Friday, November 30, 2012

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Valerie has a hole in her leg.  She was shot by her boyfriend the same day Nick decided he was fed up with a lot of things and opened fire at school.  She'll have a lingering physical pain and a limp the rest of her life, but it's the days that immediately follow the shooting that will determine the quality and length of what is to be 'the rest of her life.'

Val occupies as unique space in the minds' of the Garvin High School community: she's the hero, she talked Nick down, and got him to stop shooting.  The bullet she took wasn't meant for her rather someone else.  She is also the instigator of the shooting and only barely manages to fall just short of co-conspirator.  Never being the popular kid, Val starts a list of all the things she hates.  Most things on the list are abstract ideas or intangible concepts like algebra, or her parents arguing.  Other items on the list are people: teachers she doesn't like; students who think it's funny to make fun of Nick and beat him up in public; students who call Val names everyday; that break her MP3 player for no reason; students that take exception to the fact Nick's family socio-economic status doesn't resemble their own.  Physically making the list was a form of venting for Val.  When she shared it with Nick he took things to a level she never foresaw.

As Val goes forward with her senior year in high school there is an ambivalence about how she is regarded.  She is on both sides of the coin: some try to ignore her, others wish her dead, and though none speak the words aloud all thank her for putting an end to things when she did.  She doesn't have any friends, not even the ones she used to have.  She's incapable of making new ones due to both how others regard her and her own anxiety.  Her parents suffer her presence and that is about a subtly as their relationship can be put.  Her brother has days of acceptance and disgust.  She feels alone and--circumstances being what they are--in truth, she is.

Guilt is one of the novel's pervasive themes that unified may characters and, at least for me, proved very difficult to identify.  One of the surviving victims had been a very good friend of Nick's up until a year or so before the shooting.  She wanted to be accepted and popular and turned her back on him as running him down was the trendy thing to do.  Her guilt and her wounds take her in completely different directions from Val's.  It's not just the shooting victims that are left alive, but every student in the school has a moment of self-examination where they consider the treatment of their peers and how they, collectively, let things get this far; how it could be fun to treat someone as they had.  If they weren't involved in the abuse did they enable the shooting by doing nothing?  As is to be expected, Val's guilt trumps all others.  She was so close to Nick yet how had she not seen that he had this in him?  The most interesting aspect is Val trying to understand how nothing has changed.  She may have never wanted anyone dead but Val still doesn't like the guys that beat up Nick or the girls that teased her and ran her down.  Big surprise: they still don't like her either.  Almost every interaction that Val has with everyone is an awkward stalemate or has regressed to a state of revulsion.

Val's journey takes her from the hospital, to the psychiatric ward, and finally home under the close supervision of her psychiatrist, who surprisingly, becomes the first friend she makes in months.  (As an aside, it's nice to see someone in therapy and actually benefit from their sessions.) 

The author also gives some interesting food for thought concerning personal responsibility, upbringing, and environmental factors that played a part in the tragedy and in Val's healing process.  How much should Val own up to?  After all she didn't pull the trigger.  Did she come have horrible parents?  (Yes.)  Did they raise her to be a monster?  (Moot-ish...)  Did all the jerks at school deserve to be reprimanded?  Should anyone have been surprised that the bullied kid had a breaking point even if he possessed an high tolerance for poor treatment? 

Every relationship she is in has changed.  And the resolution for all of them is nebulous.

     "He hates me," I said.
     Mom looked up sharply.  "You're his daughter.  He loves you."
     I rolled my eyes.  "You have to say that.  But I know the truth, Mom.  He hates me.  Do you hate me too?  Does everyone in the world hate me now?"
     "You're being silly now, Valerie," she said.  She got up and picked up her purse.  "I'm going to go down and grab myself a sandwich.  Can I bring you anything?"
     I shook my head, and as Mom left a thought flashed through my head like a strobe light: She hadn't said no.  page 164

The above passage is the start of her declining relationship with her parents...

And yet the novel doesn't work itself into one huge cathartic moment that is saved just for the end.  There are bright spots along the way that give hope that something positive can come out of Val's life. 

     "Hey, Val," he said, sitting up.  "You're home."
     "Hey.  Like your hair.  Maximum height on those spikes today."
     He grinned, ran his hand over his head.  "That's what Tina said," he said.  Like nothing had ever happened.  Like I didn't still smell like the hospital.  Like I wasn't a suicidal freak come home to make his life miserable.
     At that moment, Frankie was the best brother anyone could have asked for.  Page 184

Everything felt real; every single aspect, and I haven't the slightest clue as to how Brown pulled this off: Val's confusion, and self-loathing, her relationship with her parents, her brother, the other students, her integration back into society, and how she gets along with her Dr. was a particular achievement.  There was all of one superfluous character and while she stood out like a bright purple thumb she was so trivial as to be easily written off.

Hate List wasn't merely gripping and visceral but convincing to the point where you might think a school shooting victim that has lived in Val's shoes wrote an account of their life and tried to pass it off as fiction.  It's one of those books that you live for the duration of the few days it takes to get through.    

