Friday, August 28, 2015

Drown by Junot Diaz

Slice-of-life fiction, particularly literary fiction, seems to me difficult to get excited about.    Trying to make the minutiae of every day life poignant is a daunting task to say the least.  Essentially the author attempts to answer the question, "How was your day?" and make their answer genuinely compelling to a third party.  It shouldn't work.  More often than not it doesn't.  

Not so much style or voice, but rather the foreignness of what's being depicted and the immediacy in which a culture is conveyed this book, an awesome collection of short stories, reminded me of The Buddha in the Attic.  Stay with me I can explain this…  

In Ysrael, and it's companion story No Face, a boy who's face has been severely scarred by an incident with a pig that now causes him to wear a mask, sets the tone perfectly.  It's light (most all of Diaz come across as light regardless of plot or themes involved) introduces us to the culture that main character Yunior is from whether or not the culture is in the Dominican Republic or New Jersey, and perfectly illustrates things through the eyes of a child.  

That last bit I found very important for a large part of the collection.  Children don't judge people, situations, and beliefs the same way as adults do.  More often than not they accept things just as the way they are.  And so in Ysrael we don't see two bad kids misbehaving, teasing, and bullying; we see merely the facets that make up their life and we see it objectively.  

Aurora was the only story outside my comfort zone.  We all know about drugs, sex and poverty and the cliches about the people involved, but damn, Diaz really puts you there.  It was more compelling than I wanted it to be.  

Aguantando, which I liberally translated as Endurance, does so much to place you in the moment and that is perhaps why there is so much room to be surprised.  We see Yunior's early life without a father.  How he saw his life, how not having a father affected him and his brother, his mother, we even see a bit of the reality that Junior can't convey.  And in the end, as if to remind us to get our adult sensibilities out of Diaz's prose and not to put things into perspective as a child can't, we see a single paragraph or two of the hope and sentiment and the romance that Yunior maintains when he conjures a meeting of himself and his father.  The contrast isn't subtle and it's used to great effect.  

He has a rare gift that I can't convey but, two or three words in and I promise you'll have to finish reading.  Walking away isn't an option even when the subject matter may be a bit of a turn off for you.    

Diaz's casual revelations of subject matter that is a really big deal to the reader but of no consequences to the those involved in the story is superb.

I didn't know you could read.
I was nine and couldn't even write my own name.
Yeah, he said quietly.  Something I picked up.  Now go to bed.
"page 82.

That's really good out-of-context.  I'm just saying… 

Much like the stories' characters you have to expect to be constantly surprised by the circumstances that Diaz characters lives are subjected to.  You may think you're reading about the world one misses out on when leaving the neighborhood and going to college when seemingly out of no where you are shown ones first homosexual experiences.  "Twice.  That's it."  Being my favorite line from the title story.  

How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie is a hysterical tutorial that is as absurd as the title.  Boyfriend was perhaps the most universal story told while the specifics do encompass a bad break up and why it hurts is familiar to anyone. 

These stories are less about narrative and plot and more concerned with the immediacy of letting the reader experience whatever event the characters are currently going through.  Back to my Otsuka reference, Drown doesn't share the collective 'we' voice, but you do get the feeling that the stories and characters depicted certainly aren't unique to anyone one person but shared by many from similar backgrounds.       

There are no stories here that are 'at his best.'  Everything is this collection is extraordinary; it very well may be the only short story collection that I own where every single piece of writing is top notch.  Not a single word wasted.    

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

     "I knew what I was supposed to say.  "I'm more than okay there, I'm fantastic.  I love Windermere because you built it specially for Mummy.  I want to raise my own children there and my children's children.  You are so excellent, Granddaad.  You are the patriarch and I revere you.  I am so glad I am a Sinclair.  This is the best family in America."  
     No in those words.  But I was meant to help Mummy keep the house by telling my grandfather that he was the big man, that he was the cause of all our happiness, and by reminding him that I was the future of the family.  The all-American Sinclairs would perpetuate ourselves, tall and white and beautiful and rich, if only he let Mummy and me stay in Windermere.  

