Sunday, July 8, 2018

Review: I Funny, by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

This book probably isn't for me: I didn't find it all that funny. This is crucial because I Funny is stuffed to the brim with jokes. The main character, Jamie Grimm, tells jokes all the time, his narration is filled with jokes, and the drawings also contain jokes. I didn't think they were good jokes - most of them. In fact, Jamie jokes so much that at one point a girl sets a five-minute timer during which he can't joke. Yet I didn't have a terrible time with this. A few jokes do land (when you're quoting the likes of George Carlin, there will be some laughs), and the story, while predictable, is nice enough.

When we first meet Jamie he is just beginning to perform his stand-up comedy in front of an audience - and he chokes. Well, at least at first. From the stand-up comedy end, Patterson and Grabenstein write convincingly - I wonder if Grabenstein was a stand-up comic himself. But Jamie isn't just a stand-up comic: he is also wheelchair-bound. This is supposed to be a major twist, but you learn it by chapter two, so it's not a spoiler. These two things are what most define Jamie, but the authors handle this pretty well. Jamie is made to be a real person, somebody not to be pitied (and he's annoyed when people feel pity for him, just as most of us are). One of the story's messages is that disabled or not, everybody wants to feel normal. So it's great when his adoptive brother, Stevie Kosgrove, punches him out - just like Stevie would any other kid he bullied.

The early chapters lay out the general background information for Jamie - his home situation, school and after school, his time spent at his Uncle Frankie's diner, and his two best friends, Gaynor and Pierce. Pretty much all of the characters are one-dimensional, largely for comedic purposes. Jamie's Uncle Frankie, for example, is so nostalgic for his days as a yo-yo champion, that he does tricks on his yo-yo while cooking food for his customers. Even Jamie is a bit one-dimensional, as he just constantly cracks jokes.

The novel is littered with pop culture references - not just names of comedians, some not as well-known as others, but other references like Halo and Forrest Gump (pre-President Donald Trump even has a brief mention). There are also abundant references to zombies. Jamie seems to view his world as peopled with zombies, and while he's trying to be funny, the book doesn't make it quite clear if this is meant as satire, a la Shaun of the Dead (and if that's the case it's not very original). I had the feeling that the authors were suggesting that those who pursued a more normal life were zombies, as opposed to the likes of Jamie, who is much more ambitious. There's also a strange moment when a girl asks Jamie how he urinates. How the authors allowed this sexually-loaded question to remain in a book about middle schoolers is beyond me.

It's unfortunate that the novel stays the predictable route, as there are a couple of moments where it very briefly heads somewhere more interesting. Each moment revolves around Jamie finding success with stand-up comedy and the consequences of that success. One consequence is that people start to question your success - did the judges just feel sorry for Jamie because he's in a wheelchair? Another is that if success gets to your head you might hurt those close to you. But this is too nice a novel to tread too deeply in those directions, and Patterson's co-writer Grabenstein likes to play it safe. As I said, this book just wasn't meant for me - the high rating on Goodreads shows that Patterson and Grabenstein have pleased their intended audience. I think the success of this novel hinges on whether you find the jokes funny or not. I didn't.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Erin Entrada Kelly likely won the 2018 Newbery Medal for Hello, Universe for her diverse set of characters, complex approach to themes like fate and friendship, and a simple, no-nonsense style of writing that allows for surprising moments of humor. This is a book a little more complex than your standard middle grade fiction, featuring four shifting perspectives with characters who all have their own unique way of looking at the world and their own problems to think about. These characters are well-developed, too, and Kelly allows her diverse set of characters to be people rather than defined solely by their race or disability.

The major characters are Virgil - a timid boy from a loud, talkative Filipino family who frets about the fact that he never developed the courage to talk to the girl he has a crush on: Valencia. Valencia is deaf, and she is lonely because she is deaf (as other kids her age have trouble taking the time to make sure she can read their lips), but rather than wallow in self-pity, Valencia gathers strength in her solitude. Kaori is a fortune teller who Virgil tells his problems to, and her sister Gen often proves a bit too helpful. Perhaps it's a bit stereotypical that the one Asian-American character practice fortune telling, but her serious, no-nonsense personality won me over. Finally there is Chet, the bully and probably the least developed, though scenes showing him with his father give some insight into his behavior. It seems that white males are the only "safe" villains anymore, whereas making someone as bullheaded and obnoxious as Chet any other race might draw some controversy.