Hate List isn't even the book that put Jennifer Brown on my radar only Perfect Escape was already checked out at the library and I was gonna be number forty something in the queue so I picked this up inside.  How much did I like Hate List?  I'm not waiting in the queue for anything else Brown writes.  She's now on the day-one purchase list.    

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

"Part of me felt guilty.  Was it selfish that I wanted to live, even though my parents were gone?  Was it selfish to have wants beyond my family being together?  I was now the guardian of my eleven-year-old brother.  What would he do if I perished?"  Page 320 

I don't do non-fiction very often especially not the kind that deal with history and war and crimes against other people and detail how horrible people can treat one another.  I'm a wuss with a weak stomach; I'm far more sensitive than you might guess and I'd rather not talk about it--and I'd really rather not read about it in my leisure time 'for fun.'  Every now and then I come across some of these same themes that make me a bit squeamish in the fiction I want to read, as in Between Shades of Gray.

Between Shades of Gray is told in first person by Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian girl.  She is told one day by her mother to pack a bag, and to hurry.  The NKVD, which I learned was a precursor to the KGB, is deporting Lina's family along with hundred of thousands of other people from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland.  Lina's story is of her family's plight: being packed onto train cars meant for animals, of people being worked to death, starved to death, loss of so many things, of being treated worse than criminals for no known offense and it is also, surprisingly, a story of survival.

Lina forgets what she looks like, going more than ten years with out seeing her reflection.  She forgets she was once pretty.  She's surprised one day to learn that she has made a friend, a luxury in her previous life she had taken for granted.  She loses parts of her family along the way to Siberia and the Arctic Circle, Stalin's ultimate destination for the deportees, but she never loses her pride or identity.  Lina is easily the strongest and 'best' young strong female heroine I've come across in a while.  She's a kid and she's angry.  She's suffering obscene injustices and wants to do something about her situation.  The fact that she never morphs in the comical fantasy heroine that gets me rolling my eyes kept the story's tension high and my interest in her suffering painfully sensitive.  Her enemies are grown men with machine guns and a dictator that can't be touched.  Her options in fighting back are limited but she does all that she can and endears herself to readers at every page.

For me it was the battles that should could fight that made such an impact, not merely because she endured--unfortunately so many were made to endure--but because of her initiative and refusal to let go of what little remained of her identity.  She was made to fight to keep her family together and not sent off in different directions ( and the author beautifully succeeded in quickly explaining how bizarre, rare, and meaningful of a fight this is) she resolves to steal food, firewood and anything else that will see her through to the next day.  She never gave up on seeing her father or homeland or understanding the mental difficulties she had to go through just to hold onto those dreams.  In short, she reminded me a bit of my pound-for-pound all time great when it come to female heroines acting all badass: Sofia from Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

She doesn't win half the fights she gets involved in and most disturbing are the ones in which, for one reason or another, she is helpless.  She and some of the other captives can identify scurvy and dysentery, but they can't fight illness while malnourished and made to live in a state far worse than what most will think of when it comes to poverty.  Nor can she will sickness away or pray about until the sick get better.  But she still does what she can.  While over the years Lina forgets she's young and pretty in the beginning the NKVD certainly noticed both those facts just as they noticed that her mother was more mature and more attractive.  She offers the best resistance she can against her tormentors who are stronger in every way and hold indescribable leverage over her.  It's not like walking into work on Monday to find you co-workers have made a mess and you have to pick up the pieces.  At every page stakes are at their highest and they continually seem to get higher as the story goes on.   

There are brief flashbacks to the life Lina used to know.  We see where her family and the other deportees came from, how they lived, what their 'crimes' were.  It's a more powerful bit of perspective than you might think.

Sepetys prose is very immediate.  There isn't a lot spent on internal psychology or setting: it's a story that moves forward at a near relentless pace.  At times I wanted things to slow down; not for the sake of establishing impact rather I was exhausted.  We meet new people along the way and say goodbye to (never bury) many many more but the pace, tone, and somber nature of the story and every page having what seemed to be a new highlight in all time lows only to be continually outdone really kinda ran me down as a reader.  There were moments of introspection that I would have enjoyed getting further expansion.  I wish I got to see more of the relationships Lina had with her mother, her brother, her 'boyfriend' and how they changed and affected her attitude and thinking for the future.  I certainly didn't want less of anything that was given, rather some time in between not to look for the a glimmer of hope (remember it's fiction heavily based in truth) but an occasional reprieve to space out all the bad and perhaps see if Lina ever dreamed for a future like that past she so fondly recalls.

I haven't said much about the actual story because its so simple.  In Lina's mind Josef Stalin one day told her 'Get on the train and let me show you how miserable your life can be.'  It's not for lack of quality but this isn't the kind of happy, feel-good writing that I'll come back to once a year.  That said, I'd love to what else the author is capable of writing.                  

