Meh

Jun 1, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Book cover for THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick
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When Pat Peoples’ mother brings him home from the neural health facility, he sees it as a turning point in the “movie” of his life. Perpetually optimistic, he believes he will soon be reunited with his wife, Nikki. First, though, Pat knows he must continue to improve himself, to become the man Nikki always needed him to be. With the help of family, friends, and American football fans, Pat discovers life may not always go according to plan, but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Stereotyping Abounds in Silver Linings

My review should be prefaced with the following:

  1. I read The Silver Linings Playbook because I knew the film adaptation was “about mental illness” and had been nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars.
  2. At the time of this review, I still had not watched a trailer for the film.
  3. I did not read a review or even a summary for this book prior to reading.

In short, I entered Silver Linings with very little knowledge of what it was about, and my review covers the confusion I felt while reading it.

In the first several pages of Silver Linings, author Matthew Quick sets the tone for the entire book: It’s to be one of those vague memory loss stories where the main character has to discover his own past. It’s here that you’re introduced to Pat Peoples’ stilted and juvenile, first-person narration, and I’ll admit I had no idea how I should view it.

Seemingly suffering from convenient memory loss, Pat strangely calls the neural health facility he’s lived in “the bad place” and refers to the separation from his wife, Nikki, as “apart time.” He struggles to understand certain emotions and has an almost childlike understanding of the world around him. Any negative reality is avoided in favor of the more hopeful “silver linings” of life. He occasionally has hallucinations involving Kenny G—seriously—which often result in violent outbursts. He’s prescribed numerous medications for his mental health, but no clear diagnosis is revealed.

Pat is neither a good main character nor an accurate portrayal of those who struggle with mental illness, neurological disorders, or traumatic brain injuries. There are times when Pat seems mentally handicapped (whether since birth or as a result of an accident, one can only guess for most of the book), clinically depressed, schizophrenic, or psychotic. In the first few pages, I even thought Pat’s stilted, aloof descriptions of his life were meant to indicate some form of autism.

In other words, Pat is whatever the author wants him to be in the moment, science and logic be damned. This is the sort of thing that happens after one watches half a dozen Hollywood films on memory loss and says, “What the hell? I’m pretty well a licensed psychiatrist now. Time to write that book.” And so Silver Livings seems to have been irresponsibly born to add to the plethora of poorly-researched media about the brain. Even once some minor explanations are given later in the book, not all of Pat’s problems can be attributed to them.

Silver Linings might be forgiven for its inaccuracies if you don’t care or know better, but the book has other problems as well. None of the characters ever quite come alive.

  • Pat’s mother comes closest to “popping” off the pages, but she’s less defined by her own actions than by the abusive and codependent relationship she finds herself in with Pat’s father.
  • There’s clinically depressed Tiffany, who doesn’t behave like any clinically depressed person I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a few—whose world revolves around Pat and a dance recital.
  • Cliff, Pat’s therapist, is defined by his love for football and the color of his skin (he’s a brown-skinned Indian! if you missed that, it’ll be mentioned again in a few pages).
  • Danny, one of Pat’s friends from “the bad place,” is mostly narrowed down to his blackness and just how stereotypical Quick can make him, but he “uncharacteristically” likes Parcheesi, so all the stereotyping is okay or something.
  • Pat’s brother, Jake, is only defined by his wealth, occasional violent outbursts or threatening behavior, and love for football.
  • Likewise, Pat’s father is known for his abusive nature and obsession with football.

You may have noticed a trend with the characterization of the men in this novel: they’re all big football fans. (Many of them also happen to be violent, encourage violence, or accept violence. Make of that what you will.) Pat’s (Quick’s) love for the NFL‘s Philadelphia Eagles is often used as a shorthand for adding depth to side characters. Nearly all the men—never the women—are passionate about football, enough so that they randomly chant team songs everywhere. I’ll admit that I don’t “get” watching sports, but I’ve lived around some pretty die-hard football fans, and never in my life have I seen people break into song as often as Quick’s characters do for the Eagles. Not only did this not add depth to the characters, it also quickly became repetitive and…um, weird.

Finally, Silver Linings‘ ending feels rushed, and loose ends remain for nearly all the characters. However, in Pat, Quick has created a character with numerous, severe problems that he then bestows an unrealistically positive ending upon. Pat eventually remembers his past, and of course the “silver linings” in his life aren’t exactly what he was expecting them to be, but he’s given some minor closure, which is more than can be said for several of the other characters. Still, it’s hard to care about any of it when you’re not sure what problems remain for Pat. There seem to be many.

At the very least, Pat needs to take a writing class to learn about the value of contractions because, Christ, he never uses them. Yes, that’s how I’m ending this review.

