I started the week reading Looking for Alaska, which I wrote about in the last post because it fit thematically, but I could have kept it to post with this week’s books, because they all flowed from that same vein. Apparently I have slipped into a books set at school obsession. Looking for Alaska is set at boarding school, and a lot of what happens is due to the weird insularness that happens on an isolated campus.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt takes place on a university campus rather than boarding school, but the narrator gets swept into an elite, insular group of students studying Greek. They are beautiful and brilliant and rich, and he is honored and intimidated to be among them. As the book continues, he begins to discover that they are not everything that they seem, and that they are hiding a devastating secret- one that leads them all down drastic paths. (I’m trying not to spoil anything.)
This book was incredibly highly hyped, which is always dangerous, because I can go in expecting something different than what I get. That’s what happened here, though it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I went in expecting beautiful people saying witty things (my favorite genre), and instead got deceptively attractive, morally questionable individuals who are torturing themselves and each other because of guilt. That bait and switch obviously works with the story- we experience the same thing that the narrator does, but I kind of wanted them to be what they seemed to be, which would have been a completely different book. However, I can’t blame it for that at all. It’s excellently written; it’s one of those books that you sink into and live in for a while, and the characters live and breathe. Check out the first line of the book:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
How can you say no to a book that starts like that? I can’t. A passage that made me laugh:
“Metahemeralism. Tell me about it. Everything you know. I gotta know something about metahemeralism.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“I don’t either,” Bunny would say brokenly. “Got to do with art or pastoralism or something. That’s how I gotta tie together John Donne and Izaak Walton, see.” He would resume pacing. “Donne. Walton. Metahemeralism. That’s the problem as I see it.”
“Bunny, I don’t think ‘metahemeralism’ is even a word.”
“Sure it is. Comes from the Latin. Has to do with irony and the pastoral. Yeah. That’s it. Painting or sculpture or something, maybe.”
“Is it in the dictionary?”
“Dunno. Don’t know how to spell it.”
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart is another book that wasn’t quite what I expected it to be, and is probably better off for that. It’s a YA book, about a girl who returns to her boarding school as a sophomore having “bloomed” over the summer. All of the sudden she is beautiful, and as a result, has a completely different set of social doors open to her. The door she really wants to go through, however, is the one that blocks her from membership into a decades old secret club- because she’s a girl. So she decides to infiltrate the club and ends up masterminding their crazy pranks and stunts, with none of the members the wiser to her identity. That’s what the synopsis says, anyway, and it is, technically what happens. But what the book is really about is a young woman beginning the process of realizing that the world is monumentally unfair. Her eyes are opened to inequalities in the world, and she struggles to come to terms with them. One of the things I LOVE about this book is that it’s not cut and dry. She doesn’t break up with her boyfriend when she realizes that he doesn’t value what she thinks about and says, because she’s 15 and he’s really cute and she enjoys the perks of being his girlfriend. There’s nuance to her development. For example:
But as she looked at him laughing with Callum, Dean, and Alpha, Frankie remembered how Matthew had called her a “pretty package”, how he’d called her mind little, how he’d told her not to change- as if he had some power over her. A tiny part of her wanted to go over to him and shout, “I can feel like a hag some days if I want! And I can tell everybody how insecure I am if I want! Or I can be pretty and pretend to think I’m a hag out of fake modesty- I can do that if I want too. Because you, Livingston, are not the boss of me and what kind of girl I become.”
But most of her simply felt happy that he had put his arm around her and told her he thought that she was pretty.
The story is a lot of fun, as she sends the boys of a series of pranks that are actually social statements- statements they don’t fully understand. It’s also a book that makes you furious on her behalf, at the unfairness of how she is treated, how she is seen. It’s not a book with easy answers and easy solutions, because sexism and gender inequality are not problems with easy answers (other than “STOP BEING JERKS, PEOPLE!), but it does a beautiful job of provoking thought about those questions.It also makes you think about why we obey rules, why we break them, and how we break them. It is a book I would highly recommend, to teenage girls and boys, and adults.
