Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Depression, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, GLBT, Homophobia, Homosexuality, LGBT, Relationships, Transgender, Young Adult

Thoughts: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

17237214Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD:  51


When you look at the cover for Two Boys Kissing, you get a pretty good idea of what this book will be about.  Then you read the synopsis on the inside cover and your idea becomes a bit more defined, a bit clearer.  Finally, you sit down to read the book, only to discover that your first impressions were of the vaguest kind.  In Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan brings back the literary chorus of old.  The narrative guides of Shakespeare and Ovid at long last reappear, this time through the collective voice of our “ancient” gay predecessors.  These are the men and women who bravely pioneered the social frontier, the rainbow-clad Lewis & Clark who pressed love onward – quietly or with booming voice- and who were lost to one of the greatest tragedies of our day, the AIDS epidemic.

As our guide, this chorus reveals to us a day in the life of multiple contemporary gay youths, in many iterations of the “type.”  The main couple, Craig and Harry, are the two boys kissing, but they are not a couple at all (although they used to be).  Their goal is to stand up for equality by breaking the world’s record for longest kiss – hoping that the process and the end result of two boys’ names together in a permanent book of world record will get people thinking, if not change the world entirely. They are also standing up for their friend, who was violently and viciously beaten for being gay.

In addition to their primary story, the chorus also gives us a peek into the worlds of Peter and Neil, a young couple who are learning what that word, “couple,” means; learning how to navigate life for themselves and for each other, including, most importantly, how to understand and respond to one another, sometimes without words.   We also meet Avery and Ryan, both of whom have their demons, past and present, and who must confront the idea of what it means to be different, even within the same “gay world.”

Finally, we see Cooper, the boy who no one sees and who refuses to be seen.  Cooper’s story is where the chorus truly rallies – where these spirit guides are needed most, lest we forget that where we came from and where we are going are inextricably linked.  Technology advances, and these advancements change our perspectives and our possibilities, but for boys like Cooper, the loneliness and isolation only grow deeper, more vacuous.

Two Boys Kissing is the gay anthem for our day.  It is the very book created from the very inspirations that many of us have been waiting to read for a long, long time.  Levithan pulls stories from the real world and links them to our present and our past.  He does this through the eyes of a compassionate yet devastatingly helpless and sometimes forgotten chorus of our forbearers. Levithan, since the publication of his wonderful short novel Boy Meets Boy ten years ago, has veered from the idyllic and romantic, to the daring and experimental (Every You, Every Me), and the exploratory (Every Day), right into the real, the raw, and the historical.  He keeps getting better, and Two Boys Kissing is a triumph indeed.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: YA+
Interest: LGBT, Transgender, Relationships, First Loves, Coming-of-Age, Interconnected Plots, Family, Depression, Hate Crimes.


Notable Quotes:

“We thought of magic as something that existed with or without us. But that’s not true. Things are not magical because they’ve been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them.”

“You spend so much time, so much effort, trying to hold yourself together. And then everything falls apart anyway.”

“It is hard to stop seeing your son as a son and to start seeing him as a human being. It is hard to stop seeing your parents as parents and to start seeing them as human beings. It’s a two-sided transition, and very few people manage it gracefully.”

“What strange creatures we are, to find silence peaceful, when permanent silence is the thing we most dread. Nighttime is not that. Nighttime still rustles, still creaks and whispers and trembles in its throat.  It is not darkness we fear, but our own helplessness within it.”

“Our bodies don’t have to be touching to be connected to one another. Our heart races without contact. Our breath holds until the threat is gone.”

“You grow. Your life widens. And you can’t expect your partner’s love alone to fill you. There will always be space for other things.”

“Here we are, thousands of us, shouting no, shouting at him to stop, crying out and making a net of our bodies, trying to come between him and the water.”

“There is the sudden. There is the eventual. And in between, there is the living.”


