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If you want to keep up with what I'm reading you can find me on twitter @SupposedlyFun or visit my blog (link above). I'm also on Goodreads. I hope that you find my comments helpful!
Thank goodness for librarians. For a lot of reasons, really. I'm very lucky to have a lot of friends who work in libraries, mostly in the Young Adult area. I guess that's one of those things that happens when you love books: you cultivate friends who have the same interest, and they tend to work in the field in a way that lets them share that passion. The reason I'm telling you this is that I owe a big debt of gratitude to my long-time friend Jessica for urgently messaging me that there was a YA book I needed to read. I honestly don't think I ever would have found this book without her taking the time to point it out to me. And I am so, so glad that she did.
It's 1987. Angel Aristotle Mendoza (known as Ari) is on the cusp of sixteen years old and quietly drowning. He has no friends. His two sisters are much older than him, meaning that they treat him like a son more than a brother. His older brother might as well not exist since no one has talked about him after he went to prison when Ari was a small child. There aren't any photos of him. Ari wants to talk about him, to understand him, but doesn't feel like he can. Ari's father, meanwhile, is something of a ghost himself. He did a tour in Vietnam that left him haunted and, seemingly, emotionless. He barely talks, flitting silently through the house like a specter.
Ari would like you to believe that he doesn't care about any of this. He would like you to believe that he is above all that, because he believes that to be strong is to not care. What is beautiful about Saenz's portrayal of Ari is that he captures the contradictions without overstating them. The truth is not that Ari doesn't care, it's that he doesn't want to care, because caring only seems to make the hurts he feels deeper.
In some ways Ari is a semi-modern Holden Caulfield. I couldn't help but be reminded of Holden when Ari says things like "In order to be wildly popular you had to make people believe that you were fun and interesting. I just wasn't that much of a con artist." He might as well call people phonies. Of course, Ari is interesting. He's fascinating. But he hates himself too much to allow anyone to get close enough to find out. It's bad enough that he has to live with himself, let alone deal with someone else's disappointment.
How tough is Ari on the exterior? Dude can't even swim but hangs out in the shallow end of the community pool anyway. That's where he meets Dante Mendoza one summer day when Dante kindly offers to teach him to swim. It isn't quite clear why Ari, who has spent almost sixteen years putting up walls against the outside world, so readily agrees to this. It's just that something about Dante captivates him. He's so unlike Ari: open, expressive, honest, calm, and outgoing. People just seem to like Dante when he talks to him, although, like Ari, he prefers to keep his inner circle pretty much nonexistent. Besides, there's just something about summer days that just gets to Ari: "I loved and hated summers. Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out in me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope." He loves summer because of the possibility, he hates them because he always ends up rejecting those possibilities and spending time alone in the community pool, which he doesn't even know how to swim. Agreeing to let Dante teach him to swim is the first step Ari takes toward making a change in his life.
Ari and Dante become fast friends and over the course of the next two summers they will each challenge each other to grow and accept who they are. It's a beautiful coming of age story and very heartfelt. As in all coming of age stories, there will be important lessons about family, friendship, love, and acceptance, but the characters are strong enough to raise this book above any danger of cliche. It helps that Saenz has a deep respect for each of his characters and their situations, helping you to understand them and care for what happens.
I almost don't want to mention the LGBT element in my review, because in my experience once you mention an LGBT theme people begin to pigeonhole a book. They assume they know exactly what it will be about, and that would be reductive for a book like this. Yes, there is a struggle with homosexuality, but I honestly believe that it's more of a universal story about loving who you are and not worrying about what prejudices other people might have about you. Ari and Dante also struggle with their identities as Mexican-Americans and what that means for them, the transition from boyhood to manhood, etc. To single one of those layers out would be to ignore the larger picture.
The book isn't without its flaws, but I am so glad I got to discover it. It will definitely be on my list of books to recommend for the foreseeable future.
