Thoughts on second person narrative.

I just read the book Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl, which is written in a combination of second and first person. Overall, the narrative is in second, as the narrator is the also the main character, writing down her thoughts to her long-deceased friend, Anna.

Writing a book in second person and making it work can be tricky. But as the reader I can get confused as to my role. Am I supposed to believe that I’m reading an old woman’s journal that I stumbled onto, intruding into her private thoughts, or am I taking on the role of Anna myself? The old woman even acknowledges the absurdity of talking to her dead friend, that Anna probably can’t hear what she’s thinking. Still, am I supposed to stand in for her friend?

I would say not in this case, but it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve had to take on another role than just “reader” (or the more pretentious “dear reader” that I’ve read far too often) when reading a second person narrative. What sticks out in my memory are the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I read as a child during the eighties. They try to personalize the books in a way by not ascribing certain character traits to the reader throughout the writing itself. However, every book was illustrated, including sometimes a detailed depiction of “You” as the character in the book. Apparently when I’m taking on the role of a hero of the old west, I’m a blond cowgirl. I suppose this softens the blow when something bad happens to the character; I kept losing and ultimately getting killed by Native Americans, and it would probably be less traumatic to a child to see a picture of the poor cowgirl getting the arrow in her belly as opposed to a picture of myself.

Anna died tragically too, in a skiing accident, but I didn’t experience her life through her perspective. The intent is different here than a children’s “gamebook.” It’s really about the life of her friend Ellinor. By addressing her friend we learn of Ellinor’s thoughts on their relationship as well as other relationships throughout her life, and what they mean to her. By writing in a second-person narrative Grøndahl makes these thoughts even more intimate.

As I said, writing an entire book in second person can be tricky but it can be pulled off well. For whatever reason—letting ourselves into a person’s innermost thoughts as they re-examine their life, or taking on a character in an adventure game—if it is done well, the experience can be rewarding… well, except for that poor cowgirl I kept getting killed.


By the way, you’ll notice that this isn’t a full book review. I borrowed Often I Am Happy from the library in order to review it, but I didn’t feel the strong urge yet to do so. This is the second new book I read since I put my reviews on hiatus with the intent on reviewing it. Am I going through a dry spell? At least this time I got a topic for a blog post out of it. I’ll just say that the book was a little right-wing for my taste but well-written anyway.

Book reviews will be on hold for a little while; consumerism versus creativity.

Officially starting today I changed positions at my job. I am no longer what is called the “operations supervisor.” Instead I have a new or rare position in the company called something like “Freight Area Supervisor.” In other words, I oversee the freight flow process for the store, working with the early morning stock crew as well as coordinating with management and maintaining the receiving area blah blah blah let’s be honest I took the job because it’s a lot more money. And from my understanding the vice president of the company invented the position because of how good I am in working the back room. At least, that’s the story I heard. In any case, it’s a rare position and management wanted me back there because I’m damn good at it.

What does that have to do with book reviews? I’m still getting used to the position. Even though it officially started today I began work trying to clean up the back room this past Thursday, ultimately working a 14 hour shift. I got sore in muscles that I forgot I had. I ended up only going for three hours the next day. I had got a book to read this past weekend but I spent more time vegging in front of my computer watching Babylon 5 while I tried to recover. Then, of course chores around the apartment started backing up and I had a ton of stuff to do. Even as I write this, I have several dirty dishes piled up in my kitchen that need addressing.

On top of it all I’m scheduled to go into work earlier than I have been, and in fact scheduled ten hours overtime for the week. We’ll see how that pans out, but the main point is that I’m getting used to my new job. I want to go back to book reviews, but I don’t want to make promises as to when.

Besides, I have other things that I want to do, or rather, get back into doing outside of work. Yesterday, when I was feeling a little better, I drove out to a beach near me and walked out to one of my favorite spots when I need to clean my head, a specific rock down by the water away from the beach itself. I went there with the intent to think through a dilemma I had built for myself. I won’t bother detailing that or my conclusions on it here as they aren’t relevant but another, important thought occurred to me. I knew that I’ve been slacking off for a long time now. As you can see I haven’t been blogging much over the past several months aside from book reviews and the occasional, boring thought. I haven’t done any serious writing in a while. Other habits have gone by the wayside such as jogging or practicing guitar.

I have tried to better myself through podcasts covering current events, science and culture, reading more “intellectual” material and watching more “artistic” and culturally relevant movies.But was I really becoming a better person as a result? I thought back to a YouTube video that I watched recently by The Count of the Belfry Network and the Goth talk podcast Cemetery Confessions. During his discussion on “What is Goth?” he brought up the point of how we have become a consumer culture, where we consume more than we create. Being aware of the world is all well and good, but what is the point of consuming knowledge without doing anything with it?

