And We’re Off | GRWM + Book Review

I’ve been a bad reader for the last few years, and I’ve used the excuse that I am both a picky reader and constantly busy doing something as a means to sort of justify my lack of reading more often over that time. Fortunately, as of late I’ve been reading a bit more, and so I have another book review for you.

And We’re Off, by Dana Schwartz is the story of a teen artist who’s about to go on the trip of a lifetime, the catch is, her estranged mother is going to be tagging along. Along the way, Nora enjoys the sights of Europe, while vaguely getting along with/fighting with her mother most of the book. Meet’s a boy who’s basically a womanizer, but that’s okay, and then, in the end, she sees her work in her grandfather’s latest art show.

Let me preface my review by saying it’s not a bad book. It’s not really my thing. The beginning hooked me just enough to string me along to the end, which I actually really liked and honestly salvaged my feelings about the story overall but there wasn’t much to it. It’s worth noting that this is (I would guess Literary Fiction) which frankly for me is hit or miss, so take this review with a grain of salt on that front. Obviously, I finished it (which is a feat when I don’t really care for a book).

Would I recommend it? If you like literary fiction, or family drama sagas, sure.

I’m going to update my review to a: 3.5/5 stars. Not bad. Not great. Another book I have read this year. 🙂

About That Literary Fiction Study

days4 copyJonathan Franzen and company must be salivating at the recent ‘study’ that apparently finds literary fiction makes you more empathetic, and maybe that’s in some degree true. Except, why does it have to be literary fiction specifically? I’ve read a few books that are considered literary fiction, the Corrections, The Casual Vacancy, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, and of the 3 of them Mr. Penumbra’s was the most interesting, yet the Casual Vacancy had the most character depth as far as characters that might theoretically make one empathic to others, and yet in spite of all of this J.K.Rowling’s other books, Harry Potter are often most cited as having made the generation of kids who read them more empathetic over all and more inclusive of other thoughts and ideas. Begging the question, what’s literary fiction got to do with it?

Slate pointed out another interesting question too, are we really going decide whether or not a book is worth reading based on how good of a person it could theoretically make you? I can’t imagine picking up any novel thinking reading it is going to somehow make me a more empathetic person, you read because you love books, because you want to be taken somewhere else. But the idea that somehow there are good books to read and bad books to read is a little elitist wouldn’t you think? And who’s to even make that judgement?

I don’t like particularly Twilight or Fifty Shades but does reading either of them make you a bad person? Probably not. Do I think people who love books should diversify their reading as much as possible, certainly. But I can tell you, of the literary books I have personally read, I don’t feel any different for having read them, and honestly in a lot of ways I don’t feel any different for having read non-fiction or genre books either. How they’ve changed me versus others who didn’t read them is such a strange question. I’m not even sure you can really accurately measure empathy based on a persons’s reading habits anyway, there are probably plenty of outliers and certainly every person is different. It must stand to reason then that some people were taught empathy in the home and these stories may have added to it?

I’m no scientist, (except for my Bachelors of Science that says I kind of am, in graphic design) but I remember the scientific theory from grade school, and when you come up with a hypothesis that would almost be impossible to accurately measure, you create an experiment with very limited parameters. And really we have to ask ourselves why does it matter? Far be it for me to question anyone’s scientific exploration but is this really the question we need to be asking ourselves in 2016? There’s still so much scientific work that needs to be done on diseases and medicine and yes I realize that the study wasn’t done by those type of scientists, or any if I recall, but even then… there are better scientific questions of a literary nature surely.

Reading Franzen Part VI & VII

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Part VI: One Last Christmas & Part VII: the Corrections

Summary:

I really don’t know what to say about these final two parts other than nothing that I expected happened. Alfred didn’t die until the last page and the fighting that I expected at Christmas was almost nonexistent. Part VI spent a lot of its time sort of clearing up where everyone was and why Gary’s children didn’t show up, what Denise had been up too, how she had become rather evil to Robin which I really didn’t appreciate and how Chip had nearly been killed in Lithuania.

