Young Adult Fiction

There is a fascinating conversation going on over at The Elegant Variation about the merits of young adult fiction. It has remained relatively civil for a comments section, and has risen above the tired old literary vs. genre fiction debate. Instead, we've got thoughtful insights into the motivations of the writers and the readers who choose to explore a world beyond literary fiction.

Hal Duncan's comment about two-thirds of the way through the conversation is especially thought-provoking:

I suspect that the popularity of YA with adults may be born from a reaction against the conventionality of contemporary social realism as much as anything else. When it comes to those kitchen-sink (i.e. working-class) or drawing-room (i.e. middle-class) melodramas -- domestic narratives with an artificially heightened tension -- the downbeat (or poignant) ending has become trite, banal and often contrived, and we're tired of it. I think it was Michael Chabon who had an essay snarling about never wanting to read another bloody "moment of apotheosis" story again. I quite agree. So I suspect if readers are looking for "happy endings" it may be less about a desire for infantile solace as a dismissal of the sort of bourgeois miserabilism which wrongly equates "serious" and "solemn". There's nothing that makes an upbeat ending less profound than a downbeat one (my favourite upbeat ending, for example, is that of Joyce's ULYSSES; you'd be hard placed to find anything in any genre as *affirming* as "he asked me if I'd yes to say yes and yes I said yes I will yes."); but contemporary realism seems to have forgotten that this is the case, that we're allowed to end on another tone than grey, that -- indeed -- ending on that tone, with some cliches about regret and self-realisation, is not in fact all you need to make your work a literary masterpiece.

I've noticed this quite a bit in reading contemporary literary fiction, and it is one reason why I always read two books at the same time, and the second is often science fiction or some other genre that breaks the mold. It is also why a novel like Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which could have easily ended in the same tragic tone that permeates throughout, is a great triumph and a breath of fresh air. The reaction against happy endings, or hope, or generosity, have simply gone too far in literary fiction, and I think Hal is really on to something when he offers this as one explanation for the flight of some readers into other genres.

What to Read, How to Read It.

Don't you hate it when you get halfway through a book, get distracted by work or play or what not, and then feel a tremendous inertia that prevents you from getting back into the book and finishing it off? It is all the more frustrating when the book is only 220 pages long, like John Banville's The Book of Evidence. Sure, if I just did not like the book, I'd toss it aside and move on. But I like it well enough to finish it. It's not sweeping me off my feet, but it's not that kind of book.

And Banville is important, isn't he? He won a Booker, after all. I am a confessed list-maker, as my book project makes absurdly obvious, and the thing a list-maker likes only slightly less than his own list are other lists. So I look at the list of Booker Prize winners, the list of most important novels of the last 25 years, and so on. And these lists tell me what to read, don't they? After all, the tremendous volume of books being published these days makes us almost dependent on lists to sort the riff from the raff. I look at my bookshelves holding post-World War II fiction and I think to myself, "what of this is worth reading?"

Time has told us, more or less, what is worthwhile from the 19th-century. And I feel a strong pull to read these "classics," and have ever since The New Lifetime Reading Plan sparked my book obsession several years ago. But it never feels sufficient to read the great works of the past. Necessary, but not sufficient.

No, I also need to read books being written in my time. By people who live in the world that I live in, or at least a world that exists contemporaneously with my own (it seems a stretch to say that David Foster Wallace and I live in the same world). Litbloggers have helped diversify what I read, to an extent. I probably would be reading Banville even if he had not won the Booker, since Mark Sarvas is such a fan. And as soon as I catch up on the books already on my shelf (which admittedly will never happen), I'd love to start following the Litblog Co-op recommendations and really branch out. But the fact remains, I only have so much time to devote to reading, and I choose not to sacrifice huge chunks of that time just figuring out what to read in the first place, when I'll probably end up with something that would have been recommend to me anyhow.

Bahamas

For some reason, the Bahamas is one of those places that even as a child I could close my eyes and envision. I saw white, sandy beaches. Warm, crystal clear water. Palm trees and a calm ocean breeze. I have no idea where I got this idea, whether there was a particular movie or just a piece of our general cultural lexicon. Whatever the source of that expectation, it was absolutely accurate:

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The trip was much needed, much deserved (at least for my wife), and much enjoyed. We slept in, we swam in the ocean, we ate way too much, and we read by the pool sipping Kalik and mudslides. We were sorry to go.

New Purchases

I finally found a great used bookstore in Atlanta! Well, it's actually in Decatur, but it is still only a 10 minute drive from our condo and it is certainly worth a visit. The store is called Books Again, and I discovered in a way that could only happen in the Internet age.

I was browsing the listings at Abebooks for some volumes from the Oxford Illustrated Dickens, and saw numerous listings from Books Again (Decatur, GA). So I clicked on the home page, but that failed to give any indication whether it was a real bookstore, or one of the many home-based booksellers that populate Abebooks (and from whom I've purchased many quality books). So I went to Google, and found the Biblio page which had this blurb:

We are an open book store with 30,000, mostly hardcover books in stock. Our hours are 10-6 EST and we are located in downtown Decatur, Georgia which is 6 miles east of Atlanta.

Once I stopped drooling at the thought of 30,000 mostly hardcover books, I went to Mapquest, got directions, and made plans for a weekend visit. On Saturday, my wife and I headed out to Decatur for the first time since we moved to Atlanta. What we found was a delightful bookstore hiding on a small side street, just the sort of tucked away shop that seduces the used book addict. It was clean and well-lit, but still had a touch of that used book musk. The owner was friendly, knowledgeable, and had just the right amount of curmudgeonly distaste for the rise of the Internet. He also had a skinny white cat named Octavo who spent a half-hour laying on my wife's lap as she finished Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha while I shopped.

And shop I did, though I was able in the end to restrain myself and buy for quality rather than quantity. At long last I obtained a copy of Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift in trade hardcover with its original cover price ($10) still intact. It's a second printing, so I did not have to pay a fortune, and it completes my Bellow-buying for the foreseeable future. There was also a copy of Pete Dexter's Paris Trout on sale for $2, so I thought I'd give the 1988 National Book Award Winner a try.

But the catch of the day was a first American edition of Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot in absolutely pristine condition with its original cover price ($5.95) intact. I could hardly believe I had found this 45-year old book in such great condition and at a rather reasonable price of $25. I've been so spoiled by my bargain hunting that I hesitated for a few minutes before dropping $25 on a single book, but then I remembered that thousands of people walk into bookstores and drop $25 on the latest Ann Coulter or Nora Roberts without batting an eye. A first edition of Patrick White for $25 seems an absurd bargain in comparison.

This week I also used my free Amazon Prime trial to get Howard Bahr's new Civil War novel, The Judas Field. I have read and enjoyed his first two novels, and expect more of the same. He is particularly skilled at making his characters understandable to a modern reader without making them anachronistically modern in their behavior or mentality.