolitzer

Sleepwalking Meg WolitzerAfter Belzhar, I didn’t think I would pick up another Meg Wolitzer novel again, but the premise of Sleepwalking interested me enough that I thought I would chance it. Her debut novel, Sleepwalking encompasses nuggets of wisdom and insight and questions the genuine and artifice of being a person. How many of us can say we are true versions of ourselves without pause and without feeling a tugging sensation in our bellies?

Wolitzer pointedly addresses these existential questions. It’s easier to tell a story that distinguishes the truths from the lies and leaves nothing for our imagination. In several instances, Sleepwalking is about finding out what is real amid the lies. It suggests to a certain extent how conformity is necessary to form connections with people; when we find common ground, we form friendships but in the process, we may assume appearances and characteristics different from our own. Sleepwalking makes a difficult case: how much of ourselves is affected by outside influences? Then what do you do when you realize this, when you’ve snapped out of your sleepwalking state? Do you go back to sleep, pretend like nothing’s changed, and hope for the better, or do you do something, and, if so, what?

Claire emulates the fictional, deceased poet Lucy Asher, Wolitzer’s hybrid creation spawned from Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Claire not only dresses and looks like the late Lucy Asher, but she seems to adopt the poet’s mentality. Claire characterizes the observant narrator who’s too stuck in her head. When she begins a relationship with Julian, it’s not about just being a “death girl” anymore. She has interests outside of her devotion and study of Lucy Asher, which is a problem. Claire resorts to a drastic solution that takes her to the Asher’s home, where Lucy Asher’s parents still reside and mourn their daughter.

When reading about Claire Danzinger, I knew her. I knew her waspy, estranged family, her short list of intellectual, close-knit circle of night owl friends that stayed up till dawn reciting from lyrical lines from their favorite poets, and the boyfriend, awkward and fumbling, a good guy who treats his girlfriend like an epitaph and tries to understand her morbid fascination with suicidal, dead poets. She and her friends are known on campus as the “death girls,” but really, anyone who has been enthralled with a poet’s work and life finds themselves identifying with not only his or her work but the author’s life. The author’s work resonates with you, describes what you couldn’t.  This novel offers the collective examination of the characters’ lives and the influence of people’s presences. Devoted, hard-core, literary lovers will love this novel.

It’s interesting reading how Lucy’s mom interacts with Claire, who turns into an eggshell despite sleeping in Lucy’s room and wearing her beloved poet’s clothing. Claire’s responses are muted by the presence of the parents, her treatment of Lucy’s belonging taciturn yet cognate. So rarely do we meet the people we admire, and when we do: let’s face it, we lose our composure and turn into those annoying fans we promised we’d never be. Claire’s reaction separates her from being just an obsessed admirer, although none of Claire’s behavior could be considered normal. But then again, books with well-adjusted teens/adults bore me, and, not to mention, are too perfect.

It’s as if Claire were Lucy with amnesia. Their persons overlap the other. I can’t tell if this is who Claire is, if she has always been similar to Lucy, or if Claire adopted Lucy’s persona when happening across her work; however, the novel, gives the impression of the former. I wonder though.

As Claire peruses Lucy’s belonging, we know just as much as Claire knows that there’s no finding or learning some awesome truth to explain everything about who Lucy was. Scavenge her biographies, journals, letters, but there is never Lucy Asher. The poet’s death encapsulates her and creates a kind of mythos, found posthumously in the legacy of Sexton and Plath. The mythos surrounding Lucy Asher exaggerates and obscures her person. Her work and life enshrines Asher and keeps her readers and admirers at a distance. The effect of this stretches even to Asher’s parents, who endure a different type of mourning as they must contend with their daughter’s legacy, the media, and a legion of Asher worshipers.

Wolitzer’s novel is smart and exemplifies rhetoric and maturing prose. Several times I stopped to absorb the content and sound of her lines. When learning that Wolitzer wrote the piece during her undergraduate career, it brings to mind the image of a young woman with an insatiable and venereal fascination with literature and its predecessors, which nearly made Sleepwalking a meta-fiction reading experience.

With all of that said, Sleepwalking is sadly not for everyone. It falls into a particular but equivocal true literary genre. It analyzes human isolation, relationships, loss, and as mentioned earlier, identity. Wolitzer even notes in her introduction that she wrote the novel with no targeted audience in mind. It will especially appeal to avid readers of the classics, or people who harbor esoteric obsessions with literary writers.

