#25: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Begun: 3/29/2011
Finished: 3/30/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4.5/5

Note: I would like to take this opportunity to boast that I am now ahead of schedule.  I have complete 25% of my book goal and the year will not be 25% complete until Friday.  Go me!

It really hurts to give this book less than five stars.  It is nearly physically painful to type that “4.5” instead of “5” for my overall rating, because 99% of the book is the best kind of fabulous that there is.  It is only because the climactic moment in the last fifteen pages is so contrived, so unrealistic, so cliched and so off-putting that I’m knocking it down a half a star.  Even with that ending, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

That being said, I almost stopped reading it at the second chapter.

Let me explain.  The book is the story of two teenaged boys who do not know each other, both named Will Grayson, one straight, one gay.  John Green writes Straight Will Grayson, and David Levithan writes Gay Will Grayson.  They alternate chapters, each writing their own Will Grayson’s first-person point of view.  The leadoff chapter is Green, and I immediately fell in love with his style, his Grayson, but mostly with the character who’s arguably more central than either of the Wills, namely Straight Will Grayson’s gay best friend, Tiny Cooper, who is possibly the awesomest gay character I’ve ever read.  He’s a huge, hulking football player who is fabulously, openly gay and real in a way that transcends stereotype.  Tiny is searching for love while he tries to get the school to finance a production of Tiny Dancer, the stage musical he’s written about his life. Green seems to be writing from inside my own head.  He’s drawing his cultural vocabulary from the same sources that I do, even using some of my own personal favorite non-words like “confuzzled,” and this made me feel comfortable in his prose immediately.

Then…the second chapter.  The first of Levithan’s chapters featuring Gay Will Grayson.  His sections are written in a no-caps, alternative-punctuation style that annoyed me right away, and Gay Will Grayson is the most irritating, stereotypical Emo Goth Kid imaginable, with the detachment and the clinical depression and the woe, betide.  I nearly didn’t make it through.  But I wanted to get back to SWG and Tiny Cooper so badly that I kept reading.

Then this amazing thing happened.  Gay Will Grayson got better.  I don’t mean to say that he became less emo, but his self-expression became more layered.  Then, something truly awful happens to him, and this awful thing leads him to finally meet Straight Will Grayson and Tiny Cooper, and somehow I found myself liking Gay Will Grayson as well.  He and Tiny make a stab at having a relationship, while Tiny tries to make Straight Will Grayson abandon his self-imposed detachment (read: defense mechanism) long enough to date their cute friend Jane.  Tiny gets the funding for his musical, and things escalate from there.

I can’t say too much about what put me off so badly about the ending without spoiling you.  It was logistically not believable, first of all, it wasn’t thematically fitting, second, and it was too over-the-top and feel-good for a book that had been pretty fiercely dedicated to truthfulness up to that point.  It’s like they took the “And I’m gay!” ending to the movie In & Out and dialed it up to eleven.

But that isn’t enough to make me not recommend the book.  I loved it, and the characters are fantastic, especially Tiny Cooper, the very model of a modern gay teenager and somebody we’ve never seen before on the page.  A unique creation, both character and novel, and a great read.  As a young-adult title, there isn’t any sex (just some kissing) but a fair amount of sex-referencing and R-rated language.

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#24: Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Begun: 2/25/2011
Finished: 3/29/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

Holy shit.  I have finally finished this book.  I didn’t really appreciate how long it was when I started it.  That’s another benefit of Kindles – you can’t be intimidated or put off by the sheer size and heft of a really long novel.  They all feel the same when they’re ebooks.  According to Amazon the hardcover edition of this tome is 659 pages.  My Kindle for PC app put it at 688.  By any reckoning it’s a long-ass book.

It’s also one of Those Books.  The books that are cultural touchstones, the books that make a big splash outside the literary world, the books that everyone buys and then doesn’t read (although many do read it, I’m sure) because it’s part of the zeitgeist.  Published in 1988, it intentionally captured the dying throes of the excesses of the 1980s, the New Gilded Age, through the pen of one of the sharpest-tongued new journalists, Tom Wolfe.  This was his first work of fiction.  Let it never be said that the man doesn’t aim high.

Ostensibly the story of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street bond broker who is involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx while out with his mistress, an incident that later lands a young black man in a coma and Sherman in court while the entire city erupts in racial and class divisiveness, the book is really about phoniness.  Sherman isn’t as rich as he seems, his mistress isn’t as calculating as she seems, Sherman’s wife isn’t as innocent as she seems, and everybody is to some degree unsympathetic.  This book is also to a large extent about men, particularly men in the eighties, and their need – one might say obsession – with being gladiators.  With having women and society look on them with awe, with being powerful, with being respected, with being Masters of the Universe.  Everyone from Sherman to Larry Kramer, the DA who tries his case, is more or less fixated on his own image and the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might have a bigger dick than they do.  Ironically the character who’s most removed from this gladiator passion play is Peter Fallow, the British journalist who first breaks the case open, and that’s because he’s more or less written himself off – is it a coincidence that he’s the character who ends up in the best situation by the end of the book?

The story and the people in it are steeped, stewed and thoroughly marinated in racial and class divisions.  Sherman’s world is all about class, Kramer’s is about race, Fallow’s is about intellect, and all three of them are in different ways prisoners of the worlds they inhabit.  Wolfe is unflinching about every character, about every situation.  We the readers know the truth about Sherman’s accident from the start but even we start to doubt it even as we watch events unfold to swallow up all of Sherman’s thin veneer of stability.

The book starts slow, with many different threads of story and character, each of them getting a really thorough introduction before things start picking up about halfway through.  Wolfe’s machine-gun style of writing (dear God, the ellipses, I thought I was bad about ellipse abuse) is sometimes grating but ultimately fits the subject matter.  He gets inside each character’s head, resorting to some dizzying head-hopping points-of-view by the end of the book, so we’re spared nobody’s least flattering thoughts.

