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Ex’s And Y’s

I’ve actually been getting quite a lot of reading done lately, and the two latest books I’ve finished, I’ve realized, have quite a few similarities other than the facts that they both have letters in their names. They are Generation X by Douglas Coupland and The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas. So, it’s a double book review!

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The End Of Mr. Y

Generation X by Douglas Coupland is kind of about nothing. It centers on the lives of Gen-X twenty-somethings Andy, Dag, and Claire, who spend their days flitting between occupations and locations in southern California, and telling long personal stories with convoluted meanings. Overall, I felt like it didn’t have too much in the way of meaning, possibly because I’m technically a Millennial, but some of Coupland’s self-coined terms made quite a lot of sense. And – fun fact – this novel popularized the term McJob, referring to a low-wage job with little prospect for advancement and skill-learning, as well as the titular Generation X, or those born in the 1970s and early 1980s. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas is the polar opposite, in that it almost has too much meaning. The book takes place in England, where protagonist Ariel Manto is searching for answers about an extremely rare book, also entitled The End of Mr. Y, which is believed to have caused the deaths/disappearances of all who have read it, including Manto’s Ph.D. advisor. Eventually, Ariel learns about the Troposphere, a location within the mind, sort of everywhere and nowhere, a parallel universe where you can jump backwards and forwards in time through inhabiting peoples’ consciousness. I liked this book, but it also kind of scared me with its extremely existential nature.

It is interesting that I read these books in succession. They have a lot in common, despite their stark differences; one is America, the other in England; one is about pointlessness, the other is about possibility. Both, however deal with the importance of the meta-narrative, and how it gives the characters dimension as they learn along with the reader. True, sometimes the reader gets lost in the universe; for example, at some points in Mr. Y I had no idea whether Ariel was in the dreamlike Troposphere or her real existence, and in Generation X I was sometimes unsure of who was narrating and who the story was actually supposed to be about.

Overall, though, both books are quite a trip for the curious mind to embark upon. I think I need some lighter reading for the next few books on my list.

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A Bicycle Trip For Two

Not so much about the song, but about a book I finished today. Maybe it’s all the stress, but I’m burning through books these days.

But I ain’t complaining.

Today’s adventure was Across America by Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi’s Summer on Wheels by Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery.

This book is one of my favorite types to read; travelogues, complete with maps (hand-drawn) and mileage counts. This book details Midwestern grandmothers Alice and Bobbi’s journey across the USA on their bicycles in just 13 weeks, from Astoria, Oregon, to Bar Harbor, Maine. In about 250 pages, the two travel through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and have lots of fun adventures along the way. They (or I should say she, since the book is written from Bobbi’s point of view) focus on the hidden gems of America, from the cinnamon rolls they ate in Montana to the many “road angels” who stopped them and helped along the way.

But the trip isn’t all just a grand old time; they face a lot of serious issues, both on the road and at home. Each state brings its challenges, from closed campgrounds to aggressive drivers to unkempt roads (they do mention how nice the roads are in Wisconsin, but then again, Alice lives here in Madison, according to the book). Their bikes and bodies get worn down, but it strengthens them in the end. Though both of them contemplate quitting at different points – Alice due to family drama and her husband’s poor health, Bobbi due to an injury and other reasons – they stay steadfast and remain best friends. A lot of the book is repetitive, describing this little boy and that group of ladies asking them the same questions, over and over, but I guess that’s part of a trip across America, especially the more rural parts where it’s just hill after hill, tree after tree. And though they compliment most of the people they meet, there’s more than a fair share of complaining, mostly about dingy old hotels and bad food, but they paint an interesting picture of America on the whole, a mix of small towns and even smaller towns.

Overall, the story flows along really nicely without dwelling too much on insignificant or uninteresting details. And aside from their references to it, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the protagonists are two older ladies crossing America from coast to coast. Plus, they don’t make any Odyssey Expedition-esque attempts at purism, accepting rides when necessary or when they just don’t want to ride with all their gear anymore.

That is, though, quite the accomplishment in and of itself. If you’re thinking “hey, I could do that,” let me tell you about the last time I rode a bike.

