Gone Girl

I wanted to get a couple easy, fun airplane reads. I also love David Fincher movies and Japanese horror, so I decided it would be surefire to pick Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Natsuo Kirino’s Out (which turned out to be bonkers). To be clear, I don’t really ever read thriller novels, at least for many years. This isn’t my usual go-to genre. I had no idea what either book was about. I did not know, for instance, that I would be picking up two very different discussions on gender: an often-called misogynist book by a self-proclaimed feminist, and a proclaimed feminist book that is full of pure crazy.

I also want to begin by saying that Gone Girl is one of my least favorite reading experiences.

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Gone Girl is a mystery thriller that is becoming a movie (from the director of Fight Club and Se7en, so we can definitely expect cheerfulness and joy from the screen). It is also a “meditation” on marriage… or something. Basically, half the book is devoted to Amy and Nick, two preternaturally attractive, rich, New Yorker writers who New York a lot about New Yorking New York and how New York New York New York is.

NEW YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORK!

NEW YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORK!

Then they lose their jobs and move to Missouri. Karma.

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I cannot express how much I despise the New York writer obsession. If the Nobel Prize for literature is hopelessly biased in many ways, I can’t say that it isn’t correct about how myopic the American literary scene is. Anyone reading literary fiction, and most especially that literary fiction that is really just middle-brow book club fiction, knows that New York is ubiquitous. It is so inescapable that even light satirizing of this New York obsession –which I think is at least a part of the novel– is still too New York. While the book does address the very real issue of artists and writers being priced out of New York’s ever inflating cost of living, it still does so with such an insular adulation for the culture and beauty of NYC that the message is lost amidst a lot of pandering nonsense. And, before anyone says, “Oh, but this book shows that New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! It’s a satire! It shows the dark underbelly of rich, arty New York types! The author just adores Missouri!” then I have one thing to say to you:

great_gatsby

Yes. In the Jazz Era, Fitzgerald did it first and did it better.

And this book does bear more than a passing resemblance to Gatsby. It has the supposed “normal guy” from the Midwest, getting involved with a rich, beautiful New York person who may have a secret, and revealing corruption and ruined marriages. Also, someone unlikable dies.

I think that it’s not just the Gatsby-isms or the New York obsession that has this problem. The entire book feels tired, like it’s a cobbler of various other, better novels, ones which already addressed Flynn’s issues and did so better.

When I say that Gone Girl is a cobbler of other people’s better work, I am not kidding. One of the most frustrating things about this novel is how it thinks it is so very original, saying something so daring about marriage and crime and the media. And, yet, it is literally a remake. Yes. This book has already been written. And made into a film. This is the Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale scenario all over again. Sure, Hunger Games did some things that Battle Royale did not do, but it’s still basically the American, YA, Hollywood take on the original Japanese concept. In this case, Gone Girl is just a modernized, sexed-up, ultra-violent, hammy version of Leave Her to Heaven. The difference is, while The Hunger Games homages and steals from a relatively good book, Leave Her to Heaven was bland and forgettable. It’s a Noir-lite, with not enough Vincent Price.

If your book has a twist ending, it'd be great if it wasn't the same plot as a film from 1945.

If your book has a twist ending, it’d be great if it wasn’t the same plot as a film from 1945.

Now, you may say that Flynn didn’t mean to steal the exact same plot from this not-exactly-obscure old movie. I would believe that, because Leave Her to Heaven, unlike The Big Sleep or The Third Man, is boring as hell. I would believe that, except that Flynn highlights her influences. She literally has characters discussing Noir. In one awkward bit, a character says that the story is like a Noir.

headdesk

I find this grating and condescending. I don’t even like when better authors, like Donna Tartt, reference the books that inspired their work while in universe. It’s one thing to be meta, but it’s another to just awkwardly break the fourth wall for no reason whatsoever. I didn’t like, for example, when the characters in Secret History reference Dostoyevsky and The Great Gatsby, when the book already is very obviously inspired by Crime and Punishment and, again, Gatsby. We get it. We don’t need this spelled out for us. We’re not stupid. And, I really like Secret History! You should put down Gone Girl and read that instead. David Fincher should make that into a movie!

secret

However, when  Flynn references her inspirations, she does so in an annoyingly cutesy manner. For example, her supposedly literati, sophisticated main characters are just now, for the first time reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That book, like Gone Girl, is about a missing spouse and deals with marriage, pop-culture, relationships (and also the affect of World War II on the psyche, magic, and Japanese culture, and a lot of other cool things that make it more interesting than Gone Girl). It’s a much better book. It’s also literally the most obvious Murakami book anyone could be reading. To highlight how dumb this is, that book came out in 1994. Gone Girl takes place in 2011 or ’12. And yet, these supposedly brilliant, literary, New York types have only just NOW discovered Murakami’s most famous work.

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And it’s not like Murakami is an unpopular writer. He’s famous world-wide and is always mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner. He’s a bestseller in his home country, and around the world, and has written many, many books. I’d get if the characters were only just now reading 1Q84, which is newer, or even Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is less popular. But, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? Really? Your intellectual, “brilliant” (her words, not mine) writer characters have only just now discovered this super-popular book from the mid ‘90s? Really? Oh, well, what other “new” discoveries from the troves of celebrated, popular ’90s media will they pull out? I half expect the characters to talk about that “new and edgy” Fight Club book, or that brand new Geek Love, or the just-out-now American Psycho. Then they can tell us all about this new band called The Shins and how they just discovered Wes Anderson movies.

Hey, I just discovered this band!

Hey, I just discovered this band!

This is worse than being a hipster. This is thinking you are a hipster while showing off the media that literally everyone is already into.

When Flynn writes about intellectuals, she sounds like she’s saying what she thinks bookish people should say (which is weird, because Flynn is a successful writer, so you’d think she’d be writing what she herself knows…). Time and time again she reminds us that Nick is literary and Amy is a genius. I lost track of how many times characters call Amy “brilliant”. Yet, these supposedly literary people are really not that impressive. Amy, for all her supposed “genius” can’t write anything better than women’s journal personality quizzes, for instance. Annoyingly, she incorporates these quizzes into her POV sections of the novel, to the point where I wanted to claw my own eyes out. And both Amy and Nick have only the most basic interest in literature, despite the fact that they are supposedly lost without their identities as writers and literary types, and this is a huge deal for half the book.

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This is more than just a problem with realistic characters. This is also a plot issue. If I am to believe that these characters are so torn-up about leaving their New York scene, then I better feel like they actually care about something other than “just being in New York”. Supposedly this story is also about job loss and identity, and their jobs and identities were tied into their writer scene. Now, you may say that this is the point (which still begs the question about all the parts concerning how literary and smart the characters are), but that’s kind of not the point. The fact is, even if you have unlikable characters, you still need engaging characters. Your characters have to have some drive or impetus. We are never asked, as readers, to stand back and laugh at their behavior, as you would in a satire like Confederacy of Dunces, and neither do we get drawn into madness by understanding, but disliking, characters, like Therese Raquin. It’s too confessional and immediate, and the thriller tropes keep the reader from stepping back and contemplating the disaster.

The fact is, Flynn’s prose demands very little from readers. We get simple, YA-style first-person narratives, switching between Nick’s ongoing situation with Amy’s disappearance, and Amy’s diary. At least, for the first half. And these characters are just not compelling. To be fair, Nick’s initial confusion and ambiguity does create some suspense here, because there is some mystery. What happened to Amy? Is Nick innocent or guilty? But, Amy’s diary is unbearable, a series of reactions and audience pleading about how bad she has it and how nice she’s trying to be. It isn’t a character. It’s a series of events to be reacted to. Literally not one entry has anything to do with anything but Nick. We only get a vague definition of who Amy is based on who others are and how she reacts to them. But, we do get dozens of fake personality quizzes, so at least the prose is aggravating, childish, and clunky.

