Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review | The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

I'm not sure what it is about Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It's not that anything about it was inherently bad, or even specifically disappointing. It is ultimately the fact that the novel failed to move me and felt so under-resolved that leaves me with a wholly empty feeling and a sense of "what was the point?"

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky has been praised for its presentation of a character growing up mixed race, essentially growing up neither here nor there. Indeed, this would have been enough to set main character Rachel apart. Yet on top of this, Rachel has a troubled and traumatic past that is mostly revealed through different point-of-view chapters (essentially flashback chapters). These two heavy concepts alone should be enough to fill a couple hundred pages, but Durrow also tacked on multiple other threads that weakened the stronger parts of the novel.

The first major theme - that of growing up mixed race and never quite fitting in - is by far the novel's strongest. Durrow handles the racial issues deftly, using some familiar ideas and a couple new ones to emphasize Rachel's struggles. For example, Rachel's musings over her hair, her struggles with accepting it one way or another (and comparing it to her white mother's hair) felt entirely real and believable. Or how she couldn't just forget half of her origins - shown thr
oughout the book in her effort to retain her mother's Danish tongue. In these moments, Rachel truly came alive as a young woman struggling to find her identity in a society that generally views matters in a binary.

From here, though, Durrow's ideas and themes start to fall apart a bit. There was a muddled theme about redemption and drugs somewhere near the end of the book, but it utterly failed to lift off. Themes of alcoholism similarly seemed to come apart quickly. Meanwhile, the secondary plotline - that of the family tragedy that leads Rachel to live with her grandmother in the first place - didn't leave much of an impact on me. It felt much more like a straight-up plot device than an actual opportunity for character growth or development. Finally, Durrow's sharp turn towards focusing on sexuality in the latter half of the novel felt oddly out of place and did little to further either the story or character development. I have seen many readers praising the inclusion of this theme, however I found it to be in an awkward middle-ground - not given enough space to properly grow, but also intrusive to the core of the novel.

As a character herself, Rachel generally felt underdeveloped. True, the novel is a relatively short one, but in that time I didn't feel like I could understand her motives or many of her decisions. She seemed to exist in a bubble that occasionally ran tangent to the story, but was really disconnected from it. And that doesn't make sense for the main character (and generally the narrator) of a novel. The other characters didn't feel particularly better developed, though at least with them I felt as though their behavior was a bit clearer and less drawn from nowhere.

The strength of a novel like this could (and should) have been rescued by Durrow's writing. Alas, it was not exactly to my taste - neither crisp enough to compensate for occasionally awkward turns of phrase, nor beautiful enough to make up for my general disinterest in the characters. It's the sort of writing I know many readers enjoy, but it didn't thrilled and it didn't moved me, leaving very little impression.

Overall, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is an interesting novel with quite a bit of potential that just didn't live up to my expectations. I appreciated the messages it tried to get across, however I think Durrow attempted to tackle too many ideas in too short a book, ultimately leaving each one lacking for it. Besides the notable racial themes, nothing was particularly worthwhile about the book - not the characters, nor the writing, nor the way the premise played out. I can see how readers who prefer a writing style like Durrow's might have had a much greater appreciation for the book than I had, but I personally wouldn't be able to recommend it to readers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The pendulum swings

Here's the thing I've had to accept about my life right now: I don't have as much time to read. I just don't. Lives are messy, complicated beasts that take up our time in different ways. Mine right now is filled with stress, work, extremely difficult studies, and personal things. This is how it goes. Reading comes second to school, comes second to health, comes second to a lot of things. And so reading has been bumped down many slots on the stuff-that-is-important list. That doesn't mean I've stopped reading altogether. It just means that when I do read, I don't have quite the time or the same temperament for it that I might have once had. It also means that I have less time to write reviews, or my thoughts on publishing, or my thoughts on the book world altogether. Alas.

I often talk about how I don't like setting goals for my reading, or reading according to some sort of plan, but the truth is that I inevitably don't follow my own advice. I may not set a direct reading plan, but I have that rough sketch, those "guidelines" and quiet hidden quotas that shape my reading from behind the scenes. It does matter to me, despite the fact that I wish it wouldn't.

These quotas exist because at the end of the day I have a general life-goal from reading. And that goal is to read far and wide. I watch what books I read to make sure I don't get caught up in one genre too exclusively, or wrapped up in one very limited mindset, or just reading the default. I don't want to read books just because those are the ones that publishers felt were worth the strongest marketing. I don't want to read books that repeat themselves, that tell me the same story again and again. I want books that challenge my thinking, entertain me, excite me, and take me to new places, intellectually and maybe a bit more literally. This has made me branch out my reading much more than I ever could have imagined, ultimately leading me to many wonderful books.

But it also leads me to a lot of books that are, for lack of a better term, hard. And I don't really mean books with more complex vocabularies or darker stories or even necessarily a greater subtlety to their storytelling. Often, it's just literally a book that's harder to read. For example, a book in Hebrew. Or a particularly thick tome. Or the type of book that requires perfect concentration for four hours while you devour it in one go, while I can only give it fifteen minutes between classes. To be perfectly honest, many of the books I've read in the past year have been wholly unsatisfying, while many of the best have been the ones from the genres I tend least to visit. Some of the most "standard" books have proven to be the most innovative and exciting, while some of the most "impressive" books have turned out to be nothing more than overly ambitious messes.

The pendulum swings. When I was very young, I used to read a lot of fantasy. Later it was historical fiction, then the Classics, then a burst of young adult and "grown-up" fiction (mostly American). Then the growing power of translated literature, my desire to seek out the strange and the magical. And now? Now the pendulum looks like it's heading back towards all those old friends, to books that give me new angles from which to view the familiar. I still don't want to read the same books I've read many times before, but I also don't want to feel like reading is hard work. I don't want to feel like I'm forcing myself to read these huge post-modern "masterpieces" when I'm just not feeling it right now. When it turns out that a simple work of fiction in a genre I tend not to visit manages to suck me in for a whole day. But the pendulum swings, and I know that one day it will take me back to these books I'm currently setting aside. In the meantime though, I think I'm just going to have to take it "easier".