5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

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Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

X-Men, Astrophysics, and Hate

X-Men Siege (Mutant Empire #1) by Christopher Golden

A few weeks ago, I was at Half-Price Books selling a big chunk of my library when, lo and behold, I stumbled across all three books in this Mutant Empire series. I’m absolutely upset with the 1990s version of Marvel Comics’s X-Men and, years ago, I had read another novelization (a cross-over with Star Trek: The Next Generation called Planet X by Michael Jan Friedman), which I really enjoyed; so I knew I had to grab these, especially since they only cost a few bucks.  X-Men: Siege brought me back to those ’90s comic books I so loved, and to some of the film adaptations. There’s much that is familiar to anyone who grew up reading the Uncanny X-men series, but plenty that is unique, too. Magneto has begun his plan to create an all-mutant Utopia, beginning with a remote location off planet earth but with the intention of, eventually, taking over the entire planet. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing for Cyclops’s dad, a kind of intergalactic space pirate, and the Shi’ar Empire. Professor Xavier decides to split the X-Men into two teams, one to take on each of these terrible challenges. For those who don’t already know the characters, especially the liminal ones, it might be a bit of a confusing or uninteresting read; but if you already know and love these stories and characters, then you’ll probably enjoy Siege quite a bit. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, but I do wish the author had found a better proofreader/editor (the number of typos is a bit jarring). 

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I’ve been wanting to read more science books for such a long time, but while I was buried by reading for my PhD, I just couldn’t find the time. So, I was pleased when, right about the time I graduated with my degree and found some time for actual “free reading,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes ahead and publishes a new book! And, as the title suggests, for someone like me who is often, “in a hurry.” What are the odds!? While I can’t pretend to have understood everything in this book, I do think I got the gist of most of it, and that is, I think, the point: to help folks like me who are curious about science and who want to be a bit more scientifically literate, get there. Tyson has an engaging voice and style, and he can explain complex topics very directly and through the use of helpful analogies. Tyson also has a larger purpose, here, which is to explain why science is so important and how dangerous it is for a society to move away from it, the way we here, unfortunately, have been doing for some time. He explains just how much science means to him and how he believes a scientifically literate culture can feel more, not less, connected to one another. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of astrophysics, concisely addressed, and they’re all fascinating. My favorite part, though, has to be the very brief final chapter titled, “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective.” It’s simply beautiful. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas 

This book: wow. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe this book and my reaction to it. For help, I started to search through the blog-o-sphere (or at least the parts of it that I watch) to see what others are saying, or even just to have links to send you all to for reference and good thoughts, but to my surprise, the majority of what I’ve found = thoughts such as, “I need to figure out how to review this!” Hey, at least I’m not alone! Essentially, The Hate U Give is an incredibly timely and relevant perspective from an honest and creative new voice that is much-needed in our culture right now. Starr is a 16-year-old black girl living in a dangerous city. Her father had been in prison but is now a successful business owner. Her mother is a nurse with great potential. Her uncle is a police officer who lives in a beautiful, gated community. She and her brothers go to private school in another district because her parents are able to afford it. In other words, she lives in two worlds. She witnesses the best and worst possible of all American cultural and societal realities. The worst? She has seen her two best friends killed in front of her eyes. The best? She has a strong and loving family, a boyfriend who loves her, and some* real friends who accept her for who she is and not for the color of her skin. Thomas is giving us such a powerful and important story, here, but more importantly, she offers multiple perspectives, a number of options, and a the sense of hopeful possibility, without proscribing a single ideology or facetious answer to our nation’s complicated racial problems. I can’t wait to see what she does next (I hear a film adaptation might be in the works). 

Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the first formal review I’ve written for Roof Beam Reader in five months, when I reviewed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in February. As with that book, I find, this time, that I’m unable to move onto other reading until my thoughts and reactions about this one are evacuated. It’s just one of those books. This post is bound to be lengthy, so I apologize in advance for that. But, as I set out to write my thoughts on this peculiar and devastating book, I find that I must clarify my position on two points that have significantly influenced my reaction to the novel.

Two Major Issues:

First: the book has been heralded as the long-awaited “great gay novel.” This description is not only maddeningly inaccurate, it is dangerously wrong. Despite appearances, this is not a novel about gay life, about homosexuality or coming out; it is not about sexuality or sexual identity at all. This is a book about friendship and love battling to save the life of someone who is haunted by memories of pedophilia and rape, sexual and physical abuse, psychosis, emotional trauma and sadism, and who cannot escape except through self-criticism and self-harm.