 

Amy

Amy

Nick’s first half is better, and certainly his best part. He is by far most interesting when you don’t know if he killed Amy. He’s active here. He seems creepy. He has weird reactions to the police. He seems like he could be complicated and, dare I say it, compelling. Sure, his prose style is also pretty weak, with lots of ambling and whining and talking about his cleft chin (seriously), but things are happening.

Cleft chin

Cleft chin

And then we get to the second half, a twist, and everything goes to shit.

Spoilers:

I’m serious, spoilers.

 

 

 

 

Amy isn’t dead.

Of course, if you have seen or read Leave Her to Heaven, you already know the plot twist. Even if you haven’t, current storytelling convention dictates that the obviously guilty guy in any mystery is obviously not guilty, so the twist is pretty easy to spot. Amy is settling Nick up for murder because he cheated. In Leave Her to Heaven, she actually kills herself, because that is a much braver story. But in this one she just has this complicated master-plan of evil.

This causes so many problems. I don’t mean for the characters. I mean for the book. First of all, our only access to Amy’s mind has been through her annoying diary. However, halfway through the novel, Amy says that she made it all up, the diary was a fake, and she invented that Amy. This is a problem, because so far our only character development has been that diary. Now, we are left with this conniving villain, who’s so over-the-top that she makes the character from Leave Her to Heaven look subtle, and we have no real motivation. Instead, all we get is this tirade about how tired she is of being the “cool girl”. If that sounds like something from the internet, it’s because this monologue has been shared around as a meme, which is basically all it is.

But, an abstract, intellectual idea of the problems with certain forms of gender conformity is not character development. Characters are not tropes, ideas, quirks, or morals. They are people, and Amy really isn’t a person anymore. She’s just a villain.

Meh, developed motivation is for male villains.

Meh, developed motivation is for male villains.

The only vaguely interesting part of Leave Her to Heaven is that we know from the start that the main character is marrying a psycho. Granted, we know this from some pretty dated sexism about ambitious women, but we do know that she is jealous, obsessive, competitive, and will never lose. Her family knows it, and we as the audience know it. We also see her commit her crimes, and we see her humanity. We see that she is frustrated, lonely, and sad, and that actually makes her a lot scarier when you remember that she is so extremely competitive and obsessive. She’s complex (ish… it’s still a pretty lame Noir). Amy… oh where to begin? I have no idea what Amy is supposed to be. We have no development with her, no humanity, and therefore no real scariness. She just is kinda evil, and not in a No Country for Old Men way, where we have a meditation on the problem of evil from an unstoppable force. No, she’s just bad. Kinda always was bad. Just a bad seed, I guess. Like having blond hair. It just happens.

dunne

Another issue with this is that the author has also kind of ruined Nick. From this point onward, he’s the one only thinking about other people, being defined by other people, and reacting to them. He’s no longer dynamic, no longer interesting. Nick would literally have been more sympathetic if he had killed Amy, because he would be an active character. We can sympathize with and engage with unlikable, bad characters, from Patrick Bateman to Raskolnikov, but  Nick is now just man-victim to Amy’s harpy. These aren’t characters. These are figures in a bad joke.

Furthermore, from a construction standpoint, this novel doesn’t work once the twist is revealed. And I don’t just mean this because anyone who has seen Leave Her to Heaven could predict the twist a mile away. I mean that, from a writing standpoint, the story grinds to a halt. You see, with Nick now just being a passive victim and Amy having no character development, Flynn had to find some way to cram in details about Amy in order to reveal to Nick that he is married to a sociopath. She does this by just having people tell Nick stuff. That’s it. The thrilling novel of the year! People Talking About Stuff: The Book! Get ready for the thrilling mystery of the century, as characters you never met before tell your passive protagonist stuff that he should probably figure out himself. Sit on the edge of your seat as characters talk to you about scenes you’ll never get to read about.

Show? What’s that? Characters just come along and tell Nick things like, “Oh, yeah, Amy totes cray. She tried to frame me too.” Apparently framing is her MO, because she has done this to about four people. That’s just comical. In the end, Flynn just decides to let Amy tell the readers her evil plan, like a cartoon villain. “Oh, I used puppets to scare Nick because he’s afraid of puppets! We never saw this before, but I’m telling you now! Mwahahaa!” Really? Couldn’t have any scene showing this puppet fear, ever?  Even in the end, Amy just tells Nick everything that happened, even things that the readers already read about, because fuck redundancy. She even just tells Nick about the murder she commits, because God knows we can’t have any action in the entire book. That would get in the way of all the scenes of characters talking about how bad it is to not be in New York. You know, the exciting stuff.

Monologuing!

Monologuing!

Now, I am not an action-y type person, so the fact that I am complaining about too much introspection just speaks volumes about the quality of these characters. I don’t want to be in their heads. They don’t have anything compelling to say. And yet, Flynn lets them go on and on about marriage and gender and family life and art as if every word were profound insight into the postmodern condition. Because God knows I care so much about hearing middle class, privileged people whine about their love lives.

It doesn’t help that every character sounds like a teenage girl. Every character. Nick, Amy, the annoyingly nicknamed sister “Go” (Margaret), the supporting cast. Everyone. Characters talk like they are in a highschool romance, squeeing over their love lives, talking about how hot people are, or how hot they are. You know, like real life.

For instance, one of Nick’s big “flaws” is that he’s just too sexy. That’s a real character flaw, right? It’s like Marilyn Monroe’s glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire.

Yeah, because she's just hideous with glasses on.

Yeah, because she’s just hideous with glasses on.

Nick and other characters, however, reference his tragic handsomeness all the time. It’s like the author thinks it’s a disability. Let’s start an anti-defamation league for hot people. Obviously sexpots have just had it too hard for too long in this country! Clearly our prisons are all filled with preternaturally gorgeous, middle class, educated, white guys who look like movie stars. We have sports teams named for derogatory terms for hot guys. Every time a hot person commits a crime, media commentators demand for hot people to speak out against hot person crime. We don’t read any novels written by attractive people. We segregate our schools against the sexiest and most popular. We have a long history of lynching the gorgeous, banning their marriages, and stealing their lands. It’s just a crisis.

A proud and noble Affleck, struggling through anti-Affleck laws and cleft chin bans.

A proud and noble Affleck, struggling through anti-Affleck laws and cleft chin bans.

This really ties into some of the troublesome aspects of the story. Because before all of this, we just have a big, dumb, overblown bit of nonsense from an author trying way too hard to be smart and way too hard to be creepy, and getting way too into her chin fetish. (Note to Flynn, as much as you might find the scene about snapping sardine bones to be “chilling”, the cold reality is that sardine bones are soft. You won’t notice them. They’re delicious, not scary!) However, there is actually a controversy around this book, for some reason.

I wish I was kidding, because this book is way too silly to have a controversy. I mean, Amy literally tricks a high school classmate into pretending to be her to trick her parents into thinking she has a stalker, because Amy is famous, because her parents wrote children’s books about her which, of course, made them super wealthy and… Is this even a real book? I feel like I’m making this up from some really awkward dream.

But, because the world is cruel and illogical, this became a bfd and we have a controversy, and with it all kinds of think pieces.

