top 5 wednesday: Problematic Faves

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

November 8th: Problematic Faves: Characters you don’t want to love, but you can’t help liking.

Before I get to my list, I just want to talk for a second about how much I hate the word ‘problematic’.  It’s a pointless catch-all word people use when they don’t want to think too critically about the things they’re criticizing.  I think it’s so important to engage critically with media, but I find that ‘problematic’ barely skims the surface of the issues that lie beneath it.  We shouldn’t be afraid of words like ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘transmisogynistic’ – these issues are too important to write off with the lexical equivalent of a vague wave of the hand.

Moreover, I cannot tell you how much I hate the false equivalence between fictional characters and real people.  I feel like there’s a lot of very bad discourse on the internet which condemns the actions of fictional characters (and worse yet – condemns people who consider themselves fans of these characters) as though they were real.  Here’s the thing – flawed characters make good stories.  What’s the point of reading about a group of faultless individuals?  Stories need conflict, they need characters who exist in moral grey areas.  Characters like Snape and Dumbledore are fantastic examples – you don’t need to ‘like’ these characters (I sure don’t), but before dismissing everyone who does, consider that ‘I like Snape’ does not necessarily mean ‘I condone every one of his actions, and if he were a real person I’d like to shake his hand and take him out to dinner,’ but rather, ‘in a fictional universe populated by people who are mostly Good or Bad I enjoy examining the nuances of this character who exists somewhere in the middle, whose ambiguous loyalties provided a stimulating element that the Harry Potter series would be rather lacking without.’

So with all that said, I love ‘problematic’ characters.  I love books about horrible people.  I love fiction that digs into human imperfections.  Here are some problematic faves who I embrace, whose narratives would be nothing without these characters’ fascinating flaws.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Henry Winter (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  I could easily have comprised this list entirely of characters from The Secret History, but if I had to choose just one, I have to go with Henry.  Henry Winter is one of the most intriguing characters from anything I’ve ever read.  The fact that he’s a murderer barely scrapes the surface of his faults, and yet….. The Secret History would be nothing without his evil genius propelling the story forward.  From the second he’s introduced, how utterly frustrating and enigmatic and ruthless and unknowable Henry Winter is becomes one of the most compelling things about this book.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ryan Cusack begins this story as a teenage drug dealer, and it only gets worse from there… but still, he breaks my heart.  What The Glorious Heresies does so exceptionally well is depict the nuances of inter-generational crime and poverty in Ireland – how it’s such a difficult cycle to break.  Ryan finds himself right in the middle of that, striving to be a good person and only failing because his socioeconomic status is preventing him from succeeding.  Add that to That Thing that we find out happened to him at the end of the novel, and it’s no wonder he’s so messed up.  But never beyond redemption.

22299763Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo).  Kaz is the leader of a ruthless gang, driven singularly by a need for revenge that stems from a tragic childhood.  Though he has a reputation for being monstrous, the more Leigh Bardugo reveals about this character, the more we discover how tragic circumstance has made him the way he is.  The softer side he shows with Inej also makes it difficult to utterly condemn him as heartless.  I have to say, I have such a weakness for characters who lash out or pull up a wall around themselves only because they’re hurting – from the minute Kaz was introduced I knew he was going to be my favorite, and even had the thought ‘I’m probably not supposed to like this character at this point before I reach the tragic backstory, am I.’

33253215Julian Woodbead (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne).  I was initially going to choose the novel’s protagonist, Cyril Avery, but I’m writing this post rather late and Chelsea already did a great job writing about Cyril, so I’m going to instead choose Cyril’s best friend and the object of his affections – Julian.  Julian is ostensibly awful.  He’s a bit of a womanizer, he doesn’t really care about anyone but himself, and yet, he’s so funny, so charismatic, you can’t help but to fall a little in love with him the way Cyril does.  The real strength of The Heart’s Invisible Furies is how simultaneously hilarious and aggravating all of the characters are, and Julian is such a good example of Boyne’s brilliance in this regard.  If Julian were a ‘better’ person, this book wouldn’t be what it is: such a startling reflection of life’s imperfections.