Kelly's female characters are the ones who truly shine. Chet and Virgil are a bit more one-note, a bit more standard in their development, with Virgil as the shy every kid and Chet just as you might expect a bully to be characterized in middle grade literature. Valencia is perhaps the most intriguing character in the story. In making her stubborn, a person who could care less what others think about her, Kelly avoids playing the self-pity game, a la Auggie in Wonder, that I thought she would. The back and forth between Kaori and her sister Gen is often hilarious, especially as those who hold different philosophies on life. Gen is one of the funniest characters in the book, with Virgil's grandmother Lola being the other. In a moment when Virgil tells Lola that the last day of school was the worst because the school served green beans for lunch, in order to avoid admitting it was because of his failure with Valencia, Lola replies that he needs a more interesting life. Lola is also the source of much of the Filipino folk tales that deepen the text, and these are also conveyed with humor and wit.

Much of the story is told either through dialogue or through character thoughts or actions, giving this an active, fast-paced feeling even though it lacks exciting action. The strength of the story lies largely on the humorous dialogue and inner monologues of characters. I do wonder at some of Kelly's stylistic choices, such as her decision to write Valencia in the first person point of view using present tense voice while the rest are written in third person using past tense voice. It seems to signal that Valencia is the main character, but much of the major conflict revolves around Virgil. The decision also doesn't make sense considering that Kelly provides equal access to all four characters' heads, whether first person or third. Maybe I'm missing something.

I see there is some controversy with the choice for this as the Newbery winner (and there is always bound to be some controversy), but I don't have a problem with it. It's not a perfect story, but it is a delightful novel that has given me something to ponder over, and I think readers of all ages can connect with the characters as fully-realized, fleshed out people. This allows readers to develop empathy for others and maybe be less frightened to talk to someone with hearing aids or to just speak up in general because of shyness. By the end it may be in question whether the events in the story were influenced by fate, but it's a fact that the characters grew because of what they went through.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Maybe it was the Audible recording, or maybe it's just my own personal feeling, but I did not like Wonder, the popular teen novel by R.J. Palacio. It feels too politically correct to make any bold moves. Its edges are too smoothed by the kindness of the characters, whose niceness robs them of personality. The novel hits one note over and over. Readers are either supposed to think, "Aw, that's so nice," or, "That's so mean," and there's little contributed to deeper thought beyond surface emotional reactions. The main character, August, seems nothing more than an instrument to tug at the reader's sympathies, a character who is meant to make readers feel good about themselves.

Part of me faults the Audible readers. August's voice comes off as a mix between Marge from The Simpsons and Tommy from Rugrats, a sickly sweet near-parody. The other problem with the story, though, is that there isn't an interesting conflict. The book's central conflict seems to be that the characters aren't treated as nice as they should be, when, in fact, the book is populated by very nice people. August was born with a major face deformity (the make-up job in the movie doesn't make it appear as bad as I would imagine from reading the book), so it's understanding that he would be sensitive about people staring at him. In fact, most everyone at that young age has fears that people are staring at them and judging them, but for most of us it's simply a paranoia. People stare, and August senses they feel disgust, but mostly nobody says anything about it.

The major conflict is that August's parents want him to start middle school (he's been homeschooled), and August is worried about entering this new environment. He does reluctantly agree, of course, and he even gains some friends: Jack Will and Summer. His lone enemy is Julian, who really isn't as mean as the book makes him out to be. One issue I have with books like this is that they tend to encourage alienating the Julians of the world, casting them as major villains, when Julian is in reality just a kid and he's not really that mean. The meanest thing he does to August's face is suggest that his favorite Star Wars character is Darth Sidious, who is a badass villain, but whose own facial deformities is meant to serve as a backhanded insult directed at August. It's a bit of a stretch to me. The meanest thing that happens to August, though, doesn't even come from Julian, but from Jack. It's one of the book's more effective moments for reasons I don't want to spoil.

I guess through August's eyes we are meant to consider a human need to be accepted by others, and this is a very real need. But taken to an extreme it becomes narcissistic. One cannot expect to be accepted by all people. Even the best-looking among us has their detractors. But when one has a condition like August's (or any sort of horrible illness), it is the politically correct thing to treat that person as precious, and the book makes August the center of its universe, even as it switches between different character perspectives. Via, August's older sister, feels neglected due to the attention poured onto her younger brother. Multiple other character perspectives revolve mainly around their thoughts about August, and largely from one to another no surprising or interesting insights emerge. Oftentimes plot lines merge and we are told about the same event multiple times, and from character to character there is little difference in the way it is viewed. I question the need to switch perspectives so many times, especially since two of the characters have very brief sections (and one towards the end is essentially there to bring out the tears, though it is a repeat of the events that just unfolded), and one other character makes a first appearance halfway through the book, only to receive a brief, pointless section.

