Aging, Book Review, Death, Fiction, K.B. Dixon, metafiction, Psychology

The Ingram Interview by K.B. Dixon

Meet Daniel Ingram, retired English professor: despondent, eccentric, and in the midst of writing his memoir, after being kicked out of his current home (a retirement facility) for depressing the other residents. The story itself is the process of Daniel writing his story, so the reader witnesses him interviewing himself (at least, this is what I eventually concluded – as the interviewer is never identified) as he moves out of the retirement center to live, briefly, with an ex-student and attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife so as to find a more permanent place to live. Daniel recently suffered a medical shock, which seems to have jolted his sense of self and needled at that pesky morality issue, wherein Daniel realizes that it may be “now or never”. Surprisingly, that is about the extent of his revelation and, while he mentions his family and other past failures, he has little regret in life and, instead, seems focused on just getting his story written and moving onward to a new retirement facility, to new people, to new experiences. He is a people-watcher, an outsider, and finds little importance in life, outside of what he is doing in each moment. Still, there are moments where he seems genuinely proud of and hopeful for certain people and things; it’s a strange, cold type of non-emotional emotion.  Daniel clearly feels things, worries about things, and thinks about quite a lot, but he uses all of that to one end: writing.

There is only one main character in the book, and that is Daniel Ingram,  interviewer and interviewee. The other characters are present only in relation to Daniel’s interactions with them and opinions of them. Still, though Daniel seems emotionally detached, we are able to learn quite a bit about him, about his fears and ideals, by the questions that are asked and how he responds to them. One of my favorite moments is when the Interviewer mentions the nice weather, and Daniel rants about the inanity of mediocrity, how, even when it comes to weather, there should be some kind of substance (so a beautiful, clear day – 72 and sunny- is worthless – give him 48 degrees any day!). There is something about life in that answer; Daniel wants to feel something, he wants to (or does) appreciate the less-than or more-than average. Another favorite moment is the end of the book, where Daniel’s fears and recovery are finally addressed head-on, and that beautifully moving admission is quickly followed by a comment on somebody’s shoes, and how those shoes speak to the man’s personality. It’s kind of brilliant.

The self-interview as style was unique and interesting. Many writers I know employ this device when creating stories, but few –if any- that I can think of have actually turned the process itself into the actual story. I honestly had an incredibly fun time reading this book (and read it in two sittings of 60-pages each) because of the style; it was interesting and new and reminded me of something I would do for myself, either in preparation for writing a short story or other creating writing piece, or simply as a self-evaluation for blogging purposes or job interviews, etc. It was also amusing to keep up with Daniel’s thought process, which was ever-changing. In the course of a chapter, the questions would range from topics like burglary in the retirement center to the artistic value of a certain movie, to the nature of Daniel’s relationship with his son. This style reminded me of how quickly our own thoughts race through our heads, how we can be sitting in a room, staring out the window, and in the hour that passes, a thousand thoughts about a thousand topics and memories will have passed, and these little thoughts are what we are made of and these moments of reflection are how we grow as individuals.  

What I find so attractive about this book is that there is a very real human spirituality to it. The themes and style remind me of something Mitch Albom would write, if he were more focused on the human element, rather than the religious. Dixon is allowing the reader to take a look at a man, aging and coming to terms with that mortality, but not grasping at any straws, not looking for any type of relief, but just living to the best of his ability, through the last of his days. The narrator, Daniel Ingram, still has to struggle with accepting mortality and the fact that the “better days” are over, but he uses that struggle as another life event, another learning experience, another writing process. This type of spirituality, the intellectual pursuit of life through life, resonated with me in a way that similar topics, addressed through religious revelations and explanations never could. 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Dan Noakes.  He has a weakness for taffy-colored shoes.”

“In thirty years I have never been able to look out on a meadow filled with grazing cattle and not first think – ah, a field of swaying bovines.”

“He has an excellent reputation, Dr. Nesbitt – you just have to ignore the fact that for some reason he thought it would be a good idea to do something interesting with his mustache.”

“Who is Everyman?  Where did he go to school?  What sort of jobs did he have before he ended up with this one?  He used to be one way, now he’s another.  Does he know why?”