This isn't the type of book I usually read.  It's all story, plot, drive and getting the reader into events and making them care about what happens immediately.  (After having written that I wonder why the hell I'm not reading more books like this.)  Between Shades of Gray also kinda ugly in a very realistic way and while this may make me a little bit uncomfortable it significantly added to the book's impact.  Between Shades of Gray was never so graphic as to be unsettling or turn my stomach but neither was it everyday comfort reading.  It becomes abundantly clear at some point that the only good thing that can happen in this book is to be left with your life, and like many of the characters feel, it's hard to imagine whether or not one would want to go one living after all they been made to suffer.  Human beings from all over and all walks of life maintain the capacity to be awful to each other far beyond my ability to express (or Sepetys' or anyone else's for that matter).  It's not the kind of book I'd want to read everyday but putting myself in Lina's shoes, when she was fortunate enough to have them, sure makes for a phenomenal story. 

Sadly, what is depicted in this bit of fiction happened.  Happily, it's history.  Hopefully, it'll never be repeated.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Sit down.  Buckle up.  Brace yourself.  Full Disclosure: what you are about to read is decidedly chauvinist, sexist, racist (concerning monsters and humans) bigoted and--worst of all--occasionally whiny.  Gale force winds and hurricane strength destructive powers BEHOLD!  I bring the fucking rain; thunder storms and floods; no scattered showers here! 

Sit down. 

Buckle up.

Brace yourself.

I have no idea what this book is about.  I read all of it.  I even took notes, only I'm not sure anything actually happened with enough regularity to be collectively put together and called a plot.  The novel's title character lives in The Dells a continent east of the seven kingdoms setting seen in Graceling, Cashore's exceptional first novel, and--rather inexplicably--there are humans but no gracelings in The Dells.  Additionally there are monsters.  There is a monster counterpart to every part of animal life, even humans.  Monster birds of prey, fish, insects and Fire herself--the last known human monster--are marked by color.  Whereas a regular ass falcon may be brown a monstrous one would be bright yellow or mauve.  Fire is marked by her hair which is blood red; not regular ass red, ginger, auburn or orange, but straight up monstrous fire-engine red with an occasional streak of pink and some other unnatural coloration.

Other than color what makes monsters different is the allure they have to all other life.  They are beautiful to look at and an unwary mind would yearn to view a monstrous lion for its color and attraction completely ignorant to the fact that said lion is about to tear them a new asshole.  Monsters, to varying degrees of mental capacity, have the power of mind control over anyone weaker than them.  Human monsters are extremely dangerous.  This monster power was a bit of a let down for me as it so closely mirror powers that had already been developed in Graceling, furthermore, as the novel progresses we see that one doesn't even have to be a monster to possess this power; almost as if regular ass people can train for it.

The story consist of the three primary powers in The Dells and their attempts to gain complete control of the land.  There are lots of armies, horses with terrible names, (Big, Small, and Horse; and no I'm not making those up) and some nearly insufferable to read politicking for power and assassination attempts that would make the Corleone and Soprano families laugh themselves to death.  Military fiction and intrigue aren't particular strengths; that said they weren't dwelt on too much.  There is gonna be a throw down by these three powers but my saying that is about as tense as matters ever get.  Fire, with her ability to read peoples minds, is wanted for the war effort to influence the enemies choices and extract information that could prove valuable.  That's it for the story.

There is nothing wrong with novels that work with little to no material, the author elevates the level of difficulty in doing so, but it's certainly been done many times before.  (Earlier this year I read and loved John Fowles Daniel Martin, and I'm not sure it had any plot at all.)  If current events are stagnant then the characters need to be super interesting, in conflict with each other and make me care about them as the setting in Fire is as interesting as a railroad tie.  Setting being what it is the characters have a lot of weight to pull: they scored a -1.6 with a bellyflop from the platform diving board of fail.

Fire's casual sexmate--she would never have you believe him a boyfriend--is a whore; I don't say this as a bad thing, Cashore doesn't belittle him in his lifestyle choices either.  His name is Archer.  For the sake of nomenclature alone I was very pleased he didn't own a horse...  Fire doesn't mind that Archer gets around and apparently can knock up anyone with one shot.  She is a ho too but isn't worried about pregnancy because as we saw in Graceling there is a morning after milkshake in this world to take care of that.  Later we see there is also a 'Oh shit I'm into my first trimester pill' as well as the ultimate SHABOOM the 'take-once-by-mouth-in-the-course-of-your-life-infertility-drug.'  Pretty hardcore for secondary world medieval-ish fantasy.  Considering all the contraceptives it's a bit funny the frequency that people get pregnant and are genuinely surprised.  In short there are no consequences of any sort for having sex; at any age (Fire is sixteen or seventeen or somewhere around there); with anyone.  If you've read both Fire and Graceling we can begin to piece together some of what are probably views of the author concerning marriage, relationships, and pregnancy.  All of which make me scratch my head and hope my supposition is wrong. 

While the landscape is potentially set for epic sexual exploits there is no romantic intrigue either: it's easy to tell who will hook up with who and that if Archer stares at a woman too long she'll sneeze and on the next page there will be twins. 