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1001 Books, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Community, Depression, Fiction, Friendship, John Stephens, Literature, Loneliness, Mental Health

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 54

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

Cannery Row is a unique stand-out amongst Steinbeck’s works, for many reasons.  One of these is that, unlike with East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, or Of Mice and Men, for example, there is not much of a plot.  Instead, what Steinbeck does is open up to his readers a place – typically American (and Californian)- where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood.  This place is Cannery Row, a small cannery district in Monterey, California.  The people are a mix of shop-owners, layabouts, migrant workers, “girls for hire,” and others who are either genuinely worn down or who have chosen to live humbly in this out-of-the-way town, rather than move on up to the more prosperous areas.  The story itself centers on a man named Mack and his group of pals, all of whom are without work but who get by on their resourcefulness and their ability to find work when it becomes absolutely necessary.  The gang decides to do something nice for the town doctor, who does so much for the town without ever asking for anything in return.  Their first attempt at ‘thanking’ him goes terribly wrong, but they vow to make up for it and, in the end, they succeed.  Their gift to the doctor brings everyone together but, what the reader will realize, is that amongst the friendship and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly the doctor, suffer from.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.

Cannery Row is similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the main story is frequently interrupted by short vignettes.  In Grapes of Wrath, these intercalary chapters served to widen the lens from the Joad family and onto the plight of the Great Depression and migrant workers in general.  Here, in Cannery Row, the interruptions often introduce the reader to minor characters – residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, most of which are cruel in nature (dead bodies, violence, suicide, etc.).  Many readers are critical of Steinbeck’s method of interrupting the primary story in this way, but the purpose is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focalize on one person or one family in particular.  This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character – the place, in fact, becomes the person.  This is what regionalists (like Faulkner) do best.  In addition to this, the specific characters who are introduced and witnessed, such as Mack, Doc, and Lee Chong, the shop owner, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful.  Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all.

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

I am a fan of Steinbeck’s prose.  In this book, he opens many of the chapters with incredible descriptions – short passages that are almost poetic in their beauty.  He has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow reimagining these sensations into written language.  While Steinbeck employs an intercalary method, as mentioned above, his narrative asides and detours are brief and his description of those things taking place outside of the primary story are shortened.  While we might leave the main story from time-to-time, it does not feel, as it sometimes does with Grapes of Wrath, as if we have been completely separated from it.  Steinbeck also manages to capture mood and tone with his narrative voice and through his use of dialogue.  We learn much about the character Frankie, for instance, without necessarily being granted access to Frankie’s point of view.  Instead, we learn about him through others’ treatment of him, through Steinbeck’s description of him, and by the way his and the Doctor’s relationship is presented in the narrative – subtle descriptions and meaningful allusions.  Frankie, one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level.  He represents a type of person but, due to the straightforward and bare, sometimes raw, way Steinbeck approaches his descriptions, he can represent a group of people without becoming a grotesque.  Ultimately, the prose and style are generally sparse with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language.  The style suits the tone of the novel as well as the nature of its characters and “plot” or, more accurately, situation.

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

Cannery Row, unlike many of Steinbeck’s other works, is not quite as politically charged or socially sentimental.  It is still about people and place, exactly what one would expect from such a brilliant regionalist writer, but its purpose is much more ambiguous.  The emotion and pathos is still there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without necessarily being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even the Doctor, lauded by his townspeople, has his faults).  Certain themes from Steinbeck’s other works, such as mental health, community-families, survival, depression (economic and psychological), and labor are present again in this book, but in a much more subtle way.  For those who enjoy Steinbeck but who might be put off by his “peachiness” or heavy-handedness of politics/morality, Cannery Row might be exactly what you are looking for.  There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively sombre tone.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Great Depression, Community, Loneliness, Mental Health, American West, Friendship, Society

Notable Quotes:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” (5)

“Man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.” (13)

“Casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum.” (34)

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”  (82)

“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system.  And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.  And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” (135)

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Death, Depression, Fiction, Psychology, Young Adult

Review: Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 48

Plot/Story:

