Monday, July 2, 2007

Snapshots: Heart-Shaped Box and French Lessons

As I said in my review of the last reading quarter, I'm annoyed with myself for not reviewing more of the books that I read. I've noticed that, especially now, I tend to save my energy for reviewing challenge books; this has meant that some other great books go by the wayside. So, I'm going to try doing posts with 2 or 3 mini-reviews. Here's the first one!

Heart Shaped Box

Joe Hills' Heart Shaped Box is a stunning piece of fiction. It manages to be both literary and very, very creepy.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, but he kept that secret for quite awhile (read more about Hill here). Although they both write horror, they certainly have very different styles and tones. So, if you don't like Stephen King, don't think that Hill is a carbon copy. In fact, I find Hill's writing to be much more sophisticated than his father's.

I picked up Heart Shaped Box from the library, thinking it was a collection of short stories. I don't know why I thought that; it's actually a novel. It tells the story of Jude (a former metal rock star, and now a serial dater of young Goth chicks), his girlfriend Georgia, and their fight with a truly nasty ghost. Throughout the story, seemingly bad guys become good, good guys become bad, both through new revelations to the reader and through personal transformations experienced by the characters.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good ghost story, but also to anyone who appreciates just a well-crafted story. I am very impressed; Joe Hill is definitely on my list of authors to watch.

Favorite Passages

"Why do you ask so many damn questions?" he wanted to know...
"I'd rather ask questions," she said, "than answer them." (209)

Danny did not think coke and computers were anything alike. But Jude had seen the way people hunched over their screens, clicking the refresh button again and again, waiting for some crucial if meaningless hit of informations, and he thought it was almost exactly the same. (219-20)

"No plane. Planes are too fast. You can't go south on a plane. You need to drive. Or take a train. You need to watch the dirt turn to clay. You need to look at all the junkyards full of rustin' cars. You need to go over a few bridges." (258)


French Lessons: A Memoir

In French Lessons, Alice Kaplan looks at how French has affected everything she's done and explores various periods of her life when French played a large role. Part of the book is certainly a testament to the intoxication of a foreign language, and to the beauty of French. She provides quite a few passages of French (w/ translations beneath), which is nice for people like me who have studied the language. I agree with her than French is beautiful, and I'm impressed by her aptitude with the language.

However, this book is so much more than that. Kaplan has had quite an interesting life. Her father was a lawyer at the Nuremburg trials, and the book is as much about Kaplan's Jewish identity as it is about studying French. I have Jewish friends, but I'm not Jewish, and this book provided a lot of insight into Jewish culture. I appreciated how deep she took us into her own psyche; it takes a lot of courage to psychologyically strip for strangers!

The first part of the book focuses on her childhood, while the second examines her intellectual development (from college student to studying abroad to grad student to professor). Both parts are well written, though I enjoyed the former a little more. Kaplan captures the essence of childhood quite powerfully. Much of the later book is her attempt to reconcile her fascination with French fascist writers and intellectuals with her Jewish heritage. The book is held together, as it meanders from topic to topic and time period to time period, by a central theme: Kaplan's quest to create an identity for herself. The book contains a powerful truth about the way people actively seek to create their own characters, by cultivating quirks or wearing certain clothes or espousing certain philosophies. I think almost anyone can relate to these truths; I certainly did.

Sometimes, the book dragged a bit, but all in all it exceeded my expectations. This is the first book mooch acquisition that I've read, and I hope all the others are as good!

Favourite Passages

The school encouraged my belief that I had come through my chidhood and that adolescence, too, was behind me. I took up smoking in the smoking room. I drank coffee at breakfast. I studied five hours a day. (50)

Girls with thick manes of hair, the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. French-speaking Lebanese girls. The French-speaking students wore tight wool pullovers, with white shirt cuffs folded over the sweater in a way that made you lust over their wrists, and gold bracelists in rows on their wrists, real good, from the souks of Arabia. (50-1)

Why did I hide in French? If life got too messy, I could take off into my second world. Writing about it has made me air my suspicions, my anger, my longings, to people for whom it's come as a total surprise. There was a time when I even spoke in a different register in French-higher and excited, I was sliding up to those high notes in some kind of hyped-up theatrical world of my own making. (216)

She talked about literature in a way I recognized from my private experience of reading but had never articulated. She didn't worship literature as "high art" the way my high school English teachers did. She didn't drop names. She entered the poem she was teaching. She showed us around. She was baffled by literature, amused by it, suspicious of it. Literauter is essential to survival and impossible to understand. Literature lies and tells the truth about lying. (75)

4 comments:

Nancy said...

I loved Heart Shaped Box. I was expecting to hate it especially, since critics loved it.. I am so glad I read it and was wrong. I think his next book is short stories. He is one to watch.

The King's are a very talented family.

MyUtopia said...

I wrote a review on the book when I read it last summer: http://myutopias.blogspot.com/2006/07/long-awaited-book-reviews.html
I was disappointed that it didn't live up to the hype. I was similarly disappointed in the Life of Pi.
My book club was divided on this book, some loved it and some

J.S. Peyton said...

Heart Shaped Box sounds really intriguing. I'm putting that on my TBR list. I've been wanting to read a little horror lately.

Gentle Reader said...

Both these books sound really great--thanks so much for the reviews! I hadn't heard of the Joe Hill, so it's nice to consider a new author, and I had read about French Lessons awhile back and meant to read it, so it's nice to have it brought back to my attention :)