     My mother and her sisters were dependent on Granddad and his money.  They had the best educations, a thousand chances, a thousand connections, and still they'd ended up unable to support themselves."  Page 161

This book is really hard to talk about without giving everything away, and I've never been one for spoilers.  I'm fairly certain everything matched up, but I'd have to read it a second time to be sure.  

Seventeen year-old Cadence (who I accidentally named 'Candice' for nearly the entire book) has had an accident, a head injury, and some very time specific memory loss.  The book is about her trying to fill in the gaps.

Her family is extraordinarily wealthy and spends the summers on their private island off the coast of Massachusetts.  It is there, two summers ago, that she had her accident.  She spends her time with two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and falls in love with Gat; Johnny's best friend who also spends summers there.

With the obvious exception of Gat, an Indian boy, Cadences's family is the most stereotypically wealthy--and shallow--whitest, white people ever: super wealthy, uber-American and either blissfully ignorant to the world around them or willfully bestowed with a powerful sense of entitlement.

Cadence calls them 'liars,' her whole family but primarily in reference to her three compainions.  I felt the term a bit harsh when she defined it and it never really set well with me in the end either, but I certainly understood the idea in which she was trying to apply the term too: that they could all lie to themselves and others about the idea of their family, the state of the rest of the world, even tragedy and death, all to support the perfect image of their family.

So much of the book is lesuirely that I was nearly begging to be told 'What was her accident?' just to have some point of tension to move on to as opposed to moving on from the incessent milieu of  Cadence's day-to-day activities and migraines, which really wasn't terribly interesting.

I don't think Lockhart could have told the story in any other way.  As the climax in the past unfolds the previous present events are cast in a new light and all the stories content has new meaning.  It was a surprise ending that certainly caught me off guard and felt genuinely satisfying--not a mere cheap trick.

It's a simple and easy read and well worth the time it takes to get through it.  This was a good way to start the year-in-reading.

Monday, January 12, 2015

First of Many Post in the New Year

Oh that's right… I have a blog…

Been two whole months since I remembered that.  Oh well…

No 'End of the year' rewards--which I greatly missed doing after reading over my past ones--as I simply didn't read enough this year to qualify 'the best of.'  Sad in so many ways…

No 'New Year's Reading Resolutions' either because we know I won't keep them.  I'll read more than I did last year, which ain't saying much.  And I'll even blog about what I read, which is saying even less than the previous statement.

As to not put my foot in my mouth right off the bat, I'll start with tomorrow.  First, of hopefully many, commentaries of the year coming soon.

And if you're curious, it was a really good read.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K J Parker

I finished 'A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong' by KJ Parker last week.  It's a short story from the collection Academic Exercises.  It felt very much in line with Purple and Black and Blue and Gold, which is a good thing.

There's two main characters, and Parker chooses to follow the less interesting of the two; not sure if this is a twist or not but it certainly makes for some 'uphill' reading.  One is a brilliant but apathetic, musician, turned murder; the other his teacher.  As the student goes into hiding, never publishing again, for fear of immediate recognition and capture, the teacher passes off his students work as his own and watches his status soar.

It's a good story but in every way, to me at least, feels a bit like an early work newly published.  Particularly the end feels off when our bad guy--who has proven to be genius in more areas than just musical composition--just gives up and things come to a very abrupt end.

Music was my primary point of contention.  I've covered this ground with other fiction that I've reviewed, but there was horribly off commentary that made me give up on believability.  There are some topics that a writer can't casually research and then write about in any convincing way.  The story happens in a secondary world that in many ways feels like western Europe.  Since it's all made up, I guess I'm supposed to forgive everything.  But every reader brings certain knowledge to the table and I couldn't turn my mind off.  Reference to a certain page count of manuscript for a symphony made me laugh out loud, as did passages of how music was copied in this time before modern publishing.  A composer referencing their own, 'slow movement' as opposed to saying, 'the Andante, or Largo' (what any musically inclined person would have said) made me roll my eyes.

Yeah, it was a good piece of writing and a story that felt like ground work for Blue and Gold, but as I always seem to say when music and literature come together: assume you don't know what you're talking about unless you actually do…

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Month in Review

I did a lot of reading this much; most of which wasn't to completion.  I started and put down two books by John Green (one of which felt familiar and I may have tried to read in the past), one by Sara Zarr (which I never thought I'd do) and a book of poetry which was a bit too much 'whatever' for this neophyte.  