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

I can say it now: I hate David Levithan, unequivocally.  Why do I hate him?  Because he continues to write every book I would have written, had I the talent, stamina, or patience to actually become a writer.  First, there was Boy Meets Boy, a beautiful high school romance between two teenage boys, delivered in the most natural way I have ever seen.  Then, there was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he co-wrote with John Green and which was, let’s face it, a match made in heaven.  Most recently, he released The Lover’s Dictionary, which is one of the most interesting and relevant re-imaginings of the adult love story in current fiction.  So, alright, I actually love David Levithan.  With his latest, Every You, Every Me, David Levithan again cooperates with another artist, this time a photographer named Jonathan Farmer.  The main character, Evan, recently lost a friend – the one friend he wished could have been much more than a friend.  He and Ariel’s (that’s “the one”) boyfriend, Jack, are struggling in their own ways to deal with their grief and feelings of responsibility about what happened to Ariel.  Suddenly, as Ariel’s birthday approaches, Evan –and Jack- start to receive random, cryptic photographs in places which remind them of Ariel.  Some of the photos even have Ariel in them.  As the torture continues, Evan struggles to fight the madness and find the person responsible for leaving these photos – but who is it?  Could Ariel herself be somehow haunting them?  Is it a mysterious stranger with a grudge brought to bear?  Or, could Evan himself have truly snapped and not even know it?  Thrilling, poignant, and surprising – David Levithan has definitely done it again.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well-developed.

As is the case with most of Levithan’s work, the book is rather sparsely written.  That is to say, the story tells itself, in a way, and is much more the focal point than its characters are.  For this reason, the characters do not get as much growth, development, or characterization as one might hope.  Still, the various personalities – particular of Evan and Jack, but also of some of the minor characters- are clearly written so that each character is identifiable as him or herself.  What is most impressive in this regard, though, is the characterization of Ariel, the dangerously disturbed girl who Jack and Evan are pining over, and who is long-gone before the story even begins.  To develop a character that is so crucial to the story, yet not technically a presence in it, takes a certain amount of craft – and Levithan has it.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I am often most impressed with is Levithan’s story-telling ability.  His prose is sparse but engaging – not lofty in the least, but also not quite conversational.  There is an interesting balance between these two extremes which Levithan always manages to scale delicately, and Every You, Every Me is no exception. The interposing of images at crucial moments of the story, coupled with the “chapter parts” and the varying lengths (sometimes a chapter part is one or two sentences, other times it is a few pages) adds an interesting complexity and novelty to the structure.  There is also quite a lot of strikethrough in the prose, as if the narrator, Evan, is arguing with himself as the story progresses – fighting certain memories, battling certain emotions.  At first, the strikethrough was a bit irritating, because I wasn’t quite sure whether I should skip or scan through that and read just the open prose, or if the strikethrough itself was really part of the storytelling.  This is a determination each reader will have to make on his own, as it works either way; for me, it felt most appropriate to read every word because the struggle for the character, being mirrored in the prose was ultimately moving and important.


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

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

To live or to die.  That is a decision every person makes every day, though hardly any of us think about it.  Still, the choice is ours, really – we wake up each day and we decide, consciously or subconsciously, whether or not to continue living.  This is a very personal, private thing, and for most, not really a consideration at all.  So, what if someone else forced that decision – of whether they would continue to live or not- on you?  What if they put you in command of their survival?  Could you let someone –a best friend, a girlfriend- die, if they really wanted to die?  Would you force them to get psychiatric help against their will if it meant they would live – but live hating you forever?  This is the nature of Every You, Every Me.  The title is taken from a moment in the book when Ariel is telling Evan that all of us have multiple personalities, in a way.  We don’t ever show 100% of ourselves to anyone else and, likewise, we never see that 100% in another.  Sometimes, we can’t even admit all of the truths about ourselves to ourselves.  What is so wonderful about each of Levithan’s books is that they say something, and usually it is something few others know how to say or how to admit.  Every You, Every Me is a story about love and friendship, yes, but more importantly it is about struggles with depression, social anxiety, psychotic breaks, and decisions none of us should ever have to make.  It is about how to survive and move on, when all is said and done. 