It’s a hell of a book.  Not what I’d call a pleasant read, but one I ultimately enjoyed for purely voyeuristic reasons.

Embarrassment of riches

So since my rediscovery of the marvelous place that is the library, suddenly I’ve introduced a new element into my reading schedule: time pressure.  Gotta finish the book before it’s due!  Of course I can renew any book with one mouse click thanks to the Columbus Metropolitan Library system’s fabulous online user account interface, but still.

And I have some pressure to hit 25 books read by Friday.  I’m close enough to finishing Bonfire of the Vanities that I feel like I want to push hard and get it done.  The Kindle for PC app actually includes page counts (what a novelty!) so I now know that I’m on page 566 of 688.  That’s still kind of a long way to go.

I also now have two probably fast-reading YA titles to choose from, Incarceron and Will Grayson Will Grayson. So should I work on Bonfire and then one of those, or go ahead and start The Passage, which I’m really looking forward to but which is THICK?

I really want Bonfire finally cleared off my list.  That’s a long-ass book and I will really feel like I’ve accomplished something when I finish it, and I have tomorrow night free to read it.  That plus pick-a-YA-book will put me up to 25 books read.

And there will be much rejoicing.

The Breast, by Philip Roth

I read Philip Roth’s The Breast tonight.

I have no idea what the hell I just read.

It was not remotely long enough to be considered a novel.  I’m not going to count it for the 100 Books in 2011 project, but I will count it (obviously) in my count of Philip Roth books read.

I don’t think I’m going to post a review.  I really don’t know what to think.

In other news, my Kindle is broken.  It fell out of my purse one too many times.  I’ve downloaded the Kindle apps for my PC and my Droid, so I’ll be okay until I can get to Best Buy and pick up a new one, probably at the end of the week.  Still…wah!

#23: Our Gang, by Philip Roth

Begun: 3/25/11
Finished: 3/27/11
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

I didn’t know what to expect from this book.  I knew it was Roth’s diatribe against Nixon, I knew it was satirical, I knew it was political.  What I didn’t know was that it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable of all my reads so far as part of The Roth Project.  I didn’t know what a shift in tone it would be, how hilariously on-the-nose it would be, how intentionally ridiculous and how sharply written.

Roth concocts a scenario of a President, Tricky E. Dixon, who comes out in favor of the rights of the unborn, taking it to extremes when he proposes allowing the unborn to vote.  Then he takes it into a top-secret meeting between Dixon and his top advisors when a group of Boy Scouts protests outside the White House, and further into Dixon’s assassination and eventual campaign to be the new Devil down in Hell.  If all this sounds absurd and over-the-top, it definitely is.  It is also a treatise on the sneaky seduction of political spin and doublespeak.  It is all too easy to see how semantic arguments used here in absurdity are used in reality in more subtle circumstances.  I spent the whole read (it is a short book and a fast read) grinning and shaking my head at the sheer audacity of the political commentary.  I’m not normally much for political books, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

#22: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Begun: 3/24/2011
Finished: 3/24/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4.5/5

This was truly a one-sittting book, or anyway a one-lying-down book, since I read it in bed.  It was so short and quick that once I’d gotten 1/4 of the way through it I knew I just had to finish it.  It moves fast and is compelling enough to pull you through to the end in a couple of hours.

It is a simple microcosmal tale of Edward and Florence, eight hours’ married in 1962, both of then anxious about their upcoming wedding night since both are virgins.  Edward is eagerly anticipating it, but Florence is dreading it since the whole idea of physical intimacy disgusts her despite her real love for Edward.  The book sits lightly with them as they try to eat dinner and finally transition to the bedroom, then jumps back to how they met, their courtship, their individual childhoods and the events that brought them here.

This story is tragic and sad, because we as readers (especially with a modern perspective) can so clearly see how Edward and Florence are going wrong and we want so badly for them to find each other, but will they?  You want to reach through the pages and shake them, urge them to say this or that and if they do or do not follow our advice, we’re helpless, just as helpless as they are.

The book is simply written but artful and things are very clear.  There are a couple of veiled references to possibly trauma in Florence’s past that have given her this horror of physical intimacy, but she doesn’t see it, and in 1962…well, I don’t have to draw you a map.

Quarter-year crisis?

Since I wrote about my one-fifth-done status report not much has changed, but I’m feeling good about my progress.

On April 1st, the year will be one-quarter over.  To be on track I’ll need to have 25 books read.  I think I might make it.  I just knocked off #20 and #21 in quick succession.  Tonight at the library I got a compilation volume of Roth novels that includes the next two I must read, Our Gang and The Breast, and I was astonished to observe that the two of them together total 140 pages.  And I started Our Gang and it is amazingly awesome.  I think I’ll burn through those two with quickness.

Plus I am now almost 60% finished with Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can always tell a Kindle user because they know what percent they’ve read but not what page they’re on, heh.  The reading speed of that book is picking up a great deal as the plot really kicks into high gear.  After that I picked up another quick one, Ian McEwan’s short little novel On Cheshil Beach.  If I can finish those four tomes by April 1st I will be right up the middle.

At the library I also picked up Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a book I’ve wanted to read and which has come recommended.  It’s long.  But if I can make it to 25 books by April 1st, I’ll feel better about throwing in a doorstop of a volume.

Whew.

I’m coming up against a downside to this project, though.  I’m diving in to some research for a book project I’m considering.  I doubt I’ll be reading complete books for it, more like skimming and note-taking…the problem is I’m going to resent any time I spend reading that won’t get applied to The Project.

Oh well.  I need better time management.  Less Facebook time!

Yeah, that’ll happen.