Eventually it becomes clear to Enid, and everyone else that Alfred is not going to get better, and she decides to place him in a hospital for a while, then in a rest home. After which, Alfred’s life gets perpetually worse and everyone else seems to live happily ever after, especially Enid.

Thoughts:

Curiously, though reading this story has made me thoroughly exhausted, I feel like it’s made me a better critic, because my critiques of Franzen and his work are no longer based on abstract ideas about him as a human being, but in what I’ve actually seen of his work. As I said early on in this project, authors are not known for being warm and fuzzy, it comes with the territory. But just because he’s pretentious and obnoxious in real life, does not necessarily mean that somehow he is a bad author. In truth, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that it was a completely terrible book. The mere fact that the characters, detestable though they mostly were made me feel anything at all (even if it was revulsion) says something of his skills as an author. What this says, remains to be seen, and I still wonder if the emotions I felt while reading it were necessarily the singular emotion the author wanted the reader to feel throughout reading his novel, but I digress.

Overall ‘the Corrections’ was, interesting, bizarre, and entirely not what I expected, whether or not that’s a good thing I can’t say. It’s definitely not one of those books you go back to over and over again, at least not for me, and I don’t think Franzen is an author I’ll be watching any time soon. Ultimately, I think that for all his pomp and circumstance regarding genre fiction there was nothing dealt with in his book that felt any more ‘serious’ than anything any genre author writes about. Unless he’s thinking purely of romance novels or penny dreadfuls then perhaps we can have a serious discussion.

I don’t think I can seriously recommend this book to anyone, personally, it’s not the sort of story I would normally have read and frankly the fact it took nearly 400+ pages to even get slightly more interesting was a problem for me. To say nothing of the occasional bouts of soap box preaching from Gary, and Chip, and Franzen himself. It was tiresome most every time and transparently predictable.

Next month I’ll be reading: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

READING FRANZEN MASTERLIST: 

PART I

PART II

PART II CONT’D 

PART III

PART III CONT’D 

PART IV

PART V

PART V CONT’D 

Reading Franzen Part V Cont’d

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From the outset, one of the things I knew about Denise is that beyond being the only real likable character in the entire story, she’s the only one who doesn’t strike me as a selfish, spoiled brat, like her brothers, and she doesn’t seem to have the obsession of not turning out like her parents, to the point at which it nearly destroys her life, as do both Gary and Chip.

Thus far Denise has made this story almost worth these last three grueling weeks. Almost. Once again though it strikes me as interesting that it took several hundred pages to get interesting after a slump at the end of part IV and the beginning of part V, and though Denise is currently trying to forget about her lover I really wish Robin and Denise would end up together in the end because they’re the only couple, and for that matter, only characters I can actually manage to root for. So here’s hoping.

I really don’t know what to say about how this part ended, beyond the fact that it was wholly unbelievable. Literally. From the father falling off the cruise ship he was on, to, whatever is going on with Chip which… I have no words for. It’s curious to me that with everything Franzen has to say about genre fiction this book sure has taken a bizarre turn that even a genre author might find a bit questionable.

Reading Franzen Part V

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The Generator

Summary:

Part V, is Denise’s story. The youngest of the three children, and perhaps the most likable character in the entire book, this part details her affair with a married man before college, and her subsequent, unrelated, failed marriage.

Thoughts:

Surprisingly I don’t feel like I have that much to say about part V. The fact is, a lot of this experience for me, is getting tedious. I have a good idea I know where it’s going to go, everyone’s going to do the final Christmas in St. Jude, Gary has already agreed to it, though it may destroy his marriage, Denise has agreed to it (from what I can tell), and Chip… may or may not be dragged there by Denise. The Christmas itself, which is the next part is going to be interesting and that’s going to be the deciding factor in how everything goes.

I could predict, and I’ve been wondering about this for sometime that at Christmas either the father or the mother will die. I predict a bit of fighting, but I also gather there will be some kind of like big turn around moment where the family comes together to grieve that. But maybe Franzen will surprise me. Part VI is, I believe, the final part of the book, which means that if something major is going to happen, it would have to happen then. So that’s my guess.