Rating: 4.4 out of 5

Dear Z, From A: Teddy Bears and Surgery

Dear Z,

I lived next door to a white building, which had no name and till this day remains untitled. I knew two things: it had water reserves—and a loud, obnoxious siren.

Every time there was an emergency, the siren went off. Cat stuck in the tree? You heard it. It was an annoying constant in my life growing up.

Let me tell you about the first time it went off. I had a fit, the kind that causes you to crumble and turns you into a ball. My reaction surprised everyone seeing as I couldn’t hear.

Anything loud made it seem like the wax in my ears was curdling. I often wore ear muffs to theaters to buffer the volume of the noise. Vibrations were bullets to the brain.

It’s easier to say I was deaf because saying “ear problems” was an understatement. People treat you like a survivor. That’s not accurate though. I wasn’t near the brink of death. I didn’t fight anything off. I just managed chronic pain while resenting the fact that I couldn’t hear like everyone else.

The severity of my situation didn’t hit me until blood came out of my ears one night. This event traumatized my parents more than it did me.

When I woke up with puss stains on my pillow, I destroyed my Mighty Morphin Power Rangers pillow sheets in the process. The yellow ranger’s suit looked like it was being invaded by a malignant tumor. Tears wetted my face. I threw out my sheets and later sobbed about it, the sheets, not my ears.

Subduing the ear pains became ceremonial. My head laid horizontal for fifteen to twenty minutes a day to receive cold, syrupy drops of medicine.  I kneeled next to a pot of boiling water and hung my head over the steam as if to purge the toxicity from my body. Before stepping into any body of water, I inserted ear plugs—just in case the water was polluted. I even wore them when taking showers. I lived in this bubble for three years.

The hospital was an extended relative’s house I would visit every other weekend. I’m sure I had some good visits, but I don’t remember. Doctors seem to only mention anything  to you if it’s bad news. After a Pap, my gynecologist will only call, “if [they] find something abnormal.” No news is good news, but when you’re five years old, everything is news.

Then I had to have surgery. They were going to cut me open. I remember thinking I was going to wake up with a knife sticking out of my head. I asked my brother if this could happen. He told me it would. I could always count on my brother being stolid. This image of a knife lobbed in my head inspired a series of horrific, slasher type stories that are locked away, but trust me, you’ll never find them.

The nurse injected me with transparent liquids. I don’t have a clear image of her today, except for her teddy bear scrubs. This is also when I learned about the existence of drugs.

So I started to sing as they rolled me away in my bed. I guess there was a waiting line because we parked next to a wall of glass and were on standby until the room was available. There was no urgency.

I continued to sing about being a princess [I remembered the nurse nodding her head . . . along with all the teddy bears heads too.] I can’t remember any of the lyrics, but I know it was my rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot.” I’m sure it sounded more beautiful in my head than what it ended up sounding like: drunken karaoke.

When the room was made available, my dad said goodbye to me, and they hauled me into the room that looked like an observatory. I upgraded from ordinary princess to a moon princess. That’s what the nurses started to call me. Moon Princess.

They said I had to catch a flight. The doctor didn’t say much as he reviewed whatever was on the tray. I caught sight of the scalpel and disappointingly turned my head the other way. I thought it would be bigger.

After another shot of drugs, I was in the clouds. I swung my arms up to catch the baby ones to carry with me to the moon. I had to bring a souvenir for moon people naturally.

A nurse held a mask close to my mouth. She added that there was a masquerade ball.

I pleasantly grinned at her and proceeded to sing to her (I’m told I serenaded her, but I don’t trust the source.)

We started to count down from a hundred, and when my eyes fluttered and eventually closed, orange light eclipsed two small white orbs. I was kept in the dark for several hours, but it only felt like seconds of black and hours of something else. I try not to think about what it might have been.

When I inevitably woke up, my face was covered in a film of oil, my breath stale and chalky. I thought I was experiencing vertigo.

The noise hit me like a bomb.

I could hear the nurses outside of my door whispering, bouncing wheels and metal, the elevator button, phones ringing, and the sounds of the sirens from the ambulances. It didn’t hurt, but I suddenly felt like a nugget that was lost.

Sincerely,

A

P.S. – When I told you about my ear problems, you said how it was all coming together now. It was disparate from everyone’s responses. The only problem was I didn’t understand what was coming together. I accused you of being religious. You laughed at me and said something like you have to go through the bad to get to the good. You said it better. I’d tell you that you were right.

[Thanks everyone for reading/humoring this. Book Reviews return March 2.]