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Alissa Nutting, Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Crime Novel, Fiction, Gender Roles, Narcissism, Pedophilia, Psychology, Psychology of Sex, Sex Addiction, Sexual Predator, Sexuality, Sociopaths

Review: Tampa by Alyssa Nutting

17292511Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 48

Tampa is the much-talked about, widely reviled, and heavily debated inaugural novel from writer Alissa Nutting.  It is based on the real-life events of a Florida teacher who had sex with her underage students.  In it, we are introduced to one of contemporary fiction’s most unbelievably cold and calculating sociopaths, Celeste Price.  While most of literature’s psychologically imbalanced men and women tend to be masochists and/or murderers, Celeste is instead an obsessive-compulsive sexual deviant and addict.  She just cannot get enough of the fourteen year old boys.  Yes, you read that right.  She, a 26-year-old high school teacher, preys on adolescent boys.

Indeed, Tampa is likely to be one of the latest and greatest in a long line of books that are sure to face (or face again) censorship and library ban requests.  Why all the drama?  Well, let’s begin at the beginning:  Nutting’s principal character (the young, first-time teacher, fresh out of her education program) opens her story with a masturbation scene, which leads into her recounting an anecdote about her first sexual experience with a boy, when she (and he) were just fourteen.  Thus the scene is set for her lifelong fascination with youthful teenage lovers.  Everything is told, by the way, in graphic, explicit, highly imaginative detail.

Shockingly, this reality is probably not the most unappetizing element of the book.  After all, there are places in the world where 14 (or younger) is the age of consent.  There are some nations and religions which marry-off their girls before they have even reached puberty.  So, while the age issue might be nauseating to most of us in certain political and social circumstances, it is not the worst of the story.  What is truly disturbing is Celeste Price’s narcissistic self-involvement, her willingness to do absolutely anything, to anyone, in order to get her way.  Maybe that means whoring herself out to a student’s father.  Maybe it results in psychologically damaging a young man, probably permanently, by making him believe that he is responsible for his own parent’s death.  Anything goes, as long as Celeste gets her sex.

At first, I was put-off by the very cold, clinical narrative approach.  The prose is distant, almost willfully antagonistic.  It is such as makes the reader not at all sympathetic to the Celeste’s “plights.”  But, of course, that is entirely the point.  Celeste is a cold woman who sees things in a very bizarre, unnatural way.  Life, for her, bends toward one direction – sexual gratification.  Her next fix is almost always on her mind, so all other matters fall off, like rain on a thrice-waxed automobile.  Are all sexual predators as entirely consumed as Celeste?  Probably not; however, creating a grotesque so as to make a particular point is one of the oldest narrative techniques, and it still works (as long as we do not fall into the trap of taking everything so literally).

Overall, I was satisfied with the book.  Perhaps satisfied is not quite the appropriate work, given the subject matter.  I think Nutting pushes the envelope – she is bold and daring in an environment and climate which, currently, is ever ready to pounce and condemn.  Unfortunately, her characters are quite lacking in breadth and development, which does mean the story falls somewhat flat emotionally, but I am not convinced that that is not somewhat intentional (I do feel for Celeste’s primary victim, sometimes, but that is about the extent of it – even her husband leaves much to be desired in terms of empathetic ability).

Cameron-Diazthe-sexy-teacher-1It is easy to understand how some have mistaken this novel for pornography.  After all, nearly every page (and certainly every chapter) is littered with sexual innuendo, sexually explicit inner-monologue, or actual depictions of (sometimes insanely wild) sex acts.  But, pornography?  No.  The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse a person and stimulate them to orgasm.  That is not the purpose of this book.  Yes, it is graphic and, yes, it is detailed – it is, as much as I hate the word, highly taboo.  But its purpose is much greater than “to be daringly titillating.” In fact, that is not the point at all.  The narcissistic, sociopathic machinations of this school teacher may seem unbelievable, but that is exactly the point – there are people in the world like this (or near enough), and we, Nutting seems to say, remain happily and almost intentionally blind to this fact, particularly when it comes to viewing young women as potential sexual predators.  How do we imagine pedophiles, after all?  Creepy middle-aged white men?  But, what if that ridiculously attractive young woman happens to have a sexual preoccupation for young boys?  Or young girls?

