2019 TBR Pile Challenge, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Poetry, pride month, Sarah Henstra, Young Adult

A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Don Juan in the Village

Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.

This book is also one of my TBR Pile Challenge reads for 2019.

We Contain Multitudes

Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.

The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.

One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?

I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.

I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,

I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,

I should have made my way straight to you long ago,

I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)

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AIDS, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Gender Identity, Historical Fiction, immigrant literature, Iranian-American, LGBT, pride month, Sexuality, Young Adult

Thoughts on Two LGBTQ Pride Reads

Like A Love Story

Abdi Nazemian’s young adult historical fiction novel, Like A Love Story, is the fourth LGBTQ-themed book I’ve read this month. Like the others, it has not disappointed. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story from Little Women to The Catcher in the Rye, manages to do this, to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna.

Reza is that immigrant boy. He arrives in New York City, by way of Canada, after his family flees Iran. Reza has always been the good boy, the one his mother can depend on, while his older sister has always been the rebel and troublemaker. But when Reza meets the beautiful punk photographer, Art, and his best friend Judy, everything changes. Reza is thrust into a world that values independence and individuality, and into a sphere that is fighting desperately to survive. Judy’s uncle Stephen is dying of AIDS, and through his example of activism, friendship, patience, and counter-pop culture, Reza, Judy, and Art learn to thrive, to live, and to love.

Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully-written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack. The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives, so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fictional of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience.

This is one of the most important and illuminating LGBTQ novels published in recent memory.

Symptoms of Being Human

The fifth book I read for Pride Month is Jeff Garvin’s The Symptoms of Being Human, a young/new adult novel about a gender fluid protagonist’s coming-out experience. Riley Cavanaugh’s father is a conservative politician in a conservative Orange County, California district, in the middle of a re-election campaign. Riley’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but much of her time is devoted to her duties as a politician’s spouse. Just as the election season is heating up, Riley suffers a kind of panic attack at an important event, after which they are hospitalized for attempted suicide. To ease some of the tension, Riley transfers out of her private Catholic school, where they were tormented, to a public school, where they hope to be better treated. Unfortunately, high school is still high school, conservative areas are still conservative areas, and plans often go sour.

While Riley struggles to figure out who they are, some days feeling like a girl and some days like a boy, and other days not like either one, they also navigate the process of healing from self-harm, dealing with anxiety, hiding a powerful secret from their parents and, let’s face it, an entire district that has the Cavanaugh family under its microscope, and trying to make friends, or at least avoid making enemies, at a new school. Any one of these conflicts would be difficult but trying to deal with all of them simultaneously is beyond unlucky. To help, Riley’s therapist suggests that they start a blog and share privately and anonymously what cannot be shared publicly. To write is Riley’s true therapy, and as it turns out, they are very good at it. Ironically, this talent is what causes the largest crisis of all.

Somehow, Riley finds themselves with a popular blog that only grows in popularity as its presence is picked-up by one of the largest LGBTQ community websites online. Riley receives thousands and then tens of thousands of followers and is bombarded with comments of praise, questions for advice, and plenty of hate mail, too. Eventually, Riley’s identity is discovered, right around the time some of the advice they have given to a transgender teen goes terribly wrong, and suddenly they are thrust, with their secrets, into the glaring spotlight that is a political election season.

The major climax itself did feel unnecessary to me, in an almost troubling way. In my reading, the event felt manufactured to fit a gap in the construction of the narrative, rather than necessarily and organically manifested by the sequence of the story itself. It is also a device so often used in stories of sex/gender diversion that, at this point, it has become cliché. This is not to say the problem is not real, because it is very real and all too common, but the introduction and handling of it (and particularly the “fall out”) are even more important for that reason. This is the one element that pulled me out of an otherwise truly engaging, interesting, and important work that deals with gender fluidity, family, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and mental health.

One of the most incredible things about Symptoms of Being Human is that the author manages to treat Riley Cavanaugh’s gender fluidity with complete honesty throughout the course of the narrative. It is never revealed whether the protagonist was born biologically male or female, nor what their parents assume to be Riley’s sex or gender. This is an impressive feat. The story is well-paced, moving slowly and thoughtfully through the complex areas, then speeding up rapidly during moments of intensity. I was able to read the entire thing over the course of one round-trip flight, and rarely did I want to stop to put it down.