Probably the most obvious is that Flynn wanted to write a book about how the husband is demonized by the media when the wife disappears. This does happen, because most crimes are committed by people close to the victim, so it’s not really surprising. But, sure, Flynn. I’m game. Media is salacious and vicious, and innocent people get dragged out for the vultures every time a crime happens. (Dingo baby, anyone?) The trouble is, Gillian Flynn has been accused of misogyny. And… that’s not a hard accusation to make. After all, this book has not one, but four false rape cases. It’s a story in which a character fakes her own abuse at the hands of various men, who are all super passive and just remain her victims because women be evil.

And it isn’t just that Amy is evil. Amy is evil in the most stereotypical ways possible: she manipulates her husband’s emotions, steals from him, fakes rape, pits men against each other, refuses to have a baby, literally steals Nick’s sperm from a fertility clinic to blackmail him with a baby, basically sexually assaults Nick, uses her beauty to fool others, plants porn in Nick’s house, uses Nick’s daddy issues against him… Even in petty, unrelated ways, she’s a stereotype. She’s judgemental about weight, calls other women ugly, is obsessed with how pretty and blond she is. It’s not breaking any new ground in terms of character development. She’s like if Princess Peach became a super villain. Miss Julie is more well-rounded and less stereotypical.

And women, in general, do not come out on top, from the anti-man news broadcaster, who you know is crazy because she’s anti-porn!!!, to the domestic abuse runaway who steals Amy’s money and has no character whatsoever (in comparison, see the hard-working, homeless-with-a-heart-of-gold squatters in the old mall, who have been falsely accused of, you guessed it, rape). Women are flirts who turn on Nick when he doesn’t respond to their offers of frito pie, and force him to TAKE SELFIES!!!

The_Scream

Women are mistresses who turn on Nick because women be jealous and can’t see how bad it looks to be a cheater when one’s spouse is missing.

Literally the only decent women in the story are the elegant, old-school newscaster, Nick’s mom, and his nurturing, motherly, laid-back, too cool, “unconventionally beautiful” sister, Go, who just understands Nick so well, and even makes him a sandwich and a beer when he’s blue…

What’s weird, though, is that Flynn says she’s a feminist, and that she wanted to create Amy because she was tired of women always being the victims and wanted women to be the villains once in a while.

Now, for one thing, yeah, I don’t doubt that is true. But, if you’re tired of not having good female villains (you know, aside from all the real Noirs, that did it first and better, Narnia, Harry Potter, and shitload of other popular stories), you might want to, you know, do that. Amy is such a poorly written character that rather than being shocking and scary, she was just funny. Oh, there goes Amy again! Golly, gee, who’s she gonna unrealistically frame by causing herself harm today? And that’s pretty much her entire character. She hurts herself and says someone else did it. It’s predictable. Furthermore, it’s kinda unbelievable. The character is supposed to be this evil genius, but, because this book is allergic to showing, we just hear that she’s brilliant. Hell, the smartest thing she does his write clues, read a book, and act bitchy. Her brilliant plan would actually never work, due to forensics (she drugs her murder victim first), she carries money out in the open in cash, she doesn’t know how to budget, she talks in personality quizzes, and she sounds like a teenager. She literally only gets away with her crimes because the plot says so.

And there’s a lot of that. By the time Nick and Go decide Amy is alive and framing Nick, the story still could go either way. Nick still looks guilty as hell and kind of has to jump through some creative hoops to arrive at his conclusion. Sure, he’s right, but he only is because Flynn says so. In real life, no one would come to that conclusion. It’s too far-fetched and crazy, which is also how it feels as a reader. The scarier it’s supposed to be, the funnier it is. It’s like a cheesy horror movie.

But, in terms of controversy, if you want to deconstruct gender tropes and create a female villain, fine. Go for it. But, don’t expect people to think you’re a feminist when she’s literally just a collection of stereotypes attacking poor, passive Nick. In fact, every man in the story is a victim to women and society, except for Nick’s abusive father, who only exists to make Nick look good by comparison and to give him a wooby back story.

The trouble is, Nick is also a horrible victim. He’s so passive and uninteresting that he would be far more compelling and sympathetic as a murderer. It is beyond the pale of reason to believe that he is victimized because he is too handsome, as well. Because everyone knows the biggest victims in society are sexy, intellectual, young, white men, with big houses. God knows that the media just loves to hate those guys, except that isn’t the world we live in. In fact, we’re so prejudiced in favor of good-looking people that people actually had a hard time convicting Ted Bundy, and he was a serial killer! And look at what they did to the Boston bomber. People actually irrationally love attractive people, even if it’s beyond all reason and they are clearly monsters.

o-ROLLING-STONE-TSARNAEV-570

Nick would have been so much more believable if Flynn wasn’t so fangirly about her own characters and managed to write a plain or awkward man whose chin wasn’t to die for. If he was a little overweight, people would have discriminated against him, and we all know it. That’s a real thing, and it’s shitty and cruel, and we know it happens. Fat guys are constantly being portrayed as sexist losers and manchildren. But, sexy guys? Really?

But, honestly, I think Flynn believes she is a feminist. Feminism, despite being so present, isn’t very defined anymore, if it ever was at all. Anything vaguely relating to women is feminist. And, for some reason, it’s okay to use supposed feminism to attack other women who threaten your own insecurities.

Don't worry about your size, beautiful! Unless you're one of those stupid skinny bitches!

Don’t worry about your size, beautiful! Unless you’re one of those stupid skinny bitches… I hate them. #Feminism!!!!

In reality, guys, feminism really has nothing to do with memes and Dove ads and feeling pretty. It’s more of a loosely connected conglomerate philosophy-sociology movement about the nature of being as women (woman qua woman, if you will) as opposed to Othering definitions. From this, one derives social justice actions, like fighting child brides or winning the vote. But one does not have to be feminist to fight any of these issues at all. Logically, if feminism were just a protest, as soon as these issues are abolished, feminism would be no more. This would mean it has no ontology or epistemology, and the question of “what is woman” or “how is woman to be” would not important to answer. Unfortunately, under the guise of feminism, we get a subset that just sort of use it as an outlet for their insecurities. And, sadly, the target for these insecurities are often other women.

In reality, Flynn doesn’t hate women. But, I think she possibly hates a certain kind of woman. Rather than address social beauty standards, she makes her size-two blond villain a total bitch. Meanwhile, the brunette, unconventionally attractive, old-school, supportive, nurturing Go is awesome.

gfAnd, my problem here is that for the whole anti-cool girl rant, Go is a cool girl. She’s just a different one. She’s Taylor Swift on the bleachers. She’s the one who’s relatable. She’s not blond and twiggy. She’s stately and old-school, but not above drinking beer and sharing crass jokes with her bro and watching the sports game and being totally happy to be so supportive. Flynn isn’t attacking any gendered social structures. She’s just replaced them with one that makes her more comfortable.

The thing is, though, I can’t care that much about this book, and that’s a problem. I can’t care about the loss of their jobs, for instance.The market crash affected a whole hell of a lot more than ritzy, New York hipsters, and I just cannot be compelled to read about them in such a straight, serious manner. There is no real commentary. It’s just played too straight. I don’t care about these people, and I also do not believe they could exist. I don’t believe in Amy, because I don’t know why she does anything that she does. I don’t believe in Nick, because he’s too passive to be fully realized as a character. He’s just a victim stereotype, which is not more interesting because Flynn thinks she’s subverting gender norms (except for the fact that this is a Noir, and femme fatales are literally in all of them). I don’t believe that Amy’s parents made a fortune writing children’s books about their daughter. I don’t believe that Amy pulled off any of her crimes. I don’t believe that the answer to deconstructing rape stereotypes is to use “the girl who cried rape” stereotype four times in one novel. I don’t believe that sardine bones pop when you eat them. I don’t believe our characters are smart. I don’t believe that this case would be popular in the media, at least for very long, and I don’t believe that Nick’s taped interview would go viral online. He isn’t a cat or a naked chick or someone talking about the illuminati, so… no. Also, those youtube comments in the book should mostly be swearing, hate, and people calling each other Hitler or spamming the hell out of everything. Flynn’s world is too simple, and things work too conveniently for the plot, and so nothing is interesting or believable. The details are off, and the characters are too broad.

