Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book 13 – The Secret History

By Donna Tartt

I unwittingly read two back-to-back similar sounding books: outsider freshman in isolated American liberal arts college ends up in unusual class led by unorthodox, charismatic professor.

But this is where the similarities end.

The Cheese Monkeys is light, funny and satirical. The Secret History is the equivalent of a modern Greek tragedy in collegiate proportions. The main character, Richard Pepin, finally able to escape his small town roots in California, starts a new life in a New England college. With some previous background in Greek, he discovers a class taught by a distinguished classics scholar who accepts only a limited number of students. When another professor informs him that Julian Morrow conducts his selection on a personal rather than academic basis, and that he and his students have virtually no contact with the rest of the campus, Richard is intrigued.

How Richard gradually ingratiates himself with the professor and the classics clique is well executed and really sucked me into the narrative. At first, he observes the oddly anachronistic students from afar. There’s Henry, who is quiet, unassuming and always in a suit; Charles and Camilla, who like to dress in white; Francis, who’s a bit of a dandy, and lastly, Bunny, an affable freeloader. The early stages of friendship are just awkward enough to make it realistic and compelling enough to make it interesting. Like Richard, getting to know these people is like getting sucked into another time and place outside of “asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture”. You want to know more about these characters, and what happens next.

Richard’s first day in Julian’s class, in the inner sanctum, is also excellently described. Julian’s exquisite taste has transformed a drab office into a philosopher’s library, and Richard realizes why his students are so devoted as “ he was a marvelous talker, a magical talker.” The discussion that day also sets the tone for the rest of the novel: Plato’s four divine madnesses, the burden of self, why people want to lose the self in the first place, and the powerful mystery of the Dionysiac ritual. That seductive desire to become absolutely free, to attain that “fire of pure being”, if only for a fleeting moment.

Sure enough, the clique holds an unusual secret. But we only see it through the perspective of Richard, the newcomer, who is liked but not yet fully accepted into the circle. As the reader, you really don’t know what’s going on, everything seems opaque. Let’s just say the fragile harmony of the group is thrown off when they embark on their own customized Dionysiac clusterfuck, and things go downhill from there. One of the clique undergoes psychological change from familiar friend to cutting, vindictive tormentor and this has deadly ramifications for the entire group.

The novel also has an unusual structure, where you’re informed at the beginning that one of the main characters is murdered, and Richard reflects back on what happened. The mystery isn’t about who killed whom. This doesn’t interest Tartt, so much as using the framing of the Greek tragedy to explore the darkness that lurks in human nature. What makes reasonably intelligent people latch onto to each other and succumb to the pack instinct? What forces or catalytic factors propel otherwise civilized people into barbaric murderers?

There was also good sociological insight into the relationship between the individuals in the clique against the rest of the students at the isolated liberal arts college. One of the main reasons The Secret History was given to Olman when it first came out was that the setting was so much like Reed.

Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmostphere made it a thriving black Petri dish of melodrama and distortion. I remember well, for instance, the blind animal terror which ensued when some townie set off the civil defense sirens as a joke.

The Secret History was published in 1992, and the setting was of that period in time, but I kept picturing the story taking place much earlier in the century, like the 1920’s or 30’s. The style of writing, the way the professors and students spoke with each other and behaved, their strangely anachronistic lifestyle. The only people that seemed contemporary were the students outside of that clique. But this is the only part where I could find fault in Tartt’s writing. She excels in her classic style of writing and philosophical discourse, but slangy urban banter sounds somewhat forced and stilted. But I guess it’d be hard to write in slang when topics of conversation tend to be about arguing how far apart the soldiers in a Roman legion had stood, or whether Hesiod’s primordial Chaos was simply empty space or chaos in the modern sense of the word!

So this novel had just about everything. Sociological insight. Manipulation, paranoia and psychological tension. Some police/FBI investigation thrown in. The familiar tragic ingredients of love, sacrifice, betrayal. And just a tiny bit of the supernatural to seriously creep you out. Tartt confidently weaves all these together, making for a marvelously satisfying read. The story is rich, dense, complex and apparently took 10 non-continuous years to write. This is indeed a beautiful and terrifying book. I would definitely be interested in reading Tartt’s next book, The Little Friend.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book 12 – The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters

By Chip Kidd

Note to reader: I’m going to use the word “clever” a lot for this review.

In case you didn’t know, Kidd made his mark as a graphic designer and his work has graced the covers of some fairly distinguished works of fiction. In 2001, he got his first book published -- as a writer. So not surprisingly, this particular trade paperback has:

1) his hands all over it (although the cover design is by “TK” – aka The Kidd perhaps?)

2) every single aspect of its design artfully and cleverly done.

I’m not just talking the front cover either. Oh no. Before you even start reading the damn thing, you’re looking at all the subversive little details in almost every structural piece of the book: the front and rear cover are the obvious places, then there’s a blurbs page, a spliced up copyright page and title page. Heck, even the inside front cover and the frickin’ fore edge (I had to look up which part of the damn book this was called in the Wikipedia, fcol) featured a clever little statement. I think the only thing left untouched was the ISBN barcode.

Ok then, the superficial stuff is now out of the way, we can finally get to the actual meat of the book. Well, first off, the content is cleverly structured. After all, the novel is subtitled A Novel in Two Semesters, so that is how the chapters are organized, and thus, how our clever little story unfolds.