Reading Franzen: Part IV

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Part IV: At Sea

Summary

Alfred’s condition has significantly worsened as he and his wife take their yearly cruise; Enid finds solace in a new miracle drug called Aslan.

Thoughts: 

This was perhaps the most interesting part in the entire novel, 302 pages into the 568 page novel we are finally treated with intrigue in the form of a tragic story told by one of the passengers on the ship, a woman named Sylvia who’s daughter was brutally murdered by one of her patients. It’s the first part of the novel that’s actually felt real, and incredibly tragic, and yet it somehow retains this odd clinical distance that makes you feel vaguely sad, yet not quite emotional enough to actually cry over it, the way one might at the death of a character in any other novel. One of the many issues I have with Franzen, now having read the majority of this book, is there is this strange distance he keeps between the reader and the characters, it really lacks the emotional depth one would expect from a novel, and I can’t really ascertain whether this is deliberate or some oversight on his part, but it’s really quite frustrating. Even in something like the Casual Vacancy which is of the literary genre, there isn’t this separation… you feel for the characters, you hate most of them, but there’s empathy there. Almost no character thus far in the Corrections elicits empathy, merely apathy. I’m not really sure how you sustain a readers interest without some form of emotional connection with said reader.

The part is intermingled with technical details (Franzen is really obsessed with teaching us the chemical science of depression and emotions), and odd jumps to the past, it’s made all the more interesting by this story told by Enid’s new found friend, and her newfound comfort from her life in a drug called Aslan. (The Chronicles of Narnia are mentioned several times throughout the book, make of that what you will).

I really have nothing negative to say about Part IV, other than, somewhere along the line towards the final few pages of the part, while Enid and Alfred were at breakfast, everyone’s conversations were all over the place. Scattered to the wind with no direction. I’m going to assume this is meant to be from Alfred’s point-of-view, but given the novel’s propensity for leaping randomly from past to present, to otherwise unrelated random tidbits of information, it’s hard to say what this stream of consciousness style of dialogue is meant to mean.

Reading Franzen Part III Cont’d

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Summary:

Part III follows the adventures of eldest son Gary Lambert and his family which is essentially the same family life he grew up in, in spite of his efforts to do better.

Thoughts: 

We can all go home, because on page 181, Franzen explains to the world that the whole point of the book is Gary the eldest’s sons attempt to ‘correct’ his father’s mistakes. I think that sums up what the book is about perfectly and I clearly don’t need to read any further.

Part of the problem I’ve had with the book from the beginning, and I’m starting to notice a trend with this genre is that there is a great lack of sympathetic characters. I realize this makes them true to life, and perhaps this is my genre background talking, everybody wants a character to root for, and you just aren’t going to get that with this sort of book. There’s no one you want to root for. There are characters you feel sorry for because they have to deal with the other characters, but there’s no protagonist that you really feel like, I care what happens to you, I want you to succeed.

In this part, Gary the eldest son, is basically recreating his father’s life, but in the way he feels his father should live. He has what he considers to be the perfect family and yet he’s in denial about the fact that he’s depressed. It’s curious because there are a lot of indicators that his marriage is a lot like his fathers, he doesn’t really love his wife, in fact he’s emotionally abusive to her in the same way his father is to his mother. It seems like his purpose in life is to prove to himself that he’s not his father, which seems to be a lot of the purpose of all of the children thus far. That they aren’t like their parents, but in that way, it seems they end up exactly like who they don’t want to be. They fall into the same pitfalls, which is of course relatable because there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily want to end up like their parents.

While I applaud Franzen’s ability to manipulate the readers emotions, the more I read of the story, the angrier I got, that doesn’t for me make it a good book. I’ve really given this story a lot more than I would have given any other book, typically if you can’t capture my interest within the first chapter I’m not the sort of person who’s going to give you a hundred pages to get into your groove, but by now I’ve given Franzen 200, and while I can openly admit that he’s clearly good at what he does in the sense that his story can make you feel what he wants you to, I don’t feel like it’s a story you get sucked into. You don’t necessarily see the world around you in the really visceral way you can with another book, or at least that’s the case for me. Beyond completely unlikable characters there’s the fact that the story seems to jump around all over the place, and I can’t help but feel that any other author, who was not already well known would not have been able to get away with such a thing. I’m not sure if the Corrections was Franzen’s debut novel or not, but it strikes me as odd that a book can just jump into the past without much warning.

