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.

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.

Book Review: “Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle

John Darnielle’s recent novel Universal Harvester does not belong to the mystery genre exactly, however it does raise a lot of questions that we hope for a big payoff at the end when we realize all of the missed clues scattered throughout the story. Or perhaps the book could leave us with more questions than answers but still be satisfying in the way that it does so while still hinting at its meaning. Sadly, despite the intriguing ideas and tone Universal Harvester follows through on neither promise.

Jeremy Heldt, in his early twenties, works at a video store in the late nineties and still lives with his father. Their mother died six years earlier in a car crash, and her loss still looms over the household. After a couple of customers returned tapes to the store complaining that they contained some home-recorded footage spliced into the videotape that they rented, he examines the footage. It turns out to be incomplete scenes that depict weird moments in a shed somewhere, including people underneath a tarp getting kicked by somebody whose face we never see and a woman whose head is covered in a hood being asked to do strange things such as standing on one leg.

Jeremy, Stephanie (one of the customers) and Sarah Jane (the store’s owner) each try to unravel the mystery of these scenes. Sarah Jane finds the house in a neighboring town (the bulk of the story takes place in Nevada, Iowa) that she identifies from the videos. She meets the woman who lives in the house, Lisa Sample, who at first denies any knowledge of the videos but ultimately befriends Sarah.

We then get Lisa’s backstory, or rather her mother Irene’s, for a good portion of the book. We learn that she becomes disenfranchised with life with her family, having moved away from her familiar church. She gets sucked into a traveling religious sect (possibly a cult) and her husband and daughter search across the country to find her.

The book takes a slow, quiet place despite these strange happenings, giving it a sort of Twin Peaks feel. Amidst the main events of the story we see Jeremy’s father starting to date again and Jeremy’s struggle with future work prospects, not wanting to disappoint Sarah Jane. The book starts off in third person and remains that way for the bulk of it, but occasionally the narrator switches to first, revealing that we’re reading somebody’s attempt years later to piece together the story from multiple sources. Aside from the videotapes, this is the biggest mystery of the book: who is this stranger? How will we find out?

Unfortunately, the ending ties most of the story up too nicely and yet unevenly and the reveal of the narrator is disappointing. The ending is only unpredictable by just how predictable it is. The story up to that point is so intriguing that the end feels like a let-down. It works, it makes sense, but it shouldn’t have to. There’s also something about the narration of first person that really irritates me at the end but I can’t give away my gripe without giving away a major spoiler. (Likewise, one of the big questions of the book isn’t answered exactly but only hinted at—at least Darnielle leaves that one up to interpretation.)

This isn’t to say that Universal Harvester isn’t worth reading. Right up to the ending the book is intriguing and it isn’t exactly a “whodunnit” anyway. But I wish the payoff at the end had more of an impact than it had, in order to drive the themes of the book home more.

This is just a quick note at the end to say that I will be skipping next week’s book review. I have to catch up on too many other projects, including some other reading, that I’m going to take the time to work on those over the next few days and won’t have time to read a new book to review.

This week’s book review is coming, I swear.

I just finished the book that I had intended to review for Monday’s blog post. I’m going to try to write the review tomorrow, but Fridays have been typically busy lately. I’ll probably start it and then finish it on Saturday. This week has been stressful and I have a lot of catching up to do in my personal life. On top of it all I have to work this weekend. So it’s likely that I will skip next week’s review while I hit “reset.” Then again, you never know.

Who am I explaining this to? I have no obligations to write a book review on every Monday other than to myself. But isn’t that enough?

Monday Book Review: “Margaret the First” by Danielle Dutton.

Danielle Dutton’s recent book Margaret the First engages in a delightful illusion. By using brief passages for each scene Dutton manages to weave together events from all across Margaret Cavendish’s life beginning when she was a child right to her death. However, each passage leads to the next, creating a seamless narrative. This makes it easy for the reader to barely notice that within 160 pages 49 years of a woman’s life passes by.

A change in first-person to second about halfway through jars the flow slightly but not without merit. The shift in perspective shifts the book’s focus from the observant to the observed. Growing up, Margaret is lost in her own thoughts and still keeping to herself outside and observing the world while her sisters move on to more “adult” things like raising families. When she does marry (not without some scandal) she marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat and writer who hosted many great thinkers in their home, such as Hobbes and Descartes. Margaret discovers a passion for writing herself and begins to publish her own books of plays and philosophy. Amid critical acclaim she also meets controversy, as it’s not considered proper in the seventeenth century for women to publish their own writing. Indeed, even when she suffers from illness at one point the doctor proclaims that it was her writing that caused her to go ill. When she publishes her second book, many accuse her of being a fraud, for how could a woman be able to write so much? She chooses to take this as a good sign: “‘If any thinks my book so well wrote as that I had not the wit to do it, truly I am glad for my wit’s sake!'”