I felt that I was at a crossroads—yes, I know, cliché and melodramatic, but that’s how I felt nonetheless. Was I going to give in and give up on writing and to a lesser degree, music, and just become a consumer? Would I become the type of person who would come home from work, crack open a beer, and watch television until bedtime? Or would I be come a creator? Would I return to writing and this time, in full force? Would I eschew some of my pastimes in favor of more disciplined work, despite the extra work I’m taking on at my full-time job?

I’m not placing a value judgement on either choice. I know that the latter option sounds more “respectable” but I honestly wouldn’t have a problem with going either way. What it boils down to is which type of person am I? The endless consumer or the desperate creator?

I would like to think that by this point, over seven hundred words into this blog post, the answer has become obvious. I don’t feel guilty over “slacking” off over the past year. It may have just been something that I needed. And sure, I may need to relax sometimes. But I need to create.

Although, first, I really need to do those dishes. There’s little insects crawling around on my kitchen counter.

Book Review: “The Small Hand” by Susan Hill.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill is a ghost story but not the kind you would tell around the campfire to spook your friends. It is a story of sorrow and guilt, while touching on aspects of mental illness. The ghosts in the fiction of the piece are definitely real, but they are also skeletons in the closet for at least one character, and an impetus for self-harm.

Adam Snow is a book dealer who deals with rare and expensive books for private clients, searching across the globe for whatever those clients might be willing to pay for. During one trip to a client’s home, Adam stumbles upon an old, decrepit house in the woods. He feels drawn to the place, and then even more so when he feels a child’s hand gripping his. However, when he looks down he discovers that there’s no child there… at least not a living one, anyway.

Adam flees the property but the presence doesn’t always go away. Even when he travels to a monastery in France in search of a rare book for the aforementioned client, he feels the hand again when wandering the grounds. The “child” leads him to a pool of water, pulling stronger as they get nearer. It seems that every time he goes towards water, he has to fight the urge to fall in.

He ends up seeking the advice of his brother Hugo, who had a breakdown himself and almost died in a similar fashion. Hugo dismisses the idea of a ghost, trying to pass off Adam’s problems as simply a breakdown of his own. However, Adam’s search for answers leads him back to the house to discover some unsettling secrets about their past, which leads to a confrontation with Hugo and ultimately uncovering guilty secrets.

While the supernatural does exist in this story, Hill may be using the hand to represent the urge to harm one’s self. Some people may be able to let go of the hand for good, while some are not, which may lead to dire consequences for them and their loved ones.

On the surface, The Small Hand works as a spooky ghost story. However, the stock spookiness inherent in such stories is replaced by melancholy here. Instead of frightening us sometimes ghosts can sadden us, especially if they reflect what we detest in ourselves

Mini-book review: “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin.

The title of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream (translated form the Spanish by Megan McDowell) is apt for both the experience of the main character as well as the reader. A woman named Amanda slowly dies in a hospital room, carrying on a conversation with a young boy named David—or perhaps he is yet another hallucination as she relives her final moments. As he repeatedly tells her about various details in the story she tells, “that is not important.”

The story is told entirely through dialogue between the two characters, with most of the narration of previous events told from Amanda’s perspective. Throughout the conversation we learn the plot of the story—however it would do the book no justice to offer a summary here, as Schweblin manages to make the reader’s piecing together the plot part of the plot. The actual events aren’t as important as the understanding of the events, or at least to the extent in which Amanda tries to grasp their meaning right before she dies.

The book is best read in one sitting, and then if you can stomach the psychological trauma of the characters and depictions of poisoned children, re-read. It’s an unusual book and carries a lot of weight but isn’t undecipherable. The book feels like a dire thought experiment and should gain the respect of anybody who reads it, but it will most serve anybody who’s looking for something different.

Book review: “Running” by Cara Hoffman.

In the midst of a chaotic, violent and crime-laden world human relationships can still form, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, more often than not both. This happens in Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Running. The story follows Birdie, Jasper and Milo, three young people called “runners”—people who board a train full of tourists, convince them to stay the Athens hotel they work for, then make sure they don’t leave once they see how decrepit the place really is while the person behind the desk takes their passports and other possessions to hold for them. As Birdie puts it in her description of the job, if any of their possessions go missing once they’ve surrendered them over, it’s their own fault. Occasionally they have run-ins with a young Irish man, Declan, who acts as a sort of leader to the group, although not because they need one but because they are too afraid of him to oppose him.

The story is told from different time periods in a non-sequential order, starting with Birdie returning to Athens and learning of Jasper’s death. It then switches back to when the two first met, and Jasper taking Birdie back to their hotel room where she meets his boyfriend Milo, an ex-boxer who is too sensitive to fit into society considering his masculine image. It alternates between these two time periods as well as Birdie as a preteen living with her uncle while she develops her obsession with fire and explosives and a time set into the future when Milo has moved to New York and is now a successful poet and teacher.

