As expected, I really fell behind on my goal to read 50 books this year, but a few quick classics and some forthcoming poetry reads should put me back on track. For this segment (my first in nearly two months…sorry), I tapped into three modern classics and a three-time award-winning YA novel. I look forward to your comments or your own personal reviews of these texts. “Holla,” as the kids say these days.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel by Ken Kesey
Like Catch 22 and Cool Hand Luke, Kesey’s masterpiece was a reaction to the homogenization of America in the wake of World War II, with a particular emphasis on the feminization of the modern man. Using satire and dark humor — and sometimes horror — Kesey held up a mirror to this strange, new society, equating it with an insane asylum that would be the setting of the novel in question. Since you’ve probably read the book or seen the movie (which Kesey allegedly denounced, and died without seeing), I’ll spare you the plot summary. But suffice to say that Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of the most readable, enjoyable, and hilarious novels of the latter half of the 20th Century. Though Kesey’s anti-feminist motives are often a little overcooked, and the imagery and metaphors are sometimes superficial and too easily deciphered (making it the perfect novel to teach to high school juniors, which I did in 2002), the novel still serves as a revealing artifact of one of America’s most important cultural turning points.
Less Than Zero, a novel by Bret Easton Ellis
It’s actually kind of hard for me to review LTZ because of the personal impact it had on me when I first read it in high school, but I’ll give it a shot. As the book jacket so famously and accurately states, Ellis’ debut was some kind of Catcher in the Rye “for the MTV generation.” And like Salinger, what Ellis lacks in plot construction, he more than makes up for in storytelling. The word “harrowing” comes to mind when attempting to review LTZ: the nonchalance with which the characters face (and commit) horrid acts of debauchery and violence is borderline nauseating, and the acts themselves take on an even greater meaning as a result. Los Angeles has always been the subject of social scrutiny, and Ellis’ testimony of his home city lives among the work of other literary greats such as John Fante, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Chandler.
(PS: awful film version of this movie, don’t even bother)
Bright Lights, Big City, a novel by Jay McInerney
Another modern classic, McInerney’s narrative explores the East Coast with much of the same Salingeresque malaise that Ellis does a year later, way out West, with his own debut. Like Ellis’ novel, BLBC focuses on another priveleged ne’er-do-well who drifts aimlessly through his home city’s club scene with his coke-addled friends, wasting away his early 20’s instead of making something of himself. What makes this novel stand out from so many similar bildungsromans, however, is that McInerney wrote it entirely in the second person. Trust me, you’ve never read any narrative that so effectively used this technique. You may have tried to read Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and found yourself majorly disappointed. Maybe you’ve even tried writing in the second person yourself and gave up. You were right to — because you’ll likely never be able to sustain a narrative as powerful and compelling as McInerney’s. You’ll probably give up before page 10, whereas McInerney lasted nearly 200 pages (yes, it’s that short of a read). So you would be wise to give this a read if you haven’t. You dig? [wink wink]
(PPS: another terrible film adaptation, in spite of a stellar performance by Michael J. Fox in the lead role)
The House of the Scorpion, a novel by Nancy Farmer
A very clever and progressive young-adult sci-fi novel, Farmer’s Scorpion was the recipient of the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor (her third), and the Prinz Award. While schlepping books between jobs in the early ’00s, Farmer’s book caught my interest as one of the more popular YA novels during the genre’s tipping point (every B&N store expanded their YA/teen section approximately five-fold in those early years of the new century). With a context and style to be reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Farmer has crafted a very educational and imaginitive novel for young people. The problem I had, however, was just that: being written for a younger audience, I quickly grew tired of her exhaustive explanations and skin-deep metaphors, and the “a-ha!” revelations of the young characters. (I did appreciate Farmer’s varying treatment of her adult characters, who range from pure good to pure evil, and a sometimes perplexing mixture of the two). Like the best of children’s films and TV programming, the value of this novel to a YA audience is apparent. And while it didn’t resonate with me, I was very eager to pass it off to my teenage cousins for their edification and enjoyment.
Have you read these books, and if so what do you think of my reviews? Or, what are you reading that I should be reading? Up next on my list: Beginner’s Greek by James Collins, and a series of verse reviews (including Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems) in honor of National Poetry Month. That’s April, to the uninitiated.
Chris Steib is the author of one-and-a-half novels that no one has read, because no one has been gracious enough to published them (yet). He enjoys the Helvetica sans-serif family of graphic fonts and taking arms-length photos of himself. He works for a small but talented digital-media team within a large and well-respected traditional media company, during a new-media era in a traditional world struggling with its own limitations in the harsh face of stardom. Please wish him luck.