Fire's primary personality trait--her defining characteristic--is her period.  Monsters hold an allure over all other life and predatory monsters love nothing more than monster flesh and like a shark detecting blood in the water Fire's period has mountain lions jumping off cliffs to get a piece of her ass.  Raptors dive bomb her routinely and nearly fall out of the sky to risk a piece of her goodies.  Her period, excuse me, the author never says, period, cycle, or "Aunt Flo in town for a visit" Fire's 'bleeding,' for this is the only way it is ever referenced, somewhat heightens her powers of attraction and allure, which--at least to me--was all kinds a creepy.  Added to which, Fire is cursed with the most frequent and epochally awful 'bleeding' that any woman ever has ever been subjected to since the history of ever.  Considering the poor girl is 'bleeding' on damn near every page we have to assume that her period takes up a week out of every month (possible), or that she bleeds once a week for at least three days (this is Cashore's world not mine).  Whatever the case may be I was having headaches, anticipating anxiety, and stomach cramps watching the character--who by the way, I never did care for--near hemorrhage to death every page.

The real problem with Fire's monster powers isn't them being heightened by her incessant bleeding (I've resisted using so many awful, classless metaphors in this sentence that I'm proud of myself) rather it's the fact that her presence can incite a riot and move one to rape her at any time.  Fire can be out taking a walk and if her hair is uncovered--this is apparently the only way one knows she's a monster--people will approach her with strong feelings.  Some just want to touch her in some undefined state of awe, others want to do her harm, for reasons I was never made to understand, others still were moved toward the most heinous acts of sexual assault.  To be blunt, some wanted to say, 'You're beautiful' and nothing more.  Some wanted to stab her in the neck with a cookie.  Some wanted to rape her in broad day light even if their mother was in the room.  Fire is supposed to have to carry the burden of being able to induce the full range of all human emotions with her at all times, but it was more communicated as 'All men are asshats.'  Not to say that's not true but damn...

"Why did hatred so often make men think of rape?  And there was the flaw in her monster power.  As often as the power of her beauty made one man easy to control, it made another man uncontrollable and mad.

A monster drew out all that was vile, especially a female monster, because of the desire, and the endless perverted channels for the expression of malice.  With all weak men, the sight of her was a drug to their minds.  What man could use hate or love well when he was drugged?'  Page 145

What the hell does any of that mean?  If you replace 'monster' with 'super hot chick' does it read the same?  If so can we get a stronger premise for this book?  Sorry for the repetition but again, What does the above mean?   

The status of women being elevated over men was anything but subtle.  We learn about Fire's father, also a monster.  He had depth.  He had expression.  In short he was interesting and in possession of conflict.  But we quickly see that all life--human or monster--is harder for a women because Fire is a woman and her life is hard, and she is the last of her kind, and she's supermodel hot, and has these colossal bleeding sessions and there was so much hollow, vapid testosterone suppression that I wanted to inject the book with HGH, TRT packets, and whatever Lance Armstrong has been doping with.  Strong male influence is the worst idea ever in this book.  Don't get me started on Fire's guard that helps keep the rapist, would-be lovers, and raptors away.  Women, and girls (some as old as fifteen) hold every position that men do.  In politics, professions, military... testosterone doesn't exist in this world.  A military fantasy world.... (it sure as hell did exist in Graceling)  So we've got girls who want to fight, and protect and die for their country and they're fifteen and been trained to handle a weapon.  The enemy has thirty-five year old men who are known as 'Grown-ass Adults' and have received equal or possibly even less training but it's gonna be a totally fair fist fight because Andre the Giant is a wuss and Miley Cyrus could totally take him.  I know I'm complaining as if someone forced me to read this book but is it too much to ask for a little realism in my escapist fantasy?  The only difference in soldiers is that women can get pregnant--if they are ignorant to the fact there are two million and eighteen of ways out of having a child in this world--and that makes them more sympathetic or something.

While there are plenty of other characters in the book none of them come to center stage.  Not Archer, not Brigan, Fire's other man (told you she was a ho) not Nash, Brigan's brother who is hardcore wanting to hit that monster-ho, not even the memory of Fire's father.  Leck--Mad King Leck from Graceling is in this book--can't get fifteen minutes of shine.  LECK!  The most obscenely awesome bad guy I've ever come across and he never gets a moment.  He feels tacked on and forced; as if the editors said, 'Work Leck into this so we can say the book is related to Graceling in our advertising.'  A quick few pages in the beginning and a blah mention in the end: done.  I'm actually glad Leck was relegated to 'nobody' statues.  I think it's awesome the author didn't want to tell the same story twice.  I'm even more excited to read Bitterblue knowing that the title implies it won't be about a graceling, or a monster, rather just a regular ass person, but no matter the nature of your character they have to have some strong sense of conflict.  Katsa wasn't awesome because she was graced and could whup ass; she was interesting because she had problems, flaws and real conflicts people could identify with; not to mention Po to play off of.  Daniel Martin was a douchebag for more pages than I can remember.  That's why I had to know what happened next!  Fire is... she's... she's about as insubstantial as air stapled to dirt and only twice as interesting; which is to say she don't have much going for her.  She doesn't only need someone else to play off of (ah... let's see... Leck would have been too perfect of a choice...) she needs more to her person to capture and hold reader interest.
So we've got this super hot monster who can read minds and influence people's decision and a three way war brewing that seems to be about as intense as that middle school hand-slapping game and the only thing Fire can bring herself to do with her powers is ease the mental suffering, and to some degree the physical suffering, of wounded soldiers.  This is all very useful and noble but in storytelling terms kinda felt like a missed opportunity.  Her version of easing the dyeing's suffering is a lot more boring than Jack Kevorkian's story.

