Contemporary, L. Philips, LGBT, Mental Health, Music, Romance, Young Adult

Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips

Sometime After Midnight by L. Philips is a modern-day retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale, aptly sub-titled “A CinderFella Story” because the central romance is between two young men named Nate and Cameron. Nate is the orphaned son of a troubled but genius musician and Cameron a teenage millionaire, heir to a world-wide music empire, and a pop culture icon. When the two meet at the same obscure concert, it seems to be love at first sight, a true “Cinderella” story. Unfortunately for both of them, their identities and histories are soon to catch up with them, causing perhaps insurmountable obstacles.  

One of the achievements for Philips’s novel is its characterization. Each of the main characters, secondary characters, and historical figures (like Nate’s dad) have compelling and believable personalities and motivations. Nate’s best friend complements him as a heterosexual and somehow delightfully dangerous sidekick and Cameron’s sister likewise complements him as the supportive meddler, sometimes causing harm when she means to be helpful. As the story unfolds, most of the characters come to interact with one another and with other side characters along the way, such as a mentor musician whom Nate turns to for guidance. Something I truly cherish in any story is a cast of characters who are there to play a role and whose presence propels the plot forward; in Sometime After Midnight, each of the characters is important and is there for a reason, and the backstories—often delayed, creating intrigue and tension—add to this in significant and entertaining ways.

Another strength for the novel, in my opinion, is how unbelievably romantic it is, but in a realistic way. Yes, the story wraps-up in a tidy little bow, but it is no easy task getting Nate and Cameron to that point. There is a lot of drama, a lot of anger, much confusion, and several misunderstandings that must be overcome before the two young heroes can reach their happily ever after. None of these dramatic elements, though, is overwrought (something I tend to complain about in drama-for-drama’s sake young adult romances.) The pacing and plot structure are also balanced incredibly well; there is just enough forward motion (just enough pay off) to make the struggles bearable. At some points, it seems like it will be impossible for Nate and Cameron to reconcile their differences, and for good reason; but the two, surrounded by their supporting cast, work hard at it because they feel it is worth it, and isn’t that what a healthy and respectful relationship usually needs?

Finally, I enjoyed how complicated but realistic these characters are drawn. Neither of the protagonists is perfect, nor are the supporting cast members. Nate’s anger issues seem sometimes frustratingly self-indulgent, and yet one can understand why he feels so much pain and mistrust given what he knows (and discovers) about his father. Cameron’s privilege often manifests in typically obnoxious ways and is highly reminiscent of the way privilege of wealth/fame often manifests in real life. Similarly, Cameron’s sister’s involvement balanced between helpful and harmful. She sometimes seemed downright villainous in her disregard for others, and yet without her help, the two might never have made it.

If I have one complaint, it is simply the alternating narrative perspective. Like many young adult novels published in the last 10-15 years, the author segments the chapters into smaller parts, labeled with the name of the protagonist currently narrating his side of the story. While this does open several opportunities for the story, such as allowing a kind of omnipotent first-person narration that would otherwise be impossible, it also seems to me a kind of cliché at this point. It is well done, though, and I did enjoy witnessing both Nate’s and Cameron’s perspectives, seeing their thoughts, feeling their emotions. It made me root for the relationship rather than rooting for one character or the other, and that might have been the point. I only wish there would have been a reason for the dual narration, something at the end which explained to the reader how and why we are getting both perspectives (a realistic opportunity for both Nate and Cameron to be reflecting on this time, perhaps?) In fact, I think the story was set up for that quite nicely, and it would have taken just a simple epilogue explanation to pull it off.

All-in-all, this book is exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. It was sweet. It was a little bit dark. It was entirely realistic. And it was a darn good gay romance, without too many of the tired old tropes. It’s also steeped in music—the industry, the mood, and the power of it—which is something that speaks to me very intimately. Sometimes, you just want all the sugary goodness! If you’re in the mood for that, this is your book.


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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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1001 Books, American Lit, American Mythology, Book Review, Fiction, Ken Kesey, LGBT, Literary Others Event, Literature, Mental Health, The Beats

Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 41

Plot/Story:

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

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a group of men residing in an Oregon (USA) mental hospital during the late-1950s /early-1960s.  It is narrated by a seemingly deaf and dumb inmate called “Chief Bromden,” who is half-white and half-Native American.  His story revolves primarily around the “battle” between a new inmate, Patrick McMurphy, and the ward’s head nurse, Mildred Ratched.  There are also minor struggles between the white inmates and the black staff, who work for (and whose loyalties lie with) Nurse Ratched.  While some of the patients are in the hospital for valid reasons, such as Bromden’s inability to engage with the world (he is perhaps somewhat schizophrenic), others seem to use it as a hiding place of sorts.  Many of the men are the “victims” of overbearing women – be it their wives or their mothers.  They have been institutionalized because they cannot deal with their emasculation.  McMurphy, the Alpha Dog of the group, comes to the hospital having faked insanity to escape a prison term for statutory rape.  His virility and manhood are what inspire the men of the ward to revolt against Ratched’s authority, and to see her as a woman for the first time.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

