The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

 

Harper Perennial calls The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper’s “most haunting work to date,” and it is impossible to disagree. Although this latest from Cooper is more psychological and subtle, in many aspects, than most of his other works, it is perhaps because of those reasons that it is even more effective. The book is disturbing, as is typical from Cooper. The narrator, a deeply troubled young man with fantasies of incest on the brain, is consumed by homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies. The layers of his mind are just as twisted, concealed, and misleading as the secret passageways and hidden rooms that encompass his father’s voyeuristic mansion. The book, at its core, is a mystery story, which parallels the physical reality with the narrator’s subconscious, and what the reader finds in both places is darkly troubling.   

A narrator who refuses to identify as gay, but whose sexual perversions include raping and killing boys (particularly of the “Emo” type), then eating them; a father who spies on his sons, and who slowly and subtly persuades them to become sexually infatuated with each other; a boy who lies about being raped by his father to his brother, and by his brother to his father, with the hope that one of them will rape him; men who kidnap boys, alter them through plastic and bone surgery so they will look like their fantasy type, then sell them for sexual favors to men with twisted desires. These are just some of the characters in The Marbled Swarm. Individually, each is sick, twisted, and alarming in his own right; together, they create a world of psychological distrubia. The narrator and main character is the most interesting of the bunch, perhaps because the reader witnesses some of his secrets unfold chapter-by-chapter. His younger brother and father are also fascinating, in a “this car crash makes me want to vomit but I can’t turn my head” kind of way. Ultimately, the group serves to progress the story’s purpose, which is a commentary on language and communication, as well as Cooper’s modus operandi – exposing the terrible side of humanity and the evil side of desire. 

Cooper’s writing style is nearly unmatched; he is a type of writer that has been unknown in American Literature since William Burroughs. Although his themes are twisted and hard to stomach for most, his ability as a writer are laudable to say the least. His mastery of language, his ability to advance a plot seamlessly, and the sickeningly playful way he messes with his readers minds are impossible to overlook, despite how unsavory the subject matter. In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has accomplished all that his previous works attempted, which is saying much, because his previous works were groundbreaking in their own right. In retrospect, though, it is clear to see that Cooper has been developing over time, getting better and better; and this latest, his masterpiece, is proof of how hard he has been working to perfect his craft. 

After admiring Cooper’s work for nearly a decade, I can say that, though I have loved and been fascinated by almost every book, poem, and essay the man has ever written, this is the book all previous works were helping to develop. It is, by far, Cooper’s most complex piece to date, and also his finest in craft, in theory, and in delivery. The fluid prose, disturbing subject matter, and psychological warfare (within the story and between narrator and reader) make this book a demonstrable work of genius. Had this been just a story about a disturbed young man who had sexual attractions for his brother and father, and who liked to eat human flesh, the book would have been sick, sad, and confusing; however, though that is technically what happens in the book, it is not what the book is about. This is a story about desire and depression; it is a story about cravings and theatrics;  it is a story about the pleasure of playing “the witness” in horrifying situations and, most importantly, it is a story about story-telling. 

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

 

 

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10 Best Reads in 2014 (So Far)

toptentuesday2It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a “Top Ten Tuesday” meme. These are hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, and they always have great topics.  This week’s topic is “favorites of the year so far.” Since I like to keep track of my own personal favorites, and share them with others (what else is a book blog for, anyway?), I thought this week’s topic was a good one to post.

According to my records, I have read 40 books so far this year, which puts me a bit ahead of schedule (I only had a goal of 60 for the whole year).  I’m also reading A TON of books for my summer independent reading (preparation for doctoral exams in January), so I’m sure I’ll be way ahead of schedule come mid-August. If I manage to keep up with the reading list, that is. HAH.

Now, the folks at The Broke and The Bookish say, specifically, “favorites.” Not best books, not top rated etc. So, “favorite” being the only qualifier, I have chosen 5 works of fiction and 5 works of non-fiction that I really enjoyed in this first half of the year. I could have included a poetry section, too, as I’ve read some great poetry in this first half of the year, but I spent too much time trimming each of these sections down from 10 works to 7 and, finally, to 5. So, yay for poetry but, no, it’s not making the list this time!

Fiction:

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Imre: A Memorandum by Edward Prime-Stevenson
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Ulysses by James Joyce

Non-Fiction:

  • Eminent Outlaws by Christopher Bram
  • If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut
  • This is Water by David Foster Wallace
  • The Lavender Scare by David K. Johnson
  • Gay New York by George Chauncey

Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?  And what are some of your own personal favorites so far this year?