Ok, already, so what is this book all about? Does it even have a story? Well let’s see. The story starts off about a college freshman student in 1957. Being somewhat late registering for art classes, he inadvertently ends up in a graphic design class taught by a young, charismatic pipe-smoking prof named Winter Sorbeck. Sorbeck is unorthodox, fascistically hardball, and likes to call his students ‘kiddies’, but damn, the guy is really passionate about design. If you’re listening, he’ll drop smart little graphic design tips, such as:

Always remember: Limits are possibilities. That sounds like Orwell, I know. It’s not – it’s Patton. Formal restrictions, contrary to what you might think, free you up by allowing you to concentrate on purer ideas.


Today we’re going to talk about Left to Right. We are the Western world. We read, see, think. Left. To. Right. We can’t help it. You have a few givens in this life, in this class. That is one of them. Use it.

Our protagonist also befriends who could be the most annoyingly cool girl on campus, Himillsy Dodd. Hims has very precociously leftfield opinions about institutional art. She hates Magritte (he ruined it for everybody – he gives everyone with an accelerated imagination a bad name!) and Picasso (a walking castration anxiety). More importantly, she is the best person to be with when running into the Campus Crusaders because her voice has just the right note of archness when slinging a witty retort to “Jesus loves you”.

The protagonist, known only by Sorbeck’s nickname, which is, ahem, Happy, soon becomes infatuated with both characters. Looking at photos of Kidd on the web, wearing a smart suit jacket and sporting either tortoise-shell or wire-rimmed glasses, or posing in wife-beater and cigarette for a black & white Kerouac-style portrait, I somehow get the feeling that The Cheese Monkeys is his ultimate liberal arts college fantasy.

That’s ok. Cuz I kinda enjoyed being in Kidd’s happy little vision of 1950’s collegiate life. It allows Kidd to insinuate clever remarks via his Happy channel. Like what would Happy’s internal thoughts be if he were to end up at a boring dinner party of uber-urbane architectural graduate students, which he does:

The guests started to arrive, and after thirty minutes I could have sworn I was in the first draft of an Ayn Rand novel. That this little pocket of proto-aesthetes really existed in State’s Disneyland of academic banality was more than I could have expected, let alone hoped to get a load of.

It’s ultimately a fluffy and very clever-funny read full of clever writing, but there are some real moments too, like learning cool things about design, and the awesomeness of finding a cool friend who inspires you to look at life differently, and how fun it is to be a student learning about something that really excites you and being challenged. The story may not be completely memorable, but little gems like this below (which totally reminds me of my film school days and of a certain French Fold) make up the sum of its parts:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when The Difference began, but as I bought my ticket from the Beaver Bus Travel Company to go home for Easter, I was really, really bothered by the fact that the color and shape of the logo on it… did not match those on the sign above the sales booth… And that’s when I realized things like this had been occurring to me a lot lately. All signage – indeed, any typesetting, color schemes, and printed materials my eyes pounced on were automatically dissected and held to Draconian standards of graphic worthiness. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing the station attendant by the shoulders and shaking her into sense, screaming, “None of it’s CONSISTENT! Don’t you understand?! Somebody DO SOMETHING!!”

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Book 11 – Skinny

By Ibi Kaslik

From The Spellman Files to Skinny, I went from fun to serious. Fun reading is definitely superior in many ways (I must admit, I unhesitatingly took a break from Skinny after acquiring TSF so I actually went from serious to fun and then back to serious again), but once in a while you can learn about life stuff by undergoing “serious” reading. For instance, you can learn firsthand how such a bright and promising medical student and her little eating disorder can tear a Hungarian-Canadian family apart. Yes, welcome to teen Can Lit!

So here we have Giselle and her younger teenage sister, Holly, with each chapter alternating from the perspective of each character as they deal with the familiar struggles of growing up, school, boys, etc. Some serious trepidations I had when the first chapter awkwardly introduces Giselle in the hospital recovering from her first anorexic bout, with her wondering how she ended up there: The image I had of my future was all straight out of a Hollywood film – melancholy little suburban girl goes to university, finds herself, gets a life, a boy, a degree. Start nostalgic music, cut to me inside my tiny shared student apartment… She is me, this girl, she is Hello-My-Name-Is…

Oh dear. Olman would’ve thrown the book across the room after reading this. But I being meezly, and a far more dauntless reader, plowed on. After all, I had picked this up for only $5 at a used bookshop while passing through a quaint and nameless town in Ontario, not to mention Kaslik is a hot young Montreal writer with some hipster cachet. So even though the self-conscious writing had the unsurprising tendency of taking itself a little too seriously by wallowing in troubled lives, it wasn’t so bad. The sincerity was there. I mean, it’s unpleasant dealing with troubled people in life, let alone reading about them. I myself am a fairly well-adjusted gal who’s had a fairly stable upbringing. And I’ve known friends or relatives who’ve experienced real setbacks before, but no one has ever really been a real fuckup. The difference between a regular person and a fuckup is when shit’s falling apart, the fuckup will, inadvertently or willingly, take down everyone with her.

Kaslik has no qualms about exploring how Giselle ends up fucking up her life by delving into her complex relationship with her father. If you know deep down that your father never really loved you and that he always maintained an inexplicable distance towards you, and then he dies, and you realize in college that it was due to some untold family secret. The lack of love and reconciliation is like a little demon seed that grows inside an already very delicate psyche, and then add to that medical school and trying to have a normal college life, then well yeah, that could be a recipe for a psychological timebomb.

As a female, I’ve never had much sympathy for women obsessed with their bodies, and I can’t say reading this book helped in garnering any more sympathy for Giselle and Holly. It didn’t help that I couldn’t’ relate to their personalities nor their trials and tribulations. But the book did give me an interesting perspective into why certain people behave so irrationally in life. And how some people end up as total fuckups.

I don't know if I'd ever check out Kaslik's next book, which is supposed to be about the Montreal indie music scene. I can imagine Olman having a field day with this one!