Literary Death Match! ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ Vs ‘Fates and Furies’

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Today, we are breaking boundaries here at Wildeonmyside. In this post, I will review not one, but two (yes, two!) books.  ‘But why?’ I hear you cry. ‘Why change a formula that has earned you literally 7 readers?’ Well, dear reader, there are several answers to these questions. One is that I have read both these books in recent weeks and want to write about them. Another is that I had a dream about the MTV series ‘Celebrity Death Match’ the other night and decided this would be a great format for a blog. And, perhaps most significantly, I have literally 8 million books waiting to be read so, frankly, I could do with a few time-saving devices. These could, admittedly, include a shorter preamble.

Anyway, I’m going to simultaneously show off my mind-blowing understanding of literature and my brilliant comparison skills here, using a series of entirely arbitrary subheadings.  Prepare to be so impressed you may need a little lie-down.

Round One: Plot

Up first in the all-important first round, it’s Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ which was published last year but prominently features in Waterstones’ Buy One Get One Half Price offer right now. The novel is set in Germany and France during World War II, following Werner, whose skill with a radio brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth, and Marie-Laure, a blind, French girl who is forced to flee Paris during the Nazi occupation. It is a total barrel of laughs, as you can imagine.  As a school pupil, I feel like I studied this period in a huge amount of detail and so I tend not to seek out literature based in this time; I am, however, lending it to my mum, who is all over books about war, so maybe she will appreciate the plot and setting more than I did.  ‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff,published last month, has only one thing in common with ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ and I can’t even tell you what it is because it would be an epic spoiler; suffice to say, it is not its historical context. While Doerr’s novel is sprawling in its reach, ‘Fates and Furies’ focuses its attention on Lotto and Mathilde from their marriage at the age of 22 and beyond, while also giving the reader plenty of background to both  characters. I enjoyed the more narrowed focus of Groff’s novel; I felt like it really allowed me to get to know and understand the characters, although whether that is a pleasant effect is another matter.

Round One Winner: ‘Fates and Furies’

Round Two: Characters

I developed a minor obsession with Mathilde while reading ‘Fates and Furies;’ during the first half of the book, we receive only Lotto’s impression of his wife, and even this never seems entirely satisfying, giving the sense that she is a true enigma. The second half, ‘Furies,’ gives us Mathilde’s perspective and it is fascinating. Last year, I wrote a particularly scathing rant about ‘Gone Girl’ (which clearly affected its success immensely) and its author’s ambition to make readers look “askance” at their spouses; while I didn’t feel like ‘Gone Girl’ had this effect on me, ‘Fates and Furies’ does a much better job of demonstrating the secrets that can lie at the root of a person and how even their closest partners can fail to really know them. Lotto’s view of Mathilde is that she is his rock: the good woman standing behind a somewhat less formidable man. By the end of the book, Groff has shown us the story behind this “good woman” and it is quite unforgettable. Lotto, however, is just really annoying.

What I think really works in ‘Fates and Furies’ is the split between Lotto’s story and Mathilde’s; rather than alternating between the two, we hear one then the other, allowing us to reflect on each more effectively. ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ alternates between Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories, only intersecting very briefly, with the occasional interruption of another character. Marie-Laure is the more interesting of the two; blind since the age of six, she has been forced to rely on painstakingly acquired knowledge, instinct and the love of her father in order to live a satisfying life. Doerr presents her with subtlety; she is neither a victim nor a hero, merely doing what she has to (and a little more) in order to survive. The relationship between Marie-Laure and her father is touching without being cloying and the introduction of more characters as the pair flee Paris only adds to Doerr’s depiction of Marie-Laure. I won’t do it here because it would ruin both books for anyone who planned to read them, but I think there’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between Marie-Laure and Mathilde, particularly in terms of the effects of their childhood and their means of survival.

Round Two Result: Draw (I can’t choose between these two fascinating women)

Round Three: That Magic Thing Which Makes You Love A Book

Although I obviously recognise that ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ is a tremendous book, it didn’t really do much for me. I think it’s something I’ll need to return to in the future when I am not in a never-ending race against the ever-growing TBR pile next to my bed; stylistically, it is beautiful and the last third is well-paced and both devastating and delicate. There is a subplot involving a weird magical stone which manages to be simultaneously the most random and most interesting thing in the book, which echoed ‘Indiana Jones’ enough to make me wonder if the ending would involve Nazis burning because they looked at a holy grail (sadly, it does not). ‘Fates and Furies’ was, for me, an easier read but also more interesting on a literary level, with the split structure and comments from an imagined chorus only adding to my enjoyment. The second half provided many moments which made my eyes widen and my cries of “no way!” frequently disturbed the peace of those around me.

