I feel like there are these certain books that we look at and hem and haw over because we know that we are supposed to read them, but don't want to really delve into them. Maybe they're classics, so they've been built up over time. Maybe they're long and we don't want to do that to ourselves at the moment. Maybe we just don't want to read them, even though we, as seasoned readers, feel an obligation to read them to be 'well read.'
I felt all of this, and more, about reading East of Eden. I grew up extremely close to Salinas, California, and John Steinbeck is a kind of legend, a hero of the central coast whose descriptions of the mountains and valleys and rivers and farmland is still unparalleled by any other writer. To me, Steinbeck always felt like a burden. We were forced to read his books in school, making our way through The Pearl and The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. I hated him in a way it's only possible for a school-age child to hate an author that they are forced to read.
A few years ago I went on a road trip from L.A. to Seattle. I had recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath and loved it and had decided to give the tome that is East of Eden another go. My grandmother had been trying to get me to read this book for years, declaring it the best book about my homeland that I could ever hope to get my hands on. She'd given me an old worn copy years ago that had sat, untouched on my bookshelf as I made my way through high school and then college.
But finally, as I delved into the first chapter of East of Eden, I saw it. I saw the mountains and valleys, the rivers and farmlands of my youth vividly in my head. And as I got into the meat of the story, I fell in love with each and every character. Despite their flaws and their misgivings, their successes and failures, I loved them deeply. From the mother turned madame, to the cold, distant father, and the sons forced to commit the sins of the father again and again for all time, East of Eden finally brought Steinbeck to me. Once and for all, he was my writer, writing of my home. And though he is just as powerful and just as eloquent whether or not you've visited the much changed Salinas Valley or have only had a look around in your mind, East of Eden was worth digging through the indifference of the classic because I found the perfect novel.
In the recent past, the line between youth and adult fiction has become more and more blurry. Novels meant for teens often contain explicit sex and drug usage and other adult issues, the only distinguishing trait between its adult counterparts being that the protagonist is usually a teenager. But as a teen, I always felt talked down to when I had to read books that seemed to wash over the things that I was experiencing on a day to day basis. And even for those who maybe can't relate to the harder truths of some young adult novels nowadays, isn't fiction supposed to be a way to escape, a way to experience those things that we may not experience ourselves?
That being said, there are few books that tackle gracefully and respectfully such topics as rape in a high school setting. When I first read Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, I had no idea what it was about. I had no idea what I was getting myself in to.
Anderson writes with a wistful clarity that helps navigate through the often troubling waters of the protagonist's, Melinda Sordino, life. She's experienced such a trauma, and yet, retains her own self so wholly that one can't help but keep reading.
When I was in school, being assigned a book like this would have been a revelation, a welcome divergence from the tediousness of too watered-down version of life. Sure, Speak isn't the easiest book to deal with. It brings up hard topics and not so pretty life lessons, but in Anderson's hands, we're safe to discuss.
In the 1960s Hubert Selby, Jr. introduced us to the underbelly of the American city, the prostitutes and drug addicts, the pimps and theives. He gave them faces, names and personalities. On the other side of the board in the same decade, Richard Yates introduced us to the dark side of Suburbia. He perfectly captured the discontent, the restlessness, the boredom, and the pretty face that gets plastered on all of it. Cut to today, television shows, movies, books, stories, they all have plot lines that revolve around suburban housewives addicted to prescription pain killers, mood elevators, muscle relaxants and everything in between.
And yet, for me, there was always something missing. Whether I was huddled in my room reading of junkies, pimps and whores, or watching the original Beverly Hills 90210 (where the rich kids always had problems), there was an element that seemed missing to me. My element was missing. Where was I in these stories? I wasn't a rich kid in Beverly Hills, I wasn't a junkie on a street corner. I could appreciate all these stories, but could I relate to anything more than fleeting similarities? Absolutely not.
That is, until I read Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert. If you scroll back in the archives of this blog, you'll find my review of Ms. Kuehnert's first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and as much as I loved that book, Ballads of Suburbia hits on something so raw and so unspoken that at times it was almost shocking to read. This book doesn't shy away from the unsavory behavior of teenagers, nor does it fail to capture the extreme tragedy befalling many of America's teens as their parents cart them off to the safety of suburban wastelands.
Ballads of Suburbia bridges the gap between Yates and Selby, Jr. It brings the dark, gritty reality of teenage culture in suburban America to the surface through a cast of characters that are hard not to love. Like Last Exit to Brooklyn, Stephanie Kuehnert puts a face on the drug addled and disaffected youth of the quiet, tree-lined streets of Oak Park, Illinois. Like Yates, she puts a dark and dystopic spin on the outwardly beautiful face of the suburbs.
This book is an achievement and solidifies the place of Stephanie Kuehnert as a powerhouse writer, and one that is unafraid to tackle hard and tender issues. I can't wait to read what she writes next.