On my second Summer Odyssey, when I was staying with Dan in Boston, we decided to spend a day on Martha’s Vineyard, a place I’ve always wanted to see. So, we drove to Woods Hole, left the car there, and took a ferry. One we landed in Oak Bluffs, and had lunch, Dan suggested we see the rest of the island, and rather than taking a bus or hitching rides, we could…rent bikes. Now, even though Dan bikes to work every day, I haven’t ridden a bike since elementary school. I don’t feel comfortable on a bike, and I don’t know what exactly got into me that it would be a good idea to try one out, and especially in a place I’d never been before.

Martha’s Vineyard is cut in half, with Oak Bluffs at the center, so we rode west along the southern edge of the island, stopping off for ice cream or window shopping in the island’s small towns. For the first hour or so, I was terrified, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted, but…slightly less terrified. It ended up being fun and I didn’t fall or die, but I’m not in a rush to get back on a bike anytime soon.

So the fact that these two ladies spent four months crossing unknown territory on bikes means that they’re probably more hardcore than I’ll ever be.

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Jodi Picoult Convinced Me That Parents Are Gross

I always knew that fact, but after finishing reading The Pact today at work, I’m even more convinced that the core message of the book is that parents are, in fact, gross.

Briefly, The Pact in the title refers to the suicide pact made between protagonist Chris Harte and his close-enough-to-be-a-sister girlfriend, Emily Gold. They live in perfect America, AKA Bainbridge, New Hampshire, where they live normal, happy lives and have basically sprung from the same acorn, born three months apart and progressing from best friends to lovers. Even their parents consider the other child to be like their own, and are not at all grossed out by the fact that they are dating, in fact they encourage it. That is, until one night when Emily and Chris are found at a carousel; Emily shot in the head, and Chris wounded and holding a smoking gun. Naturally, the idyllic lives of the two families are shattered, as the Golds bury Emily, and Chris is faced with a lifetime prison sentence for murder, which his parents (or at least his mother, Gus – short for Augusta) think is not the solution. The book goes back and forth between then (the murder) and now (the murder trial of Chris Harte), where Jordan McAfee, Chris’s kind of scumbaggy (at least to me) defense attorney is trying to prove his client’s innocence. It ends kind of how you’d expect, a little on the mushy side but not too unrealistic, as far as the Golds’ reaction to the verdict.

Okay, first, the bad. Well, not so much bad, but blah. Let’s start with Chris and Emily. They are in high school. She’s Jewish, he’s some unspecified Christian. He’s a star swimmer, she’s a gifted artist with her eyes on the Sorbonne, they’re both extremely intelligent and unspoken, and of course, (spoiler alert), she gets pregnant with Chris’s baby, which spurs the whole suicide pact theme of the book. That’s what drives the plot forward and gives the characters “depth.” The reason I put it in quotation marks is because Picoult herself says in the author’s notes that she meant for it to be an opposite Romeo and Juliet story, with Montagues and Capulets who are neighbors and best friends and everything’s peachy keen between them up until the death. Especially because Chris doesn’t die, so of course he’s immediately blamed for Emily’s death by her mom, Melanie. I didn’t find Chris or Emily to be particularly likeable, so that kind of hurt the story a little for me.

Also, there is way too much background info on the lives of Jordan, the defense attorney, and Barrie, the state attorney. They also came off kind of badly, which I think was the opposite of Picoult’s intention, but they sure sounded bossy.

Then, there’s the good, which are the parents. At the beginning of the book, I liked Chris and Emily but not the parents. Over time, however, they grew on me. I was rolling my eyes when they were introduced. Both men are doctors and obviously the family breadwinners so Melanie (Emily’s mom) can be a librarian, and Gus (Chris’s mom) can fulfill her dream of…being a professional line-sitter. Yep, she sits in lines for people for a living. Though it takes a murder, they become a lot more dimensional over the story. Melanie spins into a raging bitch, wanting nothing to do with the Hartes and blaming Chris for everything despite finding Emily’s journal, which says otherwise, and James (Gus’s husband and Chris’s dad) refuses to take part in any of this business until the very end because it might damage his high-flying career. In the wake of their spouses going bananas, Michael and Gus create an alliance of grieving parenthood, with Gus appropriately sad at Emily’s death and believing that her son is innocent, and Michael feeling sorry that Chris is in this mess in the first place, which leads him to testify for the defense instead of the prosecution, which of course thrills his wife. There are hints of it possibly turning romantic, but Picoult does a good job of not letting it get too gauche and mushy.