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: Winger by Andrew Smith

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 36

Ryan Dean West is Winger, so nicknamed for the position he plays on the high school Rugby team.  He is fourteen years old and, being intellectually gifted, is already heading into his junior year of high school. He begins the new school year as a resident of Opportunity Hall, the “reject” wing of his school campus’s dormitories.  How did such a bright kid end up in exile?  Take one part smarty-pants, one part wild boy, and two parts bad judgment, and there you have it!  Living in Opportunity Hall with Chas, the school’s biggest bully, as a roommate sucks, but it is not the biggest of Winger’s problems.  And the fact that Chas’s girlfriend is totally lusting after him is bad, but still not the worst of it.  That one of Winger’s friends posts pictures of his band-aided scrotum on the internet and another is gay (how do you deal with that!?) definitely causes Winger some anxiety, but these are still not the worst of his issues.  No, the worst part is, he’s in love.  Not so bad?  Well, it is if you’re in love with your best friend.  And it’s really bad if your best friend is a girl two years older than you.  Two years might not seem like such a big deal to those of us who are now counting our birthdays in decades instead of years, but when you’re young, two years feels like a generation, especially when another guy, an older guy, your best friend, in fact, is competing with you for the same girl’s attention.  Winger is a classic coming-of-age story for the new era. It is smart, daring, honest, and dangerous.

One of my favorite things about Smith’s books has always been the characters.  Smith clearly knows and understands his characters inside and out.  No one in the story is there for the sake of being there – they are all integral to the story’s plot and progression, be it for comic relief, emotional growth, romance, sexual awakening, or whatever else.  Winger is no exception to this mastery.  The main character, Ryan Dean, is not the greatest guy in the world; in fact, he does some pretty lousy things.  But he’s growing up.  He stumbles and he learns.  He says stupid things, but reflects on them later.  We get annoyed with him, sometimes, but we root for him because we can see and remember our own journeys to adulthood reflected in his.  The bullies, too, Chas and Casey Palmer, are equally rounded – they are not all bad, and they are not just there because every protagonist needs an antagonist.  They have their stories and histories, too, and they are equally important to this world that Smith has created.  Although the story focuses on the students, Winger and his friends, Smith also captures the best and worst of adulthood.  There are teachers (Mr. Wellins!) who live in their own little obsessive worlds, trying to make their students see what they see in the things they love; there are absent parents and clueless mentors; there are even unlikely romances between creepy hall directors who ultimately let their residents down in the worst possible way.  This mixed bag of characters, their individualities, and their interconnectedness with one another and with the main story itself all help to create a story world that is believable and engaging, hilarious and terrifying – just like life.

When you have a favorite writer, the anticipation that builds when waiting to read his or her new book is a peculiar experience.  You know you love what they do, but part of you is always dreadfully afraid that the new book might disappoint.  When you’re a self-identified “reader,” there are few things more terrifying and heart-breaking than to be let-down by your favorite writer – it is a fear that few people can know or understand.  So, headed into this reading experience, having loved every single one of Andrew Smith’s published works to date, had me simultaneously nervous and excited.  I discovered Smith when I received an advanced copy of his book Stick from the publisher, for review.  Immediately after finishing it, I bought every one of his books.  And I’ve enjoyed all of them.  Smith has a distinct voice, a poignant style, and a raw and daring point of view.  It is remarkable, then, having already known what Smith was capable of, that Winger has blown my head right off.  Smith clearly cares deeply for this story – the language and style are creative and distinctive, without being distracting.  Smith understands people, but it takes a great storyteller to metamorphose that understanding into a readable, enjoyable story.  He does this in traditional ways, sure, but he also adds unique signatures to his prose and form.  For example, Winger carries on conversations with himself – something we probably all do – but has it ever been so realistically employed in prose?  I don’t think so.  The cartoons, too, add a fun element to the narrative, but also add to the reader’s understanding of the main character/narrator’s personality.  Sometimes his deepest feelings, though caricatured through comic, come across most pointedly in his drawings.  The dialogue, the jokes, the sarcasm, and the descriptions, too, are without flaw.