My problem with the way it begs this question (and it is a good question), is that it does seem to fetishize, in a way, pedophilia or sexual predation from this vantage point.  That is to say – a traditionally written book about a sexual predator would likely make the villain wholly repulsive – and that villain would usually be a middle-aged white man.  Here, when the tables are turned and it is a female sex villain, she is almost unimaginably attractive, so much so that it is not just the young boys, but also their fathers (and maybe even some female colleague teachers) who want to devour her.  It’s a dangerous tightrope Nutting walks, and it leaves open for discussion some additional, important questions.  How do we view problematic sex situations, and how do we envision the “bad guys?”

The book isn’t supposed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of every young teenage boy (most would probably enjoy this book, actually) or their parents, but it is supposed to open the dialogue, and it does so by creatively re-imagining events that actually happened. It is a groundbreaking piece of work, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to stomach it.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults+
Interest: Pedophilia, Sexual Predators, Abuse, Sociopathic Behavior, Narcissism, Psychology of Sexuality, Sex Addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Crime, Gender Roles (Stereotypes).


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American Lit, Book Review, Culture, Don DeLillo, Fiction, Literature, metafiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Psychology

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

923693White Noise by Don DeLillo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 51

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

 “This is the language of waves and radiation, of how the dead speak to the living.”

White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in “Middle America” (I envisioned South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated).  Jack and his (fourth) wife have an interesting relationship – a co-dependency of sorts, wherein they’re drawn together both from a sense of love but also from a fear of dying.  They have four children, each of whom is special in some way, particularly the eldest son whose brilliance is in a way emasculating to his professor-father.  The family dynamic and the parents’ overwhelming, paralyzing fear of death come to the fore-front as a black chemical cloud is accidentally unleashed in the community.  This “airborne toxic event” as it is called, is a physical manifestation for the emotional “white noise” that the Gladneys and, in a way, all Americans are experiencing.   All of the technological advancements and innovation have brought us great wonders, but at what cost? 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.
 
The Gladney family reminds me of a real modern family.  They are recognizable in a distinctly “now” way, as coinhabitants of a specific residence (although, sometimes, there are multiple parents and step-children who do not all live together so, really, they are not even coinhabitants of a residence, but of a stretched sphere).  Parents have lost a certain parental authority.  Children have gained a certain dominance over their elders because they are growing up with a firmer grasp of the contemporary technology.  All of this is represented by Jack & Babette and their bizarre children.  Heinrich, who at 14 is already a skeptic and a cynic who reduces everything to analysis – who cannot wish or wonder or find awe in anything.  Steffie is overly sensitive, unable even to watch television shows where people are put in danger or made to look stupid (like reality shows).  Denise is sharp and bossy, spotting her mother’s drug problem before anyone else and trying, unlike anybody else, to do something about it.  Wilder, though mute throughout the entire book, turns out to be one of the most important family members, particularly as a source of comfort to his neurotic parents.  

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
 
Combined with the interesting subject matter and the (sad) realism is a great writing style.  Dialogue and storytelling are clearly strengths for DeLillo (at least in this novel – I have not read anything else by him).  He understands people and contemporary relationships, in particular.  This comes across in the way he tells the story, the sense of humor, the movement, the disappointment – it is all there in the language.  For a book that is largely about our unwillingness or inability to communicate, DeLillo manages to get the message across loud and clear. White Noise is a masterpiece of postmodern discourse – it is a work of metafiction, cleverly disguised as a family story. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
 
This is the book I would love to have written.  This is the type of book that I think about all the time, that I have tried to write on a few occasions. Nobody knows how to communicate effectively.  Kids create drama to get noticed, parents create drama because they are unfulfilled, bored, unsatisfied – constantly bombarded with messages that we are all supposed to want more, own more, buy bigger, have better.  We don’t really know our neighbors anymore, or our co-workers.  Drugs are prescribed to treat our problems, other drugs are prescribed to control the side-effects of the first ones.  We can’t sleep without pills, can’t wake up without caffeine.  We take pictures of pictures and lose all sense of or care for original works of art, because we can keep photocopies of these things, oftentimes more brilliant than the originals, in our back pockets.  We are constantly connected to instant-information devices, so we learn nothing and remember nothing, because the answers are handed to us at the touch of a screen.  We are becoming something other than human.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Mass Culture, Paranoia, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Issues, Neurosis, Anxiety, Family, Higher Education, Technology, Chemical Weapons, Pollutants, Postmodernism, Metafiction, Language
 
Notable Quotes:

“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”

“Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you are hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities.  Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.”