This book is little more than emotional fluff, though the emotional part is enough to make it very popular. There have been plenty of "ugly" characters in literature who are far more interesting than August. Tyrion Lannister comes to mind (again, much uglier in the book than the show). Tyrion is philosophical about his deformities and he fights back with a sharp wit and humor. August simply feeds into feelings of self-pity. On top of that, very little of interest happens. The dialogue is overwritten and dull. Conflicts arise and end quickly, especially one silly, unconvincing "war" that makes up for some of the drama and resolves far more easily than any war should. All of this is the product of a lack of imagination on Palacio's part, not to mention poor writing. The poor writing is especially apparent from the ending action sequence when Palacio literally repeats through character dialogue what she just narrated moments before. To her credit, Palacio knows her audience, knows how to tug their heartstrings enough to get a movie deal, but this book simply lacks enough weight to make it a great reading experience.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review: The Accident by Ismail Kadare

The problem with The Accident is that it feels too surreal for me to invest any sort of emotional or intellectual connection with the story or characters. Ismail Kadare seems to be commenting upon a political situation related to Albania and Serbia and a host of other countries, a situation I am too unaware of for this to resonate with me. But at the same time, the book also seems to be about a rocky and destructive human relationship. But it is also about the myriads of interpretations people might give for an event that they begin to delve into the ridiculous. This is a story that probably could have been told as a short story, for the conclusion is pretty apparent by the opening chapters, and what happens in between is dragged on and on, repeated tirelessly until the final pages.

The novel begins intriguingly enough, with a taxi that gets into an accident, flinging out a couple in the back seat but leaving the driver unharmed. What seems to be a simple accident - distracted driver, doors somehow flung open, two dead - becomes mired in investigation as people wonder whether the man in fact murdered the woman, and pretty soon their every correspondence is under scrutiny as researchers try to figure out what really happened. Occam's Razor tells us that the simplest explanation is the best explanation, but it's not always the most satisfying. I can see hints of what Kadare is trying to do here. News reports endlessly and tirelessly interpret and cover events in a myriad of ways from all kinds of different perspectives. At first I thought that Kadare's purpose was satire. By the end, I'm not entirely sure his purpose.

Kadare seems to open this work to its own sort of endless interpretation. The two main characters - Besfort and Rovena - could each represent a nation or region, and one could read into their relationship the relationship between these two areas. But if this novel serves as an allegory, that strips away the emotional resonance. On the other hand, it is difficult to read this as a novel providing insight into human relations because so often the dialogue and happenings do not feel real. People say bizarre things to each other and respond in bizarre ways. Kadare clearly has something in mind as he makes the choices he does in this novel, but I think for most readers these choices will be alienating and make this a less compelling read, as they did for me.

Review: Big Nate In a Class By Himself, by Lincoln Peirce

Further proof of Jeff Kinney's influence on modern YA novels, Big Nate is another in a line of books that combine prose with graphics. Lincoln Peirce's style is more in line with James Patterson's Middle School books (or vice versa, as Big Nate is first), but it is also aimed at a much younger audience. Big Nate is not quite as good as the other big name graphic novel series (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Middle School, Dork Diaries), but it does provide plenty of laughs. It is interesting that these books seek to attract young male readers by using young male protagonists who hate school, cause trouble at school, and do poorly in their classes. I can see parents worrying about what morals these books teach, but in most cases, those who don't enjoy school don't learn that behavior from a book. If reading about a character like Nate, whose hobby is getting detention slips from teachers, gets kids to start reading, that at least opens up the door for further reading.

Nate is much meaner than his counterparts, Greg Heffley or Rafe or Charlie Joe Jackson. He says nasty things about his teachers and other students, the kinds of things that boys do really say. Perhaps Nate does go a bit far, and you don't want a book to be pedantic, but you also don't want to normalize cruel behavior. Nate gets in as much trouble as Rafe, but Rafe is a kinder soul. The story in Big Nate is rather predictable. Nate gets a fortune saying he is going to surpass all others by the end of the day, and while it becomes clear to the reader just how he will surpass all others, Nate plots ways that he can accomplish that fortune. Most of the time his antics are mildly amusing, the kind of thing a much younger audience might find hilarious, but that comes off as pretty vanilla for a more experienced audience. Big Nate's at its funniest when Nate unintentionally gets himself in trouble. I found myself laughing out loud when Nate accidentally put on the substitute gym teacher's shorts, and when his ink pen began leaking in his teacher's shirt pocket. These moments were absurd, but there was good build up to them, and Nate did not cause them purposely.