Once in a while a book comes along that captures the a small slice of life so accurately that it's almost too much to take.
One of my favorite comics artists, Adrian Tomine, has written and illustrated a small book of such high caliber, it's hard to really compare it to anything. I first read Shortcomings sitting at the counter at Book Soup and was immediately engrossed. When describing it, it's hard to not make the books seem trite. Really, it's a basic boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy moves on with life kind of story, but the tender black and white illustrations illuminate so much. The emotion, the solitude, the joy, the lonliness of relationships and their demise.
Tomine does what so few can do, he writes a comic book for all people of all ages, for anyone who just wants a good simple story, look no further than Shortcomings.
So I'm reading through my daily email from Publisher's Weekly this morning and I come across this article, talking about an author coming to Book Soup on August 13 and how her book is being shopped around for a movie. I must say, I've read it and I can't wait. Laurie Sandell, in this graphic memoir titled, The Impostor's Daughter, writes of her Argentinian father and the elaborate stories he used to tell about his thrilling life, stories that maybe seemed slightly out of sync with the paranoid sheltered life her father tended to lead in their family house.
I can't say too much without giving away all the satisfying shock and awe of the story, but I let out the appropriate gasps and tsks as I rode around reading it on the New York City Subway not too long ago. Sandell's book is great as a graphic novel, and I encourage all of you to come out here on the 13th and check it out, but I'm crossing my fingers that it gets the big screen treatment it deserves. This one definitely goes on the 'stuff we want to be movies' list.
So Comic-Con was a success once again, and once again I trudged into work on Monday completely and utterly exhausted, but still invigorated, ready to tackle our comics/graphic novel section. Of course, seeing as it's not my full time job to actually arrange the graphic novel section, simply a passion of mine, I have not been able to lay a hand on it. But I will say this, our favorite comics publishers, namely DC Comics (and their imprints Vertigo and Vertigo Crime), Top Shelf, First Second, Del Rey, Oni Press, Image Comics, Fantagraphics, and Dark Horse (to name a few) are coming out with some pretty amazing stuff this season, and we can't wait to bring it to you guys.
I discovered a little book called Fables this year and I absolutely cannot put it down. If you don't know it, basically it's about all the fairy tales (Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) and they have been kicked out of their old lands and are forced to live among the common people in New York City. Snow White curses like a sailor and has divorced the smarmie, philandering Prince Charming, Beauty and the Beast are having marital issues so the Beasts beastliness is flaring up again, all this in the background of some of the most vivid storytelling and artistry I've ever seen. And, we found out at Comic-Con, the Fables creator is releasing a full length novel in the Fables universe titled, Peter and Max.
Of course, no modern Comic-Con would be complete with out some movie/t.v. updates. Our favorite shows based on books Dexter and True Blood are coming back with a vengeance. I managed to attend the Dexter panel and I'll tell you, it looked amazing. John Lithgow coming in to play the Trinity Killer (can't wait to find out all the gory details on that). The one question that kept coming up was why they were deviating from the books. I didn't really know they were, but I guess if you want the details on that you'll have to read the Jeff Lindsay novels.
Then there were the movies. And this year there are a ton of great movies coming out that are based on books that we love (there might be one or two that aren't as well). Of course Iron Man 2 is hitting theaters next May. The footage on this makes it look like it will be as good, if not better, than the first. And Sherlock Holmes, also starring Robert Downey, Jr., looks like it's going to be totally amazing. But I think what we book nerds are really all looking forward to is the triple header of kids book adaptations coming to theaters soon.
First off, and one that is near and dear to my heart is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. One of my favorite books as a kid, Cloudy became more and more poignant as I grew up, going from the fantastical excitement of raining food from the heavans to the realistic notion that the weather could actually become a threatening and dangerous thing. I just hope that the animated version of this movie doesn't wear away at some of the edge of the book.
And then there are the two kids books that almost look like they are going to be not for kids movies. Alice in Wonderland, of course looks pretty amazing. Vivid colors, dark themes, Tim Burton, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. This one looks like it might be pretty awesome. Of course, we'll wait till the movie comes out to make our final decision.
Finally, there is Where the Wild Thing Are, Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, a trailer that almost makes you want to cry because that book has everything in it. Loss of innocence, adventure, imagination, and a kind of melancholy that tends to permeate any situation in which an adult looks back at childhood. A piece of the set was on display, which I tried valiantly to get a picture of, but alas, the Warner Brothers booth closed every time there was a signing, and there was always a signing.
By Sunday, I was ready to be done with Comic-Con, the Twilight girls (who I happen to feel a warmth toward...come on, they're reading), the fan boys, the costumed superheroes and the never ending crowds of too-excitable people. Still, the end of Comic-Con, complete with it's Rocky Horror rip off of the Buffy Musical, is a sad time. Swarms of people leaving the convention center for the last time, many of them seeing the sun for the last time, before next year.