I’m currently reading Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which will be my 6th book for Pride month (this one features a lesbian protagonists sexual experiences around the world), completing my planned reads for the month, though I hope to get one more snuck in under the wire. DON JUAN is also a book on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge List. Check out my thoughts on earlier Pride Month reads, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS as well as GEMINI and HOLD MY HAND.

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Addiction, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, LGBT, Literature, Ocean Vuong, pride month, Vietnamese

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

The irony is not lost on me that, just a couple of days after claiming that I no longer plan to write formal/lengthy book reviews for this blog, I finish reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It would be absolutely thrilling to think that I can articulate just why it is so necessary for me to write a full-length reflection about this novel, but the idea that I can do this book justice is ludicrous. Still, I’ll try my best.

Ocean Vuong is an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet who has already won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot award for poetry. His collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market, which made the anticipation about this first novel all the more extreme. It is rare to see a talented writer in one genre, like poetry, crossover into another genre, like fiction, and even rarer still to find that she or he manages it expertly. Vuong is such a rarity.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is marketed as a letter from a Vietnamese-American boy to his mother, who cannot read. Taken literally, this is the case. Little Dog is writing to his mother about all the secrets he has kept, all the memories he has buried, and all the love he carries for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimer’s. So, it is a kind of love letter to these women, to their past, but also to himself as a boy and to his future self, the man who will be made possible. He knows his mother cannot understand the words he writes, the language he speaks, so he shares without restraint and sends the letter to us all.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed and appreciated this novel so much is that it is written by a poet. This is clear not just in the language, but in the shape and delivery of the major themes and ideas. Vuong, through Little Dog, looks at the world through the eyes of the poet and describes what he sees in a way that only a poet could. The mundane is made miraculous, the painful is paradox, and the beautiful is wrenching. He manages to make the reader empathize with a host of characters, from the quietly rebellious protagonist, to his contradictorily abusive yet loving mother, and to his young boyfriend, a country redneck simultaneously terrified of yielding himself to another boy while still capable of treating his lover with the greatest compassion and tenderest care.

What holds it together most, what makes it a masterpiece, is its honesty. Words like “courageous” are often applied to novels like this one, stories that tell of family traumas, of coming-of-age and coming out. But Vuong’s honesty, here, is on a different level altogether. The way he describes his coming out and his growing up, his ever-progressing awareness of self, his first love and loss, moves beyond courageous. It is an act of total surrender, a giving up of everything that the world tells us should be kept to ourselves. In this way, Vuong allows Little Dog to reach the two kinds of readers who most need his story: the readers like Little Dog, who experienced or will experience the unique moments of gay life, of immigrant life, of life as an outcast, that can rarely be discussed in public, if ever. And the readers who know nothing of this type of journey, but who might learn what it means to be the someone else, the one without words or defense in a world that is terribly loud and aggressive. To be the dove in a crow’s nest.

For me, Ocean Vuong’s novel comes at a time when I am re-examining my own life and past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases his beautiful artistic articulation of a similar journey. For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.

Notable Quotes:
“The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are” (63).

“The children, the veal, they stand very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones” (156).

“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” (206)

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine” (181).

“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted” (238).

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100 Days Journal, Armenian, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, French, LGBT, Non-Fiction, pride month, Stonewall, writing, Young Adult

Writing and Reading Recently

I’ve been pretty busy with both reading and writing, lately. I guess I am thankful that it is summertime and, while I’m still working hard on course preparation and planning for the fall term, I at least have a break from teaching right now.

Writing

A little more than three months ago, I began what I called the “#100DaysJournal” project. The goal is pretty self-explanatory: write in my journal every day for 100 days. Although I missed a few days here and there, extending my finish date by about a week, I’m happy (excited? stunned!?) to share that I did finish the project today. I was also really pleased to hear that a few people on Twitter have taken up the call, too, and they are also getting back into writing. Hooray!

The most tangible outcome so far is that I wrote 250 pages by hand, filling almost two full journals. The writing covered a whole host of topics, mostly mundane things, but some really important personal breakthroughs, some professional planning and reflection, and some important writing (WIP) items as well.