This year, I have been fortunate enough to have read some great young adult fiction from some of the most popular, award-wining writers.  Although the YA genre is not my particular specialty, I do enjoy it and read it often; in the last 5 months, I’ve read works by Rick Yancey, David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, Cassandra Clare, and Rick Riordan. I’ve enjoyed, to varying degrees, all of their books and have found much to praise about each writer.  But Andrew Smith stands unequivocally head-and-shoulders above the rest, and Winger is in a league of its own.  It is not uncommon to read blurbs and reviews that claim such-and-such book is THE book of the year – for whatever reason.  I have made a point, on this blog, to write my unbiased opinions of books, based on my own criteria – the things that work for me when reading a story.  I’m not sure I’ve ever, in a review, suggested that anyone go out and buy a book.  But there’s a time for everything, and this is that time.  Winger is the first book this year to capture my attention from the start and hold it to the end.  It’s the first story to tug at my heart, my soul, and my funny bone, and to make me believe that this story and the characters in it are real.  If you’re a lover of YA fiction or coming-of-age stories, or if you are, like me, someone who just loves a good story and will dabble wherever you need to in order to find it, then, for crying out loud, go experience Andrew Smith’s Winger.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, violence).

Interest:  Coming of Age, YA, Boarding School, Friendship, Loss, LGBT, Bullying.

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was . . . things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice” (7).

“Getting through my world was like trying to swim in a pool of warm mayonnaise while carrying two bowling balls” (328).

“I wrote this all down, and I tried to make everything happen the exact same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it – real time – with all the confusion, the pressure, and the wonder, too” (411).

“Things get tough. And you’re supposed to grow up. And it’s all a bunch of bullshit” (411).

“It felt like it was going to snow, and the clouds hung so low and white that I couldn’t even see the tops of trees around me. It looked like there was a pillow over the face of the world” (423).

“Almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and, maybe, not having it” (438).

“The same words that make the horrible things come also tell the quieter things about love” (439).

Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

10 Surprisingly, Shockingly O-M-G Good Books!

*Image source unknown.

This week’s original idea for “Top 10 Tuesdays” (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) was “Authors I’d Like to See on a Reality Show“.  This one turned out to be too hard for a lot of folks (although I think I could manage – Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, Agatha Christie, David Foster Wallace…. That’s 7. I’ll leave the other 3 to your imagination!) – so they decided to open it up to whatever we choose.  So, my topic is Top 10 Surprisingly Enjoyable Reads! Wherein, I list and talk about 10 books that were much better than I expected them to be.  Go!

01.  The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway.  This book blew me away.  It was not at all what I expected from Hemingway, and I’m pretty familiar with the dude at this point.  It was so honest and so personal – something that, yes, Hemingway’s work always is, but it was, in a way, more sensitive and delicate than his other works.  I found this one to be incredibly beautiful and rather fascinating as an autobiographical study.

02. The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes.  A collection of short stories written during the incomparable Jazz Age and as a response to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk.  Hughes takes what was a well-meaning anthropological study and exposes its unintentional but ever-present racism and condescension.  The stories range from sad to hilarious and from typical to tragic.  Hughes demonstrates his genius, here, not only in the stories themselves, but in his evaluation and deconstruction of DuBois’s work (right down to the very meaningful difference between the titles’ use of the words “Folk” vs.”Folks”). 

03. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville .  One of the books I recommend most often to lovers of literature.  This book is almost always overlooked, both by students of American literature in general and by students of the period (or of Melville) specifically.  I found it nothing short of brilliant!  Melville died tragically without recognition; even Moby Dick, his masterpiece, was almost lost to obscurity (it was thanks to a researcher, decades later, that the work -and its author- were finally recognized).  Reading this one in conjunction with Milton’s Paradise Lost is an experience well-worth having!

04. The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens.  I have not been too enamored by any YA Fantasy books since the completion of the Harry Potter series.  So, when I received an ARC of this one last year, I didn’t have very high expectations.  After reading and reviewing it, however, I made sure to set my calendar so that I could go pick-up a copy of the first edition first printing as soon as it was released (and I did!).  The sequel (The Fire Chronicle) releases later this year, and I am super-stoked to get my hands on it!

05. Lust for Life by Irving Stone.  A fictional memoir (or biographical novel?) about the life of Vincent van Gogh.  The narrative is based on actual letters written between van Gogh and his brother, so it is both factual and personal. I don’t know a whole lot about art – I took one Art History course in college and did well-enough, but while I’m interested in the subject, I can’t pretend to be any kind of resource or critic.  This book, though, is so well written that I found myself learning about and appreciating art and “the process,” without having much relatable experience.  The author seems highly reputable (an incredible researcher with honest intentions), which made the experience even more enjoyable for me.

06. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.  This might be the first book to have ever made me actually laugh-out-loud.  I’m not typically one for memoirs or autobiography (despite my applause of Book #5 above), but I found this particular work to read like fiction, though it was based on factual events.  For me, that’s a great thing, as it means the narrator isn’t only a real person, but also a great storyteller.  Parts of the book are absurd, sure, but there’s nothing I love more in my books than an epically dysfunctional family.