A bunch of people have sex, there's a playground scuffle masquerading as a war, and by the book's end a lot of people are dead and everyone else is crying.  Only it's very difficult to get wrapped up in any of these matters as there was never an infrastructure in place to support my getting attached to story events let alone attachment strong enough to merit anything but tears of frustration.  I was so hopelessly lost in the middle of this book in trying to figure out what was going on and why I was supposed to care that I started hoping that Beetlejuice would pop out of nowhere, start cracking bad jokes, and curb-stomping people into dust because at that specific moment Beetlejuice's wrath was the only thing that would have made sense to me.
If I had to guess Graceling, felt like it were written by the author and for the author and it was awesome then she shared it with a bunch of people who told her she was awesome and in writing Fire that awareness of how awesome she is changed the nature of her writing.  While I only wish I could be that fortunate in this case the different state of mind did nothing to enhance FireFire was a hot mess: a wet, bleeding morass; an uncomfortable quagmire of what's going on here and why is it happening to me.  In reading the book I felt a conscious effort on the author's part perhaps not to impress but to come across as more sophisticated or somehow more polished since her first novel.  The best example of inflicting pain while trying to impress came early in the novel and set the tone for everything to come after.  "She stretched onto her toes to kiss his cheek, but he intercepted her and began to kiss her mouth, gently.  She let him, for just a moment.  Then she extricated herself and left the room."  Page 60  I winced at 'intercepted' and closed the book at 'extricated.'  Pull away; break away; stop kissing the guy.  Anything, but please don't extricate yourself from a kiss.

Cashore is a bit of hottie and I can admit after reading Graceling and liking it as much as I did that I'm more than a bit in love with her.  Don't let the proceeding alter how you perceive my feelings for Graceling: it's just that good.  With my biases feelings in mind apply ardent weight to my thoughts on Fire: Pass on this one.  Sorry for being so long winded but I couldn't just say I was angry when reading this book because 'horse' was used as a name for a horse and the word extricate almost brought about a seizure.  As far as my therapy goes, I feel better in getting all this out of my system.  Wait for it...



All better. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Kindling the Fire

Don't worry; I haven't given up books for an e-reader.  I really wanted to post a book commentary this weekend, but I needed to better organize my thoughts before doing so.    Graceling by Kristin Cashore is phenomenal.  Fire, by the same author and set in the same world, is awful.

The overwhelming amount of what I initially wrote concerning this book was bad and it's not that I have an aversion to posting something negative only I feel such comments need to be put into perspective and supported to be valid in any way.  So since I'm not trying to pass this informal post off as commentary I can be as horrible as the book, right?  

Hmmm… Where to start?

Fire is about a woman's period.  Or more specifically a woman's bleeding.  (The author would have us believe that to say 'period' or a host of other phrases would somehow allow the reader to forget the whole 'bleeding' part.  Fire, the character bleeds a lot.  It's not a subtle bit of imagery.)    

I could stop here.  No, seriously; there really isn't much more to the story.  

Fire is also about how women are different from men, because they have a period and their period makes them different and this fundamental difference between men and women is women having a period.  Or 'bleeding' as Cashore is fond of saying.  'Bleeding'  That wasn't redundant was it?  If so, imagine the hell I was in reading 460 plus pages… 

Not only do women have periods and bleed which is awful because you see periods and bleeding are unique to women but this period of bleeding time makes their life more difficult and overall more difficult than a mans: much harder and unaccommodating.  In reading Fire we see that women's lives are far more strenuous and limited than men's because they have a period and bleed or so the redundancy department of departmental redundancy has redundantly informed me.  However, women can overcome this difficulty and not have their lives' governed by their period and bleeding and even though their lives are significantly harder than a man's their rewards can be greater than a man's, perhaps due to their biological bleeding plight.  

The novel kinda made me feel like there was some mysterious silver lining to my being a hardcore dyslectic.  Needless to say; FAIL! 

I wish I could say all that was snark and sarcasm but really, it's not.  I knew at the outset of trying to pre-vent all of my forthcoming commentary venom that I would do so uselessly.  I won't have nice things to say about this book no matter how much I try to be professional (which I'm not) or decent (of which I show occasional sparks) toward the novel.  

I'm not sure if Fire is the worst thing I've read this year--I'm still debating who to select for the meager end of the year dubious honor--but if I could go back an unread any one book I've read, not only this year but in my life, it would be this one.  

I almost put this book down; as in every-other-god-damned-page, I almost put this book down.  I did pick up an excellent short story collection to help get me through.  (Every ten pages read meant I could read a new short story i.e. something good.  More to come on that collection later.)  Taking notes on Fire was easy, so much material to work with, getting through it was a Pyrrhic victory to say the least.  Why did I finish the book?  Why did I read it?  