752900Medea (Euripides/classics, Bright Air Black by David Vann).  In one of the most harrowing climaxes in literary history, Medea murders her children.  So.  I don’t think we’re gonna get more problematic than that.  But to write off her character as a monster is to entirely miss the point of how tragic this character is – she leaves her home and betrays her family to help Jason, who she falls in love with, only in turn to be betrayed by him.  She’s wild and ruthless but not utterly soulless, which is the most haunting thing about this character.

Who are some of your problematic faves?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 tuesday: Characters to Team Up With to Rule the World

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

SEPTEMBER 26TH – Top 5 characters I would team up with to rule the world!

Characters’ moral compasses may vary.

51bcsc2fcflSansa Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin).  My girl!!!  I think I’ve waxed eloquent about my love for Sansa Stark enough on this blog, so I’ll just get right to it.  Sansa is the sort of character who has a tremendous amount of growth, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want to team up with her 11-year-old self to rule the world, the young woman she becomes is one of the most formidable and capable characters in the entire series.  She learns from the best and the worst alike, and she knows how to navigate the complex political situations she finds herself in.  I want to team up with her to save Westeros and then dismantle the patriarchy.

23437156Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo).  (I would just like to point out that Sansa and Kaz are like….. the very embodiment of the two Types of characters I always fall for.  The dichotomy of my being summed up in this one unlikely pair.)  Anyway, this one doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation… Kaz is the sort of character you’d rather have on your side than against you, so while he may not be the most trustworthy person in the world, I’ll take my chances.  He’s the sort of criminal mastermind who could easily take over the world if he decided that would be an advantageous course of action.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Henry Winter (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  Henry is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered.  He may not be a Good Person, but I don’t think he’s a bad person either… and at any rate, he’s another one who I’d rather have on my side than against me.  Plus, his idea of taking over the world would probably include ‘make The Iliad required reading for everyone’ and let’s be real, that aligns very nicely with my own agenda.

1371Helen of Sparta (The Iliad by Homer; classics).  Anyone powerful enough to (inadvertently) bring about a war is someone I want to be partners in crime with.  Helen is one of my favorite characters, and the thing that makes me defend her character is how little agency she has in her narrative: she’s stolen by Paris and then her husband Menelaus wages a war to get her back.  The question of what Helen herself wanted has long been debated – did she go willingly with Paris, or was it kidnap? – and anyway, I’m saying all this because I want to give Helen a narrative where she’s in total control.  i.e., Ruling the world.

pillars-of-the-earthAliena of Shiring (The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett).  Aliena is one of the most capable characters I can think of.  She goes from being brought up in nobility to having absolutely nothing, to starting her own business as a wool merchant.  She’s someone who gets shit done, and above that, she’s also just a deeply good person.  I’d gladly rule medieval England with her.


 

Which character(s) would you team up with to rule the world?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 wednesday: Favorite “Unlikable” Protagonists

Hey guys, I’m back! Before I get to this week’s T5W, just a quick note: I haven’t spent very much time online these past 10 days, and it’s probably going to take me a couple of days to get caught up on everything and I’m sure there’s a lot I’m still going to miss, so if there’s anything you really want me to see for whatever reason – your reviews, tags, awards, comments I haven’t responded to, etc. – just leave a comment here with the link, I would really appreciate it. Thanks!!!

Now let’s get to it.

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

June 21st: Favorite “Unlikeable” Protagonists: People always tear down “unlikeable” protagonists. But tell us the ones you pulled for!

I love this topic. I have to admit, I find myself often defending books with ‘unlikable’ characters. To me, a good character isn’t someone I necessarily want to be friends with, but rather, someone who’s well-developed, intriguing, and multi-faceted.  I love each and every one of these characters, even when I don’t particularly like them.