In addition to starting and discarding lots of fiction, I also did the same with about five non-fiction books.  I'm still trying to wrap my head and hands around bookbinding.  I perused about six books from the library.  Most all that I came across were written as text books for the aspiring professional; as such they were completely un-helpful to me.  I'm not there yet, I'm a beginner trying to get my feet wet and gauge my interest.  I did glean one great passage from one of the books, to paraphrase ' a text is needed to explain all the details and issues that a master craftsman may take for granted in explaining what he/she is doing.'  I've been involved in music long enough to hear the truth in those words.  It's why we ask questions during a lesson.  

Of the books I got my hands on the two that I'm keeping--that appealed most to me and my immediate curiosity--are Bookbinding Basics by Paola Rosati, and Simplified Bookbinding by Henry Gross.  If you're interested I'd say start with the former then the latter.  Neither have expectations of you spending thousands of dollars or having access to professional equipment nor do they try to get you working with leather and silver filagree on page ten.  And as a note to future craftsman who may think of making an instructional manual on bookbinding: The pictures really, really help.  

Moving on to things I read and finished the list is unsurprisingly short.  Openly Straight was fun.  And I kinda loved County O by Robert Hedin and will be tracking down more of his poetry soon.    

Regrets of the month: I didn't go to any event at the Decatur Book Festival, and I haven't read Lev Grossman's new book yet.  

I'm pretty sure that's it.  Like I said, I read a lot; I didn't finish a lot.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

It will be easiest if I come out at the start and say that I love just about everything about this book.  Because I learned while reading, coming out and saying it at the end cheapens a bit of the commentary that precedes.

Rafe doesn't like labels.  He is openly gay and after two years of high school he only wants to be a boy; not a gay boy.  He feels there is more to him as a person than to be forever identified by his sexual preference.  He doesn't want to go back in the closet; just hide out in the threshold for a while.

I'm not sure if this idea qualifies for high concept but it is both socially aware and very very, fresh.  Rafe enrolls in an all boy boarding school on the other side of the country essentially to carry out an experiment: what exactly does being gay mean to him and can he be gay without being defined by the word.

No one knows Rafe is gay at his new school.  He's not denying that he is; he's just not telling anyone.  He finds himself playing football and soccer and hanging out with guys that he would deem jocks, and having the time of his life.  He becomes a jock.  And then he starts to question the labels and labeling that he ran away from to being with.  Gay; Straight; Jock; Nerd; Winner; Loser; weirdo; etc…

There are lot of really good ideas being expressing in this book.  Rafe's situation, where he's lying to himself and everyone else by omission.  Bryce, the school's token black kid, and his depression.  And my favorite discussion at the end where much was said about marching in parades and why some people choose to do so and others don't.  The book is more than merely a great title.

However, I didn't think any of the conflict was fully indulged.  I couldn't tell if the author wanted to suggest thoughts to the reader and let the reader go from there or if he felt his points were made and so he'd move on to the next one.  (That is certainly not how I felt.)

The story focus on Rafe falling in love with Ben.  There are extremely close and Ben is starting to wonder how close 'close' can be.  Rafe knows what he wants but he's stuck between telling the truth and pissing Ben off, or keeping his secret and dealing with the anxiety of knowingly lying to someone he truly cares for.  The relationship aspect is really well done.

My primary complaint is Rafe's sheer intelligence and the fact that he never saw himself as aggressively vapid and shallow as he views everyone else.  He labels absolutely everyone--right down to all the stereotypes of being named Kaitlin, Brittany, or Ashley--and is happy to do so as long as no one labels him gay.  He definitely carries a bit of 'high and mighty' greater-than-thou attitude on his shoulders and does so with no regard for how much a jerk he may come off to anyone else.  In essence he 'struts.'  My dislike for his character should not suggest that he was poorly drawn, but I certainly didn't love him as much as his eccentric hippie parents do.