07. The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Along with poetry and non-fiction, another type of literature I don’t seem to read enough of is drama.  While the premise of this one did sound interesting – an English teacher trying to guide and influence his students at an English all-boy’s school- I didn’t see much in the blurb that made me think “this is gonna be somethin’!”  Fortunately, a friend had mentioned how great the movie is – and I’m typically adamant about reading books/plays before watching.  So, I read the play.  And then saw the movie.  And then read the play again.  And then saw the movie again.  And so it goes, every couple of years.  I read very few books multiple times (because I always have so much new material on-deck)… the fact that I’ve read this one at least three times is saying something, alright!

08. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I am not the biggest Fitzgerald fan.  I enjoyed The Great Gatsby and some of his short stories, but I just “liked” This Side of Paradise.  I read Tender is the Night in graduate school, though, and was utterly stunned.  There might be a pattern, here, in that I find a lot of my favorite/surprisingly enjoyable reads are autobiographical in nature.  This one deals directly with the tumultuous relationship between Fitzgerald and his troubled wife, Zelda (whose one published novel, Save Me the Waltz, deals with the same time period and was recently reviewed on this blog).  I related, personally, with a lot of what Fitzgerald was going through, which also, I think, made me appreciate the book on a deeper, more personal level.

09. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  This book intimidated me like no other.  I had read and enjoyed both Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, so I’m not sure why I felt this one would be so daunting.  Perhaps it’s because War and Peace is considered one of “the” great literary tomes, one that all serious readers and intellectuals either hope to read or take pride in having read at some point.  The story (or, should I say, stories) was beautiful and the philosophy explored was stimulating and passionate.  I couldn’t believe that such an intensely serious (and lengthy) work could be so much fun to read.  I have to also thank the translator for making this experience a great one.  If anyone has been putting this one off, as I had been, because they feel it will be “too hard” or “too dense” – pshaw!  Take it from me, you want to read this one!  It’s actually (seriously) a page-turner.

10. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.  I had never heard of Isherwood, until stumbling across this book in the “Recommended For You” section of Amazon.com.  The book is about how a man deals with life, after the death of his long-time partner.  How do we get used to living alone and being single again?  What do we become, after half of what used to define us has disappeared?  This is by no means a fun read; it is, in fact, quite sad and difficult.  That being said, it is very, very human and, although the relationship explored is a homosexual one, the message and experiences are, I think, completely relatable to all of us and particularly to those of us who are growing older (in a relationship) and worry about that future time, or to those of us who have already lost our other half.  So good.

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 15

Disclosure:  This is a book that I have read five times, now, but have yet to review.  The first three times I read it were in the pre-blogging days, so naturally I could not have posted any thoughts about it.  The fourth time, I wrote a brief comment but could not bring myself to write anything constructive. This time, I set out to read the book with the intent of reviewing it. 


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

Fifteen-year-old Charlie is a wallflower.  Like a wallflower, there is something strangely beautiful about him.  He is silent but observant; shy but determined to please; introverted but filled with love and compassion.  His story starts in August, 1991, just as he is about to begin his first year of high school, and it ends almost exactly one year later.  He has lost someone close to him and is clearly confused about how to deal with his feelings about this loss (amongst the other complicated growing pains he experiences); so, he decides to begin writing letters to a stranger – someone who he once overheard a mutual friend talking about.  The recipient of Charlie’s letters is never disclosed – we do not know his/her name or age, his/her profession or relationship to the people in the story, just that s/he is considered trustworthy and addressed by Charlie as “Dear Friend.”  This friend becomes the unwitting conduit for Charlie’s coming-of-age.  In this year of his life, he builds and compromises friendships; he is exposed for the first time to some of the darker elements of life; he learns to drive and to dance; he goes to parties and reads books. Most importantly, though, Charlie becomes Charlie.  He blossoms from a wallflower into a “participant” – and he learns how to feel infinite.  