Aside #1: Probably in some attempt to make his book appear intellectual, Quick spoils a lot of the classics—Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—so if you haven’t read them, but plan to and hate spoilers, don’t read Silver Linings.

Aside #2: I eventually watched the movie. It made me want to throw things.

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Quotes from The Silver Linings Playbook

After I returned to New Jersey, I thought I was safe, because I did not think Kenny G could leave the bad place, which I realize is silly now—because Kenny G is extremely talented and resourceful and a powerful force to be reckoned with.

He does the Eagles chant–“E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!”–which makes me laugh because he is my therapist and I did not know therapists could like NFL football.

…and I do wonder why women are always hemorrhaging in American literature.

May 29, 2013

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover for MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut
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Mother Night is the first-person account of Harold W. Campbell, Jr., an American spy in World War II who has been so good at his job that he’s lost his own identity. Follow Campbell as he recounts the tangled web of his personal history as a writer, spy, Nazi propagandist, and more.

Spies Make for Unreliable Narrators

I’ve encountered passages from many Kurt Vonnegut books over the years, but Mother Night is the first book by Vonnegut that I’ve read in full. It’s Vonnegut’s most favorably rated book on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good place to start. However, in hindsight, and given my general dislike of World War II fiction, I probably should have stuck with Slaughterhouse Five. As much as I sometimes enjoyed Vonnegut’s ideas and famed dark humor, I was unable to grow attached to Mother Night‘s story or characters.

The story starts off by employing metafiction. Vonnegut describes himself as the editor, not the writer, of the novel’s first-person account. It’s mildly interesting, but this ultimately has little to no impact for the reader. Adding another layer to the onion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got an onion.

Once you get past the intro, you meet Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the book’s first-person narrator. Campbell is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison for war crimes, specifically his involvement with Nazi Germany’s propaganda during World War II. While in prison, Campbell writes the story of his life, which is what you read in Mother Night. It’s the story of a man who has done both normal and questionable things. Throughout, Campbell claims he is an American spy who was embedded in the heart of the Nazi movement for a confusing mix of reasons. But is Campbell always telling the truth in his autobiography?

“How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?” said Wirtanen. “Hmm?”

Can a man like Campbell even believe himself?

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Uncertainty is one of Mother Night‘s core elements. Is Campbell being truthful? Is Campbell good or evil? Can good or evil be defined at all—if so, how, to what extent, and by whom? In Campbell’s case, does truth matter if it’s not a truth everyone else believes?

As a fan of unreliable narration, I enjoyed Vonnegut’s exploration of these questions through Campbell. However, for me, there is something missing from Mother Night. These questions are intriguing, but they have no depth on their own. They must be asked and answered through characters you love (or hate), characters that make you feel something. Unfortunately, Howard W. Campbell’s narration is dry, at best, and the supporting cast, though sometimes well-described, never seem that meaningful. Considering Nazi death camps get a few mentions, I feel like I should have had a more visceral response to something in this book.

Perhaps it’s my own dislike for certain parts of Mother Night—the subject matter, the appearance of pointless metafiction—but, after a while, I found I didn’t quite care if Campbell was being honest or not. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I didn’t care if his various romances worked out because they were boring—or, worse, melodramatic—loves. I didn’t care about those who hated him because they didn’t matter. For me, Mother Night is one of those books where I realize the ideas and messages have value, but find they are ruined for me because the characters never take hold of my emotions.

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous saying from Slaughterhouse Five, which also makes an appearance in Mother Night, is “So it goes.” It’s a salty way of expressing the inevitable nature of things, usually death. C’est la vie. I think Mother Night can be boiled down to a couple of words, too: So what?

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Quotes from Mother Night

“You hate America, don’t you?”

“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me…”

Most things in this world don’t work, but aspirin do.

His mother understood my illness immediately, that it was my world rather than myself that was diseased.

Dec 26, 2012

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Book cover for THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS by Karen Lord
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With planet Sadira destroyed, the few remaining Sadiri—mainly men—seek refuge on Cygnus Beta, a veritable melting pot of refugees, races, and cultures. It is here, with the help of biotechnician Grace Delarua, that they search for distant Sadiri cousins with whom to reunite and potentially marry. Their journey takes them far and wide into different places and cultures, all of which have some relation to the now lost Sadira. Along the way, Grace connects with and befriends the reserved Sadiri people, changing her life and theirs forever.

Genocide Shouldn’t Be Lighthearted

Karen Lord’s debut, Redemption in Indigo, has been on my reading list for quite a while, but having never gotten around to it, I jumped at the chance to receive a review copy of her latest book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and was lucky enough to receive one from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. When I read the official book summary and saw Lord’s writing was compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s, I thought this was going to be an enjoyable reading experience. Alas, some things are not meant to be. The Best of All Possible Worlds is not anything like what its cover and official summary suggest.

