Books I Read This Month - December 2012

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max

David Foster Wallace is one of my literary heroes, so I was incredibly glad to have stumbled upon this biography. The writing style is straightforward and to-the-point, which is effective for most of the book, but in discussing Wallace's suicidal thoughts it seems a bit disheartening, bordering on disrespectful. However, I found Wallace's life and literary career fascinating and inspiring. I must admit I teared up at a few parts. This is probably one of the books I've been most glad to have read this year.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I knew from the start this this book is Rowling's attempt to justify herself in the literary world apart from Harry Potter; knowing this, I was sure to expunge all judgement in comparing it to the Harry Potter series, but this brought to light other crucial perspectives.

For an "adult novel," in my objective literary opinion, much of The Casual Vacancy is tremendously juvenile. Numerous and unnecessary references to genitalia and the like are not what make a novel "adult." Adults do not, in general, use literature as an excuse to giggle at unmentionables or as an escape from the oppression placed upon them by their elders to remain innocent; that is what young adults do. Of course, profanity and nudity are welcome in this form of literature—assuming it serves a purpose other than as a means of defining a novel as "adult."

Secondly, if the dialogue and action are good—and Rowling's, the majority of the time, are good—then dialogue tags and descriptors become perfunctory. If a character says, "Casual vacancy [is the] proper term," then there is no need to explain to readers that he said it "pedagogically"; they effectively assume that the author thinks them unintelligent. The words the characters say and the context in which they say them should effectively infer the way they say it. If the audience is adult, as Rowling intended, there is no need for her to tell readers what to see or what to think; if the "what" of the story is explored thoroughly enough, the "how" and "why" of it will reveal itself in context—if the novel is "adult."

The subject matter of the book is certainly adult, and it is thoughtful, extremely well planned out, and fascinating; however, the writing style does not in any manner match the content. Rowling's experience in juvenile and young adult fiction has hurt her more than it has helped her in her endeavor to write an adult novel: adults readers do not need nearly as much hand-holding when it comes to inferring subtext as do younger readers. The Casual Vacancy is in dire need of a stripping of "telling" and an injection of "showing." The writing style is fit for teenage readers, but the content is definitely adult; it is difficult to pin down a genre or an audience for this unusual book.

There is some literary merit to this work, though, of course. I always try to look for a writer's strengths, and Rowling's is in world-building and character development. Her experience in the fantasy genre—where world-building is crucial—has paid off in that she has painted a miraculous picture of the small town of Pagford and its inhabitants, which are easily conjured up in the reader's mind. And the reader feels deeply for these characters, the town, and their outcomes as well.

This book starts off incredibly slow, the action hardly picking up until about page 50, and the writing style that consists of unnecessary repetition, redundancies, and lackluster flow is an understandable cause for putting the book down after only a chapter or two. Rowling has made a brave and noble attempt here, but in all honesty, I think she should return to juvenile and young adult fiction.


Unthology No. 3 by Various Authors

Vortex by Jean Stites

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo


  1. I've been meaning to pick up the casual vacancy, and when I glanced at a few pages all I could think of was Harry Potter. I don't think Rowling is ever going to escape that label, and nor should she try. She's an amazing MG/YA writer. (And I don't think she even needed an audience! Everyone would pick up her book anyway because it's HER!) :)

    1. I think she was trying to escape the Potter label with this book, so I read it pretending she hadn't written Harry Potter---that's probably what she intended. I agree with you that she is an amazing MG/YA writer, but adult? Not so much, in my opinion.

      I don't think people should read The Casual Vacancy just because she wrote it. They will most likely be disappointed.

    2. Nothing can live up to HP! On the flip side, as a writer, it's nice to know she's human! :)

  2. I have the Casual Vacancy, but haven't started it yet. Your review was great, Aimee. You gave me a clear picture.

    I don't know if Rowling should only write MG/YA, because I think, as an artist, she wants to expand and experiment, which is cool. But it's possible she should hold off on publishing her first attempts at adult fiction, until she's honed the skill.