For more reviews, check out my blog at www.SupposedlyFun.com
I've been intrigued by David Leavitt ever since The Indian Clerk came out a couple of years ago, so when I saw this one was out I had to grab it. Like Indian Clerk, it's a historical novel with LGBT elements, but this time the focus is on WWII and a pair of couples waiting for safe passage to New York. While waiting, the two husbands begin to have an affair and tragedy looms large. The wives, meanwhile, have secrets of their own. While the set-up is beautifully done, things unfortunately slow down considerably. A great deal of this is due to the superficiality of the characters. I would have liked to see a lot more of their internal worlds then we get a glimpse of here....Read more
"'Linger' by the Cranberries is probably my favorite song about Prince Charles farting at the 1988 British Open."
Tweets like that have made Rob Delaney the undisputed Twitter king of comedy. Each one is wildly random, most likely profane, and has a very high likelihood that it will make you snort with laughter if you read it in your cubicle at work--prompting weird stares from that guy who sits across from you, who should really just mind his own business anyway. In perhaps his greatest moment, Delaney's comedic tweets about Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election reached an even wider audience than Romney's own messages across the media--both traditional and social. Success on Twitter has garnered Delaney comedy international comedy shows and TV appearances. But can he write a book, too?
The answer is yes. M.W.S... is a quick overview of Delaney's life and rise to comedy prominence, punctuated with some random anecdotes to keep things from getting too serious. The largest part of the narrative, so much as there is one, centers on Delaney's struggles with alcoholism and depression and his journey through rehab to sobriety, success, and fatherhood. His honesty about his struggle is commendable. As someone who has helped family members and friends through their own alcohol issues, I can say that he captures a lot of the emotions very well. It's nice that he is so willing to put a public face on these issues, because I honestly believe that more people need to hear about them.
As a humor book, however, I don't feel like it really comes together. It's almost like a collection of his tweets: random, disconnected thoughts that don't really coalesce into a whole. Not that a humor book needs a straight narrative (lord knows David Sedaris doesn't follow them), but since much of the book is practically a memoir it feels like it never fires on all cylinders. Comedic memoirs from Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling had a better balance between telling a story and making you laugh. Now don't get me wrong--there are moments when Delaney is telling his story that are literally laugh out loud hilarious. When he meets his rehab roommate, Rick, springs to mind. But for each of those moments there's another anecdote that doesn't really feel like it builds to anything (the time he breaks into an abandoned mental hospital with his mother comes to mind). For the most part, Delaney makes those moments amusing, but they aren't particularly memorable either.
For more reviews, check out my blog at www.SupposedlyFun.com
By the time Jeff Lindsay got to this, the seventh book in his Dexter series (not to be confused with the TV show, which, as we have discussed, is very different), the books were beginning to fall into a bit of a rut. The killers Dexter finds himself coming up against are pretty consistently fiendishly creative visions on the part of Lindsay, but geez, it feels like suddenly every book needs to end with one or more of the children getting kidnapped and placed in mortal danger. I understand that Dexter's stepchildren, Astor and Cody, play a bigger role here than they do on the TV show, but it really is too much. It makes you long for a day when dear, devilish Dexter can face down a villain on his own.
This installment promises to be different, which was a thrilling prospect for me. I mean, all you have to do is look at it. First of all, the title drops the repeating D sounds Lindsay has traditionally favored in previous books like Darkly Dreaming Dexter or Dexter in the Dark. Lindsay even casually writes inside "as if alliteration was some kind of wonderfully clever form of wit."
Well, it doesn't quite follow through. I mean, it does, but not as much as you (or I) might have been hoping. At least one of the kids still features prominently in the climax. The changes in Dexter's character throughout the novel seem to get dropped, which is probably a wise choice because they were kinda inexplicable and didn't really make sense. More on that later. There is, however, one major game changer for the series. Unfortunately, I can't really get into it here because it's a pretty big spoiler. Suffice to say that it will be enough for me to eagerly pick up the next volume to see where Lindsay goes with this development.
