May Reading

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Here’s what I read in May

1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I was entirely surprised by how much I disliked this book.  I didn’t have any prejudice about it going in; all I knew about it was that it was set in Pittsburgh and that the Smiths played a small role in it.  As you may know, I am a big fan of both Pittsburgh and the Smiths, so there was no problem there.

The problem with the book is that it is juvenile, trite, and cliched.  This is one of those many, many bildungrsomans about intelligent but marginalized youth that are always being compared to The Catcher in the Rye.  There’s Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn.  Aaron, Approximately by Zachary Lazar (“Roll over, Catcher in the Rye,” says Paper Magazine.), Someday This Pain will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron (a proper modern Holden,” says Flavorwire), and many others.  Choose your favorite.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare one book to a classic novel; that’s what bad readers do.  But look at the back of Wallflower and what do you see?  “A coming-of-age tale in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye…” (USA Today.)  But there’s more!  Charlie, the protagonist and narrator of The Perks of Being a Wallflower owns two copies of Catcher in the Rye.  First, his English teacher gives him a copy.  Then his mom gives him a copy.  And does Charlie enjoy this book?  Yes!  He reads it three times.  Holden Caulfield is almost as much a character in Wallflower as Charlie is.
The book deals in so many cliches that it was difficult to concentrate on the words on the page because my eyes were constantly rolling.  Charlie makes a mix tape, naturally, which is one of the more regrettable tropes of coming-of-age fiction to emerge since High Fidelity.  And what is on Charlie’s mixtape?  Why, Nick Drake, Suzanne Vega, and Smashing Pumpkins, of course.  Charlie is also a talented student in his English class, attends screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and experiments with drugs.
So many cliches.
There’s more!  Charlie’s English teacher takes him under his wing (if I may employ a cliche myself), and gives him books to read, each more cliched than before.  There’s Catcher in the Rye, On The RoadNaked Lunch, then The Fountainhead.  If you ever hear of me giving one of my students a copy of Naked Lunch, I want you to lobby the school to have me fired.  Immediately.  Also, if any of my son’s future teachers gives him a copy of The Fountainhead, I will beat him down.  Do not give my son a copy of The Fountainhead, you coward.
If this was a YA novel, I might tip my hat a little bit.  But I’d still steer you to something like Wendy Maas’s Every Soul a Star for a more honest, original coming-of-age story.  Wallflower, though reads like a YA novel for adults.
Other things I hated about this book:
  • This is an epistolary novel told throughout a series of letters from Charlie to an unnamed recipient. The reader never finds out who the letters are addressed to, and it’s so dumb that I can’t even bring myself to care.
  • The narrator’s voice is weak.  He sounds like an adult male with a writing degree trying to sound like a ninth grader.  Chbosky fumbles the ball when assuming the vocabulary of a teenager, and Charlie is constantly telling us that something makes him “happy” or “sad.”  “Happy” and “sad,” “happy” and “sad,” on just about every page.
  • There’s a big reveal at the end of the book that I just didn’t care about.
  • He ends up in a psychiatric hospital.  Oh, please.
Finally, the book describes the drive through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which is a wonderful, dramatic experience of which I have many fond memories.  If you’ve never driven into Pittsburgh through the tunnel, then you don’t know what it’s like (video here.)  And Chbonsky uses this experience as a sort of fitting metaphor for the exhilarating feeling of freedom and possibility that comes with growing up.  I was totally on board with him, really.  But this description: blech.

After the dance, we left in Sam’s pickup.  Patrick was driving this time.  As we were approaching the Fort Pitt Tunnel, Sam asked Patrick to pull to the side of the road. I didn’t know what was going on.  Sam then climbed in the back of the pickup, wearing nothing but her dance dresss. She told Patrick to drive, and he got this smile on his face.  I guess they had done this before.

Anyway, Patrick started driving really fast, and just before we got to the tunnel, Sam stood up, and the wind turned her dress into ocean waves.  When we hit the tunnel, all the sound got scooped up into a vacuum, and it was replaced by a song on the tape player.  A beautiful song called “Landslide.”  When we got out of the tunnel, Sam screamed this really fun scream, and there it was.  Downtown.  Lights on buildings and everything that makes you wonder.  Sam sat down and started laughing.  Patrick started laughing.  I started laughing.

And in  that moment, I swear we were infinite.

 I have more to say about Wallflower, but I am going to stop here.  We’re watching the movie tonight.

2. Taft by Ann Patchett

I started this post with Wallflower, but Taft was the first book I read after finishing my graduate class in 18th century poetry and prose, and I wanted to pick something contemporary and less challenging than, oh, I don’t know, Swift’s A Tale of a Tub.  Lady McBrame had already read this book and recommended it, and I was happy to comply.

I haven’t read any of Patchett’s other novels, but Renee (that’s Lady McBrame’s real name) has read both Bel Canto and Run, and liked them both.  Taft was appealing to both of us because it takes place in Memphis, and many of the places in the novel (Beale Street, Chickasaw Gardens, etc.) are places we know well.  

The story is narrated by an African-American male, which was an interesting wrinkle to a novel written by Patchett, who is neither.  It takes place largely in a bar on Beale Street that I imagined being located where the old Elvis Presley’s was.  Right there by the Orpheum.

This was not the most artistically satisfying novel I have ever read, but coming as it did on the tails of Bronte, Rhys, Swift, Pope, et. al, it was a breezy read and much appreciated.  And, following Bronte and Rhys, this was my third novel in a row written by a female author.  I think that might be a first for me.

3. “If Hitler Asked you To Electrocute Somebody, Would You?” by Philip Meyer

We read this essay the one year I taught AP language, in 2009, and it had been that long since I’d revisited it.  This tells the true story of the “Milgram Experiment,” where people were taken into a research laboratory and told they were part of a study in which they would be administering electric shocks to other people.  The volunteers thought they were part of a study to see how we learn and use our memory, but, in fact, they were the subjects for the researchers who wanted to see how long they would go through with the horrible experience before refusing to continue with the torture.  Pretty long, as it turns out. The essay is shocking.  Positively shocking.

Here’s a link to the essay in its entirety.

I made a nice little lesson plan about compassion, sympathy, and empathy, and before we read this essay we looked at Brughel’s Landscape with Fall of Icarus and read “Musee de Beaux Arts.”  We discussed how we react to the suffering of others.  It was pretty successful.

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