The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Jack is fifteen. He lives with his parents and three siblings, one older sister (Julie), a younger sister (Sue) and younger brother (Tom). The family seems relatively typical, at first, but the children all turn out to have their bizarre, disturbing quirks, which manifest themselves after the unexpected death of their father and slow, sickly death of their mother just two months later. The kids, worried about being separated from one another and taken from their home, commit an almost unfathomable act. They live together with this secret, in demented fashion, until Julie’s slighted boyfriend, Derek, discovers the truth and puts it all to an end. The Cement Garden is comparable only to V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic but, since these kids act the way they do almost naturally, and certainly willingly, the story is even more perverse and troubling than the horror that Andrews created in her own thriller.

For a short book, the characters were very well written. Each of the children have distinct personalities and identifiable traits. Jack is moody, self-absorbed, and physically (and psychologically) dirty. Sue is quiet, apathetic, and submissive; she is the “documenter” of the bunch, watching everything happen and writing it all down in her journal. Sue is the most observant and understands better than anyone what each of her siblings is like, and what is happening to them all. Tom is a very disturbed young boy, lost without guidance. He loves to dress as a girl (nothing inherently wrong with this, in my opinion, except for the twisted connection it holds to his eldest sister Julie and their mother). Tom enjoys being treated like a baby, nursed and coddled. Julie, the eldest, is a power-crazed beauty. She is seriously disturbed and encourages her brother Jack’s unhealthy infatuation with her, toward a place that should never be reached. Derek, the boyfriend, and the kids’ parents, though minor characters, are also distinguished with independent traits, mostly weaknesses. For example, even when Derek finally takes a stand, it is only because he feels angry and jealous of Julie and Jack’s relationship, not because he means to do the right thing for the sake of it being right.

To me, the story was highly disturbing. It will be hard for many to get through it; fortunately, I have a lot of experience with dark, demented, and disturbing literature (being a Dennis Cooper scholar and William S. Burroughs fanatic). Still, child perversity and incest are not comfortable issues and, had McEwan not been a powerful and masterful story-teller, I probably would have given up on this book. The language is well crafted, though, and the prose flows evenly and smoothly. The story too, is an important one, if hard to witness. Things like this do happen in the real world, though nobody ever writes about it or cares to think of it. So, “thanks” to McEwan’s writing ability (I suppose I should be grateful?), I was able to stay engaged enough to manage through to the end. It was certainly a wild ride – I am just glad I finished it long before bed-time.

The book certainly touches on the darker aspects of family and isolated relationships. It deals with child psychology, aberrant sexuality, fear, and immaturity. What does a group of children do, after all, when their parents die suddenly – with no guidance, no extended family to reach out to, and no nearby neighbors to look toward for support? The children were left an inheritance of sorts, which had been explained to the two eldest in advance so, in their minds, they were surviving in a way their mother had intended, on their own and together. But this isolation creates rather immoral, dangerous situations and one must believe that none of these children will ever develop into healthy adulthood. Is it hard to read? Yes, it is even hard to imagine; but, as I mention above, I believe these types of scenarios do exist, only to be heard of in brief 30-second snippets on the news. It is interesting, if rather gross, to witness these relationships in action, as it were, and to get a glimpse at the “how” and “why” of such situations.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

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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

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.”


Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

By Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 39

 

 

 


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

I was introduced to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Laura of Owl Tell You About It, who had nothing but glowing things to say about this book.  A quick Goodreads and Amazon scan brought up a lot of other positive reviews, some of them outstanding, and from bloggers I’ve been connected with for a while.  How did I miss this one?

The story is about two teenage boys, Aristotle and Dante, whose lives and personalities seem worlds apart, but who are connected by something stronger than circumstances.  Although they and their families are very different, the two boys soon become friends (not without plenty of tense moments) and stumble upon a universe all their own – two planets, as different as Earth and Mars, but orbiting each other in the most natural way.   

Through painful accidents and dangerous situations, through tragedy and loss, through long-distances and secret family histories rediscovered, what Aristotle, especially, learns is that it is okay to be vulnerable – to need someone.  And what Dante learns is how to be needed, and how to be patient.  This is a story about two boys, Ari and Dante, one who is sure about who he is and the other who is on a difficult path to discovery.  Their worlds collide and the friendship they create in the process might be enough to destroy them, or to save their lives.


Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

Aristotle, Dante, and their parents.  These are the primary and secondary characters in a book that is rather light on characters, which is fine because the real story is Dante & Aristotle.  Some others make their appearances, in brief or in memory.  Aristotle’s brother and sisters, for instance, and Dante’s boyfriend.  But the story is, start-to-finish, in-and-out, all about Dante and Aristotle.  Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is well-read, artistic, and self-confident.  Ari prefers solitude and quiet – he harbors a darkness, an anger, and has a hard time communicating. Dante loves poetry and loves to draw.  Ari spends most of his time thinking about his older brother (who is incarcerated), and about why his parents refuse to talk about it.  Dante is fair-skinned and beautiful, but longs to feel closer to his Mexican heritage;  Ari is darker, plain, and wouldn’t mind being less obviously Mexican. 

Somehow, these two very different boys find each other, balance each other, and develop a friendship that fits them both like nothing ever has.  Dante manages to penetrate Aristotle’s defences, and Aristotle helps keep Dante grounded, giving him the strength and courage he will need to confront his biggest fear.  Through it all, they share words and dreams, poetry and laughter, books, games, and even artwork.   Together, they  realize that the universe doesn’t just surround them – it is what they create for themselves.


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

If the story itself isn’t wonderful enough (it is), the way it is delivered cannot be ignored.  This is the first book I’ve read by Sáenz, but numerous people told me, while reading this, how much they enjoyed his prose and storytelling abilities.  I’m jumping on the bandwagon.  His prose is sparse but romantic.  The complexities of language – of finding the right word for the right moment – are part of Aristotle’s journey, so the prose itself becomes a part of the story.  Vivid imagery, beautiful language, emotional knuckle-punches, and a great sense of humor all pack themselves into a carefully crafted style that is accompanied by natural dialogue and a unique narrative perspective. 


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

If I am being honest, I must admit that I was disappointed by this book in two ways; first, by the final reveal (or revelation?) and second by the way that reveal came about.  I was incredibly excited to possibly have discovered a genuine, touching, “boy’s boy” book about two guy friends, one of whom just happens to be gay.  But it doesn’t turn out exactly as it appears, and even if the ending isn’t too deftly veiled, one (me, at least) still hoped it would go a certain way.  I realize I’m being ambiguous, but it’s hard to talk about what happens without giving away the whole ball game – and since this is such a beautiful story told in such a wonderful way, I definitely do not want to spoil it for anyone.  Others might be perfectly pleased with the way it turns out, though, again, I’m not sure that anyone could be thrilled with its mode of delivery.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Prove me wrong! 

Ultimately, this is a sweet, sweet book filled with emotion, passion, love, pain, and reality.  It’s a coming of age story that is believable and remarkable at the same time.  Even though I would have taken the ending in a different direction, I’m still thrilled with the experience of reading this book – it has won countless awards, and it’s not hard to understand why.  We’re looking at a new standard for honest, contemporary YA with realistic male characters and topical issues, delivered in a believable and magical way.  Right on.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Friendship, Family, Mexican-American, Gay, Coming of Age, First Love, YA.


Notable Quotes:

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.”

“That afternoon, I learned two new words. ‘Inscrutable’ ‘friend.’ Words were different when they lived inside of you.”

“And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.”

“You can’t make anyone be an adult. Especially an adult.”

“The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain.”


Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

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That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 52

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

That Old Cape Magic might be one of my favorite reads of the year.  The main character, Jack Griffin, is the son of two Literature Professors – brilliant people, Yale educated, who never quite made it as far as they believe they should have.  Jack is a disappointment to his parents because he gives up on “important” writing and moves to Hollywood in order to write screenplays. Of course, they are also quite envious of him for getting out of “the mid-fucking-west,” as they call it.  Still, his parents are of the class of “academics” who find any popular writing – anything that anybody would willingly publish or find enjoyable to read- not at all valuable (don’t we all know those types of academics who think, “if the commoners are reading it, it must not be very good!”?). Griffin struggles against their influence all his life, only to realize very late that he has become exactly like them (even –gasp- a literature professor!).  Over the course of decades, as he slowly morphs into the very thing he was rebelling against, he loses his parents, his wife, and any sense of self he once had.  He, like his parents, seeks out Cape Cod in order to reclaim himself and remind him of what is truly important to him, and to set his parents to rest, at long last. Ultimately, Jack’s journey is to find happiness by accepting where he comes from, by letting go of pains from the past, and by acknowledging all the good things that he has – a lesson most of us could be reminded of from time to time.

Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

The characters in this book range from self-absorbed (most of them), to self-deprecating; from hilariously buffoonish (Jack’s brothers-in-law) to sensible and patient (Jack’s wife).  Although the main character’s parents are painted with a somewhat biased brush, the truth is that they are supposed to appear rather one-sided.  Part of the story is an exploration of memory and perception – when we remember events from childhood, when we think of our parents as they were when we were children- are we remembering things accurately?  Could we really have known what anyone was like, when we look back on a child’s perspective, thirty years later?  Jack looks at each character in the book a certain way, very rarely changing his mind about anyone, but readers get glimpses into different sides of their personalities, which tells us more about them but also about the narrator and his reliability (or not). Russo is adept at narrating small moments, such as a woman crying in the shower or a father thinking about his daughter, to illustrate and round-out even the more minor of characters in the story.  We learn that everyone has at least two identities, the way they see themselves and the way others see them, but two is just the minimum – most of us have many more.  Although the cast is rather sad and unlikable (his characters and plots combine in ways which create a sense of what Thoreau calls the “quiet desperation” of man), and though many of them have bloated egos and often lament the life they could have had, without making much effort to achieve it, still they come together to tell a story – they are believable, recognizable people in believable, recognizable families and situations. 

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

Perhaps Russo’s greatest strength, at least in That Old Cape Magic, is his storytelling ability.  He understands people and their complexities.  He is sensitive and observant, which is appropriate when considering that this is really a story about stories and a tale about telling (one would expect a writer to be almost obsessively observant – and we surely recognize this in ourselves). His prose is light but serious – it’s a bizarre way of reflecting real life, where most of our thoughts are on the surface, yet powerful and sometimes dangerous emotions are always at work, deep in the undertow.  Russo drops philosophical tidbits here and there throughout the book – little life lessons about understanding people, living with compassion, questioning (and even doubting) our own memories.  The fluid prose, the welcoming language (drawing us into the story even when the characters might be repellant), and the oftentimes hilarious reflections and dialogue all make for an enjoyable and satisfying reading experience.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present & enhance the story.

There are two primary subjects in That Old Cape Magic.  The first is family and relationships; the second is writing and, more specifically, popular writing vs. academic writing (what is “valuable?”).  For the first, Russo explores an idea that his main character, Griffin, inherits from his parents – that happiness, and home, is “a place you could visit but never own.”  For his family, that place is Cape Cod, but the reality is that they are never truly happy there, either.  The second theme, academic versus popular writing, and what matters, is especially fun and interesting for students of English/Literature, particularly those familiar with academic department politics (groan).  Russo’s book is clever in that it is written as popular contemporary fiction, but he is clearly aware of the academic side (and likely reception by academics to this, his own work) and of the prejudices and pretensions that come with “literary” scrutiny.  Who are these people who get to define what is “good” and “important,” he seems to be asking.  Russo drops-in references to Melville, Faulkner, and other canonical writers, which is clearly a “poke in the eye” to the prestigious readers, indicating that he knows what he is talking about; but, he also manages to make the story his own, modern and readable, so that really anyone (particularly fans of fiction that explores families, memory, and writing) can enjoy it.  I would not go so far as to say that this is a brilliant work, but Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and That Old Cape Magic helps to explain why.  It is fun but powerful, light but deep, easy to follow, yet deceptively layered.  A great read, especially for the well-trained reader who will pick-up on subtle literary references (they are not as in-your-face as Jasper Fforde’s, but they are there).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Family, Marriage, Adultery, Academia, Metafiction, Literature, Memory

Notable Quotes:

“For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.” (8)

“Stories worked much the same way . . . A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation.” (67)

“Only very stupid people are happy.” (195)

“Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”