I did have a box of prompts to draw from every day, but after about 30-days, I tended to look at the prompt, consider it, and put it away. This is why my earlier posts on this project petered out; I really wasn’t following the prompts anymore and I didn’t find anything “thematic” to write about every 10 days, as planned. But that’s okay. I think the project itself worked out really well.

For example, I began to build a writing routine that now seems mostly natural to me. I get up a couple of hours before I “need” to every day, and that is my focused writing time every day. I walk to a nearby cafe, find a seat (usually the same one, if I’m lucky) and grab an iced coffee, and then I write. That’s it. Without this writing routine and the daily practice, building myself back up to the stamina I once had, I don’t think I would have gotten to the place I’m at now, which is to say, working on my second book.

In the last week, that morning writing time also started to incorporate the writing of my current WIP, a young adult (probably? not really worried about genre classification right now) novel set in the mid-1990s. It centers on the relationship between three friends, each of whom is dealing with an important personal struggle. Currently, I’ve written the first two chapters and outlined most of the third. It’s a pretty exciting time for me. I like these characters. I like the setting. I feel like their struggles are important, and that they need each other. And maybe I need them, which means perhaps other readers might need them, too.

Reading

I have also been focused on reading LGBTQ+ stories this month, in celebration of Pride month. I’ve now read the first two books on my list of six, which are Gemini by Michel Tournier and Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva.

Gemini is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s both beautifully written and an important and powerful exploration of philosophy, particularly a study in binaries and dichotomies. The novel is essentially about a set of identical twins, Jean and Paul, who are so similar that even their own parents call them “Jean-Paul” for ease. The brothers form an intimate bond, presumably in the womb, which lasts through their childhood, youth, and into adulthood. One twin, however, tries to sever that bond, and the other chases after him. Their twinship and their manufactured differences are then reflected in the oppositions that Tournier explores in the unfolding of his tale, including the relationships between city and country, war and peace, heterosexuality and homosexuality, filth and cleanliness, rich and poor, Europe and elsewhere. It is, in all honesty, a strange tale, but it is a fascinating one. Written in the 1970s and set decades before that, the narrative also remains highly relevant. Take this excerpt about the Berlin mall and those trying to flee East Germany for the West:

There was something simultaneously tragic and ridiculous in the spectacle of those terrified men and women compelled to hurl themselves into space because they had left it too late before deciding to change sectors. One thought kept haunting Paul’s mind all the time: We are not at war. There is no earthquake, no fire, and yet . . . Surely it is very sinisterly typical of our times that what is, after all, a purely administrative crisis should lead to such scenes? This is not a matter of guns and tanks, but only of passports, visas and rubber stamps.

While Gemini is a heady and sometimes disturbing (although, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) read, Barakiva’s contemporary young adult romance novel, Hold My Hand, is quite the opposite, despite the tension caused by the two betrayals at the center of its plot. Alek Khederian is a young Armenian-American teenager who is on the verge of “going all the way” with his older boyfriend, Ethan. At the same time, he is attending Armenian Saturday school, learning more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Just as Alek is celebrating his birthday, surrounded by his supportive family and his amazing boyfriend, and with the news that his “What Being Armenian Means to Me” essay has won top score at school, meaning he will get to read it at Christmas service, everything starts to fall apart. His boyfriend betrays him. His church betrays him. Alek is left to decide how far he is willing to go to repair the damage, how willing he is to follow the Christian tenant of forgiveness, and how capable he is in standing up for what is right, not just for him but for anyone like him. Despite an overwhelming number of proofing errors (there were dozens of places where I had to stop to edit a sentence — it was strange!), the story is compelling and edifying. I for one loved to read about a young person dealing with issues of faith, sexuality, and ancestry all at the same time, and I found learning more about Armenian culture to be one of the most rewarding parts about reading this book. It also reminds us just how difficult it is for anyone who is different to exist freely in public. Excerpt:

Holding hands now made something perfectly clear to Alek: that what he wished he could make the reverend father, his own parents, and all those well-meaning straight people understand was that he and Ethan would never really have the privilege of holding hands as a neutral gesture. The act, taken for granted by people all over the world, would never be just that for him and Ethan. Part of him mourned that possibility–of never knowing what it would mean to perform that act unitalicized. 

