Handwritten Experiments

The first time that I heard the name ‘Jennifer Egan’ and it stuck was in a writing class – someone in the class had called to attention her habit of handwriting first drafts of fiction. With an affinity for pen and paper myself (five-year-olds are more dexterous on a keyboard than I am), I made a mental note to check out her work. I knew little beyond this tidbit about Egan, although I learned quickly that she received a Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad. That seemed as good a place to start as any.

When I first started reading this work (I use the word “work” to avoid terms that aren’t really applicable, namely “novel” or “short story collection”), I didn’t fully grasp what I had gotten myself into. I soon discovered that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of linked narratives. Some people might refer to it as a short story collection since each chapter is a standalone unit (I actually reached one of the chapters, “Out of Body,” and realized I had already read it as a selection in The Best American Short Stories 2011). But that basic characterization does not capture the complexity of Egan’s work. Each story has a character that you have seen before or that has been mentioned before, often in another place and time. I can sense the skepticism that my description might be eliciting right now: I myself was skeptical, particularly when I was flipping through the book and noticed there’s a PowerPoint slide chapter. That’s right, I mean exactly what I said – instead of paragraphs of text, there is an entire chapter that is composed exclusively of PowerPoint slides. I’m all about being “experimental” and “different,” but I become wary when I sense that an author is about to try too hard to be original. I find that such labors often become inaccessible.

My fear was unfounded. A Visit from the Good Squad is an amazing feat of literature – despite my trepidations that the masses of characters would be hard to follow, I found that I often remembered where I had seen people before, and even if it was hazy, the stories often didn’t require me to recall much of anything (Jennifer Egan is emphatic about this point in interviews about the book). And I truly enjoyed the PowerPoint chapter. I have no idea how Egan pulled that one off, but she did. If that achievement alone is not enough to inspire you to check out this book, then perhaps the subject matter is – Jennifer Egan’s stories are linked not only by characters, but also by such universal and engaging themes as music and the passage of time.

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Library Love

I think we can all agree on something here: libraries are the greatest. Recently, though, I keep experiencing this strange phenomenon: I put a bunch of books on hold, and suddenly they all become available at the same time. I am convinced there are some mysterious library forces operating for this to transpire; I placed these holds at various times and found myself in vastly different positions in the waiting line – position 14 on 8 copies and position 244 of 6 copies, for example. Yet somehow, I receive three of the five books I have on hold at the same time. Fortunately, this time around, I was up for the challenge, and (also fortunately) these three novels happened to be skinny books.

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Attachments by Rainbow Rowell – This book is absolutely charming and fun. I have read both Eleanor & Park and Fangirl this past year and have thoroughly enjoyed Rowell’s sharp wit and engaging writing, so I was eager to check out Attachments at a friend’s recommendation. I hadn’t realized that Rowell had written any adult novels and was thrilled by this revelation (this novel was actually Rowell’s debut). While this book does not deal in issues as heavy as Eleanor & Park, and some may argue that the plot is as predictable as a romantic comedy film, sometimes a rom-com is exactly what a reader needs (at least this reader). And this book certainly delivers; despite its ordinary set-up in terms of plot, the structure of the novel is original and the characters’ banter is so smart that I was satisfied, and I found myself thinking about the characters long after the final pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – Unpredictable. That is the word that comes to mind when I think of my experience with Neil Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my second Neil Gaiman novel (I also recently read Neverwhere, an undeniably intriguing adventure tale). As in Neverwhere, I found myself in completely uncharted territory with this tale. Gaiman’s work is so wholly unique that curiosity is a huge driving force for me as I read his books. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read (we’re talking less than 200 pages) and I recommend it on the grounds of Gaiman’s imagination alone.

Looking for Alaska by John Green – As noted in one of my previous posts, I finally read The Fault in Our Stars a while back, and I capital-L Loved it. This book was no different. John Green truly is a master writer. He creates such genuine, empathetic characters and his prose is witty and it flows effortlessly. He takes on dauntingly tough situations, doesn’t sugar-coat anything or lessen the impact of tragedy, and you come out the other end feeling like you’ve experienced something transformative.

At this point, I’ve trimmed my holds list down to two books (by Rachel Kushner and Chimamanda Adichie – woo girl power!), but I’m currently in positions 219 and 431. And we all know that my literary enthusiasm will lead me to continue adding to that list before either of these arrives (I can’t help it!). Let’s just hope the library gods don’t challenge me with five long novels this next time. Just in case, I should probably keep working on my speed-reading.