Round Three Winner: ‘Fates and Furies’

Literary Death Match Winner: ‘Fates and Furies’ – hurray! Who saw that coming?

Post-Match Analysis

So, clearly I had already decided I liked ‘Fates and Furies’ more before I started. This was a fix. I’m sorry; I am the Sepp Blatter of book blogs. Both books are well worth reading – ‘Fates and Furies’ is shorter, which makes a difference to me, largely because it was easier to hold with my tiny woman fingers. However, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ did win the Pulitzer Prize so my opinion probably won’t make Anthony Doerr cry and add more references to ‘Hamlet’ to his future works.

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Why All the Long Titles? A Review of Olivia Wildenstein’s ‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti’

The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that will.

A novel that starts with an epigraph from Chuck Palahniuk is always going to be a winner for me.  While ‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti’ doesn’t share much else with the work of my favourite modern author, Palahniuk’s sentiment becomes particularly poignant later on in Olivia Wildenstein’s novel.

Duke is a sophomore in high school: popular, sporty as well as smart, heading for Harvard. With his pick of girls, he develops a fixation with Cora, or ‘Goth Girl’ as she is laughingly called by her classmates. The two have little to do with each other until Duke coincidentally meets her younger brother, Jaime, who is terminally ill.  I don’t want to say anything else about the plot; it’s easily accessible on your favourite book-selling websites and I enjoyed reading it without having paid proper attention to the synopsis.

‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti,’ apart from having a title which takes a preposterously long time to type, fits neatly somewhere between ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ (which, I think I may have mentioned, is HILARIOUS) and ‘The Fault in Our Stars’/’Extraordinary Means’/all books about terminally ill teenagers. Wildenstein’s book doesn’t boast the humour of the first of these, which I will not name again because it, too, has a really long title. What it does have is genuinely endearing and interesting characters. Duke sounds like he should be a cliche and not a particularly engaging one, but he is well-rounded and eloquent as well as sounding like a completely normal, if very privileged teenager. Cora is an enigma but not in the way that John Green writes enigmatic girls (manic pixie girl blah blah – do I always sound like I hate John Green? Because I don’t. I just don’t like his annoying female characters, which is much less judgmental); although, obviously, nobody who has ever seen ‘She’s All That’ or, in fact, any teen film ever, will be surprised that she’s amazingly beautiful under her monochrome make-up, there is much about her character that made me want to know more. And Jaime could easily have been an overly sentimentalised caricature of a heroic but doomed child, but actually he’s just funny and intelligent and it is entirely clear why a 16 year old like Duke would want to spend time with him.  The aspect of the story from which the novel draws its name is something I really enjoyed and found genuinely touching.

This book is a deceptively easy read, considering the subject matter, although it is worth pointing out that things don’t enter Depressing Young Adult Novel territory until quite late in the proceedings. There are numerous subplots, including Duke’s attempts to join an annoying-sounding society which is clearly just a fraternity for boys too young to go to college and men old enough to know better. Duke also has a comedy grandmother and amusingly realistic-sounding mother (even if they seem overly excited about developments in his love life).  His dad is a bit of a fun-sponge but, as we later find out, we has his reasons – although all fun-sponge parents probably say that, don’t they?

I read this in a day – basically by just ignoring my family for a few hours – and really enjoyed it.  Aspects of it reminded me of Michael Chabon’s ‘The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,’ in terms of how people use the idea of superheroes to comfort themselves in times of difficulty. ‘Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti’ is also something which I feel I can dangle in front of parents who are desperate to find something their sons will read, as well as recommending it to my students who already possess a strong love of reading. Aside from this, I have discovered that it is currently only about £3 to download onto a Kindle, which is a bargain if ever I saw one.