Currently, I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s new novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which I’ve been looking forward to. Up next is probably Jane DeLynn’s Don Juan in the Village. Next month I will be focused on poetry (reading it and reading about it), so please send me recommendations of your favorite collections. I’ll be starting with Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.

From A Whisper to A Riot

I also wanted to mention that my book of literary criticism/history is on sale this month ($5.00 ebook/$19.69 print.) This is in honor of Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in New York City in June, 1969. I was thrilled to learn that the book was Amazon’s #1 New Release in LGBT Literary Criticism!

I have also been overwhelmed and flattered by the great feedback the book has received online. I worked hard on it and am pleased and proud to have it out there in the public sphere, for others to enjoy and learn from.

 

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Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

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Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Homosexuality, Justin Torres, LGBT

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novella about a young boy and his two brothers, growing up mixed-race (their father is Puerto Rican and their mother is Caucasian) in New York. Though the book is rather short, at just under 130 pages, it is written as a series of episodes, similar to a short-story compilation, and every episode packs a wallop. As “the boy” and his two brothers, Manny and Joel, grow up, we see their hunger: hunger for food, for love, for attention, for something bigger, better, brighter. They are always hungry for more. They and their parents go through life in a torrent – sometimes smashing and breaking things (and each other) just to have something to do, to have some power over their out-of-control lives. They watch their parents’ violent love affair; they witness their father disappear and reappear; they see their mother working night shifts just to bring home enough food to keep the boys from starving, while she goes without most of the time. And the reader watches “the boy,” the narrator, as he slowly develops into a person different from his family, more intelligent, more sensitive. He is their one hope and they are simultaneously encouraging and envious, until the world comes crashing down around them all and the family is changed forever.

Part of what makes this such a brilliant work is that, although none of these characters is particularly redeeming or heroic, it is impossible not to fall in love with each of them, just a little bit. The reason for this is that they are so believable; none of the characters is simply “the bad guy” or “the good guy.” These are human beings, a family. They are wildly, furiously passionate about and defensive of one another, but they also despise each other at times. The kids love and adore their parents for many reasons, but the parents also manage to disappoint in some way. Likewise, it is easy to believe that Ma and Paps would do anything for their kids, even die for them; but this doesn’t stop them from yelling, beating, or ignoring them at times. The most interesting and effective characterization, then, is not just in the development of the characters as individuals (because that is present, particularly in the narrator), but in the development of the family as a whole and how they live and interact with one another as the years and episodes go by. Their interaction says so much about who they are, what they want and need, and where they are likely to end up when years have come and gone.

Justin Torres’ debut work, is stunningly written. The prose pulls you along with seemingly no effort of your own; it is as if the reader is a ship, the story is the sea, and Torres’ prose is the boat-crew. Whether the story-sea be raging and ravaging the ship or if it be sweetly calm, lapping gently at the boat, Torres’ prose, the crew, is there to guide you, navigating you onward, directing you through the storms and allowing you to settle in, relax, and enjoy the voyage when the weather has calmed. Torres also structures the book in an interesting way, through episodes rather than direct progression. Each short chapter is a scene from the narrator’s life which exposes a certain aspect of the narrator or element of his family.  We learn about the narrator by catching glimpses of various moments he finds important, such as dancing with his brothers and father, or playing messy games with his mother who never seems to tire of the boys’ wild antics. As the episodes move along, the boys grow and the glimpses into their lives become more complicated, more dangerous.  Finally, in the last episodes, we see the narrator for who he has become and the family for what it is, and we are left to hope that all the pieces will someday come together again.