Today I’m reading The Basic Eight, and I will finish it by the end of tomorrow, so I’ll include it in this post. As I was reading the two previous books, I realized that what I really wanted was a book like The Basic Eight, so it made sense to just read the book I really wanted to be reading. I will admit to loopholing the purchase of this book- I apparently got rid of this book before we moved (I don’t know what I was thinking, and this is why I don’t get rid of books- maybe I was planning on getting a Kindle copy) and it’s not an impulse buy, so I declared a loophole in my resolution and bought it. I neeeeeded to read it, you guys. Don’t judge me. And don’t judge me for buying his other book Adverbs either.
ANYWAY. I love this book. It’s the story of Flannery and her friends, beautiful and witty high school students who desperately want to be adults. There are eight of them who form their elite little group (are we seeing a theme in these books?) who have dinner parties, drink absinthe, discuss opera, speak French, etc. Like The Secret History, we start the book knowing something but not knowing everything- Flannery is writing this book from some kind of institution, the book is her journal during the time when a crime was committed; according to her, what people think happened is not really what happened. And getting to what happened is a delicious, somewhat trashy ride. It’s pretty people saying witty things and behaving badly. (Sometimes very badly.)
The ending changes how you see everything that came before, but as much as I love Daniel Handler (and I do), the changed interpretation doesn’t hold up as well as it should in rereads. Not that I let that stop me, I’ve read it a number of times, and I love it every time. This is what I wrote about the book a different time- long enough ago that most of you probably never read it. And I like it, and it’s my blog. So there. (A note, in the segment below I say that she’s in jail, but upon this reread I realized that it might not be jail, hence my “some kind of institution” statement above.)
Daniel Handler has written THE high school book. He totally captures the randomness, the conflicting sense of knowing everything and being so cool and in control while at the same time feeling completely stupid, helpless, and overwhelmed. He’s got the sick to your stomach feel of knowing that you have to break up with your sweet boyfriend because you really like someone else, and the complete and utter heartbreak of having someone completely wrong for you break up with you. And he’s really got the drag you off your feet, spiraling feeling of being swept along with what your friends are doing. Most people trying to write “peer pressure” get it all wrong, but he writes it with just the right touch.
The Basic Eight is a group of, suprise!, eight hyper cool, yet still realistic high school seniors. They have dinner parties, dress up for school, cut class to go to coffee, are friends with the uber cool French teacher. (The fact that The Basic Eight even exist shows Handler’s understanding of high school life. In the struggle to identify themselves, to set themselves apart, they’ve claimed a name, even if not all of them like it. As a labled group they’ve staked their ground and their affiliation, which impacts how they’re percieved by everyone else in the school.)
The book is made up of Flannery’s journal entries she’s edited while in jail. Because of the editing, the entries now consist of what she actually wrote and her additions and alterations as she remembers back over events. This creates a time warp of memory which, with the naivete of first experience coupled with hindsight, manages to give a pretty complex and complete version of everything that happens. There’s a repetition to some of the entries that is extremely effective: Flannery confronts her want-to-be boyfriend for standing her up and then is satisfied as he makes excuses, and then the scene is repeated with exactly the same dialogue as her actual boyfriend confronts her about standing him up and she makes the same excuses.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Handler also writes the Lemony Snicket books, and I was not disappointed on the cleverness score here. Literary and cultural references abound, as well as his trademark meta-literary touches. In this book, the reoccuring intrusion is a series of vocabulary words and essay questions that pop up every couple chapters. The vocabulary words are amusing both in their oddity and in their foreshadowing; sometimes they are words that actually appeared in the chapters, other times they reference and clarify vague events that come to light later. The essay questions veer from thought provoking to hilarious: “Do you think it was right for Adam to tell Flannery she was fat? Would you tell her she was fat? Is she fat? Be honest.”
So now I’m going to go finish it.
What are you reading right now? Do you have a book set in a school you think I haven’t read?