While any of these terrible things could be relevant to gay life, they are also relevant to straight life. The problem is: calling this book the “great gay novel” and then expecting readers to equate homosexuality, gay identity, with child sexual abuse and pedophilia as some kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship is what gay rights activists have been fighting against for so very long. Jude St. Francis does not end up in a gay relationship because he was abused, as a child and an adult, by men. Jude St. Francis is not even gay: he is sexless; no, he is de-sexed.

The comparison that these reviewers make are perhaps unconscious, but they are all the more dangerous for that (worse: a part of me wonders if this push is due to cultural realities: it’s “time” for the great gay novel, so this must be it). I prefer the description given on the book’s own inside-flap: “An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.” Yes, that’s it, for the most part. Let’s hope later editions remain true to this description and not the disturbingly misleading ones that outside forces have attempted to place on it.

That being said, in an academic sense, calling this book a “great queer novel” makes a lot of sense. The difficulty is helping people understand the difference between a “gay” novel and a “queer” one. The book is wildly anti-heteronormative. There are some straight people in the book, major and minor, but the majority of the main characters are somehow “othered,” as are their histories and relationships. For example, one character is adopted as an adult, another is parentless; one character is bisexual, another is gay but struggles with it; one character is disabled, another seems able to change his body almost at will.

Gender and sexuality in this book are uncomplicatedly fluid: transgender issues come up, for instance, as does lesbianism and the cis-gendered. In this way, yes, call it a great queer novel. Call it a study of male friendship that refuses to be categorized. But do not call it the great gay novel, as the relationship at the heart of the story has nothing to do with sexuality: the main character is basically asexual and his eventual lover is basically heterosexual even though he ends up with another biological male. Most importantly, their love, their partnership, has far less to do with sexual identity than it does with non-sexual romantic friendship.

This is all my reaction to others’ descriptions of the book, however. There’s nothing the author or publisher have said (that I know of) which reflects such a flawed perspective on the story, and the story itself doesn’t presume to present itself that way, either.

Second: My personal experience reading this book might be far different from most, and that is because I intimately understand and relate to it. Because of the nature of this book, of Jude St. Francis’s life, and Willem’s, I can’t say any more than this. Suffice it to say, it is a deep struggle for me to separate myself from this story in order to review it objectively as a work of art. But I’m going to do my best.

Thoughts on the Book:

Essentially, this is a book about friendship. The characters are the heart and soul of this novel, especially the main character, Jude, who, despite his tragic past, is the core of the four friends’ lives. They (Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm) met as college freshman, although Jude was only 16 at the time. Each of the characters is special in some way: Willem the actor; JB the artist; Malcolm the architect; Jude the lawyer. They all struggle, at first, but each will eventually reach wild levels of success. One can imagine that they were able to achieve their successes only because of their friendship, although this is never specifically granted by the novel itself.

Outside their friendship are other characters, major and minor, some of whom arrive and remain (Jude’s adoptive parents, for instance, and his doctor) and others that serve a purpose and then disappear. There are not many women in the story, which has been a point of contention for some, but Yanagihara has already explained her reasoning for this (it’s a story about male friendship and the many varied ways that friendship can manifest itself) and I take no issue with the lack.

An interesting and admirable element, in my opinion, is the narrative voice which is at times third-person with varied relativity to one or another of the characters depending on whose story is being told at the time, and sometimes, much less frequently, in the first-person, as when a character is relaying things directly (usually in a kind of monologue, which I imagined as dictation or epistolary in nature, but could just as well be a character speaking aloud to himself). This narrative approach allows for two things: first, the mysterious, slow, painful revelation of Jude’s backstory; we the reader know as much about Jude as the other characters do, and only bits and pieces (first, hints; then, allusions; next, minor descriptions; finally, all of it) come through, in guesses made by other characters or in sections when the narrator is closely aligned with Jude himself. This can be vexingly frustrating, but it is also brilliant in its devotion to an honest portrayal of the main character. Second, it allows the reader to get closer to Jude in the same way that the characters do, to understand how this dynamic works, fails, strains, etc.