The narrative can get confusing at times and it only uses first person from Birdie’s perspective, which can get confusing and jarring if the reader isn’t paying attention. The multiple plots from different time periods in these characters’ lives do flow in a dramatic arc, which helps. The characters sometimes slip into caricatures of the type of people they are supposed to be (Milo’s student who he also lives with, a young African American woman from New York comes immediately to mind). Yet the gritty storytelling distracts from this enough that we still care what happens to each character next, such as when Birdie becomes pregnant or an Egyptian they befriended (and unbeknownst to him, betrayed) becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack that he likely didn’t commit.

There’s so many twists and turns this story takes that makes it hard to give too much away without spoiling the effect of the storytelling. Hoffman knows how to keep the reader’s interest throughout, despite the unorthodox shifts in narrative and sometimes weak characterizations. Running is definitely worth the read, but be warned that it isn’t for the faint of heart.

Book review: “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Moshi Moshi (translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda) tells the story of a young woman struggling to move on with her life while she and her mother grieve over her father’s bizarre death. Yoshie’s father, a prominent local rock musician, was found dead in a car with another woman in what looks to be a murder-suicide (or possibly a double suicide, we never find out for sure). The exact nature of the father’s relationship is left as just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Yoshie*, but the story isn’t really about his death as much as it affects those closest to him.

The story begins with Yoshie’s mother moving into her apartment in Shimokitazawa as she feels her late husband’s presence in their old home in Meguro. At first Yoshie is reluctant but they both needed each other’s support, not to mention a change of place. Over time the move helps both of them heal from the wound that was dealt to them both. Yoshie works in the bistro across the street, where she meets the manager of the club where her father often played. He frequents the bistro until the two of them start dating. She also gets a couple of visits from a mysterious woman whose first husband also nearly died when having an affair with the woman who killed Yoshie’s father. Throughout the book Yoshie also seeks information and finally solace from one of her father’s former band-mates.

The change that Yoshie’s life goes through is strongly tied to the sense of place, as exemplified by a passage in which she and her mother down an entire cake in the apartment:

I’d never dreamed that Mom and I could do anything as fun as gorging on an entire cake until our bellies ached. We weren’t being hysterical, or depressed. We’d just thought of something nice to do, and done it together. That kind of thing felt wrong in Meguro, but the new apartment somehow made it possible.

In Shimokitazawa Yoshie gets a job at a successful bistro, becoming more or less the owner’s apprentice. She loves her work and the area where she lives and enjoys that she’s seeing somebody. It all has the comfort of a normal adult life. Yet she still dreams of her father. She’s not repressing memories or feelings—she and her mother constantly have conversations about how they feel and memories of times the three of them had as a family. But Yoshie has trouble processing her feelings, and needs all the help she can get in order to work them out as best she can.

Moshi Moshi has a slice-of-life feel throughout the book. It has a plot and it flows well, but it sets itself up in ways that a reader may feel misleading. The death of Yoshie’s father and the visit from the woman whose husband also had an affair with the dead woman implies that this book could have been a mystery. Yoshie’s mother seeing the ghost around the old apartment and Yoshie’s recurring dreams suggest that it could have been a ghost story of some sort. But these end up becoming fact-of-life occurrences, adding to the story but not taking it over.

That is not to say the book is disjointed or jarring. The light atmosphere the book presents with its grim setup may seem conflicted at first, but it only serves to help make the point. Even when struck by the horrifying loss of a loved one, life moves on. We may need some help and a change of place to help it do so, but it moves on regardless.


*Or Yocchan. Characters in the book refer to her with both names. I’m sorry, in the limited time I had to do research before publishing this blog post I couldn’t find out if one is the common nickname of the other, or if there was some other reason why her names were interchangeable. Perhaps somebody could help me in the comments below?

Catching up on some reading, will resume regular reviews this week.

As regular readers may have noticed I didn’t get around to a book review last week, either. I had intentionally skipped the previous week’s review so I could try to get caught up on some other reading. I ended up also borrowing the fifth book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. At over six hundred pages it was an undertaking, but that still isn’t something I have difficulty reading over a weekend. But other things came up and I wasn’t able to finish it until just a few minutes ago.

I’m not going to review Knausgaard’s book. It’s a large, intimidating work and besides,  I wouldn’t feel comfortable reviewing it until the sixth book comes out in English so I can read it anyway. It’s not six books in a series of novels but rather a novel so long that it’s split up into six books. I highly recommend it, but I won’t list my thoughts here… at least not yet, anyway.

I did borrow another book, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto in order to review it tomorrow, or possibly Tuesday. I probably won’t get to read it until tomorrow. I still have all those back issues of magazines which I subscribe to that I haven’t read yet. I’m going to try to get at least some of those later today. Right now I want to try some fiction writing of my own, which I haven’t done in a while. I haven’t abandoned the centaur idea, but have settled on a form with which to tell that story. But today I’m going to just try a writing exercise in order to get back into the groove of things.