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 that 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."

Owls
     --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.
###

End

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.
###

Transcanadian

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.  



















Thursday, July 31, 2014

Month in Review

July has been full of books; that said, I've only read two.  It's usually my wont in an effort to get myself out of a funk to buy or check out a ton or stuff, looking for inspiration and to get out of my reading rut.

I only bought one book, and honestly I forgot I purchased it.  Academic Exercises by KJ Parker was one I pre-ordered a while ago and when it arrived it was a very pleasant surprise.  Her novels haven't really worked for me, but I love her short stories so I'm hoping for the best.

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh was a birthday gift.  This is without doubt the coolest looking book I own.  To the point where I feel bad for those with e-readers as they never got to see it.  Cool as it is, I admit to having to take this dust jacket off when I actually sit down to read it, but damn, it's cool.  It's also sci-fi, which I probably never would have picked up of my own volition but I know the giver of this gift knows my taste so I wouldn't be surprised if I love it.

I checked out five young adult novels from the library, each of which could feasibly be read in a day or two, all of which I'm excited about.  Lastly I got three poetry books from the library ranging from 'thick' 'medium' to 'thin.'  I read slowly.  I read poetry very slowly, so I've no plans to get through this small stack quickly, but hopefully I'll find some good stuff.

As to what I've actually read in July, there isn't much to report.  I knocked out a few more stories from Better living Through Plastic Explosives and I'm about halfway through Love in a Time of Cholera--which is the huge and dense and dense and huge.   My most odd bit of reading this month was A Street of Clocks by Thomas Lux, a poet who I really like and has been my 'go-to' since discovering I liked poetry, except I didn't care for anything in this collection.  It's a collection like this that really makes me wish I could express myself better about poetry so I could say what didn't work for me, despite all the books critical acclaim.  Oh well…

Much as I'm excited to skip to the new stuff, I really want to clean up loose ends and finish Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and Love in the Time of Cholera, that said, August--usually my best reading month of the year--has potential.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I'm Talking about Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters

In which people saunter, seethe, and swagger way too much… 

I read this book in a day; which felt great as I've had problems reading anything--let alone to completion--in a a long time.  I finished the book, which means I liked it; I spent most of the day wishing I liked it more.  

It's the story of a girl, Holland, coming out.  And out and out and out and out…  (No seriously, she comes out on every page to the point where I started wishing she'd do something else.)  It hasn't aged terrible well; nor does it feel super dated.  I have an older sister who is gay, out and proud so a lot of the conflict felt luke warm to me, but I'm trying to keep personal experience out of my mind.  I really wish this book started on page seventy-nine instead of page one.  But yeah… I finished it; I liked it.  

Peters' must have had a sketch pad on which she jotted down the fifty most tense, nerve wracking plot scenarios she could come up with; this entire list she came up with was awesome.  Then she pared the list down and managed to cram as much as she could into the book by dialing back on all that made each scenario awesome to begin with.  

'Should have started on page seventy-nine," aside, I don't know how this book didn't have more momentum and power.  A teenager coming to terms with sexual identity while in a healthy and positive sexual relationship with the opposite sex, and being the most popular, image-conscious kid in the school.  It reminded me of Michael Chabon's short story Son of the Wolfman that I felt fell flat even though it was working with such strong material.  

I erased about twenty paragraphs in writing this next phrase: I never bought into Holland being gay.  At the snap of a finger, she sees a girl.  Learns this girl is gay.  That's all it takes. Now, Holland is gay.  Her character wasn't that shallow, but it wasn't much more substantial either…   All the problems--inherent to the story's framework--that could have been exploited but weren't: Seth, Holly's boyfriend, their eventual fallout and all the other subsequent boys she has to fight off; her family stepsister, stepfather; the student body president bit did nothing for the story even though she can identity a hate crime and bullying when she sees it; why use any of that material?  

At the end of the day Holly didn't strike me as a three dimensional character, thus made for a very week protagonist.  


There is a great story in here somewhere (starting on page seventy-nine) but I didn't feel it was ever uncovered.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Month in Review

I can't skip this post for June since I actually, ya know…, read some stuff.  Not a lot but some and considering my recent reading dry spell we'll take 'some' over nothing.

I read Torn Away at the start of the month and finished it so quickly that if feels like a year since I read it!  I also loved the book--which I kinda knew I would before I started reading.  With only a month  since I finished, I can already say that it hasn't stuck with me the way Perfect Escape has.  And while I think it would be foolish to say Jennifer Brown has already written her best book, I would tell anyone who wanted to get into Brown to do so, but save Perfect Escape for last or last--ish.

Today, I finished The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon.  If you've read my blog before, you know I love Chabon.  So how did his first novel go over with me?  To quote the much more literarily expressive than I Marion Deeds, I finished reading and said, "Huh?"

I got both the book and what he was trying to express or communicate, but if I read the book and didn't know it was Chabon I never would have ever guessed that he wrote it.  It's good, and not because it's dated but I'm sure it was even better when it first came out twenty years ago.  There were a few beautiful passages and descriptions that are shades of who he would later become, but none of the characters felt grounded.  I didn't mind all the characters being a caricature of themselves (or at least that's how they came off to me) or super pretentious and knowing I'd never hang out with these people in real life, but what killed me is they weren't real.  None of them felt like flesh and blood beings.  They were great vessels for ideas and living embodiment of concepts and ideals but that was all.