Less interesting, less creative, is the prose style. It’s surprisingly matter of fact. I haven’t read Yanagihara before, so I’m not sure what her writing style is in general, but I will say that I think it works well, here. Even though the prose and language aren’t particularly appealing, the pages still turn. There’s a balance, here, equal to the balance between the plot and narration. The raw, almost clinical style of writing is like the raw, almost clinical way that Jude lives his life. In moments of tension, the prose style will change subtly. In moments of affection, breakthrough, break down: the same. The reader gets to know Jude, as much as is possible, and begins to realize that Jude must make great effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to be the person he is: he is always, always inside his own head. Every thought has some level of darkness and pain attached to it; every action is planned, agonized over, debated.

This has been one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging reads for me. The complexity of the novel’s themes is matched by the intricacy of the narrative, the cerebral construction of story edifice and story time that allows the present and the past to unravel, slowly but significantly, so that, at a certain point about 400-pages into the book, I suddenly felt like I was just a part of this group. For me, it was like the flip of a switch.

At the half-way mark, I hated this book. I wanted to give it up.  It is painful, horrifying, depressing, and almost gratuitous. It is without hope, without joy. It is, as many have said, a type of exaggerated fantastic allegory, where the evils laid upon man are as persistent, unrelenting, scarring as can possibly be, and the goodness of friendship and true love are as pure, unwavering, angelic as can possibly be. It is a fairy tale where the only happy ending for Prince Charming is the ending every fairy tale necessarily leaves out.

There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.

Suggested Reading for:

  • Age Level: Adult
  • Interest: Friendship, Sturm und Drang, Child Abuse, Self-Harm, LGBTQI+, Disabilities, Nontraditional Families.

Notable Quotes/Passages:

  • “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (210)
  • “It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.” (369)
  • “He had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.” (517)
  • “You don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.” (656)

Thoughts: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Station Eleven begins, ironically and appropriately, in a theater with a staging of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Three of the novel’s recurring characters are first encountered in this opening scene, a moment in time that will be revisited throughout the novel. As the pages unfold, and the Traveling Symphony makes its way through a dangerous Midwestern landscape, ancient literature—from the Bible to Shakespeare—will become central in rebuilding culture and society in a drastically altered world .

Arthur Leander, Jeevan Chaudhary, and Kirsten Raymonde: three strange and special lives destined to intersect as one world ends and another begins. Over the course of decades, in the old, pre-plague world and the new world of survivors, the lives of these few characters, as well as the dark prophet child who grows up to be more sociopath than saint, begin to reflect the power, the beauty, the fear, the ability, the evils, and the resilience of the human spirit.  

Although this story cannot exist without its characters, I found many of them rather superficial throughout most of the book. This may be because the reader’s attention is drawn between the development of the characters and the effects of the apocalyptic tragedy; it may also be a result of the number of characters; it could be because of the multiple perspectives or the dance with time and numerous settings. Suffice to say, it’s a complex world and this often results in a certain distance between reader and characters. That being said, as the story unfolds and the many characters’ backgrounds begin to come together and to interact more closely, and more clearly, the dual worlds (before and after) and major conflicts (good and evil) begin to envelop the characters, resulting in a page-turning climax that makes any earlier lack seem basically innocuous.

One of the best things Station Eleven has going for it is its style and language. This is a distinctly literary work, more reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than the majority of contemporary dystopian fiction. The prose style and complexity are, quite frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air in a rather over-saturated and underwhelming genre.

So, do you want to be scared out of your mind in a paradoxically beautiful way? Okay, then: read Station Eleven. The balance of realistic and futuristic themes, art and politics, society and wilderness, all work together in bizarre and unexpected ways. St. John Mandel’s talents are expressed in the crafting of each of these individual elements, but most of all in her construction of a symphony that effectively highlights each of her strengths without allowing one or the other to overshadow or outperform the rest. Those expecting a traditional post-apocalyptic novel may be disappointed, but those open to experiencing the dystopian genre in a somewhat softer, more realistic, and character-centered (rather than event-centered) way will be pleasantly surprised.

The fluidity of time, the focus on how individuals cope with the change and how larger society functions, how history begins to be rewritten following a worldwide calamity, are elements which coalesce to form a fresh, unique, and disturbingly thought-provoking new work in an age-old and often derivative genre.  

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: YA+ (skewed toward adult)

Interest: Dystopia, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Literary.

Notable Quotes:

“Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and I have gone to rest in the forest.”

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” 

“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.” 

“She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.” 

“If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you.”