Because...  Because I'm an idiot and I loved her first book so much.    

Kristin Cashore is amazing.  Read Graceling.  Now.  Go!  

Avoid having your eyes bleed until they explode by reading Fire I mean Fire.  More to follow soon.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

     Now I look around at our monocultural faces which are sort of smiling, but not nearly as happily as the poster faces.  Mine least of all.  It's not that I wouldn't like to share.  It's not like I want to feel like this, live forever in this mood of resistance and suspicion and doubt.  But I've been feeling this way too long to remember how not to.  How would they react if I really did share, the way we're supposed to, and said: My mom is in "court-suggested" rehab and my dad has no clue how to deal with it or even talk about it, and I think I might be depressed?  What if I said that?  Page 20

Sam has lost every facet of permanence in her life.  The resulting instability manifest itself as the thinnest veneer of affected calm and composure; it's fragile and seemingly waiting to fall apart under the strain of life itself.  Sam's mother allowed alcohol to take her out of Sam's life and she doesn't understand how this happened.  Her father is handling the strain even worse than she and she feels the two of them--the only family she has left--growing further apart and that distance is threatening to destroy her.  As if to undermine all the little things she has always taken for granted, Sam and her dad are borderline insolvent due to legal expenses, rehab, and the general cost of living.  Finally, of all the things that are falling apart it's Sam's faith that perhaps leaves her reeling the most.

Once Was Lost deals with faith in a very broad general sense.  It's not a religious book and there is no preaching of Christian virtue but the concept of belief  is integral to the narrative.  I feel a bit odd pointing this out as if there is something wrong with super religious Christian faith books (which this isn't), but I also know that such books are a turn off for me and I would hate for anyone to miss out on Once Was Lost out of fear of reading a sermon.     

"Now I don't know.  This is different than doubt.  This is something I've never felt before, a total absence of whatever it is that's made me who I am, on the inside, all my life." 

The color of Sam's voice is both melancholy and very sad.  More than this it is extremely expressive which balances nicely with all she can't manage to say or express with other people. 

Sam's father is the pastor of a church in a very small California town.  Her mother, who is absent from the book but for the briefest glimpses, perhaps embodies all the difficulties and problems that Sam is going through.  Sam is treated different as the pastor's kid, excluded from many activities of her peers, and her life is generally assumed to be perfect.  Sam has real difficulties in talking to anyone about how she feels and this is complicated by fact that her father has never once made mention of his wife's absence in their life: not at church, not home.  As bad as events begin they proceed to get catastrophically worse.

A young girl disappears and her loss throws the community into absolute terror and disarray.  In the midst of the panic Sam makes what is perhaps her first real friend; Nick the missing girl's older brother.  The experts on TV and the local police all insist that when a child goes missing it is usually someone local behind the disappearance; someone in the community.  Nick is the prime suspect even as he professes nothing but love and grief about the loss of his sister.  To Sam's absolute amazement, Nick is able to talk about what it's like being taken to the police station and interrogated, talked about endlessly on the news and internet, how his parents treat him differently and no one looks at him the same way they used to, and he does so in a way that comforts Sam as she juxtaposes his expressions for all she is going through.  Their tragedies overlap and they find a depraved sort of comfort in being miserable together.

"That makes him smile.  I can make Nick Shaw smile, even so soon after him having to look at the building-size face of his missing sister.  It's the happiest I've felt in a long time."

The depiction of the relationship between Sam and her father was beautifully done.  She desperately wants her dad to be active in her life and more than anything to talk to her about all the meaningful things they need to address: her mother's alcoholism and the factors that lead to it and her treatment and eventual reincorporation into their lives, the fact that they are broke and Sam won't be returning to the private school she previously attended, and that neither one of them are doing a good job taking care of themselves let alone as a family.  Her dad is riding the knife's edge in potentially neglecting his daughter, but his church responsibilities particularly in light of girl's disappearance and, organizing vigils, searches, and spending time with the family, overwhelm him.  He has the right words for everyone else and is perfect for the world but has no clue how to address his daughter.  What Sam can't see is her father isn't being actively negligent rather he is a horribly pitiful combination of innately spineless and--considering the extraordinary circumstances--justifiably scared out of his mind at the realities life is presenting him.  By the time he starts being overbearing and overprotective she's actually grateful for the attention.

What Sam can see is the possibility of her father, 'the perfect Pastor Charlie,' getting comfortable with another woman while is wife is away at rehab.  Zarr is absolutely brutal when it comes to ratcheting up of the tension. 

The narrative voice of Once Was Lost heavily reminded me of Lydia from Miriam Gershow's The Local News.  It is only by way of being mired in Sam's first-person, teen-aged, depression that this novel doesn't literally fly by.  It is a small, but super dense book that for me proved impossible to walk away from.  Don't start this one late at night as the temptation to finish may prove stronger than your common sense telling you to go to bed.  So many things happen at the end and considering all that has been going on readers have to expect some very messy resolutions.  Whether or not Sam finds faith in anything is moot, but she does find some measure of peace.  Despite the plot and intimacy there is a 'hands-off!' distance from events.  I think this is the only way readers can get through without falling apart every ten pages and having multiple breakdowns.  That said, while there is an objective lack of overt sentiment (remember we see everything through Sam's detached depression) don't be surprised upon reading this should you fall apart multiple times and have a few breakdowns...