I love Michael Chabon and I'll read anything he writes (no, seriously; I will.) but all I'll say about this book is, "A writer and change/develop/grow a lot in twenty years."

I'm still about halfway through Better Living Through Plastic Explosives it's great but not really what I'm feeling right now.  I may read the remaining stories at a later point in time to appreciate them more than my current stupor will allow.

Since I'm blogging again, I wish the google sidebar thing where I post my 'most recent commentaries' links worked like it used to… Oh well.  Also, I've been giving a lot of though to re-reading stuff.  I've been doing so, as so many of the new-to-me-books I've picked up as of late have been misses that I'm thinking, 'Why not revisit the good stuff?'

I think I'll make a list, not merely of books I liked but ones that I really feel would benefit from a second (or third) visit and then after doing so I'll see if the idea of reading what's on the list still seems appealing or if I need to keep forging ahead.

Nonetheless, I'm reading again which feels good.  Scouring my shelves for more quick and dirty; fast and easy stuff for right now i.e. not Garcia-Marquez, Krauss, or Fowles which is the kinda stuff I own that is staring at me.  I think it's helped me that I'm not setting reading goals a month in advance like I usually do.  When I'm on a roll, doing so is a motivator and helps me read even more, but when I'm not, the opposite is also true.

Lev Grossman's new book is out in August…

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Something Different

Can I talk about a movie?  I don't usually do that.  It's based on a book I read, so it should be okay to talk about.  Right?

For me, movies are usually always awesome: they go from zero-to-WIN in less than three seconds;  classic to gold; to platinum and then 'instant vintage' about ten minutes in, or in some cases before the opening credits are finished.  This is because I have no expectations when going to see a movie.

I'm weird and I know it--un-American in many many ways--but, all things considered, movies are not a medium of story telling that I enjoy.  So how is it I love most all of the movies I see?  Well, I only see about two or three a year so it doesn't take much to get me excited.  I don't sample enough to be critical; I don't have much grounds for comparison.  X-Men "Let's kill off all the old cast" was awesome.  Maleficent "The bad guy wusses out and becomes the good guy and what the hell was that rape scene doing in a Disney movie?" was awesome.  Divergent (book commentary here) was epochally bad.

Divergent was awful.

It was just like the book; verbatim, which is odd as I didn't particularly care for the book but neither was it as painful as watching that movie.  Same problems, same complete lack of direction or forward motion, same "what the hell is going on in this world and why is anyone putting up with it?" except the book takes about two hours to read; in my comfy chair, and libations to ease the occasional pain.  The movie takes three hours to watch and sometimes the person next to you sneezes…

Obviously I'm wrong right?  The movie made truck loads of movie, they are already filming the sequels (right here in Atlanta, Georgia), and I'm sure it's gonna help launch old girls career if The Fault in Our Stars doesn't manage to do so.  But still… it was bad…  I'm not a film critic; neither do I aspire to be one.  I don't care how much money it makes.  That movie was like pop music specifically catered towards 14-17 year olds that anyone, ANYONE, could 'sing' because the track can't fail; only in film form.  

Divergent was awful.

Damn…   

Did you see it?  Did you like it/love it?  Tell me why!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Where's the Story?

I find myself reading two books at once.  Usually when this happens it means I started one, it's doing little to not much for me, so I start another.  This is the first time I can recall reading two books at once where the above isn't the case.

I don't think I'll be leaving comments for Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner as I've already found so many reviews online that state my feelings better than I could, but I may talk about it.  It's the kind of literary fiction that people who don't like the genre point to: not because it's 'not good' in some vague way (it's actually amazing) but because there aren't stories being told.  

I started The Mysteries of Pittsburg yesterday and it's flying by.  The ease in reading has nothing to do with the plaudits that come with being Michael Chabon as opposed to being anyone else Gartner, rather Chabon has a narrative going, a story.  After reading half of Gartner's collection, picking up Chabon is the first time I've ever condoned seeing 'A Novel' on the cover of a book.

I get it now.

I understand because I've now come to see that not all works of fiction are novels, or in Gartner's case not all short stories collections are narrative stories in the typical sense.  I don't want to turn this into an author vs. author and even if I did I'd be the first to point out Chabon's near inability to wrestle a story out of Jews With Swords as he fell further an further in love with his word play and himself page by page.  (And if I were Chabon I'd be totally in love with me too.)  All that said, I like stories.  Settings; characters; narrative; plot; tension; conflict; resolution.  Ideas are great and so is social commentary--Gartner has a lot to say and does it extremely well.

But with the points she's trying to make and concepts she wants the reader to think about, many of her stories feel like essays shoehorned into short stories.  (As if one of those two genres has substantial sales clout on the other… )  "Okay, this is good.  Now just add some characters names and try to craft some narrative direction."  I'll talk about it a bit more when I finish.  

But I like stories.