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: YA/High School+

Interest: Friendship, Coming-of-Age, Loss, Psychology, Manic/Polar Psychosis, Suicide, Recovery.

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Angst, Book Review, Culture, Depression, Fiction, Loneliness, Philosophy, Tao Lin

Review: Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD:  7

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

The title of this novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, should be enough to tip off the reader that the book is going to be, well, a bit odd.  And it is.  While many aspects of the book are entirely believable – even to the point of being mundanely typical- some elements are just, well, completely inexplicable.  Still, Tao Lin leaves no room for doubt in these bizarre situations, so the reader must push forward, accept what is happening (like talking bears with depression, and homicidal dolphin philosophers, for example), and try to wade through the nonsense to get the picture being presented, which is one of hopelessness and lethargy.  This book is a scathing, though creative, argument against American capitalism, which Lin seems to believe has been a creative and moral leech on society and progress.

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

The main character, Andrew, is a depressed, socially awkward, slightly delusional twenty-year-old pizza delivery man, with an obsession for a girl who may or may not exist.  The reader must wonder whether or not he is just weird, or if he might be suffering from some serious acid-trips gone wrong, considering the amount of time he spends talking to humanoid animals – most of which are just as depressed, sad, and bizarre as Andrew is himself.  His friend, Steve, and Steve’s family are equally weird, though not so strange as Andrew (one can imagine that the other characters, though just as lazy, could possibly succeed at something whereas Andrew will surely never amount to anything).  There is little depth to any of the characters, and absolutely no growth for any.  Some of the most interesting characters are the ones who are not real – the dolphins, bears, gerbils, etc. who have human-like qualities and often communicate with Andrew in some way (taking him in on strange, Labyrinth-like journeys to hidden, underground worlds).  There is also a strange and funny meeting with the United States President (Bush?), an alien, the animals, and Andrew, near the end of the book.  The bottom line seems to be that there is no point to anything, and no happiness or purpose to be found anywhere.

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

Lin’s prose is certainly engaging – playful but serious at the same time.  He moves the story forward at a great pace, and his descriptions are simple but well-wrought.  The language is simple, too, but not in a dumb-down sort of way.

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

What is most impressive about the novel is its purpose.  I am not head-over-heels about the delivery or the plot/story itself, but its intent – the passion and beliefs behind it- are well-received, important, and thought-provoking.  What is happening to America’s youth and the American dream?  Children stay children younger – dependent on their parents and families for years after college, in many cases; and yet, children are also forced to grow up so fast – exposed to adult themes and moral situations at younger and younger ages.  The result:  Loneliness, despair, a sense of disconnect from the world, and a total loss for meaning and purpose in life.  We live in a world and culture which measures success by how much someone can afford – how big is your house?  How many cars do you own, and how much did they cost?  How much energy can you waste?  How long can you live at home, avoiding things like responsibility, building a career, starting a family?  What happened to accountability, hard work, and valued achievements?

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Angst, Depression, anti-Capitalism, America, Despair, Philosophy, Culture

 Notable Quotes:

“A world without right or wrong was a world that did not want itself, anything other than itself, or anything not those two things, but that still wanted something. A world without right or wrong invited you over, complained about you, and gave you cookies. Don’t leave, it said, and gave you a vegan cookie. It avoided eye contact, but touched your knee sometimes. It was the world without right or wrong. It didn’t have any meaning. It just wanted a little meaning.”

“He used to think things like, This organic soymilk will make me healthy and that’ll make my brain work better and that’ll improve my writing. Also things like, The less I eat the less money I spend on publicly owned companies the less pain and suffering will exist in the world. Now he thinks things like, It is impossible to be happy. Why would anyone think that?”