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

“I am the false character that follows the name around.”

“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”

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Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Dance, Expatriate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, Flappers, Jazz Age, Literary History, Literature, Psychology, Zelda Fitzgerald

Review: Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Save  Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 16


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

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the troubled wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most famous American writers of all-time.  Save Me the Waltz is her first and only novel, one which is largely autobiographical and which covers  approximately the same time period as her husband’s masterpiece, Tender is the Night.  Both books fictionalize the couple’s life in Paris together, but each from their own perspective.  While Tender is the Night deals with F. Scott’s attempt at handling his wife’s eccentric nature (and ultimate mental breakdown), Save Me the Waltz is much more about Zelda’s hopes and dreams and her sense of being overshadowed in most regards by her husband’s great success.  Zelda Fitzgerald was considered to be one of the first American “Flappers” – a glamorous and materialistic woman whose greatest hope was to become a superior ballerina, though she only pursued dance late in life. The story itself is interesting in that it reveals Zelda’s perspective on F. Scott as well as her interpretation of that great American time period known as “The Roaring ‘20s.”


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The majority of the characters aside from Alabama (Zelda), David (F. Scott) and Bonnie (their daughter) are relatively flat and, at times, even incongruous (characters’ names spelled in different fashions, eye colors changing, etc.).  What Fitzgerald does well, though, is creating characters in relation to Alabama.  The dance instructors and love interests, for example, all come to life quite unexpected because of the way they interact with Alabama.  The relationship between David and Alabama is drawn extraordinarily well and, in fact, reminds me of a lovers’ relationship written by Hemingway in The Garden of Eden.  It is tortuously romantic – hopeless and beautiful at the same time.  It makes sense that this would be the most aptly developed relationship, considering it is at the core of the story (and the primary impetus for Zelda’s writing the story in the first place).  Little Bonnie’s character is also quite charming and her relationship with her Dad is lovely, particularly near the end. 


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

This book has been both praised and derided for its prose and style.  The structure is sound and relatively traditional; however, the prose and language itself is quite odd.  At times, it reminds me of a less sexual, female version of William S. Burroughs, as there are oftentimes breaks into vivid streams of consciousness, where one has to wonder if passages were written in a fury of (drunken? drugged?) rage; while these moments are sometimes over-the-top and even inexplicable or largely irrelevant, they are also quite beautiful.  There’s a bizarre honesty to the breaks in tempo and the seemingly random items which Fitzgerald chooses to romanticize through language.  As a lover of creative storytelling and free prose, I was quite enamored by it.  Still, for some readers the prose could be distracting or even exasperating as it is, in many ways, self-indulgent and can come across as a novice creative writing student’s first, best work. 


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

When Zelda Fitzgerald originally wrote this book, it was much more accusatory and obviously biographical than the version which was ultimately published.  Her husband believed that she had created the book in a fit of self-destruction, hoping to destroy her (and his) reputations. F. Scott Fitzgerald and their editor, Max Perkins, “assisted” Zelda with revisions.  Although historical evidence (letters, manuscripts, etc.) seem to prove that their part in the revision process was limited and mostly geared toward making elements and characters who were modeled after real-life events and individuals more obscure, Zelda would later accuse her husband of forcing her to change the book entirely and also allege that he stole her original manuscript to write his own (Tender is the Night).  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book, then, is in its history and historical significance.  Much can be learned about the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and personalities not only by reading the story (as the two main characters are modeled directly after F. Scott and Zelda), but also in researching the creation of the book itself, as well as F. Scott’s similarly themed novel (which is ultimately much more despondent).


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literary History, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dance, Paris, Italy, Expatriate American, Jazz Age, Roaring ‘20s, Family, Schizophrenia, Creative Non-Fiction.


Notable Quotes:

“Alabama had learned from the past that something unpleasant was bound to happen whenever the Saviour made his appearance in the dialogue.”