The crux of all Sam's anxiety is her mother.  In light of the girl's disappearance Sam comes to understand all that is expected of her father and even sees a few of the reasons that drove her mother to drink.  She feels if her mother comes home that she'll also regain her father and the collective family that has been missing and then everything else in life will miraculously fall into place.  She also deals with guilt of not wanting her mother back because Sam has seen first hand an alcoholic at it's worst. 

     "I don't miss coming home from school not sure about whether I'd find the functional or nonfunctional version of her.
     I don't miss making up excuses when people from church would call to make sure Mom was okay after skipping a meeting of the building committee or failing to show up for a scheduled lunch.
     I don't miss the way Dad and I always pretended, even with each other and no one else looking, that everything was fine.
     But I miss, her."

It's a community with no secrets, everyone knows everything: about Sam's mother's drinking, about Nick being a suspect--but no one is willing to talk about anything; this yields a profound feeling that the community's neglect, lack of faith in each other, and inability to support one another makes the pain of a few individuals so visceral.  From start to finish this novel was as gorgeous as it was sad.  Nonetheless, considering the book as a whole I can't help but recall a specific Dr Seuss quote: "Don't cry because it's over.  Smile because it happened." 

I know I'm gushing.  And I know I'm not prone to gush, but Once Was Lost is a rare accomplishment and merits my enthusiasm and your reading time. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Paper Towns by John Green

And all at once I knew how Margo Roth Speigelman felt when she wasn't being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty.  She felt the unscalable wall surrounding her.  I thought of her asleep on the carpet with only that jagged sliver of sky above her.  Maybe Margo felt comfortable there because Margo the person lived like that all the time: in an abandoned room with blocked-out windows, the only light pouring in through holes in the roof.  Yes.  The fundamental mistake I had always made--and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make--was this: Margo was not a miracle.  She was not an adventure.  She was not a fine and precious thing.  She was a girl.  Page 199

Quentin and Margo have grown up together as best friends since they were two.  Their lives are marked by finding a suicide victim in a park as children.  As they grow older Margo becomes something more than just the most popular girl in school; a transcendental figure who embodies so much that everyone wants to be but so few even attempt aspire to.  They live next door to each other and keep up but aren't exactly close friends by the time high school graduation comes around.  Margo's disappearance--which isn't exactly something new--highlights and questions much of what Quentin thought he liked, and makes him reexamine his friendships and himself.  

Upon learning that her boyfriend is cheating on her and that her best friend has been keeping the secret for a while, Margo--out of the blue--takes Quentin out for a night of vengeance on her enemies (which includes a dangerous eyebrow removal from a school bully, breaking into Sea World, and depositing dead fish in the most choice places to rot).  The two spend more time together that night and talk more than they had previously for years.  Then, Margo leaves.  Just falls off the planet.  

To the chagrin of her parents, who are over it and her, Margo has done this before and it's up to Quentin and his friends to follow her clues and find her.  Quentin is the only one who genuinely wants to find her because he has this idea of who she is in his mind and who he wants her to be and is hopelessly in love.  Reconciling his ideal and the reality of the person is difficult for him, but not anyone else involved in the search.

As the days pass and there is still no sign of her, it's assumed Margo is dead and while everyone is saddened by the prospect to all but Quentin, Margo's death is more like waking up from a really good dream, because the myth that Margo had created for herself was a bit too big to properly fit into anyone's life.  

Quentin is a tone-deaf Duke bound band nerd who wishes he was cool enough and had some musical inclination to actually be in band.  He is the ideal narrator for the story as both his parents are therapist which means that he is 'really goddamned well adjusted.'  Radar is the only person nerdier than Quentin and lives in shame of the fact that his parents own the world's largest collection of black Santas.  Ben, Q's other best friend, is The Consummate band nerd, keg stand champion, un-dateable prom king who is terrified of dying a virgin.  If Margo is to be found it falls to these three to do the deed.  

Green made an ass out of me multiple times as I loudly laughed out loud more than once on the train.  Humor is certainly the most prevalent facet of his writing but almost secretly spread through three-hundred pages is an equal amount poignancy concerning all that Margo would deem 'paper': the two-dimensional paper boys and paper girls she knows and the life she's led with no real substance other than do what you're told and follow this mold to success.  It's a subtle theme but it's there.  At first I interpreted her ideas as 'spoiled-ass, rich, self-entitled suburban white kid complaining about lack of depth in her life as only a spoiled-ass, rich, self-entitled suburban white kid can.'  I wasn't exactly wrong but--while the book never directly makes mention of the fact, we come to see that Margo isn't okay.  She has some serious issues and serious problems that need to be dealt with and probably isn't a good idea (or person) for Quentin or anyone else to be in love with in her present condition, should she still be alive.