The book doesn’t work as a thriller, because it’s plodding, predictable, and telly. It doesn’t work as a satire because it’s played too straight and nothing is sent up. It doesn’t work as a portrait of marriage, because no one really acts like this and the characters have too little development. It doesn’t work. I don’t even like addressing its controversies because it’s too silly to be controversial. Amy frames her husband with a set of Punch and Judy puppets and a cache of bdsm pornos, for pity’s sake. That’s hilarious!

And, for those who say that Flynn WANTS us to dislike the characters, and I don’t get it… Oh, I get it. I mean, I absolutely love Zola’s books, and he’s being intentionally unlikable. I understand unlikable characters. What I don’t understand are flat, passive, uninteresting ones who never change. The characters are basically the same at the end of the novel, only Nick just knows that Amy is crazy. The situation changes, but the people don’t. We don’t see them grow or learn or change. Furthermore, I think it’s pretty obvious from Flynn’s commentary about how much of herself she put into Nick’s character (being a writer, the New York thing, the job loss, and how much she freaking adores Missouri), that we can assume Nick is the good guy. He ends the book as the passive, wooby, ridiculously attractive victim to the psychotic, domineering Amy, who probably went on to wreck his car, not understand how to use a remote, and refuse to let him watch the ball game when she wants to watch a costume drama musical.

The funny part is, David Fincher isn’t really so fond of Nick. Fincher, who adapted the novel for the screen, roots for Amy. He thinks Nick is pathetic. And, frankly, that’s not hard to understand. I mean, Nick, in a Fincher movie, is the kind of character who would be mocked by his own invisible friend. Nick is the one who would get chewed out by Morgan Freeman. And, that makes sense. Fincher likes his anarchic, violent, weirdos. Hell, even in Se7en, the serial killer technically wins. If anyone could put some realism into these characters, it’s Fincher. And, maybe this totally different take, without all the stupid emphasis on Nick’s cleft chin, and with the audience actually getting to see the events, rather than hear about them, we could get a decent-ish story… that’s still Leave Her to Heaven.

poster

Thank goodness I paired this with a batshit insane story about dismembering bodies. Oh, wait…

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Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

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The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C

So, You Read Maximum Ride…

Maximum_Ride1
James Patterson… What can we truly say about the man? Even at his worst –meaning when he doesn’t bother to write his own books at all– he’s still making pounds of cash. He makes up concepts that he doesn’t deliver, his premises are snappy and his execution is crap, he’s riddled with cliches, his books can easily be understood by any eight-year-old, and it doesn’t matter what I say because he’s a million times more successful than I’ll ever be.
Seriously, I fight for hits on WordPress. He bathes in cash.
So, instead of mocking the successful, let’s look at his YA franchise, Maximum Ride.
Maximum Ride is about a bunch of genetically altered mutant kids who are part human part bird. They have retractable wings, and all kinds of other X-men styled superpowers that they use to escape from baddies, and eventually save the world. The stories center around the titular Max, who is the unofficial leader of her group of superhero Boxcar Children (I am not the first person to make this comparison).
In many ways, this is a much better YA series than some of the others that are making their rounds. Max is a strong protagonist who certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and provides a funny, upbeat, and actually quite engaging narration. Even a crotchety, dyed-in-the-wool literati snob like myself enjoyed the hell out of Max. On the other hand, this is a series that seriously pissed me off when it all went to hell by book three.
**spoilers**
Why, in the name of Reason, did protesting against climate change end an evil science organization that had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change?
**end**

In the end, whether you loved or hated the series, it does provide some interesting characters without falling into the usual YA tropes of bland female, hot bad-boy, and… third wheel.
So, what else could a person who likes this series read?
Well….

plaguedogs_3003
1. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Adams is mostly known for Watership Down, and by mostly I mean that pretty much everyone thinks that’s the only book he wrote. In literature, he’s sort of the one-hit-wonder. This is a real shame because, like the band A-ha and other one-hit-wonders, Adams actually has an impressive oeuvre. The Plague Dogs is yet another epic, beautifully crafted look into politically charged anthropomorphism.
But what, you may ask, do dogs have to do with bird-kids? Well, the central conflict of at least books one through three of Max Ride has to do with experimentation. The kids are products of lab experiments, and so fall in the cross-hairs of self-serving corporate needs and scientific advancement. A huge part of the story has to do with what one should do in science and what one can do, and how those may be different things. Also, some people do terrible things in the name of discovery or finding ways to help humanity. Where does one draw the line? In The Plague Dogs, Adams asks these questions not of humans but of animals. The dogs are a part of a lab experiment, and because they may be dangerous to humans they are hunted and pursued by those they come across. The novel begs the question of whether or not it is right to put the dogs through pain and suffering for the sake of a greater good.
If you like your lab-experimentation stories with a big, heady punch and a lot of depressing, this will make you think –and also cry. It’s a dog story, and dog stories are sad.

monster dogs

2. Lives of Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
I swear this list is not going to be filled with dog stories! This is the last one. I promise.
Like Max Ride, Monster Dogs is about mutants fitting into the world after experimentation made them what they are. But, unlike Max Ride, the story deals more with a realistic look at The Other in society. That is, it’s about what it is like to be alien, in this case a hyper-intelligent dog-monster, and what it is like to observe the alien around you. How would you act? How do they act? Why? Monster Dogs is a beautifully written meditation on the Frankenstein mythos of identity, what it means to be a person, and how we see those different from ourselves. While Max Ride is always off to the next adventure, running away from wolf-people and mad scientists, this story looks at a society like our own that suddenly has dog people in it. How does the media react? How do people on the streets react? How do the dogs react, and what do the dogs think of their own mad scientist creator?
It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated science fiction novel, and one worth checking out!

frankenstein

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hey, we couldn’t have mad scientists and creatures without the one that started them all, could we? Mary Shelley’s book-she-wrote-at-a-slumber-party-of-sorts has become iconic. We all know the story of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who “steals fire from the  gods”, as it were, and creates life –life he will immediately abandon in horror. The dynamic of the book is one of moral ambiguity. Who is the monster? Why do we sympathize with the creature? And, can we do this while still remaining true to what the creature really is in the story –an eloquent zombie and murderer? Is the story a cautionary tale about playing God? Is it a story about bad parenting? Is it about monsters? Nightmares? The fear that one’s best intentions will backfire and ruin your life? The fear of being a disappointment and outsider?
I’ve found that, while most people know the basic idea of Frankenstein, few actually sit down and read it, preferring to get their ideas from the movies. This is a real shame because, while there are some great Frankenstein movies out there, the book is far more complex and raises more questions than any of the adaptations. It’s an enduring classic for a reason, and one you’ll want to get!