We the Animals is the first book I find impossible to compare to any other, because it is like nothing else I have ever read. It excites you and it saddens you. It terrifies you and it makes you laugh. There is an honesty and reality to this book that is almost unbearable; the story cuts you to the quick one moment and, in the next, is suckling at your fingertips, dulling the pain. The raw emotion from the writer/narrator, be it in discussing family or race, sexuality or poverty, is told in one of the most uniquely genuine and effective ways I have ever experienced. The episodic structure allows readers to see what the narrator believes is most important and, while some could use this type of structure toward one or another character’s benefit (in an omniscient narrator kind of way), this narrator is oddly fair, exposing the good and bad in each person, including himself. This book tackles family, neglect, and poverty; it confronts adultery, pedophilia, and loneliness. It is a book of love and hate, dark and light, and, ultimately, a book of life and existence; a masterful retelling of the world as it is. We the is riveting, gut-wrenching, and bittersweet. Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Drugs, Family, Fiction, LGBT, Nick Burd, Young Adult

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Plot/Story:

Dade Hamilton is an eighteen-year-old high school graduate. He is spending his summer working at Food World, avoiding his parents, making new friends, and keeping a secret he plans to take with him to college: he is gay. Dade becomes estranged from his “boyfriend,” Pablo, who is anything but a boyfriend, at least to Dade. Pablo is in the closet, too; but he also has a girlfriend, and he spends his time playing between the girl and Dade, never giving all of himself to either one, and never really knowing just what he wants. The confusion of which leads to terrible consequences. Although Dade’s last summer at home was supposed to be fun, it turns out to be a time of turmoil: his parents become estranged, his friends turn on him, and his job sucks. Until Alex Kincaid, the boy who dreams are made of, enters the picture. Suddenly, Dade’s summer turns around. He finds the courage to be who he is and, with the help of a friend, visiting from California, Dade heads to college a new man: positive, strong, and ready for life’s challenges.

Characterization:

Characterization and character development are strong points in Burd’s writing, at least in this particular story. His characters do not always do what I would hope or expect of them, but their unpredictability is believable and adds to their unique individualities. The Pablo character is particularly believable; his inner-conflict is painful, as is the outcome of his struggle.  Dade’s parents are bizarre, but in the “we all know a family like that” kind of way. Their desire to come to terms with Dade’s sexuality is also realistic, in that it does not go perfectly well, but it is also not an “end of the world” scenario for their family, as is often the case in YA books that explore this theme. Perhaps the three most interesting characters, though, are the main trio: Dade, Alex, and Dade’s friend Lucy. While I was disappointed with Dade’s final decision (probably because I liked Alex’s character so much and could not see myself coming to the conclusion Dade does), I can still understand why Dade felt the need to make the decision he made and, in a way, it is laudable. 

Prose/Style:

Aside from the proofreading errors (missing words, misspelled words, minor grammar oversights, etc) which are not necessarily the fault of the author, the overall prose and style of the story is right on par with the age and maturity level of the story, and with the intended audience. The language is smooth and engaging, supplementing the emotions of the story well and progressing the scenes without conflicting with or overpowering the story itself.  The narrative voice is sound and appealing; it is easy to sink into the story and find yourself looking up only after pages and pages have passed by, without your knowing it. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

This is a book quite simply about life and all its twists and turns. The story tackles family dynamics, infidelity, divorce, friendship (strains and strengths), coming-out and coming-of-age, first loves, sex, drugs, exploration, and substance abuse. The most important overarching theme, though, is finding one’s way, as a youth, through the mess and into one’s own. Dade is a relatively weak young man at the start of the story, a push-over. He submits to Pablo’s whims because the brief moments with Pablo make Dade feel wanted. He never questions his parents’ antics, though they are obviously unhappy and unhealthy.  He lets his “friends” abuse him, making fun of him on a regular basis and exploding rumors about him, without confutation. Through meeting Lucy, a strong, self-aware lesbian girl, and Alex, Dade’s new love interest (one who allows Dade to explore real emotions, whereas Pablo only permitted the physical, when he felt like it), Dade comes into his own. He tells his parents the truth about himself and he stands up to them and to his friends.  Dade leaves for college a changed person, confident and self-assured. He even makes the difficult choice of leaving behind what is most important to him, in order to put himself first, to take care of himself for the very first time. The Vast Fields of Ordinary is an endearing, realistic, and reassuring story about growing up without giving up; it is a story about learning how to respect others, without sacrificing one’s self. 


 

Notable Quotes:

“It’s hard to show people everything, you know?  You never know what they’ll do with it once they have it.”

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

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