As a teacher I cringe at the depictions of teachers in books like these as dull, unsentimental beings whose only emotion is anger or irritation. Are teachers really like that? Where I work most teachers are passionate and do their best to make a positive connection with students (even when those students do get on our nerves, ahem). It saddens me to see fictional schools filled with curmudgeon teachers. Then again, from the perspective of a egocentric pre-teen or teenager, perhaps that's just what adults look like in general, as creatures who serve to get in the way of your freedom. Big Nate represents rebellion against this system, unsuccessful as this rebellion is. He serves vicariously as a stand-in for the kinds of things readers of these books would like to do themselves, had they only the guts. Big Nate's behavior also shows the consequence of such behavior, allowing readers to live through that vicariously as well, without having the face such consequences in their reality. So I say, let the boys read the books.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Review: A Man Called Ove, by Frederick Backman

Frederik Backman writes A Man Called Ove as if similes were an endangered species. Backman's repetition of similes, adding "as if" to almost every description, is much more noticeable while listening to the book, and as the "as ifs" pile up the listening grows more tiring. Of course, this isn't the only problem, but the book has its fair share of entertaining moments, and even some of these similes are amusing. The book is a comedy, first and foremost, dangerously close to a romantic one, despite Backman's attempts to add some drama through back story. It's a comedy because the characters are largely one-dimensional. Despite some modest (and predictable) change at the end, Ove is a curmudgeon constantly surrounded by people who for some reason seem to really like him even though he is clearly annoyed by their presence. His constant attempts to take his own life are thwarted again and again by nosy neighbors or some other divine intervention. Ove is an amusing curmudgeon, one in the vein of Clint "Get off my Lawn" Eastwood, and Backman's perseverance in making this character so grumpy is the book's main redeeming factor.

You know you're in for a treat when the book opens with a cranky old man asking the sales clerk at a computer store for an "ePad," and then later accuses the man of trying to rip him off because he's too prideful to admit he doesn't know a thing about computers or tablets. Ove is a manly man, the kind who displays no visible emotion except any related to anger. Backman also seems to make it clear that he's the only competent person peopling this novel, with the exception of Ove's deceased wife, Sonia, and his new Iranian neighbor, Parvana. Everyone else is a doofus or some other form of incompetent, not just in the eyes of Ove, it seems, but also the author. Parvana's husband, Patrick, can't back an RV out of his driveway without smashing Ove's mailbox, or climb a ladder without breaking his leg. Ove's contempt for Patrick is met by Backman's, and even Parvana seems to barely tolerate the man.

While Ove makes for a believable curmudgeon, the rest of the character's are much less believable in their one-dimensionality, except Parvana. Sonia is angelic and forgiving, as any woman marrying a man like Ove must be. Patrick is obliviously kind, always wearing a smile, and seemingly unaware of the fact that people are always laughing at him. Jimmy is overweight, so he always has some kind of food in his mouth, and if he doesn't, he asks to be directed to the nearest snack, because that's all that overweight people think about. The men in white uniforms, representing the government, are heartless and condescending. Perhaps the least believable is the reporter woman who wants to interview Ove about him rescuing a man who had collapsed onto some train tracks. She seems oblivious to the fact that Ove does not want to interview him, and doesn't seem at all perturbed when he locks her in his garage. Many of these people don't feel real so much as pre-programmed automatons.

When I call this a borderline romantic comedy it's because the relationship between Ove and Parvana. It begins cold and then gradually grows warmer. It's nothing romantic that develops between the two, but an understanding that, in a way, they are soul mates. Ove grows to respect her for her own brand of stubbornness, and Parvana grows to love him, perhaps in a paternal way. Though this sounds much more like a drama, it is Ove's unflinching crankiness that makes this a comedy. Time and again, Ove is put in situations that he does not like, and there are very few that he does like, and for the most part it is amusing to see how Ove responds to these situations. The inevitability of the conclusion, and the seeming misanthropy, do take away from the emotional impact of the story, as do some of the over-the-top reactions characters have to certain events. But for those looking for an amusing cranky old man story, this hits the spot.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts

James Patterson's and Chris Tebbetts' Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is a lot like Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Both rely heavily on drawings to enhance the story, though the drawings by Laura Park are much more detailed and sometimes require more attention from the reader. Both are written in the first person point of view, but where Greg Heffley writes in a diary, Rafe Khatchadorian does not. Rafe also has a lot more personality. Jeff Kinney uses a much more objective narrative point of view, but Patterson and Tebbetts give their narrator much more energy and zeal. Both stories are humorous, at times laugh out loud funny, but, oddly, while reading Rafe's story, I felt a tinge of sorrow for the main character. Patterson and Tebbetts are able to bring out the energetic personality of a middle school boy while showing how alienating it can be to learn how to conform to the rules of an institution, especially while you have other things bothering you.