janeeyre2

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It may seem out of place to suggest this Gothic romantic novel for fans of a YA science fiction series about kids who can fly. But, hear me out. Max Ride is a compelling series for one major reason, and her name is Max Ride. She’s a super strong character, an outsider, and yet also a normal girl with feelings and worries. Jane Eyre is also a strong character. She stands up to her employer, makes her own decisions about life, and, like Max, overcomes the trauma of an abusive past. Jane is also an outsider, not because she’s a superhero, but because of her station and lack of a family. She’s also in a very strange place, dominated by her mysterious employer/lover and his Gothic mansion. Yet, Jane always manages to keep her head and stay strong. She’s a survivor, like Max. Furthermore, Jane is still a normal woman, not a “strong girl” archetype. She has to struggle with her own feelings, insecurities, and her love for Mr. Rochester. This makes her extremely relatable throughout all she goes through, and the readers can connect with the story not through epic, Gothic trappings but through a tough and intelligent protagonist.
Characters make the stories, and even if Jane Eyre isn’t your genre of choice, it is certainly one that fans of the strong, female protagonist will want to check out!

something wicked

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Or, maybe you just like kids having fantastical adventure? Well, there’s not much more fantastical than Bradbury, and this one even has a Shakespeare quote in the title! Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two boys who discover a dark secret about the circus in their town. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling it…. No, seriously, read this book! Witches, magic, scary circuses, a really freaking villain, the lighting rod man… This book is like opening a treasure chest of wonders. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and full of Bradburian goodness.
If you like strong kids, it’s also a great example. The boys are not passive horror story characters. They’re dynamic. They take action, pursue mysteries, and have to escape from the big baddies of the story –all of which are pretty terrifying. It’s a gorgeously written thrill-ride, and one that you’ll want to re-visit time and again –especially on Halloween!

adventures of sherlock

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Max Ride is basically a superhero story. And, Holmes is basically a superhero. He can enter a room and immediately know everything about something that happened two weeks ago. He looks at your shoes and knows whether or not you’re German. He can spot a clue in a doorpost. The man’s amazing. He even has his iconic superhero look: tweed and a pipe!
Sometimes, the boundaries between highbrow literature and pop-culture adventure cross over, and this is one of those times. Holmes is a timeless, beloved character, and one whose epicness we really don’t mind or see as a boring or unrealistic trait. He’s the epitome of cool, a super-genius, and we love him.

geek

7. Greek Love by Katherine Dunn
Hey, guys! Want some postmodernism? You do! Well, then! This is Geek Love, the story of a family of circus “freaks”, who consider freakiness a sign of superiority. The characters have a dynasty of sideshow living, with the parents who bred their children to be mutants, and the kids who have their own power struggles. It reverses expectations about who is or is not superior, with the sideshow characters starting out with a sense of greatness and beauty in their conditions, and falling from grace through their dynastic power conflicts. It’s like a very strange Greek tragedy, but with more geeks.
Oh, and to explain for the innocent, a geek is someone who bites the heads off chickens for a sideshow act.
Yes, you do need to read this.

invisible

8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Probably the most obvious choice would have been The Island of Dr. Moreau, since it actually is a story about human-animal mutants. But, I think that The Invisible Man has far more in common with the tone of the Max Ride stories that Dr. Moreau does. Of course, if you disagree, you’re free to read them both!
The Invisible Man asks the question of what happens when, through science, you Other yourself. Instead of being mutated by scientists, Dr. Griffin causes his own downfall by making himself invisible. Like the Max Ride series, he spends much of the story trying to get about without people knowing that he is, in fact, an invisible man, and also trying to avoid the authorities. The difference is that the invisibility serum has made Dr. Griffin into a psychopath, and so he’s no innocent victim. That doesn’t mean we as the readers don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a funny, interesting, and compelling character, even if he’s also kind of terrifying. As a science fiction great, he’s definitely a character you’ll want to met.

trumpet-of-the-swan

9. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Yes, this is a kiddie book. But, this is E.B. White we’re talking about, the man who created such iconic stories as Charlotte’s Web. And, this is a beautiful tale that really anyone can read and not worry. It’s the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His father steals him a trumpet, and his human friend teaches him to read and write, giving him two means of communication. The story is about being an Other, once again, this time being a mute swan among trumpeters and a hyper-intelligent animal among humans. How Louis fits in and how his differences make him special, not strange, is what the story is about. Also, he’s the only character in my list who has proper wings, so there’s that. It’s a charming, beautiful, life affirming story about nature, communication, identity, and music, and one that I personally love.

And coming in for a tie…

watchmen-749826v for vendetta
10. The Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Oh, you thought we were to literati to read comic books about superheroes? You thought wrong!
*dons a cape and flies off into the sunset*
Ahem… But, aside from that, Alan Moore is no low-brow writer! What other comic book has ever topped a notable books list, outranking traditional novels? Alan Moore doesn’t just create stories about action and adventure, he is writing myths for the contemporary world, stories with depth and texture that ask complex questions about society, war, peace, government, control, power, anarchy, violence, and what it means to do right.
First, The Watchmen. This is an obvious, no-brainer choice for a series about superheroes. It’s basically THE literati superhero story. The characters are an elite group of costume heroes. However, the world has grown corrupt, and their group has fallen apart. When a mysterious attacker starts picking off old heroes, even if the characters might not be that heroic in the first place, The Watchmen rise up again. Secret plots, Cold War hysteria, nuclear arms races, science, and corruption ensue, leaving the ultimate question: Who watches The Watchmen?
V for Vendetta may not be as obvious of a choice, aside from also having a connection with grassroots protesting.
occupy wall
However, the story is actually quite similar. Just ask yourself, what if the scientific corporation from Max Ride was the entire society? What if the mutants didn’t have a chance to fight on the side of good people because all the good people were completely subjugated? What if Max Ride was a super-strong anarchist Phantom of the Opera as done by David Bowie? (No, seriously, those are V’s roots, right there.) V is a like a Batman who kills people, and who lives in the world 1984. He’s smart, strong, fights for justice… and has no moral qualms about ends justifying the means, really. He’s an anarchist, and not like that kid in high school who drew A symbols on his notebook. But, his background? Mutated by evil science, deformed in an explosion, and out to take down the big bad. Something tells me Max Ride wouldn’t be that gung-ho about some of his methods. But, Max Ride was never faced with stakes like V’s. Morally ambiguous, dark, frightening, and extremely cool, V for Vendetta is a superhero story that even your snobby lit major friends will want for their collections!
maxseries

So, you read Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras…

uglies

The Uglies and Pretties books may not have the household recognition of the other books on this list, but any amount of time spent with YA books and readers thereof will tell you it’s a damn popular series. And why wouldn’t it be? Feature a world literally built on the physical insecurities of put-upon teenagers, it’s a veritable marketing goldmine. For those who don’t know, it’s about a world where normal people are “uglies”, and the government then gives the “uglies” plastic surgery to become “pretties” –who live in a sparkly city and get to have parties all the time. The downside is that all the new pretties seem to have lost their former personalities. In fact, there may be something very, very wrong with them.

Yes, it’s another dystopian series. Two in a row. But, the focus of this one is quite different than for The Hunger Games. It’s about appearance, perfection, impossible ideals, and what people might sacrifice for these ideals. Not a bad initial plot point, even if I (disclaimer) really, really do not care for these books. So, if you want stories primarily about dystopian societies, I suggest the list for The Hunger Games, because here we’re looking at Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras for their discussions of identity, social control, and independence.