Thoughts: On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle

303639On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable

On What Grounds is the first novel in the popular Coffeehouse Mystery series by Cleo Coyle. In it, we meet Clare Cosi, former manager of one of the most historic coffeehouses in New York City, “The Village Blend.”  Cosi had moved away from New York City with her husband and young daughter, in order to find a quieter, calmer life in the New Jersey suburbs. But after divorcing her husband and seeing her daughter off to college, Cosi is convinced by the owner of The Village Blend to come back and take over management of the store, with added benefits – such as building up equity toward becoming the eventual owner.  All seems to be going well for Cosi at this middle point of her life, but everything changes when she gets to New York City and, upon reentering The Village Blend for the first time, finds her assistant manager at the bottom of the Blend’s basement stairs, unconscious and surrounded by suspicious evidence of foul play.

Characterization:
3 – Characters very well-developed.

This first book in the series introduces us to an interesting and eclectic set of characters, some of whom are likely to return in future books. Clare Cosi, being the main character, is the most developed of the cast.  She is relatively well-rounded and developed, with interesting flashbacks and histories (and romantic inclinations) provided, particularly for a mystery novel (which I find tend to be lacking in character development).  In addition, her mother-in-law and owner of The Village Blend, “Madame,” is great fun, though not a prominent figure.  Cosi’s ex-husband, Matt, has memorable traits, and we also learn about the victim – Annabelle – through interviews with her teachers, dance colleagues, roommate, etc., all of whom add some depth and complexity to the story by virtue of their being there (none are wonderfully developed, but they do add the necessary “ah, who had the better motive, indeed?” moments).  Finally, the detective assigned to Annabelle’s case, Lt. Quinn, brings with him some flirtatiousness, rivaling Matt, somewhat, for Cosi’s attention – their love triangle is entertaining.  What I appreciate most is that Cosi makes even the minor characters have character, but I am left hoping that future books continue to develop the main characters who manage to stick around for any length of time.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I most enjoyed about On What Grounds was probably Coyle’s language and style.  It is perfectly fitting for a Contemporary Adult mystery novel, but it is also tightly crafted, fluid, well-constructed, and simply interesting overall.  Coyle infuses various elements, too, which are not typical of the genre (discussed below), and she manages to incorporate these elements, which are really of equal importance to the plot, seamlessly into the narrative.  This mystery is a page-turner not just because of its classic “whodunit?” pacing, but because the balance of all of the competing themes and elements is spot-on.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

It seems clear to me that Cleo Coyle has some background in literature, even if simply as a voracious reader.  There are certain styles she uses, references she makes, and quotes that are dropped which fit in too neatly with the given situations to have been cribbed or looked-up simply for effect.  Although I am not typically a reader of mysteries/murder mysteries, any which go to lengths to reach beyond their “genre boundary” (yes, that’s partially me exposing my bias, but it’s also true that genre writers often write within their conventions because they quite thoroughly understand their audience’s expectations) and add unique perspective, especially literary, to their works get a nod of recognition and gratitude from me.  It is not just this added element, though, but also the inclusion of such passionate exploration and explanation of coffee, coffeehouses, related products and processes, recipes, etc. which make this book so much fun to read, especially for a coffee addict like me.  If you love a good mystery with a diversity of characters, a relatively well-designed plot, and some added features, and if you happen to be a coffee-lover, well, this book (and series) is probably for you.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: HS+
Interest: Mystery, Coffee, Fiction, Contemporary.

Notable Quotes:

“Though coffee may seem a small thing, it is a ritual that reflects the daily standards we set for ourselves throughout our lives” (31).

“Darkness can’t hide. Not forever. Not even in the vastness of space” (174).

Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

These-Things-Happen

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 53

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

These Things Happen opens with the main character, Wesley, and his best friend, Theo.  Both of these young men, teenagers in high school, are special as are, we will quickly learn, all of the characters in the book, in their own way.  Theo has been in a race for school class president and Wesley has been there, by his side, as campaign manager and whatever else Theo needs.  Things turn out well for the dynamic duo, at least until Theo’s acceptance speech, where some breaking news happens to tumble out of his mouth, in front of the whole school.  The repercussions are great, and they send Wesley on a quest to discover more about the people in his life. This quest and the questions he asks, the answers he seeks, will ultimately lead him to become more introspective, to learn more about himself than, perhaps, about anyone else.  Over the course of a few days, Wesley’s attempts to connect with his parents result in the start of what might be the most meaningful relationships of his life – but not with the people he originally intended.  Wesley’s story is one about friendship and family, about finding one’s  self and learning to look at life in new ways, to be open to possibilities, and to never assume to know more than we do, about ourselves or anyone else.  This is one of those strange books, like Catcher in the Rye, I’ll Get There It Better Be Worth the Trip, and Jumpstart the World, that belongs in the realm of adult contemporary fiction, even though its main character is a youth.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Perhaps my one concern with this book is its characterization.  The message that we are all special and unique, with our own personal, valid life stories, is well taken.  However, there is an overabundance of “fabulousness” to these characters – one which is pointed out in the book’s synopsis.  The main character Wesley and his best friend Theo are both brilliant, and let each other know it all the time.  Wesley’s father and his partner both think the other is smart, funny, amazing.  Wesley thinks the same of both of them.  Wesley’s mom is talented and intelligent, as is her boyfriend.  Everyone in the story, it seems, is super clever and wonderful, except in their own eyes.  This says a lot about how we see others versus how we see ourselves, but the “wow” factor of each character was so overemphasized that it, to me, made nobody seem very special at all.  That being said, these characters certainly are people, and different ones at that.  They are special in their own ways – George, in particular.  Character is done best, I think, when it is demonstrated through the various relationships.  The strained relationship between Wesley and his father, for instance, or the budding relationship between Wesley and George.  The way we see Wesley’s mom, behind closed doors, and the way she comes across in public.  Viewing the characters in their different situations adds depth to them and allows us to understand each of them a bit better, even if they haven’t quite figured out themselves or each other just yet.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

A carry-over issue I have from characterization has to do with narrative voice(s) in the book.  Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of one of the characters, which means our relationship to the narrator changes with each chapter, too.  In one chapter, we are with Wesley – seeing things from his point of view.  In the next, we are with Theo, or George, or Ben.  One would expect, then, a very different voice from chapter to chapter but, unfortunately, the language and style are almost identical, no matter which perspective we are witnessing in any given chapter.  Wesley is a great character and, with George, probably the best drawn in the book – I just wish he had been more of a stand-out by being completely different from any of the other characters in the story.  Mood and tone do shift, depending on the situation that the narrating characters are in at that point in the story, and the language and style in general are fluid, engaging, and appropriate to the overall tone and level of the story.  I found the humor to be current and funny, not necessarily an easy task, and while I am not usually a fan of multiple narrative perspectives, it definitely works for this book, because the essence of the book is not just Wesley’s story, but all stories. 

 Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer is a modern take on a modern topic.  Thankfully, gay and lesbian fiction is on the rise, both in the adult contemporary and the young adult spheres.  There is still a lot of work to be done, but Kramer’s new book happily adds to the genre, and in an innovative way.  These Things Happen looks at a variety of homosexual (and general life) issues through the eyes of a heterosexual teenaged boy.  What is so fascinating is the fact that three of the main characters are gay, and this story is certainly about their lives, but it is also about the main character,  Wesley,  and how he begins to come into his own, to understand himself – maybe.  Told from the perspective of many of its characters, what the reader learns from each vantage point is that no one is really sure of him or herself – we think we know who we are, but we constantly doubt it.  Do others see us as we really are, or as we pretend to be?  Can others, those closest to us, know more about us than we know about ourselves?  How can listening to and learning about our friends, our parents, our children, give us deeper insight into who we are?  This book asks a lot of questions and it answers few of them, but that’s the point – the discovery is ours to make.  I can easily imagine These Things Happen becoming an indie/cult classic, someday.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Family, Alternative/Modern Families, Friendship, Intergenerational Relationships, LGBT Issues, New York City, Bullying/Violence, Prejudice/Bigotry, Self-discovery.

Notable Quotes:

“I like when someone doesn’t know an answer right off, where what they say first is just a start, that can wind up anywhere. Where answers don’t end things.” (18)

“Sometimes I think I’m like forty different people, sometimes not quite one.” (23)

“If I’m gay, which I am, it’s not because my dad was distant. He wasn’t. And besides, that’s just psychology.” (99)

“He understands tonight, as he might not have before, that to accept what someone wants to give you is, in its way, a kind of bravery.” (215)

“Lying is most interesting as an action when you don’t actually have the need to lie . . . Because it allows you to find out what truth, personally, is for you.  Because there have to be more categories, quite frankly, than truth or untruth.” (234)

“It is possible to have an experience and only find out later what it means.” (235)

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!)

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – Shooting Stars Mag

Blog Tour: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – Dreaming In Books