There’s no doubt this book has an audience. Many reviews for it are very positive. But I don’t think I’m part of that audience, and I have doubts as to whether most other science fiction readers will be either. Outside of a few humanlike aliens with “psychic mind-linking” capabilities, this is very fanciful science fiction—and, sadly, not that interesting of a fantasy. It’s a far cry from being the social commentary on genocide and racial/ethnic integration I thought it would be. Stripped of all its needless subplots, the story is primarily a run-of-the-mill romance, right down to its stereotypically over-emotional female lead, Grace Delarua.

Joral leaned forward and said earnestly, “You seem to be very sad about leaving. It is all right if you wish to cry, First Officer Delarua. We will not think badly of you. We understand this is common behavior for many Terran females.”

“Well, I’m Cygnian,” I snapped. “And I wasn’t going to cry.” I swear, nothing irritates me more than being overemotional in front of a Sadiri. They make me feel so silly.

It’s Grace Delarua’s first-person perspective you’re mostly stuck with, with occasional (better written) stints in a third-person perspective that focus on the activities and feelings of her eventual (obvious) love interest, Dllenahkh. I unfortunately found it difficult to care about either character, though, never quite connecting to Grace’s unrealistically haywire emotions or Dllenahkh’s forced alien qualities. (He is similar to Spock from Star Trek.)

It doesn’t help that countless one-dimensional minor characters come and go for no good reason. This unfocused plotting means that by the first quarter of the book, Grace has had multiple jobs, taken numerous trips, and visited her sister’s family. The latter subplot could give soap writers a run for their money.

“You bastard,” I said. “I warned you: if you hurt her, if you hurt any of my family, I will deal with you!”

“I’m not hurting them,” he protested. “I take good care of them. They’re happy.”

“Happy little puppets,” I spat, gripping my right wrist in an effort not to slap him. “I should report you to the authorities.”

“You won’t,” he said simply. “You love me. Never stopped.”

Such melodramatic scenes are common in the book.

The problem with The Best is that it’s too superficial, and no amount of melodrama or tangents can mask that. There’s not much in the way of world-building, there’s little effort to flesh out main characters, the dialogue tends to be forced, and the story is too predictable from the beginning. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Then again, in a book that is at least somewhat about people being displaced after highly successful genocide, it’s awfully lighthearted. It feels as though readers are meant to find it cute and amusing that many of the Sadiri men are looking for wives who more closely match their genetic and racial makeup so they can produce, I suppose, purer babies. I find that creepy, not cute—not the ingredients for romance.

Qeturah almost laughed out loud. “Relax, Delarua. It’s a compliment … I think. She was saying that you should be registered on the special list for potential Sadiri brides, and when I pointed out that there was an upper age limit for that, she suggested that extending your fertile years would take care of objections.”

I was already dazedly shaking my head at the wrongness of it all.

“Don’t worry. I told her that with the amount of Ntshune heritage you have, you’ll probably be able to have children for quite a bit longer than the average Cygnian. I estimate you have another twenty-five years, maybe even thirty.”

Because, really, what’s the value of a woman who can’t birth children?

The Best feels a lot like a first draft: something with a glimmer of potential that hasn’t yet been realized. For all these reasons, I can’t give this book the positive review I was hoping to, and I think it will be some time before I try another novel by Karen Lord.

Aside: It appears Del Rey / Random House rather distastefully opted to use a white-skinned woman on the book cover, even though Grace is said to have “cedar-brown skin” (chapter eight, “The Faerie Queen”).

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May 6, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book cover for THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood
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Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.

Massachusetts Becomes Saudi Arabia?

More than thirty years have passed since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, but many still think of it as the go-to book for feminist fiction. It makes numerous “best of” lists, the kinds with 99 other books everyone should read before dying. Even so, The Handmaid’s Tale frustrates me a lot—and not only because it contains run-on sentences and needlessly abandons quotation marks. (This is no train wreck like José Saramago’s Blindness, but it’s bad enough.) Simply put, if you can ignore whether you agree or disagree with Margaret Atwood’s ideas about politics, religion, and women’s rights, the plot and setting make no sense.

The religiosity of the Reagan era inspired Atwood’s dystopia, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over society. While that premise does give me the heebie-jeebies, Atwood’s taken the idea to a literal extreme to make a point. This ruins the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale because most American fundies would balk at this world. Atwood imagines the extreme of the extreme and in the process completely misunderstands American evangelicalism.