So, what recommendations can happen this time from Pushy Librarians?

stepford

  1. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
    If The Hunger Games owes its largest debt of gratitude to Battle Royale, this series owes a huge debt to The Stepford Wives. Like Uglies, Pretties, et cetera, this book looks at a society where there are certain impossible standards for perfection. In order to achieve these standards, you may literally end up losing yourself. In Stepford Wives, the focus isn’t on a dystopian government, but rather a small town. A family moves in, and soon discovers that every woman in the town is perfect, beautiful, docile, and basically the ideal, 1950s housewife. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why does an interesting, powerful woman suddenly become a docile, demure lamb? And does the heroine’s family want this to happen to her, too?
    Ira Levin is known mostly for two books, Rosemary’s Baby and this one. Both are frightening novels based on the subject of gender identity and use horror or science fiction tropes to tell a story that illustrates these points symbolically. Like Tally in Uglies and Pretties, the story is about a normal woman who discovers a dark truth about the transformations that her peers have undergone. It’s a short but eerie story, and one of horror’s most memorable.gatsby pic jpeg
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    What does this have to do with a dystopia? you may ask. Well, it’s not a dystopian novel, really. But, it is a novel about a society that is corrupted and lost in his former convictions and purpose, the romantic ideals of the past turned against the characters, their lives set in a vapid world in which they desperately search for meaning and booze… It’s also a story about a glitterati world, where people appear to be perfect and beautiful, and which contains a dark secret. And, it’s a story about transforming yourself to fit into this world –at any cost.
    Oh, and love triangles. I know how much you YA fans love your love triangles. Well, this is one of literature’s greatest love triangles, so you’re welcome. You may put away your Tally, David, and Zane, it’s Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby time!
    The story is about a man who moves in next to a rich neighborhood, his closest neighbor a mysterious man whose life story is simply too incredible to be true. This neighbor is Gatsby, who spends all his time throwing amazing parties and being the focus of interest for those around him. But, these are not parties for the sake of the party. These are not happy parties. What is Gatsby’s secret? What is his connection to the beautiful Daisy?
    The Great Gatsby has the distinction not only of being a thought-provoking examination of the Jazz Era, its glitter and its dark side, but also of being one of the most beautifully written books in the history of literature. You heard that correctly. Also, Stephen Fry agrees, so you have to listen.
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
    Perhaps your interest in Uglies and Pretties is more concerning the focus on young adult insecurity and being an outsider in society? And, suppose you already read Ender’s Game? Well, you’re in luck! Shirley Jackson, ladies and gentlemen!
    Jackson is probably best known to readers for her often-assigned-in-school short story, “The Lottery”, a story about a local tradition that involves something absolutely horrific. It’s kind of like The Wicker Man, but about society as opposed to religion, and with less naked dancing and Celtic folk music.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn't have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee --and he's scary as hell.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn’t have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee –and he’s scary as hell.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a young woman who lives with her sister in an old mansion, outcast by the town due to the unresolved murder of the rest of their family. The story focuses on the town’s prejudices against the girls, which may actually be quite well-founded, but even more so on our heroine’s outlook on life. She’s brainy but childish, angsty, rebellious, angry, a practitioner of sympathetic magic, superstitious, anti-social, and misanthropic. Like many of Jackson’s heroines, from The Haunting of Hill House to The Bird’s Nest, she’s part misunderstood creative spirit, part demon, an anti-hero to rival Catcher in the Rye, but with some postmodern Gothic trappings.  If you thought that Tally should have been a more active and interesting character to warrant how put-upon she is, look to this:
    “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

    othello

  4. Othello by our man, The Bard!
    Shakespeare has something for everyone, and the idea of fitting into a seemingly perfect society is certainly no exception! Shakespeare basically rules this idea, in fact, with his play, Othello. This is the story of the titular Othello, a great warrior, talented man, and husband of the beautiful Desdemona. Unfortunately, this is Ye Olde Olden Times, and Othello is something that Europe didn’t like: a black man who isn’t shining shoes. He’s an African who fights on the side of Europe, and works to fit into European society, which appears to be so proper and cultured –from the outside. Inside, he is met with massive discrimination, even after his war triumphs, and all that due to marrying a white woman. Enter Shakespeare’s most devious villain, Iago, who seeks to warp Othello’s insecurities into suspicion and conspiracy until he is tormented into committing one of the most tragic crimes in Elizabethan theatre.
    Othello is a very complex play. On the one hand, the main character does something truly despicable by the end. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for him and Desdemona and how they simply played their parts in society, and were manipulated by Iago. It’s a tragedy, beautifully written, and will certainly make readers consider the issues of society and the roles that it sets up.stranger1
  5. The Stranger by Albert Camus
    Or, maybe you just don’t get society at all. Uglies and Pretties addresses the idea of a society that is basically meaningless, and that is the impetus for the heroine to resist and try to escape and assert her individuality. The Stranger offers a world where maybe there is no escape. And maybe it isn’t because everyone is brainwashed by an evil government, but because things don’t make sense in the postwar world. The novel poses this question: should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? And that’s the tone of the entire book.
    If your interest is in the outsider, the person looking in and seeing the emptiness in the world, you may want to read a book in which the protagonist is so, so much more cynical and anguished than even you are. And when he eventually commits a brutal murder, would you be surprised if I told you he doesn’t seem to really care?
    Oh, well, we could at least have coffee…

    Secretly, she's considered killing at least five people by now...