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Since the entire book is comprised of letters written by one character, to one person, it would be easy to question the narrator’s reliability and to wonder about the development or accurate representation of the other characters involved.  Charlie, however, seems to have only one major fault, and that is honesty (as when he is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and doesn’t kiss his girlfriend).  While Charlie certainly seems to have mental issues – possibly a mild form of schizophrenia (many other reviews seem to think he is Autistic, but I would disagree) – he never comes across as the type to mislead his audience, particularly as the audience is, for all intents and purposes, just one person, his “Dear Friend” and the only one in whom Charlie confides everything.  The narrator’s reliability being established, then, allows the reader to believe Charlie’s story and to watch as he grows through experience and heals through memory, acceptance, and forgiveness.  While other characters in the book, including Charlie’s family and friends, and his favorite teacher, Bill, do not evolve as much as Charlie, they are, however, natural characters, believable in every way.  The situations these people find themselves in, from first loves and broken romances, to family holidays and personal tragedies, are written with a realistic passion, as one who is watching and engaged in the drama but who has nothing to gain from sensationalism would write them.  This makes the events, though not experienced by each of us, relevant to all, because they are facts of life. In the end, these characters are just people and these people are just living.


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

At one point in the story, Charlie’s teacher, Bill, tells him that some books are “very easy to read but very hard to ‘read well.’”  This book just happens to fit that mold – its language is simple and straightforward, but it is littered with sub-context and deeper elements which are introduced at the start of the story, nursed throughout, then, finally, come to fruition at the end. 

The novel is structured in a one-way epistolary format.  It is almost a diary, except that each entry is a letter to an unknown stranger, and that stranger never responds.  Because these letters are being sent off to someone who is not expected to reply, and because (we can assume) no copies of the letters are being retained by Charlie, they tend to be much more personal and provocative than even a diary or journal might be (because, subconsciously, we all worry that someone might find our diaries and expose our secrets, or at least confront us with them – which is of particular concern when the writer is a teenager living at home with his parents and siblings).  For this reason, because the letters are assumed secret, they are simultaneously simple but revelatory. 

While researching other thoughts and opinions on the book, I have found that one of the primary points of contention for many readers is the underdevelopment (so they say) of the main character, Charlie.  Throughout the book, we discover that Charlie is considered to be a rather smart individual.  He is given extra projects by his English teacher and he regularly receives perfect scores/grades on his schoolwork.  Some have wondered, then, why Charlie writes in such a simplistic way.  Looking back, though, and reading critically, there are two things to keep in mind: first, that Charlie is considered to be smart for his age; he is at no point called a “genius” or “brilliant” or any other superior term- just smart; second, Charlie himself admits early on to preferring common vocabulary, as opposed to loftier language (which he finds pompous and pointless).  In contemporary Young Adult fiction, a trend has developed wherein teenage characters are given the narrative or dialogic voice of Ivy League college graduates.  This is, I think, unfair to the readers and, though it might make the characters more interesting and the story more edifying, it does not represent the typical teenage voice.  Chbosky, on the other hand, aims to depict an honest teenage writer, one who is not composing essays or communicating with scholars, but who is simply writing letters.  These letters allow him to release emotion and, eventually, to reconnect him with some deeply-buried, painful and important memories.  His writing allows him to heal – it is simple but poignant and, most of all, it is real.


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

This is absolutely a story which tackles many issues, from rape and abortion, to teenage sex, drugs, and suicide.  Some readers might find the amount of dramatic material overwhelming or off-putting, but when one compares this story to others which approach teenage life in a similar way, such as Go Ask Alice, it is clear that The Perks of Being a Wallflower aims to be nothing but honest.  Charlie is an unconventional narrator and his story is composed in an unconventional way but, ultimately, he is just a confused American teenager trying to find himself in a world that seems to be always changing.  Not every one of us will have dealt with all (or any) of these issues, in high school or as adults, but these things do happen and wishing them away –ignoring them- will not change their reality.  Charlie, like some readers, does sometimes disengage himself from the more disturbing things that have happened to him, or around him – but the moral of the story is that growing-up means learning to live and learning to live means participating in what goes on around us.  Ready or not, life happens – there is good in it and there is bad in it, but the meaning of life is in how we live it; it is whether we choose to navigate our own way or to get lost in the current; to be the wallflower, or the participant.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Coming-of-Age, Family, Friendship, Identity, Sexuality, Abuse, Drugs, Psychology


Notable Quotes:

“Things change.  And friends leave.  And life doesn’t stop for anybody.”

“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have.  I need to know that these people exist.”

“So, this is my life.  And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

“I really think that everyone should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica.”

“What’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably?  I just don’t understand that.”

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

“I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.”

“I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other.”

“Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”

“Everyone else is either asleep or having sex.  I’ve been watching cable television and eating jello.”

“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons.  And maybe we’ll never know most of them.  But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.  We can still do things.  And we can try to feel okay about them.”

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”


Related Links:

Smash Attack Reads, Reviews The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Movie Information

Shooting Stars Mag Interviews Stephen Chbosky