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

Review: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46


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

Anne Tyler’s 1982 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award (1983), and it is not difficult to understand why.  The story revolves around the Tull family, which consists of Pearl, an overbearing, somewhat (okay, very) imbalanced mother, and her three children: Cody, Ezra, and Jenny.  The father-figure, Beck, abandons the family when the children are still quite young and Pearl spends her life trying to protect her family’s image.  She is not in denial about Beck’s abandonment, but she refuses to admit it to her children, to her friend (yes, just one friend) and to her extended family, because that would upset the image that she has cultivated, one of a perfectly ideal family and one which her own family never expected her to achieve.  The narrative is told in alternating viewpoints, with a third-person narrator who is, chapter-by-chapter, closely engaged with either Pearl, Cody, Ezra, or Jenny.  The narrator remains relatively unbiased, but each chapter does reveal certain of the family members’ own biases, particularly through memory.  Cody, for instance, looks back on his childhood as largely traumatic – he felt slighted by his mother, who clearly favored his younger brother, Ezra.  Meanwhile, Ezra looks back on his childhood fondly and can’t seem to understand why his family was never able to function well together.  Jenny hovers somewhere in-between, clearly troubled and damaged, yet still able to recover – after time – to achieve a somewhat normal life, with a decent family (eventually) and a great career.  Ultimately, the story is about the “new normal” of American culture, where women go to work, children begin to fend for themselves, and everyone is dysfunctional in some way or another. 


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

The characters in this book are drawn so well that, even in their horribleness, they are still believable and oddly loveable.  At times, their selfishness, lunacy, and anger felt so real as to be laugh-out-loud funny (haven’t we all been so mad, or so sad, that all we could do was laugh about it?).  Pearl is an American “Tiger Mom.”  She demands perfection from her husband (which drives him away) and from her children (which creates other problems).  She is clearly bipolar, at times claiming that her family is the most important thing in the world and then, minutes later, smashing bowls of peas over her daughter’s head.  Cody is selfish but in a way that is clearly resulting from jealousy over his brother’s relationship with their mom.  He is competitive in everything he does, so much so that he even plots to steal his brother’s wife.  Jenny is self-loathing and self-conscious.  She is clearly intelligent and capable, but always doubts herself.  And Beck, the absent father, is juvenile and self-indulgent.  He does send money home for his family on a regular basis, but he leaves them because he cannot bear the pressure of living with Pearl, he cannot live up to her expectations (nor suffer through her very troubling O.C.D.) and, really, just wants to be free to move around, and sleep around, as much as possible.  It’s such a small cast of characters, but they are written so well that the story is enlivened and enriched beyond what one might come to expect from a story with such limited focus (one family).   


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

This is the only Tyler novel I have read (and, in fact, this is the second time I’ve read it), and I’m having a hard time figuring out why that is.  She’s such a good story-teller; she knows characters and can develop them incredibly well; she has a masterful sense of tone, mood, and pace.  On top of all this, her language, prose, and style are almost refreshing in their ease of movement.  Although this story is intense at times, the prose moves it along, matching the mood of each scene, adjusting as needed to fit the scenes of suspense, humor, etc.  The structure (and the already-mentioned narration) of the novel, alternating viewpoints in every chapter, can sometimes come across (in other works) as pretentious, simplistic, or lazy, but here it is clearly necessary toward achieving Tyler’s end, which is honestly and accurately relaying the “truth” of each character’s reality and memory.  Set up in this way, the reader understands the family as a whole, but also how each character fits into it – how they see themselves and how others see them. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

The primary themes in the novel are this idea of the “burden of a person’s past,” and also the “family meal.”  To this first point, we see that there are multiple histories being examined, one for each of the characters, one for the family, and then the history of each of the family members as seen through the eyes of the others.  Needless to say, this book is about personal and familial histories, there’s a lot of it, but it is explored creatively, intricately, and with a remarkable reality.  To the second point, the family meal, we see this as a recurring scene throughout.  Some of the most touchingly warm and heartbreakingly sad moments in the book occur when the children are eating meals at others’ homes.  They see, when having dinner at a friend’s house, for example, how “normal” families function – how “normal” families show love and tenderness toward one another.  These scenes are contrasted with ones at the Tull house (I use the word “house” instead of “home” on purpose), where the family meals always seem to start out with the best intentions, but soon go sour.  Violent fights, shouting matches, angry insinuations – these are the characteristics of the Tull family meals.  From childhood and well into adulthood, Ezra Tull, the family’s most sensitive member and general caretaker, tries his best to get the family to have “one good family meal” – but he never succeeds.  In addition to these two main themes are those of alienation and loneliness.  Pearl spends her life insulating herself, and her family, from the rest of the world.  On the surface, this book seems like just another book about family life, but it’s so much more than that.  This is a book every serious reader should experience.   


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Family Dynamics, Sibling Relationships, Single-Mothers, Dysfunctional Families, Comfort Food, Multiple POVs


Notable Quotes:

“When you have children, you’re obliged to live.”

“You think we’re some jolly, situation-comedy family when we’re in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place, and our mother was a witch.”