(Warning: this paragraph contains potential spoilers. Skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid them) As for those changes to Dexter's character: Lindsay tries to explain them away by acknowledging their inexplicability, but it still rings false for Dexter to be, well ... horny. His defining character trait in the books is that he's immune to normal human urges or feelings. I suppose it's possible that someone could bring those feelings out, but again, as presented here it just doesn't feel right. Dexter has always, however, been openly (in his own mind) been out for his own self interests, so it makes sense that he would 'enjoy' spending time with Jackie Forrest, an actress who affords Dexter a life of luxury as long as he is by her side. One could make the argument that his sexual relationship with her is more about his desire to grab onto the finer things in life, I suppose. And since, as stated, Dexter isn't prone to normal human feelings or attachments it could also make sense that he would be perfectly willing to throw away his life with Rita, Astor, Cody, and Lily Anne as soon as something better came along. But it doesn't ring true at all that he would be willing to lose his beloved cover. Maintaining the appearance of a normal life has always been paramount to Dexter, so what appeal would a life in the spotlight have for him? He wouldn't be able to be Dastardly Dexter anymore--or at least it would be a great deal more difficult to maintain the illusion that he isn't slicing and dicing criminals on the side. It's never very clear whether or not he intended to give up his nefarious hobby, but I feel it's reasonable to assume that his Dark Passenger wouldn't be staying away for long. So giving up the massive amounts of cover his job with the police department affords (and the family that makes him look normal) wouldn't make an ounce of sense. Which is probably why Lindsay had to scheme to get Delusional Dexter slapped back to reality in the end. As much as he can, given the way things end, that is.
There's a grand history in the recent Dexter books of our antihero getting sloppy about listening to his baser instincts to solve the mystery at hand. At first, it seemed reasonable, but by now it feels like a cheap plot device Lindsay is using to prolong the action. In this installment it actually gets infuriating, because it feels painfully obvious to the reader what is going on and Dexter's repeated inability to pick up on what is right in front of him makes you want to throw the book across the room. This is another motif that needs to die in the next book.
Lindsay remains a witty writer. I admire his decision to stick to his guns and not allow Dexter to become humanized in the way the TV show did (unless Dexter's "feelings" carry forward, that is). This book may have the game changer the series needs going forward, but that doesn't make it feel like any less of a slog at times.
This is Perrotta's first venture back into the world of short stories since his debut, the superlative Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies. It's amazing how easily he slips back into the form after a long absence, not to mention how well he utilizes every page--whether it's a short story or a full novel. Characters go through an entire arc in several pages. They're standard-issue screw-ups, which is Perrotta's specialty (and, really, no one does it better), but it's impossible not to feel for them and root for them, even as they make some awful mistakes. In a truly remarkable feat, these characters frequently come to a realization, accept what they have done, begin to rationalize their behavior, and retreat back into denial all on the same page, and it feels completely organic.
My favorite story is probably "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face," in which a father completely unravels at a Little League game. The final two pages of that story were the emotional high point of the collection in my opinion. Another mark in Perrotta's favor is that while each story essentially centers on someone screwing up, the characters themselves are different enough that you feel like you're in different worlds each time (it's a pet peeve of mine when you read a short story collection that feels like the same story over and over).
I am an unabashed fan of Tom Perrotta, as you could probably tell by now. The Wishbones is the only one of his books that I have yet to read, and there's a copy sitting on my bookshelf crying out for some attention. So you can probably imagine that I gobbled this up as soon as it came out. For Perrotta die-hards like myself, it's a touch same-same, but his clever observations, witty storytelling, and palpable affection for his characters and all their imperfections continue to save him from becoming rote. To be perfectly honest, though, as much as I think this is a good collection, if I were ranking Perrotta's books this wouldn't crack the top five. He's still doing better than a lot of other authors out there, but in my opinion he has done better.
I'm so excited to finally get the chance to talk this book up. But first, a story to illustrate just why this book is so spot-on and so important. I had only read one other David Levithan novel before (the sublime Lover's Dictionary). I had always intended to read more, but never got around to it. So when I stumbled on him signing advanced copies of his latest book at BEA this year, you would think I jumped at the opportunity. You'd be wrong. I hesitated. Because I saw the poster standing next to him, with the book's jacket image and title. And I actually thought to myself "I can't walk around with a book about two boys kissing--people will think I'm nuts!" I am not proud at all that this thought occurred to me--a man who is not only gay but gay married, a man who endured perhaps more than his fair share of bullying in junior high and came out the other side. Luckily, as soon as the thought was born I realized how silly it was. So I got on line, and while Mr. Levithan signed an advanced copy for me I told him what a great fan of Lover's Dictionary I am. He was very polite and sweet.