Gallup's U.S. map of weekly religious service attendanceI’m a heathen bastard and no fan of religion. Fundamentalism has hurt people, particularly women, for millennia. Extremism continues to hurt people every day, especially in some parts of the world, especially in some states. Even so, it’s hard to accept Atwood’s dystopia when it’s set in the U.S., in the near future—and in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the country, one of only sixteen states in the union with state constitutional protections for abortion (since 1981, I believe). Massachusetts is a liberal bastion when it comes to American women’s reproductive rights, so it’s an odd setting for this brand of nightmare. In recent decades, Massachusetts is also one of the least religious states, so it’s an odd setting for a theocracy, too.

Atwood chose Massachusetts for its puritanical history. I can embrace the connection to the Reagan administration, in the same way I can embrace Orwell’s fear of communism in 1984, but to imagine an unchanging, puritanical Massachusetts requires a bit too much.

Societies Don’t Change Overnight

The Handmaid’s Tale is told in first person by a woman who’s lived in our present day (more or less), as well as in this dark fundamentalist Tomorrowland. She’s gone from wearing flip-flops and sundresses to a full-body religious habit, color-coded red to match her subservient role. She was married once, had a child. Now she’s another’s property, one of the handmaids sent from one man’s house to another. The hope is that she will become pregnant when a prominent man’s wife cannot. Her life has been flipped and made forfeit. She lives in fear and depression and abuse. This is meant to make me unnerved, and it does.

But.

Simply because an author wants to comment on society doesn’t mean he or she can ignore important, logical story elements. The logic part should be emphasized here, I think, given this is supposed to be science fiction, not fantasy. (Although Atwood does insist The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, because that further legitimizes her story…or something? Never mind that sci-fi and fantasy are types of speculative fiction.)

There’s a question I have that never gets answered, not properly at least. How did this happen so quickly? How did we go from “burning bras” to having every part of our lives regulated? Why did it take Massachusetts decades, centuries, to reject puritanism, but only a few years(?) to reject liberalism?

Rights can erode, but you don’t see it happen on such a large scale and so seamlessly, and not overnight. Nothing happens overnight, especially not governmental takeovers in relatively stable, secular societies, which is the book’s scenario.

Societies evolve, one way or another, usually rather slowly. Civil, moral, and regime changes don’t sneak up on you. It wasn’t the case in Germany before Hitler, in China before Mao, in Afghanistan before the Taliban, in Syria before its civil war. It’s not the case in 2016, with people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump leading in GOP primary polls. The world may be disappointing and horrible sometimes, but it is rarely surprising.

If Atwood had built her dystopia on a chain of events that occurred over a longer period of time, or explained how everything unraveled so quickly, I might have been on board with the premise. That isn’t how The Handmaid’s Tale is written, though. The explanations for the sudden changes are fantastical, at best, dependent on evil, digitized money—be careful with the mobile payments and bitcoins, ladies!—and misogynistic, conservative conspiracies that readers are to believe could bring millions of people to a stupefied halt and change culture in the blink of an eye. Apparently it’s easy to gun down all of Congress while it’s in session. Who knew?

I don’t buy it.

You can change laws all you want, but society, culture, has to be willing to follow the most drastic changes. (This is why the American Drug War has never worked, why prohibition of alcohol never worked, why banning abortion didn’t work.) Why was modern American society so willing to enslave women?

Atwood chucks a plot point at you here or there, hinting at a larger, more complex world through her main character. There’s a vague fertility crisis (of course). There’s conflict somewhere between some people about some stuff, but details are never given. Some of this can be excused, what with the limited point of view, but not all. Plot holes aren’t mysterious or clever. They’re just plot holes.

By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, I feel the book is less an exploration of religious extremism and feminism than it is a narrative written for shock value. It’s an irrational feminist’s fears exposed, that the world is out to get you at every turn—especially the men, especially the women controlled and brainwashed by the men. Nowhere is safe. Overall, the summary for this book could be this: Almost anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down. (The rest are idiots, I suppose.) He doesn’t care. He will betray you at the first opportunity. Even when you’re dead and gone, he will chuckle at your misfortune and demise. No, this isn’t sexist or a generalization. Of course not. Not at all.

Except it is.

Asides

  • For a slightly more accurate portrayal of American Christian fundamentalism and its very awkward relationship with women, see Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. It makes several nods to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale—and better understands its villains and their behavior.
  • Two nonfiction books, Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul and Ned & Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast: The History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, will show you what it’s really like to live in a society where women are chattel.
  • Some think that because I dislike this book I’m not a feminist, or am a bad feminist. I hate to break it to everyone, but Margaret Atwood is not feminism’s god, and The Handmaid’s Tale is not a religious text. If I must attach labels to myself, feminist would be one of them, and I’ll say and think whatever I damn well please. And as a feminist, I hate how one-dimensional the men are in this book, just as much as I hate how one-dimensional women are in far more books, TV shows, and movies. Deal with it. Or don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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