But finally, going back to the title of this post and why I felt compelled to write it today rather than catch up on a review of one of the books I’ve read in the past few weeks, this book taught me that parents are gross. Not only can they behave like dicks (for example, Gus and James also have a daughter named Kate who is crazy underutilized), but they are also surprisingly sexual at odd times. It’s not erotic, but Jodi Picoult just gives a little TMI when describing the two sets of couples in their bedrooms. Yes, I know that parents have sex, and in the book they don’t have it excessively or weirdly or anything, but the author paints quite the mental picture of parents who have young adult children, especially in a book about murder and not a romance novel. I found myself cringing and trying to speed-read through the few scenes where they’re in bed. I don’t know why, but when your kids have had sex, conceived, and then made a suicide pact, I don’ think it would get me in the mood.

Anyway, it was a page-turning read, otherwise I wouldn’t have written 900 words on it. I still like Jodi Picoult even if her characters are paper dolls.

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Nepalapalooza

A fun title for what might be a not-so-fun post, or at least not the most uplifting one, but it’s the second book in the recent past I’ve read about Nepal and incidentally also the second one I’ve read by Jon Krakauer, so I thought it appropriate. Here’s my take on his book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster.

Laconic recap: This book is not for the faint of heart. Granted, Krakauer’s books aren’t on the feel-good side in general, but this one was particularly striking. It was gripping, though, at the same time, and as I read more, I really felt like time slowed down to a stop, just like it must have been on that freezing, windy night up on Mount Everest in May 1996.

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Legends of the Hidden Temple

I’ve had this one as a (misspelled) placeholder post for awhile, and in the coming weeks, I hope to go through all the ones like this that I have (and there are quite a few) and update them, so don’t be surprised if you experience some deja vu.

A few weeks ago, I finished a book I randomly selected from a shelf in the library, The Temple Goers, which is the first novel by Indian writer Aatish Taseer.

The back cover blurb is one hundred percent misleading; the event mentioned there doesn’t occur until about the last quarter of the book, and it’s not really the focus of the story. The story centers on the very unlikely friendship between returning Indian expat Aatish Taseer (no relation to the author of the book), and Aakash, a personal trainer who has some…shall we say, interesting hobbies. Aakash takes Aatish under his wing and reintroduces him to Delhi, but to a different Delhi than where the latter grew up. They go from high society parties to sordid sex dens to the eponymous temple, a portion of the book which the author describes in extreme, painstaking detail a ceremony which lasts all night. Other plot complications include Aatish’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanyogita – who’s obviously got a thing for her boyfriend’s new bro – and Sanyogita’s aunt Chamunda, a politician who allows Aatish to live in her apartment while he is in Delhi.

Overall, I would describe it as fair, maybe better than average. Some of the description is long-winded, but other parts are so delicious that I just had to put the book down and sort of fantasize. It’s less the story of Aatish than it is of the city in which he grew up, which looks completely different to him as an adult. As far as genre, it incorporates a but of magical realism, but I’d probably call it gritty neon realism, because the reader kind of feels like they spent the whole book shuffling from one crazy scenario to another, like barhopping in Cancun. The message of neocolonialism – which I didn’t even pick up on until reading some reviews, is really present; as much as the characters want to break down barriers, they are constantly putting each other in categories and on levels. In a society that is post caste-system, The Temple Goers shows that Delhi society just can’t seem to break free of classism, even if it’s not determined by outsiders.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Taseer’s writing and I’ve already picked his next book up from the library.

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Nepal Done Right

Anyone else read Three Cups of Tea?

Wasn’t it awful?

If you didn’t like that, or if you did by some stretch of the imagination, I’d recommend my most recent read to you – Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan. 

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Basically, Grennan succeeds in all the areas Greg Mortenson doesn’t. This riveting book centers on four main events: the author’s first trip to Nepal and his stint at Little Princes Home for Boys; the author’s subsequent return and establishment of his own children’s home along with Farid, another volunteer; his journey to the rural region of Humla to find the parents of the aforementioned children; and his relationship with Liz, which is truly a love story for the ages.

The book reads very quickly. I felt like I really got to know Grennan, and appreciated his acknowledgment of his flaws and missteps, from his encounters with the authorities to his failed attempt to catch a helicopter (which frustrated me to no end). He paints Nepal neither as a spiritual mountain paradise nor as a poverty stricken slum, which feels honest. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, but they all seem distinct, especially the children.

Warning: you will tear up while reading this book.