A few days later, I picked up Two Boys Kissing on my way out the door to begin my subway ride to work. As I waited for the train, then as I sat on the train going downtown, I felt self conscious. I felt like people could see what I was reading and were staring at me. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let these inexplicable fears of mine interfere with my reading. By the time I went home that day, I was falling in love with the book itself, which greatly helped ease my nerves. As I read, and as the message (there's nothing wrong with two boys kissing) sank in, I began to feel empowered whenever I had the book in my hands. It was like a sign: this is who I am. Deal with it. At the same time, I realized that all the stares I had felt on the first day were completely in my own head. I felt even more ashamed.
Getting to the novel itself, it follows the interlocking stories of seven gay teens living in the present day. Craig and Harry are exes, but they've decided to go for the world's record for longest kiss. Their quest frames the novel. Peter and Neil are a couple, trying to figure out what their deep feelings for each other mean for the uncertain future that graduation and adulthood will inevitably bring. Avery and Ryan have just met and are going on their first official date, going through all the awkwardness and excitement and hope of getting to know someone for the first time. Cooper has no one; he trolls hook-up sites for cheap thrills that he never allows to come to anything, and he hates himself for every minute of it. When his parents catch him at this, he runs away from home and feels lost, abandoned, and thoroughly alone.
This sounds strange, but a ghostly cluster of gay men who died of AIDS form a Greek chorus of sorts to narrate the stories and tie them together. Like I said, it sounds strange, but Levithan pulls it off like a master. The chorus is ultimately what gives Two Boys Kissing its resonance. It honors the troubled history of LGBT people, is thankful for how far we have come, saddened by how much hate and sadness still exists, and remains hopeful for the future represented by these gay teens, who are revolutionizing the world simply by having the courage to be themselves.
I would go so far as to say that Two Boys Kissing is not just a good book, it's an important one. It captures the struggle and the history of the LGBT past and melds it with the present and the future--all without feeling preachy or like a history lesson. As a gay man who grew up in the pre-Ellen, pre-Will & Grace, pre-It Gets Better world, it hits home in a way I cannot adequately express. But you can see it reflected in my initial fear of this book--because that is exactly what it was that I felt when I almost didn't get in line at BEA. It was that old fear that to be gay is to need to hide, to go unnoticed, rearing its ugly head. The boldness of this book is that the "revolutionary" act at its center is actually almost mundane: a kiss. If it provokes a response, it is only because the people doing the kissing are the same gender. Hopefully, someday that won't seem so bold.
When I reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri's last book, Unaccustomed Earth (Vintage Contemporaries), I expressed a concern that her work was beginning to suffer from a degree of sameness. All of her work up to that point had been stellar, but I couldn't help wanting something a little fresher. I'm happy to report that The Lowland is everything I could have wanted in a follow-up for Lahiri. It deals with some of the same themes as her previous writing but has just enough twists that it doesn't feel the same. A lot of this comes down to the main characters: brothers Subhash and Udayan. Steadfast Subhash is another in a long line of Lahiri's educated Indian emigres, if I'm being honest, but he's brought to life by his twin brother, the revolutionary Udayan. Udayan makes Lahiri's already flawless prose burn in a way it never really has before.
Speaking of Lahiri's writing, I must say that it was wonderful to fall into the rhythms and beauty of her words again. I don't think it's overstating at all to say that she is definitely one of the top living writers in the world. Every sentence has a poet's precision. I actually enjoy reading them aloud to myself just to hear how well the words flow into each other.
It is with great pleasure that I recommend this book to you. I have little doubt that you'll join me in impatiently waiting for Lahiri's next move.
"They themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again."
An assertion is made in Americanah that it is impossible to write an honest novel about race in this country. It's hard enough having an honest conversation about it. It doesn't take long to realize that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is taking a sledgehammer to that notion even as she makes you realize just how often it's true.