 

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2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Depression, Family, Fiction, Mental Health, Ned Vizzini, Young Adult

Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 2

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

15-year-old Craig is having problems.  He sees a psycho-pharmacologist and psychologist regularly, he takes Zoloft, smokes pot, can’t eat, and regularly listens to the militant voice in his head, which sounds like a drill Sergeant and treats him like a cadet.   Craig is a brilliant young man, at least, he thought he was brilliant after earning a perfect score on the entrance exam to an elite pre-Professional High School in Manhattan; but, once he starts school, he realizes that he is not brilliant – he just works hard, and cannot manage anything higher than a 93% (and who in the world could be happy with 93%?).  So, Craig – estranged from his friends, embarrassed at his stupidity, intimidated by the pressures of technology (e-mail, voicemail, online romances), and at a loss for any real connections or passions, decides he wants to kill himself.  What ensues is a 2am chat with the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline, a walk-in admission to the local psychiatric hospital (though Craig doesn’t realize what the meaning of “admitted” is), and a five-day stay with a cast of delightfully strange characters.  Over these five days, Craig learns how to do without the pressures and distractions of the outside world, he puts life into perspective, rediscovers a passion for art, meets a pretty girl, and comes to the conclusion that his problems have come placing enormous pressure on himself to do the best at everything – get the highest grades, get into the best school around- only, without any real desire or purpose.  In the end, Craig (with a supportive family throughout) realizes that he should be in another school, doing what he loves and not what he believes is expected of him – he no longer wishes to be the President of the United States but, instead, an artist who can help others heal , changing lives in other ways.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Craig and the cast of misfits in the Adult Psychiatric wing of the hospital (where Craig was placed, because the adolescent wing was closed for repairs) are all interesting and fun to watch.  Craig, being the narrator and main character, is also the most highly developed of the bunch.  Craig’s family is interesting and sweet, though relatively flat throughout (the interactions between Craig and his sister, and Craig’s sister and their father are always fun to watch, though).  Craig’s friends are also under-developed, but this is acceptable because they turn out to be relatively shallow people, not there in any way for Craig when he may have needed them, so they get pushed to the sidelines as Craig heals.  Each of the patients at the psychiatric hospital do have their own quirks and characteristics, though, which makes them fun and interesting to watch, in relationship to one another and in their interactions with Craig.  The reader gets to know a few, to learn how they ended up there, and to see small steps of progress for a few (and steps back for others).

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

A great positive for this book is that the prose and style are genuinely “Young Adult.”  What I mean by that is, the book does not come across as if an adult were trying to write as a teenager, making attempts to sound younger, cooler, or more angst-filled.  Instead, it just feels like a teenager is narrating the story – honest, nervous, bold, and confused in equal measure.  The style made the story incredibly easy to read – it almost sucks you into the events taking place, so that 400+ pages flew by and suddenly I was at the end. It took me less than two days to read it, largely because the storyline was pushed along with such ease, thanks to the simple, humorous, easy-to-follow writing style.   The chapters were broken down into manageable parts, the language was simple (not complicated, thankfully, by the presence of a brilliant narrator) while the themes were more elevated, so that the marriage between the ambitious storyline and the easy-going prose matched the attitude and nature of the story’s protagonist, a simple teenager with rather extraordinary capacity and talent.

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

What I enjoyed most about this book were its honesty, its setting, and its overall intent.  Vizzini is clearly making a point that children today are pressured at earlier and earlier stages in life to “figure it out” – to know who they are, what they want to do with their lives, and how they are going to get there, before they are even legally able to drive or vote.  There is a dangerous trend, this story implies, that is putting our young people at risk of grim psychological damage and which also causes serious impacts on physical health, growth, and development.  The parents in this book are idealized, almost to the point of being grotesques, but to demonstrate a point – adults need to be the ones who know what they are doing, and what kids are going through.  Adults need to know how to guide the younger generations, to encourage exploration and healthy competition, but to know when to say “enough is enough.”    It is a shame, and it is laudable that Vizzini, in such a funnily-serious way, attempts to bring these issues and concerns to light.  This is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s-Nestfor today’s younger generation – and we should all be paying attention.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult

Interest: Coming-of-Age, Mental Health, Depression, Youth, Education, Family, Friendship, Art

 Notable Quotes:

“I don’t believe in destiny; I just believe in biology, and hotness, and wanting girls.”

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