    Secretly, she’s considered killing at least five people by now…

    androids

  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
    Philip K. Dick. To say his name around any sci-fi fans is to invoke great piles of gushing. He’s one of the most influential and important sci-fi writers in history. His works have been adapted into iconic movies, including this one, which became Blade Runner. His work is creative, subtle, and poses ethical and philosophical questions for the readers, beyond the usual good vs. evil found in many books.
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about a post-apocalyptic future where much human and animal life has been depleted, and life-like androids work on off-planet colonies. Well, they’re supposed to. The androids may be artificially made, but they’re not without consciousness, and they come to earth and disguise themselves as humans. It’s up to our main character, a bounty hunter, to round up the renegade androids. The question remains, however, do these robots have their own individual consciousness worthy of respect as humans? Do they have souls? What is life and what are we, in ourselves?
    The book shares many similarities with Fahrenheit 451, including government mood-control, the use of media as a sedative, and the general populace’s lack of interest in the world around them. However, Philip K. Dick’s world is stranger and more experimental, reminiscent of almost a Gravity’s Rainbow kind of reality, where everything is just… off.
    Like Uglies and Pretties, it deals with fitting into a society, and who is considered better than who. What, exactly, is it to be a human being? And, could a good human being also be a robot?animal_farm
  7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
    Orwell, again! But, really, we can’t suggest books for readers of dystopian series without Animal Farm coming up! Animal Farm is an unusual, little book, because although it’s about a controlling government and has many tropes of a traditional dystopian novel, it’s about animals. It’s literally about animals that take over a farm –only to discover that not all animals are created equal in the eyes of the leaders.
    Animal Farm may seem a far cry from the series we’re doing here. But, in fact, it has many similar aspects. For one thing, the dystopia of Uglies and Pretties is revealed to be an answer to a former bad government. The bad decisions of the series come from reactions to earlier bad decisions, gone corrupt. That’s basically the entire premise of Animal Farm! Sometimes, the solution isn’t better than the disease, and may even be quite similar. While Uglies and Pretties actually does not address a previously failed government system so much as ecological depletion, and so doesn’t give a great deal to work on and see where the past could have done better, Animal Farm’s archetypes and understanding of real-world problems (like for-profit ruling elites vs. Stalinist ruling elites), is a much punchier and more intelligent compare/contrast scenario. It’s a thoughtful look at control and corruption, and definitely worth a look!dalloway
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    Uglies and Pretties may focus on teen insecurities in general, but its protagonist and narrator is a teenage girl. The market it appeals to is mostly made of teenage girls who feel misunderstood and who do not feel like they can or even want to live up to the pressures around them, especially those of physical beauty. This is a pretty universal theme, and one that many teenagers face, perhaps especially girls with all the emphasis on fashion and makeup around.
    Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about feel like an outsider and being frustrated with the societal pressures around you. It is a dream-like story, about one afternoon, with a narrative that pops in and out of heads and reveals the struggles of each character to conform to their situation in life and also struggle to understand the changes in the world around them. If Holden Caulfield inspired leagues of angsty, frustrated teenaged boys, Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the domestic woman and her place in the world.
    It’s a melodic, tragic, poignant look at longing, apathy, ennui, desire, sorrow, and depression, and if all the teen angst left you wanting to step it up a notch, now’s the time to do it.persepolis-cover-small2-1
  9. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    This is our first autobiography. You’re welcome. Oh, and it’s also a graphic novel. You’re welcome again.
    You see, sometimes you don’t need dystopias to live in an oppressive society that has specific roles for your life and strict rules that you cannot break. Sometimes, that’s real life. This is the world of Marjane Satrapi, a spunky, intelligent, creative girl growing up in Iran during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. She sees the Shah fall and the rise of theocratic Islamist extremism. She has to cover herself, segregate from the community, and sees those she loves persecuted and even killed. Throughout it all, she remains strong, and tells her story with wit, humor, and clarity, never asking for pity, but always pushing onward. She’s a strong role model for anyone, and the book is important and moving, and worth recommending to young readers as well as adults. If you want your youthful narrator and strong female protagonist, it really doesn’t get better than Persepolis.BluestEyeCover
  10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Like Persepolis, this is a story that doesn’t need dystopia to discuss a corrupt society. The story is about a black community, living in segregation, and each character’s reaction to this environment. There is a tragedy coming up, where all the injustice, anger, and struggle comes to a head in the life of a little girl who feels that if she were only blue-eyed, she would be accepted.
    Uglies and Pretties focuses on the more superficial desires to look perfect, like movie stars, and the way media imagery and ideals affect those around them. What if you were in a society where not only where these ideals a problem, but that the entirety of who you were meant that you could not match this idea? What if from childhood the dolls you were given to play with looked nothing like you, and the movie stars and beauty queens looked nothing like you, and the people who lived in nice houses and had the best jobs and influence looked nothing like you, and all the politicians and powerful people of the world looked nothing like you? Don’t think “what if”. For many people, this was and in many situations still is a huge problem. In the age of segregation, it was even worse. Our character is driven through her tragedy by loneliness and abuse, and believes that if only she could change who she was, even just her eyes, she could change her fate.
    It’s a tragic and incredibly harrowing story that is also important and beautifully-written by Nobel Prize in Literature writer, Toni Morrison.

So, you read Harry Potter…

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Okay, so maybe the young adult literature phenomenon/anti-drug of your choice wasn’t chock full of vampires. More power to you. If you’re like almost everyone on the planet, you have read Harry Potter. About 3/4s of you enjoyed it, too. And, most of you who enjoyed it enjoyed the living bajeezus out of it, enjoyed it with passion, preference, and pride, enjoyed it with every molecule of your body.
Again: more power to you.
But, all things must come to an end. Chimney sweepers coming to dust, lovers young… Oh, that Shakespearian rag, it’s so elegant… I’m mixing literature here and getting ahead of myself. The point is, Harry Potter had a nice, long run, and while most people won’t fault you for re-reading the entire series, most people will when you refuse to read anything else. Ah, but that’s why we have Pushy Librarians!
Pushy Librarians, once again here to make sure YOU are reading all your intellectually metaphorical fruits and vegetables! Yes, we’ll help you with all your literati needs, whether you want/like it or not! You WILL look like a grown-ass adult when we’re through… (feel free to begin the Mulan song, “Mister I’ll make a man out of YOU!”)
So, what would you want to read next after leaving Hogwarts? Well… here are some suggestions we’re aggressively forcing upon the populace!

the magicians
1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Ask any literati source what the grownup, literary equivalent of Harry Potter is, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll point at this book. And why not? It’s a reflective, philosophical, intellectual novel… about a boy who goes to wizarding school. It basically is THE Harry Potter-for-grown-ups. We could finish the list by just posting The Magicians ten times, and most people would be happy. But, Grossman’s novel is more than The Boy Who Lived, but totally not for kids… no… more. (That actually would be very, very sad.) This is its own entity, addressing the insecurities, yearnings, and, erm, existential crises of an older set of readers, searching for identity and purpose. It also addresses the idea of the wonders of magic as melded with the doldrums and angst of adulthood. Maybe that sounds less than appealing, but The Magicians has more than enough fantasy to satisfy the Potterhead crowd. And, admit it, getting on the end of HP, you related to those angsty, real-life, rough, dark scenes that filled the last part of the series. You did, didn’t you? And, you wouldn’t mind more of that, would you?

krabat
2. Krabat (Or The Satanic Mill, for you English readers) by Otfried Preussler
Okay, so this is also technically a kids’ book. But, The Satanic Mill is also an obscure kids’ book, and a smart, weird, trippy one at that. It’s the kid’s book that’s socially acceptable to read in public without being suspected of having a set of Gryffindor robes and a sorting hat in your lego-castle themed bedroom. So, what is this obscure kiddie book about? Well, do you remember all the panic about “satanic schools” concerning the Harry Potter books? This is probably what those people were imagining. This is the story of a young orphan boy who goes to a school of magic… black magic. Satanic, killing-people magic. This is basically what Voldemort wants Hogarts to be. And, you might be thinking, “Huh, that sounds really disturbing for a children’s book.”
I know, right?!

phantastes
3. Phantases by George MacDonald
In the world of literature, there are certain standards of epic… beards. And, by Lincoln, did MacDonald have one of the most epic! But, facial hair aside, MacDonald was a pioneering fantasy writer. He even inspired C.S. Lewis! This is a mythical story, part fantasy part romance, concerning a questing man named Anodos, who is seeking “The Marble Lady”, the ultimate beauty. But, since this is MacDonald, it’s not just a story about quests and magic, it’s also really abstract, symbolic, and, honestly, trippy as hell. Not many religious ministers can claim that. Plus, it was illustrated by a Pre-Raphaelite artist. Does it get more magical than that? Possibly, but not without acid.

tom-browns-school-days-by-thomas-hughes
4. Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
This isn’t fantasy. That doesn’t stop Tom Brown from being the closest to Harry Potter in spirit, however! Rowling’s series is sort of genre-blending. On one hand, it’s a fantasy quest, complete with unlikely heroes and dark lords. On the other hand, it’s a kid’s fairytale-fable story, with whimsical moments that would be comfortable in the realm of Roald Dahl. And, on the third hand (just roll with it), it’s a schoolboy story, a coming-of-age tale with schooldays events and relationships. In that last respect, it’s a whole lot like Tom Brown. Even many of the dynamics are like Tom Brown. Just insert a lot of rugby, and there you go. What many people really love about HP are the characters and the way they interact. The “in real life” fanfiction people have come up with, aside from being terrible, is also proof that people really like the characters for themselves. Well, if you ever wanted that dynamic in a more real-life setting, this is the book you want!

neverwhere
5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Or… almost anything Gaiman. Hey, HP fans, want to look really cool, hip, and with-it, and yet still get your fantasy fix? Try Gaiman! Gaiman has been called the literary equivalent of a rock star, and that’s basically true. In fact, there have been only a handful of writers who have had this status, and only about two after the Romantics: Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman. And Gaiman hasn’t taken every drug known to man, but still managed to be as edgy and cool. What’s interesting about Gaiman is that, although he’s obviously very charismatic and his writing is very cool, he also could easily be that one librarian that is really awesome. He’s like the perfect blend of bookish and rocking and…
neilgaiman
We interrupt this session for a complete fangirlish breakdown.