Ostensibly, Americanah is a love story. Obinze and Ifemelu meet as teenagers in their native Nigeria and fall in love. They want to be together forever, but when systemic teacher strikes prevent them from finishing college Ifemelu heads to the U.S. I won't spoil any details, but they eventually grow distant--even though they still have powerful feelings for each other. Years later, Obinze has a wife and child in Nigeria and Ifemelu is a grad student at Princeton who has a successful blog about race called Raceteenth, or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black (she'd be right at home coming up with names for Fiona Apple albums, am I right?). They've formed their own, separate lives, but things are about to get complicated because Ifemelu has decided to move back to Nigeria.
In practice, however, Americanah is sharp social satire. Biting, in fact. Adichie has written one of the most clever novels I've read in a long time. It's fierce and unflinching but funny and deeply caring at the same time. Adichie pokes fun, and she certainly takes no prisoners, but she also has a palpable affection for her characters and their foibles. She isn't necessarily out to condemn, just to enlighten. And this book is far, far more likely to challenge your notions of race in America than Crash or any other recent project that claims to do the same thing.
I started this book on the subway en route to work one morning. I almost missed my stop. That is something that hasn't happened to me in far too long. It's an exhilarating sensation, to get so caught up in a book that everything around you fades away. Night Film's prologue is ominous and vaguely unsettling without actually featuring any violence or blood. It had me so excited to keep reading that I boldly declared in my Summer Reading List that this could be 2013's Gone Girl: A Novel.
Unfortunately, the feeling didn't last. Night Film is at its best in the first hundred pages, when everything is full of foreboding shadows and the truth is murky and threatening. I'd say that this is due to the fact that the truth is always less interesting than any horrors your imagination can cook up, but the problem with this book begins long before we start getting to the answers. It really came down to weak protagonists.
Scott McGrath used to be a celebrated journalist, but now he's a disgraced outcast in the media. While investigating a famously reclusive director named Stanislas Cordova (think Alfred Hitchcock crossed with Stanley Kubrick with more than a few dashes of Charles Manson), he got a mysterious tip about nefarious deeds committed at the director's isolated mansion. Hours later he repeated the tip during a TV appearance and in no time at all found himself on the losing side of a libel case and persona non grata among news outlets. Years later, McGrath thinks he has a shot at redemption when Cordova's daughter, Ashley, is found dead of an apparent suicide at age 24. McGrath thinks something more sinister is going on, and nothing is going to stop him from bringing the truth about Cordova to light this time. He believes that his intentions are noble, but the truth is that the opportunity to get back at the man he blames for his downfall is just too good to pass up.
Cordova's brutal films plum the depths of humanity in a relentless quest to enlighten and be enlightened in turn. They rarely provide satisfactory answers, preferring to be left open to interpretation, for the ways in which a viewer interprets what he/she is shown are far more revealing in the end. Cordova's famous reclusiveness (he makes J.D. Salinger look like a social butterfly) only deepens the public's fascination with him. Speculation about who he is, where he comes from, etc. runs rampant--especially in the online age. His devoted legions of fans have taken to the underground after his films became largely banned in the 90s (after a deranged fan began to copy the methods of a killer in one of his movies)--holding secret screenings in abandoned tunnels, subway stations, etc. The truly devoted rally behind a quote of Cordova's ("Sovereign, deadly, perfect") and form an online community that is notoriously difficult to access--a place where they can be themselves without fear or judgment, where nothing is taboo and there are no limits. Actors from Cordova's films fiercely protect the secrets of their director and the process of making his art, emerging from the experience changed somehow (damaged?). He may even have ties to black magic. To uncover the truth about Cordova, McGrath must infiltrate this society and uncover clues no one else has been able to solve.