She's not just self-destructive and unstable (and boy oh boy was it refreshing to see those traits displayed in a teenager in a book without the kid going through the regular sex, drugs, and alcohol thing) but also wholly undesirable.  As I read, I kept wondering, why are we following or even interested in this girl?  Surely the author wouldn't reward such a character as Margo while making Q go through so much.  As I got to the end, I didn't so much feel a sense of vindication rather an expansion on my part concerning some of the ideas Green was trying to convey: that she didn't have to fit in, be fake or 'paper.'  I wouldn't go so far as to say the book was bitter sweet but there certainly is no happily ever after.  

I'm amazed I've written what I've written thus far, because all I thought I'd write about was how this is the single funniest book I've ever read.  It's organic humor: not a slapstick routine or situational comedy.  While the dialogue is top-notch (and I'm not usually one for chatty books, but it doesn't come across that way) it's in setting that Green prepares most of the humor.

I was trying to think of another one when we all three simultaneously saw the human-shaped container of anabolic steroids known as Chuck Parson walking toward us with some intent.  Chuck Parson did not participate in organized sports, because to do so would distract from the larger goal of his life: to one day be convicted homicide.  "Hey, faggots," he called. Page 17

It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca when perfectly liable individuals such as myself don't get to have sex with either of them--or anyone else, for that matter.  That said, I like to think that I am the type of person who wouldn't hook up with Becca Arrington.  She may be hot, but she is also 1. Aggressively vapid, and 2. An absolute, unadulterated, raging bitch.  Those of us who frequent the band room have long suspected that Becca maintains her lovely figure by eating nothing but the souls of kittens and the dreams of impoverished children.  "Becca does sort of suck," I said, trying to draw Margo back into conversation.  Page 38

In truth the book isn't as 'chatty' as I alluded too before.  The dialogue is frequent but it's as organic as the humor and never comes across as that all too carefully crafted witty chatter that many contemporary writers incorporate that always strikes me too good to be real.  It's all that the characters don't say that make their actual words hilarious.  Except for Ben: everything, said or not, involving Ben is painfully funny.    

It's on a road trip to find Margo (so much of this book takes place in a mini-van, I'm amazed at Green's creativity considering his choice of primary setting) that we discover Paper Towns isn't about Margo.  It's a long drive from Orlando to Agloe, New York and Radar's games to pass the time--meta physical eye spy, and the awesome 'That guy is a Gigolo'--reveal that it is not the particular object of the game that the players become educated about or endowed to as they ask questions and try to learn what is in someone else's mind, rather it is the players that learn so much about themselves through their speculation and guessing.  Quentin has no idea why Dartmouth bound Radar would forgo his high school graduation ceremony and almost assuredly having sex that night to drive cross country in search of one who Quentin deems to be one of the planet's most shallow people.  Despite his best efforts to discern the answer, Quentin also doesn't know why Ben is his friend at all (I loved that guy!)  All he knows is that these are his friends who would support and sacrifice for him, which makes him question the terms of his relationship with Margo and her self centered attention getting.  

There is an air of unbelievability about the book.  This feeling is stomped out by Margo in her night of vengeance: after that one night which happens in the very beginning, everything seemed possible.  Read it because it's funny; because of Radar and Ben; because I didn't even find space to tell you about Quentin being yelled at for 'not being proactive in the battle against the cow.'  The book is too compressed in terms of time to be 'coming of age.'  It is marked 'young adult' which only further confuses me as to what that term means.  Read it because it's fun and it will fly by and if you find other reasons to like as well, which you will, then so be it.  

It's not everyday I finish a book with such a strong sense of satisfaction and completion that I'm hesitant to pick up another.     

Friday, November 2, 2012

Month in Review

I meant to do this post yesterday, but I got distracted.  Work, pretty girl, happy hour... Where does the time go?

So anyway, I've gotten my library card without further hassle and due to the pressure of 'due dates' I think my most recent haul will dictate a good deal of my reading for November.  Expect a lot of young adult reviews.  I plan on finishing Paper Towns by John Green tonight and I'll hope to have my thoughts up tomorrow.  (It's awesome.)  Since I'm a nerd and have nothing better to do on a Friday night I also plan to start Once was Lost by Sara Zarr.  The rest of my picks were Fire by Kristin Cashore, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, and Hate List by Jennifer Brown.  I'm still liking the young adult thing but I'm gonna have to work harder at finding male authors of contemporary works in the genre.  It seems like all the male young adult writers I come across are doing fantasy and that is becoming less and less my thing.  Not that it matters as I'm certain everything mentioned above is fabulous.

In addition to a host of Lemony Snicket's books I feel like a read a lot this month, only I'm not sure of all I think I've read but I feel certain it was more than the four books I can actually recall.  Oh well; guess I'm getting old...

In addition to old, I'm also tired: something akin to biblically weary; as in, I feel like Methuselah owes me money.  Looking forward to stretching my old ass out on the couch and reading with only my imagination and a bottle of wine to keep me company.  If nothing else, after a meager two days I can say that thus far November rocks.