Anyway…
Gaiman’s stories, like Harry Potter, are inventive, exciting, and full of memorable characters. But, Gaiman also writes fantasy for an older audience, and so is able to explore darker and more dangerous themes –truth, religion, beauty, the relationship humans have to myth and archetype. In Neverwhere, we have a story of an ordinary, even boring man, who ends up accidentally involved with the goings-on of a magical underworld. The story features eloquent assassins, dashing tricksters, brave hunters, warriors, rat-people, and Door, who is basically one of the coolest characters ever.

ender
6. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Addressing the elephant in the room: yes. Card is very political. And, of course, that leads some people to calling him a Nazi. I don’t mean this in the usual internet way, either. People actually do say that Card is an actual Nazi.
It’s a conspiracy, and he’s not actually a Nazi. But, he does have very, well, right-wing views.
Now, will this affect your reading of Card? For me, and I’ve read Sade, the author’s beliefs don’t necessarily have to affect the art. After all, Picasso was rather sexist, and yet we all love Picasso (anti-Picasso people are welcome to shut up).
The story is a science fiction tale of a young, intelligent boy in a bad family (not unlike Harry!), who gets sent to a special school, and who has a mission to save the world (because why not?). In this case, however, he saves the world by playing a lot of really cool video games… In many ways, the story can be overly simplistic, and has troubled readers concerning the apparent justification of a character basically due to ignorance. However, the “problematic” portions of the story can be beneficial, as well, can be open for questions and really make the reader think about the complexities of violence and war. And, considering that this is very literally a story about a boy who saves the world through video-game awesomeness, that’s kind of saying a lot.
It’s not necessarily one of the best books ever written, but Ender’s Game has been immensely influential, extremely popular, and promoted enough discourse and debate to well-warrant a literati stamp of approval!

The well at the world's end_Morris
7. The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
I don’t think we can go much further in this fantasy discussion without talking about Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. According to many literary theorists, all literary criticism is a footnote to Socrates in that it all must address Socrates’ apparent dislike of fiction (yeah… that totally happened). In the world of fantasy, all fantasy has to deal in some way with Tolkien and Lewis. Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. All fantasy writers basically have the choice of either following in the footsteps of the genre’s most significant members, or breaking with that tradition. Rowling is not an iconoclast. Harry Potter is full of Narnian and Middle Earth influences, from the style of her monsters, to mirrors that tell secrets, to religious symbolism, to entering new worlds, to the world-building, to, well, a great deal. It’s not a flaw. She’s a part of a particular literary tradition.
But, chances are you’re already pretty darn familiar with these books. If you’re not, please go read them. We’re not talking about them here. What we are talking about, however, is a book that had impact in the development of Middle Earth: The Well at the World’s End.
This is a little-known fantasy novel by Pre-Raphaelite William Morris, because Pre-Raphaelites, man!
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It’s a fantasy quest, a romance of knights and valor, not something too out of place for the Medieval and Romantic PRB. But, it was more than just as Spenserian fanfic. It also has many of the trappings of what we now refer to as the fantasy genre. The story has its own world, and world-building is an important aspect. Its attention to the past, like in the works of Tolkien, is there to create a story for the present and an escape to the exotic and unusual realms of magic.
The plot follows a knight in search of a well that produces the water of eternal life. It’s a traditional questing story, with daring-deeds and unusual characters along the way. If you want to backtrack your way into the roots of the genre the bore HP, you could definitely do worse than Morris.

gabriel-garcia-marquez-one-hundred-years-of-solitude-04
8. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
Hey, HP fans, do you ever get tired of being referred to as second-class readers? Do you want to prove to your literary friends, they with their Moby-Dicks and their Things Fall Apart, that you’re just as intellectual as they are? But, does it bother you to read stories that are very realistic? Do you yearn for magic and fantasy when you’re reading your Steinbeck and Austen? Are you reading this now and going, “You think I’ve read any of those books? Heh…”? Fear not! Literature has just the genre for you: magic realism, where life, liberty, truth, and beauty come to you in a package of FREAKING magic!
Not only is 100 Years of Solitude a magic realist story complete with flying carpets, alchemical arts, levitation, and a rain of golden flowers, it’s also very, very literary. How literary? you may well ask. Try Nobel Prize in Literature literary. Oh, yeah. The man’s the dude.
So, what’s this about? Well, in a remote place in Columbia, an ambitious family sets up a town (the solitude from the title), and this is its history for one hundred years… No, come back! It may sound like a dull premise, but there is nothing but nothing that isn’t in this book! Every aspect of life, good, bad, happy, sad, romantic, disgusting, beautiful, imaginary, real, revolutionary, brutal, lecherous, perverse, and sublime is here. From rebels and firing squads to a plague of insomnia, it’s a veritable feast for the imagination and will keep you glued to the pages until you think that the book is about 1,000 words long and way too short. And that’s a sure sign of a good book!

wildwood
9. The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
Again, this is technically a kid’s book. But, like The Satanic Mill, probably no adult will slight you on reading it. In fact, more or at least as many adults read this book than children do. Why? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that the author is a Decemberist:
http://decemberists.com/
Yes, that’s the band The Decemberists, and as all good literati know… they write songs based on literature and so are awesome. (Seriously, Infinite Jest, The Tain, Shadow Country…)
But, now is not the time to gush fangirlishly… twice. (*cough* Buy ALL the albums *cough*)
The Wildwood Chronicles is not just popular because of its musical ties and Carson Ellis’s gorgeous illustrations. It’s also a really, really smart story. The story is a well-crafted, loving treatment of the world of fantasy. It is self-conscious of its roots, to the point that may seem a bit winking at first until you take into account how earnestly the creators love their sources. It’s a story about children going to a magical world and saving the day, and it doesn’t try to put some cleaver, ironic, postmodern spin on this. It just says, “Hey, we love this kind of adventure, and that’s what we’re going to write! And it’ll be awesome!” And it is.
Plus, it has epic battles, rollicking songs, talking animals, bandits, political intrigue, and a really smart message about politics, control, and liberty. It’s something you can suggest to your kids and younger siblings and the children on the street, and something you can comfortably read in public without incurring the snobbery of the readerly elite. Just don’t be surprised when grownup adults run up to you and start singing sea shanties.

shadow
10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
You like books. You like magic. It only makes sense to put the two together! This is yet another magic-realist story written originally in Spanish, because Spanish-speaking people are cooler than cool. (This is an objective truth.)
The Shadow of the Wind has the distinction of being both literary and one of the bestselling books of all time, so if you were worried about it being some obscure, hipster thing, it’s not. (Of course, if you’re an adult worrying about being a hipster you might be a very sad person…) The Shadow of the Wind is a lush novel, full of dark shadows and bright lights, and a sense of deliciousness, a heady sense of smell and touch and delight… It’s like dark chocolate on a shady pavilion overlooking a sunny garden…and you’re drunk. So, basically, it’s the bomb.
The story concerns a young boy whose father is a caretaker of a book cemetery, which should already have you hooked. If that’s not enough, the boy picks a mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind, a book that may have secret, mysterious enemies. Reading never was so cool… since Bastian went into The Neverending Story (which isn’t listed here because, dammit, you should have read it already).

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