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ by Jesse Andrews: How a Book Tried to Kill Me

I’m not sure if I can convey in actual words how much I enjoyed ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ by Jesse Andrews. For one thing, it was more hilarious than any book with the word “dying” in the title has any right to be: for example, Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ is literally one of the least entertaining books you could read.  At no point in ‘As I Lay Dying’ did I need to reach for my inhaler because hysterical laughter was making me wheeze. Honestly, you have to read this book to understand just how laugh-out-loud, fall-off-the-sofa, guffaw-so-much-you-can’t-actually-hold-the-book-or-remember-your-own-name funny this book is. Then you too can alarm your loved ones because you are in a different room laughing so much that they think you are crying and a real actual person has died.

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’  starts with the sentence, “I have no idea how to write this stupid book;” the narrator is Greg Gaines, starting his senior year in high school as the book begins. His resentment about writing the book is expressed throughout, and the level of awkwardness he clearly feels in putting his thoughts down on paper is one of the things that makes his story so hilarious (I am going to keep saying that word.  Because it is entirely appropriate) but also sort-of heartbreaking.  Greg has made an art-form of avoiding the joining of any cliques or even the making of friends.  This isn’t ‘The Rosie Project’ – we don’t spend 300 pages wondering when Greg is going to be diagnosed as “on the spectrum” – he just doesn’t want to talk to people.  Even, a lot of the time, his reader.  But, my word, Greg is funny. The whole of chapter 15, in which he details each of the films he and Earl have made, had me hyperventilating. I was literally laughing so much I couldn’t hold the book and had to have a little rest. At another point, I was so regaled by a disparaging line about sports teams that I couldn’t physically write out the quote to refer to here, so I wrote the page number instead; now I find that it isn’t even the right page, because this book made me laugh so much I could no longer recognise three-digit numbers.

Greg’s easy life is interrupted when his mother forces him to restart a friendship with Rachel, a girl he knew years ago in Hebrew school; as Rachel is the “dying girl” of the title, things are slightly different now. Greg repeatedly warns us that this is not a love story; in many ways, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is a kind of anti-‘The Fault in our Stars’ – it’s unsentimental and, crucially, the teenagers in the book talk like normal teenagers, not like characters from ‘Dawson’s Creek.’  Greg and Rachel strike up a friendship which is low-key and lacking in drama, during which Greg constantly contemplates how awkward everything is.  Although the subject matter of ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ would seem to put it in a category with the afore-mentioned John Green novel and something like ‘Extraordinary Means’ by Robyn Schneider, the platonic friendship here is more believable and, I think, more touching.

Earl is a particularly brilliant creation; his voice emerges vividly from the page and even his very frequent swearing is entertaining (I will admit to finding profanity quite funny anyway. Blame my years as a football hooligan).  Earl is pretty much Greg’s only friend, but, as with Rachel, it is clear that Greg has quite a limited understanding of what Earl’s life is like, which the narrator recognises with hindsight.  Andrews cleverly emphasises Greg’s self-absorption by giving us so little detail about Rachel; despite her being mentioned in the title, she remains a mystery.  Not in a Margo in ‘Paper Towns’ kind of way, or in a sense that she’s just a cipher for Greg’s feelings; she is just normal and average, which is another way in which Andrews has created believable characters.  Even her attitude to her illness strikes a chord as being more realistic than some of the heroism we often see in novels like this.

Look: the title doesn’t leave much room to speculate on what’s going to happen and neither does the narrative itself, but what I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Even relatively minor figures like Greg’s sisters (Gretchen and Grace – even alliterative names make me laugh), the cat and Mr McCarthy (who is the subject of another amusing subplot involving noodle soup) have a purpose and a distinct voice.Having bought a couple of copies of this for my classroom library before actually reading it myself, I will confess to being slightly terrified by the content of some of Greg and Earl’s conversations but let’s just hope the parents of all my pupils are super-open-minded and see the funny side of ‘Gross-Out Mode’ and the extended joke about Rachel’s decorative pillows.  ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is just excellent and needs to be read.  My advice is to do so in a safe environment with plenty of cushioning in case you laugh so hard you fall off the sofa.  Not that I did that.  Obviously.