30900136Ava Antipova (Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach). The first thing I tell people who are considering whether or not to read Dead Letters is that if you can’t deal with unlikable characters, you’re going to hate this book. Dead Letters features one of the most dysfunctional family dynamics I’ve ever seen, and this story is filled to the brim with characters who are compelling but at times rather loathsome. The protagonist Ava is no exception. She’s occasionally selfish, hypocritical, and holier than thou… and yet, she is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen.  For all her flaws, she has just as many virtues, and she’s three-dimensional enough that I found myself relating to quite a few aspects of her character, even when I didn’t really want to.  For all fans of literary fiction who like their characters as aggravatingly realistic as possible, Dead Letters is a must read.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ugh, my heart hurts just thinking about this character.  At a glance, Ryan is hard to love.  He’s a teenage drug dealer who’s apathetic about his future; he cares deeply about his girlfriend Karine but doesn’t always know how to show it, and ends up making some stupid mistakes.  But what Lisa McInerney does so expertly in this book is depict crime and poverty as a vicious, multi-generational cycle.  It’s clear that Ryan is the way he is because of the way he was raised – and his father is the way he is because of the way he was raised, etc., and it’s heartbreaking because of how unavoidable it all seems.  But there’s still so much good in this character who’s somehow managed to not be irrevocably damaged by everything he’s gone through, and for that reason, I managed to root for Ryan through all his many ups and downs.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Richard Papen (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  My knee-jerk reaction to thinking about Richard Papen is ‘ugh, Richard,’ but when I think about it – what would The Secret History have been without him?  Richard anchors this story together in a way that’s absolutely essential to the narrative.  He’s the outsider coming into this tight-knit group of friends, and his instant idolization of their group dynamic is what really allows the story to be set into motion.  Richard’s mere presence in a lot of ways was a catalyst – his idolization in some ways being the justification they all needed to do the things they managed to do.  Richard is self-centered, and willfully blind to horrible things that he had been in a position to prevent, but still he makes for a compelling protagonist.  Surrounded by wealth and luxury, Richard himself comes from a poor background, and this class difference plays heavily into the way he interacts with this group of friends, and it’s difficult to fully condemn him when the temptation to do what they did is laid out so clearly for the reader.

220px-the_girl_on_the_train_28us_cover_201529Rachel (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). I’m still somewhat conflicted about this book, but amid all my mixed feelings, there is one certainty: I love Rachel. I love her. Maybe I was predisposed to like her because we share a name, or maybe I just appreciated seeing such an openly flawed female character in such a mainstream novel – I’m not sure what exactly it was, but I was instantly drawn to Rachel.  Make no mistake, she is frustrating as all hell.  She’s an alcoholic who doesn’t care much about how her addiction affects the lives of those around her, she’s a complete busybody, she’s obsessed with her ex to a positively annoying degree… and yet, all of these things make for one of the most realistic protagonists I’ve ever encountered.  At times I want to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, but at the same time, I found it so refreshing to read about a female character who’s been afforded the same depth as so many famous male protagonists.

tender-by-belinda-mckeonCatherine (Tender by Belinda McKeon).  Catherine is so easy to loathe… almost too easy, in fact.  Because to loathe her is to distance yourself as a reader from her many complexities, and I for one would be hypocritical to not own up to the many ways that I related to this character.  Her obsessiveness is almost frighteningly realistic – Tender is told in terse, frantic prose which deteriorates the further you read, as Catherine becomes more and more mentally unstable.  She does some things that are morally reprehensible, and I want to condemn her for them, but I really can’t in good conscience.  This is a book about all the ugly sides of human nature, and you have to be willing to own up to them, because Catherine is almost unnervingly real.

Who are some of your favorite unlikable protagonists?  Comment and let me know!  And again, comment if there’s anything I missed these past 10 days that you’d like me to see!

top 5 wednesday: Books for your Hogwarts House

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

June 7th: Books For Your Hogwarts House: Show your Hogwarts House Pride, and tell us the top 5 books that represent your house!

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Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind.

I know there’s nothing particularly original about being a book nerd who identifies as Ravenclaw, but oh well.  I’ve always been decently ‘book smart’ (except where Chemistry is concerned, but let’s not talk about that), but more important than any innate intelligence I may or may not possess, I never seem to be satisfied with merely consuming media without engaging with it on a critical level.  That’s why I started writing book reviews in the first place – primarily to have somewhere to get all my thoughts down, because regardless of whether I loved or hated a book, my mind is always racing when I read.  I may have gotten really burned out with school toward the end there, but I’m always going to love learning.

(If you’re interested, the order that I identify with each house is: Ravenclaw > Slytherin > Hufflepuff >>>>> Gryffindor.)