Reading Franzen Part III

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Having read longer books than this in a shorter amount of time it’s almost mind boggling to me how long it’s taking me to get through a measly 568 page novel. What is it about this supposedly ‘darkly humorous’ novel that I’m just not getting? Why don’t I find any of this funny?

Oddly enough the title for this part is so appropriate it almost describes my feelings:

Part III the More He Thought About it the Angrier He Got

Thus far, part III is the adventures of the eldest son Gary who much like his father is a tyrant and who continues the list of unbelievably exhausting characters whom I hate. One of the biggest problems I continue to feel about this story is the fact that there is approximately one character who is even vaguely worth rooting for or caring about. How is it possible you could create a story and have so many characters that you could care less if they died in the next page? My frustration seems to stem from the fact that all of these characters aren’t just horrible they’re horribly boring. They’re so uninteresting that even stories that ought to be interesting are made mundane and tiresome and frankly, I feel like I’m wasting a lot of my time reading this godawful story when I should be editing my novel.

While a very small part of me is curious to see if they make it to dinner and if they can manage not to rip each other’s throats out in the process. Most of me is just waiting for the moment I can finally say I’m finished.

For those who are reading this wondering, why is she still reading it if it’s so awful, the truth is, I hate the idea of giving up on a personal challenge to myself. I don’t like to fail and I don’t want to let some stupid book get the better of me and so I’m determined to finish this book if it’s the last thing I do, and before January’s over if at all possible. But I still have editing to do, and for me that has to be my top priority.

I’m definitely giving myself some kind of prize for finishing this novel, that much I can say for sure.

Reading Franzen: Part II Cont’d

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Summary: 

In part II: the Failure— we follow the miserable existence of Chip man-child as he picks up his parents from the airport, only to come home to find his married girlfriend leaving him possibly forever, if she’s smart. Then, in defiance of all writing conventions we are whisked away to Chip’s past, and how he came to be fired from his job as a professor at D— College (he slept with a student—also I’m guessing D stands for Dumb-ass?), and how he met his current girlfriend. All while occasionally slipping back to the present where Chip is nowhere to be found. Curiously, throughout this story Chip manages to continue not to take responsibility for his actions in spite of the ever increasing reality that it is in fact all his fault. More curiously is the fact that he basically lives off his sister for several months without any kind of self loathing at the fact that his existence and that of his girlfriend (whom he spends his sister’s money on with no remorse) is thanks entirely to several large loans his sister bestowed upon him.

Thoughts: 

I find it really fascinating how a character appears to have moments of genuine self awareness, and how inevitably this moment of self awareness is completely shut down by their own actions or words within the next paragraph. This is particularly true with Chip who it almost appears has the vague understanding that he is full of shit, but is perhaps so full of his own shit that it is impossible for him to see his way out of it.

Only in ‘literary fiction’ (the one true fiction worthy of any intellectual person’s time, naturally), is it acceptable to slip randomly into the past to explain the minutiae of Chip’s life that nobody asked for, including disturbing accounts of his sexual escapades. What is it specifically about literary fiction that seems to produce a great deal of sex scenes but ones there are discussed in such a distancing clinical way as to be so off putting it’s almost unreadable? Did I really need to read Chip sniff/fucking his chaise lounge? I don’t think so.

Throughout reading this particular section I found myself liking Chip less and less than I ever thought possible. Between leaching off his sister and his questionable morals, and his concern with the femininity of the woman he’s sleeping with lest he be seen as ‘queer’— puts him somewhere on the negative end of a scale of detestable characters, and don’t even get me started on his odd desire to be contradictory for contradictions sake.