"A lot of the kids, Steve included, seemed to be writing that down, and I almost laughed.  It was like, 'This isn't going to be on a test,' dummies.  Listen.  Stop worrying about memorizing things you don't even understand.  I turned my eyes to Scarborough, and I watch as he saw the same thing I did.  I could see that the class's silence was even more disappointing to him."  Page 142  Scarborough was the teacher twenty something years Rafe's senior.  

He even gets worse than that…  I kept thinking that in addition to realizing that he couldn't suppress such a large part of his identity that Rafe would realize something to the affect of "Hey!  I'm a shallow sixteen-year old prick too!"  Because I felt that would have had more emotional impact on his growing up process than suppressing his sexual preference.  

There's a second narrative in the book, one that Rafe writes for his English teacher, Scarborough, who is the only person on campus that knows he's gay.  It deals with Rafe looking back to how he got here and draws so much attention to itself that it was almost as if the author wanted to explain--and even worse, justify--his writing style to reader while the reader was reading the book.  Happily, these sections were short.  

My final gripe is dialogue and what I always say about well-written 'chatty' books and why I stay away from them.  The dialogue is perfect.  P-E-R-F-E-C-T.  Which is as far away from real human speech as one could possibly be.  No one in this book--not a soul--ever reflects and says, "ya know what I should've said/done/acted thusly…"  They have the perfect, witty reply, snarky remark, clever comment queued up to go at any given time and it's wholly unrealistic.  Konigsberg's characters are very well drawn but about as believably sixteen as Cassandra Claire's.  

So I've done some complaining, cause that's my style, which means I liked it.  I checked this book out from the library, but since I believe in supporting the authors I really like I've since bought my own copy.  

Oh, and Rafe, at your age--or any age--if you ever find yourself in a novel again, you only get to say 'non sequitur' out loud once.  Or preferably never…  SINCE NO ONE TALKS LIKE THAT!  

It's only August but this is probably my book of the year.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tie-Over Poetry

To keep you entertained until I post my comments on Openly Straight (hopefully tomorrow) some poems by Robert Hedin from his collection "County O."

     --for William Pitt Root

Owls glide off the thin
Wrists of the night,
And using snow for their feathers
Drift down on either side
Of the wind.

I spot them
As I camp along the ridge,
Glistening over the streambeds
Their eyes small rooms
Lit by stone lamps.

Last Poet

This man is a lover
Of canyon walls.
The first to read by moon alone.

During the day
He lives away from the sun,
Prone in the cool dirt
Under ledges,
Revising that one long last narrative line
On sheets of mica.

Now is the time
He chooses his closest friends:
A piece of jagged rock,
A cricket who's run out of songs.

Near evening
He makes his way to a precipice
And scours
The stones for scratches
Other than his own.

And as the moon curls over the rim
He recites his work
From memory,
Then listens as the canyon reads back
Again and again.
And then he claps
And the whole canyon applauds.


At the end of the open road we come to ourselves
                                            --Louis Simpson

All right, Louis
                         we're here
We're here at the end of the open road,
At the end of our ellipsis.

A wind and slight drizzle hide
Any other footprints.
They curl the road
Around our feet,
Sweeping it back into itself.

Louis, in the darkness we think
We see trees, giant sequoias
That break around an open marsh,
And are compelled to give them green,
To give them sway,
A hard mossy bark,
Rain dripping from their leaves.

Listen.  A bullfrog's call.
Smell the wet calm in the air.

We wait for the moon,
For the song of the white bird

Any backdrop
                        of light.


At this speed our origins are groundless.
We are nearing the eve of a great festival,
The festival of wind.
Already you can see this road weakening.
Soon it will breathe
And lift away to dry its feathers in the air.
On both sides the fields of rapeseed and sunflowers
Are revolting against their rows.
Soon they will scatter wildly like pheasants.
Now is the time, my friend, to test our souls.
We must let them forage for themselves,
But first--unbuckle your skin.
Out here, in the darkness
Between two shimmering cities,
We have, perhaps for the last time, chance
Neither to be shut nor open, but to let
Our souls speak and carry our bodies like capes.

That last one reminds me a Khalil Gibran for some reason.  I think Owls is simply amazing and the type of thing most people wish they could write with they say they want to start writing poetry.  There is some heavy word repetition and imagery as well but for the most part I've really enjoyed this collection.