Anyway, let’s get to it!  I think these books would be Ravenclaws, too.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt: This is an obvious one, but I had to include it.  Donna Tartt’s intelligent prose alone would earn this book a spot at the Ravenclaw table, but then when you throw in the subject matter – a group of pretentious classics nerds at an elite liberal arts school who want their lives to play out like a Greek drama – it’s hard to argue that this book belongs anywhere else.

517iynhfy5lThe Awakening by Kate Chopin: The Awakening is an early feminist novel about a woman who becomes dissatisfied with her marriage.  While the subject matter isn’t particularly innovative or shocking today, Kate Chopin is one of the first authors to lend such a daring portrayal of independence to her female protagonist.  I think this book belongs in Ravenclaw because the ‘awakening’ that the heroine Edna undergoes has to do with questioning the limitations of her own life, as well as the role of women in late 1800s society.  It’s not a book about action, but reflection, and how quiet reflection leads to a change in the way Edna lives her life.

6460814Ransom by David Malouf: What, a top 5 Wednesday where I don’t include the Iliad???  The Iliad is clearly a Gryffindor.  Alas.  Fortunately though, we have found a loophole, which is: being able to talk about the Iliad anyway.  Hooray!  Ransom is Australian writer David Malouf’s retelling of books XXII-XXIV of the Iliad, which focuses on the conflict between Priam and Achilles.  Achilles has killed Hector, Trojan prince, and has been dragging Hector’s body around the city walls of Troy, so Hector’s father, Priam, crosses battle lines to approach Achilles and ransom his son’s body.  While the Iliad is all rage and bloodlust and battle scenes, Ransom puts a quiet and contemplative spin on this famous tale.

33564The Crazed by Ha Jin: Do you ever finish reading something and think ‘I am too stupid for this book’?  That was me and The Crazed.  This is one of the most erudite things I’ve ever read.  Steeped in Chinese literary history, the intertextuality in this book is layered and masterful.  It’s hard to understand everything Ha Jin is trying to say in a single reading of The Crazed – this is the kind of book that could probably use five re-readings, as well as an intimate knowledge of multiple other texts before approaching it.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang: The Vegetarian is one of my favorite books that I read last year, about a South Korean woman who stops eating meat in reaction to a violent dream.  This book is complex and layered – it raises questions about violence, sexuality, mental illness, social norms – and it gives no easy answers.  This is a book meant to stimulate and challenge the reader to think critically about the questions it poses, and my Ravenclaw brain loved the sheer amount of thematic complexity here.

So, what’s your Hogwarts house?  And which books do you think belong there?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 wednesday: Favorite Angsty Romances

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

March 22nd- Favorite Angsty Romances

This is a great topic, but it’s a bit tricky since I don’t read the romance genre. I don’t think I ever have. Actually, that’s a lie. When I was younger, my family used to rent a cabin by a lake in upstate New York for a week every summer, and the only book in that entire cabin was some tawdry 80’s historical romance novel, which my best friend and I found absolutely hilarious for some reason, so every time we saw it we’d read random passages out loud to each other. This was the beginning and end of my career as a romance reader.

But I still wanted to see if I could come up with 5 within the genres that I do read, which it turns out I can! Because let’s be real, while I may not be much of a romantic, I love angst.  So here we go…

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Francis Abernathy & Charles Macaulay): Though far from perfect, this is probably one of my top 5 all-time favorite books. I was fascinated by the dynamics between this group of characters, but there’s one relationship in particular that stands out to me, that I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks after reading.  Francis/Charles is a miserable, unrequited pairing – Francis is in love with Charles, who’s in love with someone else (spoilers!), who won’t even fully acknowledge his bisexuality, who only agrees to have sex with Francis when he’s had too much to drink.  Francis is my favorite character in TSH, and I have to admit, in fiction I’m really drawn to this particular self-destructive dynamic where a character knowingly embarks on a relationship that isn’t going to end well.  I feel like this relationship isn’t even examined in the novel to its full potential, and I can’t help but to try to fill in the gaps in my mind, about how they were first drawn to each other, about what they might be able to become under different circumstances.  Because in so many ways, they’re what the other character needs to be – Francis with his false bravado admiring Charles for his natural charisma, and Charles admiring Francis’ openness about his sexuality.  I find their dynamic far more interesting than any of the endgame pairings in this book.

