Monday, March 11, 2013

Melvin Burgess, My Reading Prowess, Issue Novels

I read one hundred and three books last year. I'm not bragging, I'm just saying I did it, since this is my reading blog. If I'd read fifty books I'd be bragging, but a hundred and three is a little much. You read a hundred and three books and people start to question the quality of your personal relationships. Some of the books were very short, like Shark in School by Patricia Reilly Giff.  I read that during one lunch break. Some of them were quite long like the two books that have been written so far in the King Killer Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, and I am holding my breath until the third one comes out. However, in the middle of the second book, Wise Man's Fear, Patrick did say that everything is going to go dark and turn out horribly badly for all the characters and everyone else in his world, so maybe the third book in the trilogy will crush my soul when I read it. Maybe everything is rectified in the end. Maybe the third book will turn out to be not so much the end of a trilogy but the coal car of a freight train of novels, each more harrowing than the last. (That's what happened with Game of Thrones.) I will read them all. I will pre-order them. There is a surfeit of books and I'm just scratching the surface of the ones I want to read. Then there are all the tomes and volumes and encyclopedias and libraries of boring stuff that's interesting in principle, like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and then there's that which I neither want to read nor find interesting, like Debbie Macomber or the entire true crime genre. You might say that you want to read every book in the world, but do you really want to read Degrassi Junior High: Snake, the novelization? I do. I kind of want to order that from someplace other than Amazon. I started watching the Degrassis last year when a good collection came into my store and I actually got through the original series. Snake: the Novel might be good. Not the same way that Anna Karenina is good, but I would predict three hours of pleasantly educational fiction. Two of my favorite books are based on a TV show: Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and its sequel Better Than Life. Two of the pee-funniest books I have ever read. I also remember reading 90210: The Novelization when I was eleven. I was not allowed to watch Beverly Hills: 90210, you see, but I could read the book. Brenda had a hard time transitioning from Minnesota to Beverly Hills, but by the end of the book everything was fine and she was friends with Kelly.

I read a hundred and three books last year. The full-on best book I read, without question, was Doing It by Melvin Burgess. Realism in fiction. That book oozed sex (not in an icky way). This book has more realistic sex than 50 Shades of Grey, which has no realistic sex. This book has more sex than a Nora Roberts novel, and Nora Roberts has a lot of broad brushstrokes, hazy outline kind of sex. All the adolescent sexual anxiety and hearsay and dry humping are inside of this book and I love it.  Firstly, it's funny. There are some truly funny books out there, but if you're looking for hilarity in your bog-standard fiction you have to read a lot to find it. Or you have to read things that are written to be funny. And those have long gaps between comic moments, which is worse than reading a sad novel with a compelling plot. There's a lot of nerd humor in non-fiction. Asides about black holes and bears and certain kings' proclivities. That's good stuff. But humor and slippery, moist realism all over a novel: yes! And it's a boy book. There is a dearth of humorous fiction for adolescent boys, which makes it hard to recommend books to moms of young boys who have already read Captain Underpants and the Wimpy Kids. Doing It is for youth years older than Wimpy Kid age. Doing It is about three boys in school. Or college. Wherever you are when you're a British teenager in the public school (which is called state school, because private school is called public school, etc.) I don't think they've sat their GCSEs. Dino loves Jackie, Jonathan has a general interest in sex, academically of course, and Ben is having an affair with his teacher. Jonathan is the funny kid, the cut-up, the one with the constant inappropriate hilarity coming on. There's a scene where he makes the fat girl he secretly likes snort-laugh pretending to be Dino's knob. He sprinkles rose petals on his head. He has internal angst like all the characters, but he is always funny when he is talking. Always. Most writers aren't this funny. And the ones who are don't write a character whose role is “funny guy” because it's still too hard. I love this book. It should be given to teenagers.

The problem with Melvin Burgess is his realism. He wrote middle class kids with great personalities and minor sexual disfunction, but after I read Doing It, his latest book, Nicholas Dane, came into work. The problem with Melvin Burgess is his realism. Nicholas Dane is about a teenager, Nicholas Dane, being sexually abused in a British children's home in the '80s. It took me three months to read the first hundred pages and then I read the next few hundred in four days to get it over with quicker. It is not a book that should not exist. Some teenagers have been abused and they need books about themselves, just like everyone else. But for the previously unscathed reader, it's a hard go. I bought Melvin Burgess' first novel, Smack, teens and heroin addiction, but I can't bring myself to read it yet.

So many issue novels nowadays. Thanks, Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. You could't just write about girls pining for dates to the junior prom. You had to throw anorexia into the mix. What if someone wrote a hilarious comic send up of the teen issue genre but it was lost for decades until I stumbled upon it while looking for Rumer Goden chapter books at the downtown library? It All Began with Jane Eyre or the Secret Life of Franny Greenwald, how can you poke fun at relatable puberty novels? With ease? Okay. I read better YA books last year, like Hilary McKay's Casson Family books and the aforementioned Rumer Godens: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum, but It All Began With Jane Eyre stands out for comic irreverence. The titular Franny Dillman is swooning over Mr. Rochester with a bag of chips in her closet, flashlighted of course, when her mother bursts in and tells her that she spends too much time eating junk food and reading and mom's going out briefly. Half an hour later, mom comes back with the groceries and three novels that the woman at the bookstore recommended about “problems facing girls your age.” Franny Dillamn, ever a reader, reads a book about anorexia, a book about a girl who has sex with her boyfriend, and a book about a girl who has an affair with an older man that leads to an abortion. Armed with this new information about contemporary adolescence, Franny becomes convinced that her high school sister's best friend is pregnant. But who is the father? She needs a bosom friend to confide in, but neither of her own two best friends really grok these modern sex problems, so she tells her sister's best friend's brother and makes him come spying with her outside the women's health center downtown. Older sister and best friend get wind of their plans to go to the women's health center, without realizing that they're going there to spy on themselves. Franny hides behind a wall, spots them lurking in the bushes, and hilarity ensues.

Because I read a lot of YA.

I was going to read 100 books in 2012 and then stop and spend a week or two knitting or reading magazines or whatever non-readers do, but the hundredth book I read was The Bird's Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm fame. I couldn't read that piteously Victorian thing on December 23rd and call that the end of reading for slightly over a week. So I read on.

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