The main characters are Chief Bromden, the narrator; Randle McMurphy, the “hero”; and Nurse Ratched, the “villain.”  Bromden narrates the story through cloudy, drug-fogged eyes.  He is being medicated for the entirety of the novel, though sometimes, it seems, there is less or more medication, and this naturally follows with less or more clear narration. Still, he is rather unreliable on the whole, even admitting as much sometimes (“… it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen”).  Bromden is a bit of an outsider.  He has faked ailments, including his supposed inability to hear or to speak.  He reveals himself inadvertently to McMurphy, and we understand that Bromden has just been using these ailments to remain outside conflict and to “witness” things without having to participate in them.  He is also a bit of a Huckleberry Finn personality- an innocent, wrapped up in a complicated situation.  Huckleberry Finn is often torn between doing what “is right” according to his society’s standards and doing what “feels right” to him.  Ultimately, he does what “feels right” (which turns out to be what is actually right), despite pressure from society, religion, etc.  Bromden is caught in similar predicaments.

McMurphy is a comic book hero if ever there was one – bold, brash, and flawed.  He also, fittingly, has a hero complex.  He believes he needs to save these men from Nurse Ratched because he believes that Nurse Ratched, being “in charge,” must necessarily be in the wrong.  While Ratched is not necessarily the warmest of creatures (far from it), she is also a woman in a precarious situation – she is attempting to maintain balance and calm in a psychiatric ward filled with insane people.  While McMurphy labels her a “ball buster” and leads the men to revolt against her, she tries to maintain control; ultimately, that is what the battle is all about – control.  But does either Nurse Ratched or McMurphy truly want control for the right reasons?  Are the patients’ best-interests their first priority?

Minor characters, such as “The Black Boys,” Billy Bibbit, Dale Harding, and Nurse Pilbow are all present to serve a function, be it to inspire conversation on race or sexuality, religion, homosexuality, femininity, or emasculation.

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

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its prose, particularly as it is closely related to the narrator, Bromden.  As Bromden’s mind clears or fogs, so does the prose become clearer or more convoluted.  It is impossible to know, for sure, whether the things being narrated are really happening (or have ever happened), or if they are just figments of Bromden’s imagination (such as the mechanical devices, alive in the walls).  For the first half of the novel, the story is narrated in the present tense; then, suddenly, there is a shift to the past tense (and future back-and-forth to follow). This creates some ambiguity as to when things happened and, given the end of the novel, one is left wondering whether Bromden might have escaped or, perhaps, imagined himself as having escaped, then relaying the story after the fact (either after his “striking out” – another Huck Finn parallel- or after his psychotic break which lead him to believe that he left, when he really didn’t).  The language itself is simple but, as Kesey points out, sometimes the best writing does not make for the best story.  Part of why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest works so well as a narrative is because it is simple but strange; it is straightforward, but twisted; it is clear, but perhaps entirely unclear.

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

Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a haunting look at the polar natures of power and authority, madness and sanity, vitality and emasculation.  Published to critical acclaim, the book is unique in its ability to be both comic and tragic throughout.  Kesey’s background in comic books & graphic novels comes across loud and clear, as there is a clear battle between certain elements of “good” and of “evil.”   Some of these battles are explored in the dichotomies of feminine vs. masculine and civilization vs. the wild.  There is also an interesting exploration of laughter as some kind of superpower – laughter giving strength and courage; laughter healing pain, etc.  Also impossible to ignore is the Christian imagery, with McMurphy a Christ-like figure.  We witness scenes which recall The Last Supper and the Crucifixion, not to mention echoes of the Money Lenders, the Pentecost, and the Betrayal.  There is also the fishing trip (which, one should notice, includes twelve men – twelve being the number of disciples Christ had) where Bibbit is told to be a “fisher of men.”  The phrase is an evangelical one that describes how Christians on a mission to convert others would be viewed.  Another overt reference includes the repetition of the phrase “I wash my hands…”, which McMurphy hears in the Disturbed Ward and which was the phrase used by Pontius Pilate at the crucifixion of Christ.  The major difference, though, is while Christ died so that the sins of his followers could be forgiven, McMurphy’s sacrifice seems to be somewhat different.  Rather than dying for the patients’ sins, he seems to be trying to save them from the abuses of society (and the ward) against them.  He is much more a martyr, attempting to awaken and inspire his people, than a savior hoping to cleanse them.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +

Interest: Masculinity, Mental Health, Displacement, Race in America, Homosexuality, Gender Roles, American Mythology (of the West).

Notable Quotes:

“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

“The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon.”

“He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”


*I include this title as Book 1 for “The Literary Others” event.  The themes of gender roles, masculinity/femininity, and homosexuality are present throughout, and Kesey himself spent a great deal of time with some of the most prominent homosexual writers of the period, including William S. Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg.

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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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