The second part of the book takes place during the reformation after the war, and is when the shift to second-person takes place. While we still follow Margaret and her innermost thoughts, our attention is adjusted to now take in the criticism of others. As she and William attempt to re-enter civil society, there are those that scorn them, or at least her. Cries of “Mad Madge” can be heard from outside her carriage as she’s on her way to visit a group of esteemed scientists, for example. Other women are critical of her as well, providing her nowhere to turn to but misery. She begins to think of herself as a monster and throughout the book laments her inability to provide William with more children (he had ten with his first wife). Yet she can not help who she is and her urge to keep writing.

The third and shortest section (aside from the prologue and epilogue) contains one more narrative shift, albeit more subtle; by changing the tense from the past to the present we have not only the affect the outside world is having on Margaret but the sense of urgency that it has on her in her later years.

Dutton presents Margaret as a sort of proto-feminist, not belonging to any specific movement. At times she resents that she doesn’t conform to feminine norms, at others she declares that she wishes to eschew society’s expectations of her in order to be herself. This latter attitude is presented as more of a solitary goal than one to elevate the status of women in Elizabethan society. However, the distinction of being the first woman to have her written work published is too big to ignore, as is society’s reaction to it. She may have been the victim of ridicule and seen as the exception rather than the rule at the time. Still, by presenting us with Margaret’s story, Dutton demonstrates the trials that one faces when stepping outside of society’s expectations. Breaking down gender roles isn’t easy but it can be done, even by one person.

The book often repeats phrases for dramatic effect, which is the biggest symptom in the book of steering too close to almost being too intelligently written for its own good. That’s better than the other way around, but the conciseness of the book prevents it from veering off into that regard. Still, the prose as it is feels just right, helping the reader take in the surroundings while breezing through this quick read. A second reading may help take in the impact of the story, but either way Margaret the First is definitely recommended.

I know I only started the Monday Book Reviews a few months ago and that they tend to be some of my more popular posts. But as I have stated on this blog a few times recently I will be taking two months off from them. In January, I want to get caught up on reading other books than new releases. I still intend on jotting down my thoughts on these books on Mondays but not in full-fledged book reviews. In February, as usual, I will be taking part in the RPM Challenge and won’t have much time to read anything other than the usual magazines and maybe a book or two. I intend on resuming Monday Book Reviews in March.

Tuesday Random Thoughts: Upcoming book reviews, automating my reading habits (as well as waste), screenplay ideas.

  • I just got a couple of books for the next two weeks’ book reviews, A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford and Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. I plan on reviewing those books for the next two Mondays before I take the following two months off from book reviews. However, I forgot that Christmas was on a Sunday this year, and I was going to be busy the day before. I typically try to read books for my reviews in their entirety the weekend beforehand. I’ll try to get to it but I may have to postpone the later review until some weekend in January.
  • I’m thinking of cancelling my Netflix subscription and signing up for Amazon Prime. It’s not just that I’m annoyed by the selection (or lack thereof) on Netflix, but I’m very enticed by the unlimited e-books. I don’t know what the selection is going to be like but it’s worth looking into. The only problem is the cost. The cheapest option for Amazon Prime is 99 dollars a hear. That comes out to just a little more than Netflix for a lot more stuff. In other words, I’m spending about the same amount every year anyway. But my brain is stuck on “99” (a year on Amazon) versus eight bucks (a month on Netflix, roughly). I don’t usually have that much at once. Maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial this month anyway, and then pay the one-time fee come January. Of course, there’s always the library.
  • One of the reasons I wanted to try the Prime plan for reading on my Kindle, however, was so I wouldn’t have to go to the library once a week for book reviews. If I could stand the selection of books available to me on Prime then I would be able to cut out one more errand. That’s why I’m looking into getting trash pickup for my apartment instead of taking trips to the dump every few weeks. I think my neighbors in the downstairs apartment already do that. Perhaps I should ask them if we could split the cost and I’ll throw my stuff out with theirs. Now, if only there was somebody out this way that would automatically deliver my groceries every week I’ll be all set. We sell food where I work but not enough of the the stuff I get.
  • I had the idea of going through some drafts of older work and turning them into outlines for screenplays. I forgot how many of these drafts were really scraps rather than fleshed-out pieces. I got some ideas, especially some weird ones that I might be able to stitch together into a sort of surreal piece. I also have some novels and short stories that I wanted to keep as novels and short stories, but maybe I could rework them into screenplays as well. I think I’ll explore that idea in tomorrow’s writing progress post.