michaud-the-subversive-brilliance-of-a-little-life-320

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I feel sort of weird putting A Little Life on a romance list, because this book is decidedly not a romance. However, there is a relationship in this book – one that I found profoundly, devastatingly, horribly sad and beautiful, and thinking about these two haunts me still. I actually consider the relationship in question a bit of a spoiler since it doesn’t begin until half-way through the book, and until that point it’s a major uncertainty as to whether this relationship will ever happen, so, A Little Life fans, highlight the rest of the sentence to read on (I apologize if you’re viewing this in reader, where the white text doesn’t work)! Also major SPOILERS for the ending, so if you haven’t read this book yet, beware. (Jude St. Francis & Willem Ragnarsson.) The pure depth of the love between these two characters is beautiful and devastating. Their relationship – in all its manifestations, from friendship to romance and everything in between – is horribly, aggravatingly imperfect. And yet. That’s exactly what’s so resonant about this book, and this couple in particular – their love is no less important and no less strong for how difficult it is. MAJOR SPOILER: a particular kryptonite of mine is when two characters are in a relationship and one dies, and the one who’s left behind is the ‘wrong’ one, because they’re the one who’ll have the harder time living without the other. That’s exactly what Hanya did to us here, and I cried my eyes out when Willem died (me!!! I never cry!), not only because I loved him as a character, but because I felt Jude’s loss so acutely. This book destroyed me in every way possible, and the love between Willem and Jude was hugely at the center of the reason why.

11250317The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Achilles & Patroclus): I mean, I loved Achilles/Patroclus long before The Song of Achilles came along, but there’s definitely a distinction between their characterization in Homer, and the characters that Miller creates. Some Iliad purists detest The Song of Achilles for exactly this reason – Miller renders Achilles far, FAR more likable than he was ever meant to be, and Patroclus far more helpless. However, if you can look past the liberties Miller takes and enjoy this book as its own separate entity, The Song of Achilles is a beautiful story, and I found myself drawn into her version of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship so fully that I was truly devastated by the ending, even though I knew exactly what was coming.  The Song of Achilles aims to fill in gaps, chronicling Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship from friends to lovers, from a childhood raised in the palace of Achilles’ father to the battlegrounds of the Trojan War.  It’s an epic, timeless romance, and a tragic story of two soulmates who love each other completely.  I mean, even in Homer, their ashes are mixed together so they won’t be apart even in death.  How can you beat that?!

pillars-of-the-earthThe Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (Jack Jackson & Aliena of Shiring): The Pillars of the Earth is such an sweepingly epic story and I can’t help but get caught up in the lives of these characters. And it’s always so devastating when you have two characters who are meant to be together, but it takes them impossibly long to get there. That’s Jack and Aliena in a nutshell, and I adore them. Early on in the book Aliena is sexually assaulted, and so much of her narrative and her relationship with Jack is about recovery, which isn’t by any means fast or simple.  There’s a particular trope I hate where a woman is raped and her true love helps her heal, which is bullshit (in that it often minimizes her trauma and makes it about the male character), but that’s not the way this relationship is written at all.  Aliena’s narrative is largely about personal recovery, and Jack eventually factors into her story; not the other way around.  It’s extremely well written and convincing and at times horribly sad.  I’m really not much of a romantic, but I’ll admit, this line really got me: “She wanted to say, I love you like a thunderstorm, like a lion, like a helpless rage; but instead she said: “I think I’m going to marry Alfred.””  Also highly recommended is the BBC miniseries, with Eddie Redmayne and Hayley Atwell in these roles.

1371The Iliad by Homer (Hector & Andromache): It is a truth universally acknowledged that the single most devastating scene in the Iliad is the one where Hector is saying goodbye to his wife Andromache and infant son before returning to battle.  The tragedy of Hector is that his fate was entirely unavoidable, not because he was fighting for personal glory like Achilles on the other side, but because he was fighting to protect his family.  Also tragic is the fact that one of the last things he says to Andromache is that he’d sooner die than see her become a war prize, which of course is eventually what happens to her (as well as the murder of their son) after his death.  Things were never going to end happily for these two, so it’s that horribly sad inevitability that always gets to me when I’m reading this famous domestic scene between them.  You can’t help but to get caught up in the ‘what if’s, and think about the life they might have had together.

What are some of your favorite angsty romances?  Comment and let me know!