Pretty great premise, right? Too bad it turns out McGrath is more Inspector Clouseau than Sam Spade. Pessl tries to explain this early by having McGrath note that he's gotten rusty after years in exile, but really, it hasn't been that long. He basically pratfalls his way through his leads and somehow manages to stumble upon a clue that gets him to the next one, and so on. It doesn't help that by the end of the first hundred pages he's saddled himself with two overly quirky assistants because ... well, it never really makes sense why he lets them into his investigation. Or trusts them so completely without even knowing anything about them. There's Hopper, the morose slacker and ne'er-do-well with oddly suicidal tendencies that no one in the book seems to worry about, who met Ashley at a rehab camp for troubled teens years earlier. Then there's Nora, a penniless aspiring actress who dresses like a drag queen. The three of them combined have all the tact of an especially clumsy elephant trying to navigate the high-wire while drunk. Hopper because he's too impulsive and heedless of danger. Nora because she's spacey and sentimental. McGrath because ... I don't know, maybe Pessl thought that if he was too good at figuring things out it would undermine the mysteries Cordova represents. There had to have been a middle ground.
The more McGrath, Hopper, and Nora bumble through the clues the harder it became for me to press on reading this book. It's such a shame. There was so much promise in the beginning. Pessl seems like a very sharp writer but she made some curious decisions here. I'd still be curious to read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her debut novel (which was one of the New York Times' top 10 books of 2006), but this outing ended in disappointment.
The inclusion of news articles, photos, clippings, and "web pages" makes for an interesting layout. My complaint there is that the images look oddly photoshopped in some places, and photos of the characters involved are borderline cartoonish. The character shots in a game of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? are more subtle than this. It also feels a little ham-handed to have the book working so hard to illustrate moods that Pessl's writing was sufficient to get across in the first place. Jennifer Egan used tricks like this much better in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
I'm being mean to the photos, I know, but given the overall let-down that I feel about this book I think it's justified. Also, it's hard not to be mean when the book almost intentionally makes them seem absurd.
Pessl is undoubtedly a good writer, but Night Film has some serious flaws. It starts strong, gets lost in genre tropes, and ultimately limps across the finish line a pale imitation of what it set out to be.
I'm just going to say it straight out: this book kinda creeped me out. And not in a good way.
The year is 1987. June Elbus is one of those quirky, misunderstood teens in the Royal Tenenbaums, Harold and Maude mold. None of her peers get her, which is exacerbated by her love of all things medieval (and her habit of wearing medieval-inspired clothing to school). One of her favorite pastimes is hanging out in the woods so she can feel herself "fall out of time" and pretend she's living in a distance age. She and her older sister used to be inseparable, but lately their relationship has become oddly combative. Worst of all, her uncle Finn, the only person June felt any sort of kinship with, has died of AIDs.
At the funeral June notices a strange figure lurking. Not long after, June receives a beloved tea set that had belonged to Finn with a note from this man (her uncle's lover, Toby), saying that he would love to meet her.
The description on the dustjacket ends there, vaguely promising that "As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she's not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most."
It sounded lovely (and right up my alley. I happen to have a weakness for quirk). But the reality of what's going on in this novel is ... on the unsettling side. You see, it wasn't just that June felt that her uncle Finn was her best friend, the only person who understood her. She was in love with him. Full on in love with him.
Even that could have been OK, I guess. June knew it was never meant to be (Finn's sexuality being the least of those concerns). Young love tends to be foolish, hopeless love, and one could see how she could mistake the closeness of their bond to be a sign that they were soulmates. But then the feelings begin to transfer over to Toby, Finn's partner. He seems aware, but doesn't do much to discourage them. Which leads me to creepy feature number two: he gives her alcohol and cigarettes. She's fourteen years old. She's never smoked or had a drink before. It's discomfiting. To say the least.
There's also something of a likeability issue at play here. Granted, it is not necessary to like everyone in a novel in order for it to be great, but I found it hard to care much about any of these people. Greta clearly loves June more than it is meant to seem, but it's hard to care when so much of her behavior is nasty and petty.
If you can get past these aspects of the novel (I tried and failed), whether or not you'll like it depends on how willing you are to read about people who are just determined to screw things up in ways that don't always make sense. Judging from the reactions of the ratings I see online, most readers are more forgiving than I am. So this is probably a case of the cheese standing alone, but it wouldn't be the first time I found myself in that position.
I really wanted to like this book. I just couldn't get passed the creep factor.