Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, LGBT, Multiple POV, New York, Relationships, Richard Kramer

Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer


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

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.

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.

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

American Lit, Anne Tyler, Book Review, Family, Fiction, Literature, Multiple POV, PhD

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

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. 

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).   

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.”