“The heat pressed down about the earth inflating the shadows, expanding the door and window ledges till the summer split in a terrific clap of thunder.  You could see the trees by the lightning flashes gyrating maniacally and waving their arms about like furies.”

“People are always running all over the place to escape each other, having been sure to make a date for cocktails in the first bar outside the limits of convenience.” 

“The troubles with emergencies is that I always put on my finest underwear and then nothing happens.”

“A shooting star, ectoplasmic arrow, sped through the nebular hypothesis like a wanton hummingbird.  From Venus to Mars to Neptune it trailed the ghost of comprehension, illuminating far horizons over the pale battlefields of reality.”

“People are like Almanacs, Bonnie – you never can find the information you’re looking for, but the casual reading is well worth the trouble.”

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Drugs, Epistolary, Favorites, Fiction, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Psychology, Sexuality, Stephen Chbosky, Young Adult

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


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

Review: Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 48

Plot/Story:

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

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


Characterization:

3 – Characters well-developed.

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


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

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


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

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

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


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: YA/High School+

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

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Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Psychology, Science-Fiction, William Sleator, Young Adult

Review: House of Stairs by William Sleator

 House of Stairs by William Sleator

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 45


Plot/Story:

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

William Sleator’s House of Stairs is a fascinating psychological thriller about five orphans who are kidnapped, brought to an enormous facility (housed entirely of stairs and nothing but stairs) and left to their own devices.  They are controlled by a mysterious box which provides food – but at a cost.  Slowly, the box begins to subtly demand what it wants, and the teenagers must react and adapt accordingly, dancing a twisted dance of survival; if they refuse to participate or if they do not infer correctly what the box wants from them, they will go without food – and it is never certain when the next chance might come.  As three of the teenagers descend further and further into darkness and insanity, two others take a stand, willing to risk their lives to do what is right, rather than submit to the devious whims of whatever mad scientist controls the box.  House of Stairs is a psychological page-turner, similar to the likes of Cormier’s I Am the Cheese.  It is a rebuke of the over-reaches of science and a warning against the loss of humanity for the advancement of research. 


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Each of the characters in this book is interesting in his or her own way, including the scientist who makes a rather brief appearance at the end.  While I found certain characters a bit flat and overly simplified (such as the “fat girl,” Blossom, being always hungry and eager to steal food), others were genuinely interesting.  The main character, Peter, is one of the interesting ones.  He has a fascinating back-story and intriguing personality; unfortunately, because the book is so short – the more interesting characters do not get nearly enough time or development.  Learning more about Peter and his obsession with a boy named Jasper, or spending more time with the scientist and finding out what happens to him after his “results” presentation, could have gone a long way to developing this story as a work of master dystopia and science-fiction, rather than just a pretty good, interesting YA book.  What is an achievement, though, is the clear distinction between the characters – Abigail, the shy, pretty girl who wants to be good; Oliver, the dominant, popular kid who is needled with self-confidence issues; Blossom, the rich girl who was orphaned recently and knows of a world different from any of the others; Lola, the tough girl, who smokes, has sex (probably) and breaks pretty much any other rule she can; and Peter, the follower who just needs someone to believe in him and who turns out to be the one possible hero.  Thrown together, the five of them create an environment which is disturbingly fun to watch – it’s just too bad the story was so short.


Prose/Style:

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

Sleator is certainly a good writer.  His style and narrative voice, plus a great use of dialogue and an interesting plot all work together to create an interesting, worthy read – which makes me wonder why I had never heard of the book or author before.  The writing level is middle grade or young adult, but the themes are definitely YA+ so some parents may want to preview the book beforehand for violence, psychological abuse, and “mild” torture.   Despite the twisted elements, the skimmed histories, and the too-rapid, open-ended conclusion (or, perhaps because of these things), the book is still an enjoyable, quick read.  Much of this is thanks to the style and prose – this is an easy story to sink into, because the writing seems effortless, and it echoes what is happening in the story at any particular time. 


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

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Aside from the general theme and moral of the story, what is also great about this book is that it presents elements which, in other books, might seem like a big deal (such as one of the characters being gay) but, in this book, just “happens to be.”  I also appreciated the study of human experimentation and the nature of violence and decline into madness.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School +

Interest:  Dystopia; Psychological Experimentation; Nature of Violence; Survival of the Fittest; Government Control.

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