Super Dogs and Effective Arm-Crossing: A Review of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ by Joe Hill

I don’t read a lot of horror. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is so it seems counter-productive to give myself nightmares as well; readers of my previous post on the dark days of 1990s YA and the Point Horror novels may understand my view on this.  But I read Joe Hill’s ‘Horns’ a few months ago and found it sufficiently weird and interesting to pick up ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ to read on holiday. I’ll put it out there; I have a long history of reading really weird and inappropriate books on sun beds. Just a few traumatic examples: ‘American Psycho,’ ‘Birdsong,’ ‘The Kite Runner,’ and, most notably, ‘Shalimar the Clown’ (wrestled with in Mexico while my husband happily reclined on the next sun lounger giggling to ‘Yes Man’ by Danny Wallace; it is a miracle both books and partners came home from that holiday).

So, ‘to ‘Heart-Shaped Box.’  The first two paragraphs do a good job of introducing the style and content of the novel, with some basically disturbing bathos thrown in for good measure:

Jude had a private collection.

He had framed sketches of the seven dwarves on the wall of his studio, in between his platinum records. John Wayne Gacy had drawn them while he was in jail and sent them to him. Gacy liked golden-age Disney almost as much as he liked molesting little kids; almost as much as he liked Jude’s albums.

And so the story is established: Jude is an ageing rock star in the Alice Cooper/Ozzy Osbourne mould, with money to burn and an interest in everything creepy and, at times, frankly wrong. It is the combination of these two things which leads him to the purchase of a ghost and its favourite suit; it soon turns out that this was a set-up and the ghost in question has a few issues with Jude.

Rock music plays a key role in the novel, defining Jude and his backstory (we later discover Jude’s unhappy relationship with his father is in part because of the latter’s disapproval of his son’s ambitions) as well as lending some amusing asides; Jude’s dogs, for example, are named Angus and Bon, with the AC/DC connection not explained (which had the happy effect of making me feel just really knowledgeable), Jude met his former girlfriend at a Nine Inch Nails show and he is mistaken at one point for the singer from Metallica. I enjoyed the knowing nature of these references, and they helped to create an idea in my mind of what Jude’s music would sound like.

The southern gothic is evident throughout, from the ghosts, hypnotists and shady motivations of the villain, to Hill’s charming metaphors; when Jude recalls eating a sweet as a child, “he imagined he was helping himself to a chocolate-covered eyeball” and even his musical equipment is “a rat’s nest of cables and pedals and adapters.”  Studying and teaching English has the sometimes irritating effect of rendering me unable to ignore linguistic tropes in the books I read for fun, because I am incredibly cool.

I liked Jude, even though he is clearly a bit of a bastard. His attitude to women (more on this in a moment) is pretty horrendous and he wanders around in his underwear far too much, but he is interesting, growing more so as Hill reveals more of his family background and the story of his band – whose name, by the way, is Jude’s Hammer, which is obviously a terrible moniker for a supposedly hugely popular rock band.  It is Jude’s unlikeability which makes him intriguing; the narrative doesn’t make excuses for him and allows us to consider how awful some of his actions are without being forced to sympathise with him. One recollection of the past tells us, “people wondered how something like Columbine could happen.  Jude wondered why it didn’t happen more,” emphasising the depth of his childhood unhappiness. I enjoyed finding out more about him, as well as the other key characters, as the novel progressed.

I do have a couple of issues with ‘Heartshaped Box,’ however. I think perhaps ghosts will have to join time travel in my ‘literary ideas blind spot’ as I lost track of who could and couldn’t see the ghost and how it was that he still seemed to have a car.  DO dogs really have magical ghost-repelling powers?  Is this a well-known fact that I have somehow missed?  And I don’t know if this was just supposed to reflect Jude’s shallowness and low-level misogyny, but this book is OBSESSED with breasts. Like, every female character is described in terms of what her chest looks like. At more than one point, an angry woman is described as “crossing her arms under her breasts;” is this level of detail truly necessary? Also, I have just tried this and it is far more comfortable to cross your arms over them; otherwise it just looks like you’re trying to mimic the effect of a Wonderbra. Even Jude’s dying father has his moobs described, which I thought was perhaps taking things a bit too far.

I enjoyed ‘Heartshaped Box.’  There are a few big reveals which made me hold the book further away from my face because I was so horrified, but I guess that means the book was effective in terms of what it is meant to do.  It did give me unsettling dreams for two nights and  a more suspicious attitude towards online auction sites, but I’ll be reading more Joe Hill in the future.  I might just check how many times the female form is referenced first.