The general premise of the story is simple - Rafe is starting middle school and to make things interesting he decides to challenge himself to break every single rule in the school's code of conduct. This is something young readers will cheer as brilliant while their parents and school officials will likely cringe. But young readers should be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. They may dream of pulling the fire alarm, for example, like Rafe does, but that doesn't mean they will follow his example and actually do it. Rafe does not like school, something many students probably agree with. Not all students dislike school, of course. There are those like Jeanne, who fit right in. But many are just like Rafe. This is a difficult time for youngsters still figuring themselves and the world out. And here adults are often setting rigid rules, those of the zero tolerance variety, that make a person like Rafe feel like he could never fit in emotionally.

It doesn't help that Rafe has some family troubles. His mother is divorced and she's currently engaged to a lazy man who Rafe calls Bear. I've seen reviews that criticize this choice of arrangement in the story, but stories often reflect reality. While Rafe's mother probably shouldn't be with a man like Bear, especially since she has a son and daughter to care for and his presence is more burden than help, in reality people are human and often make poor decisions for emotional reasons, even adults. Bear is sometimes portrayed stereotypically, sometimes more realistically. There's also Leo, Rafe's best friend, who has a couple of surprises up his sleeve. I didn't foresee the revelations with Leo, but a more discerning reader may be less surprised than I was. They do add immensely to the emotional impact of the story.

This is an energetic, sometimes manic, often inventive story that never grows dull, thanks to Rafe's high energy narration. There is a lot of humor. Rafe is the kind of kid who a teacher might simultaneously feel annoyed with and amused by, such as when he writes his own parts for Paris while reading lines for Romeo and Juliet. Fellow students, however, love a class clown like Rafe. People often appreciate a person who dares to do what they would not. The drawings are excellent as well. The attention to detail is surprising, and you'll find some things to laugh at if you pay attention to the small details. The drawing where Rafe is shown sneaking into the teacher lounge and taking a bite out of each donut had me cracking up, even if I would be enraged to find a student had done that in my own teacher lounge.

If anything, Middle School is an exercise in hyperbole. The story is loaded with it. The title should clue you into that - The Worst Years of My Life. The drawings add a lot to this hyperbole, especially the hilarious portrayals of classrooms. In one drawing, the Spanish teacher is shown spearing students with arrows for not following rules. This hyperbole often turns to metaphor. We see this with the portrayal of one teacher, Ms. Donatello, as a dragon. But this metaphor grows more challenging in a few chapters when Rafe narrates a detention or meeting with the principal as an epic battle between Rafe the knight and a monster. This is much more revealing of Rafe, who copes with his troubles by turning them into fantasy.

While Rafe's rule breaking is rewarded with laughs, it is not rewarded with an easy school experience for him. So while some may criticize the book for giving students ideas and making it seem like breaking rules and complaining about school as boring are appropriate reactions, Patterson and Tebbetts just know how to pander to their target audience. Young readers may rejoice in knowing there isn't a large lesson for those like Rafe, such as that breaking rules is wrong. His behavior does make his schooling experience more difficult, to be sure, but Patterson and Tebbetts are merely tapping into the effects that unbending, rigid rules have on young human beings. Zero tolerance rules have become a problem when enforced on well-meaning kids who incidentally break a rule. This is made most clear when Jeanne is punished for breaking a rule that she broke not out of meanness, but to help another person.

What really surprised me about the book, and maybe my reaction isn't shared by everyone, is the underlying tone of melancholy I felt. Except for Leo, Rafe is a loner. Nobody really understands him, and nobody makes any real attempt to connect with him. His mom comes the closest to showing understanding, but her feelings sometimes come out as an alienating sort of pity. Then there's Jeanne, who starts to be nice to Rafe, perhaps oblivious to the fact he has a crush on her. The scene when he asks her if she wants to have pizza with him, after he goes out of his way to please her, made me feel sad. She nicely tells him that he misunderstood, that she doesn't feel that way about him. But the fact that she was just being nice to him makes him feel used. Again and again through the story, as Rafe makes us laugh with his inventive ways to break rules, there's also a sadness lingering there. That's what elevates this book and makes it much more complicated than it seems. I was surprised to find how powerful the stronger moments of this book were, and how funny the rest of it was.