Saturday, January 5, 2019

Review: The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez's The Friend is not simply a novel, but an extended, contemplative essay about a myriad of topics revolving around the relationship between people and animals as well as the relationship between people and writing. I call it an essay because while it does have a plot and this plot does have a beginning, middle, and end, much of the novel stops for its narrator to contemplate things that do not move the plot forward. For some this might be an exercise in frustration, and I even felt that frustration at the outset, but I eventually grew to find a lot to like in Nunez's blend of contemplations and the gradual movement of plot.

That plot is that a close friend of the unnamed narrator (who is referred to as "you," as though this novel is in fact a letter being written to the narrator's dearly beloved friend) has committed suicide, out of the blue. The next part of the plot, though it takes some time to get there, is that Wife Three wants the narrator to take the deceased's dog, a massive, but elderly, Great Dane. The narrator finds this difficult because she is living in an apartment that does not allow dogs. In between these plot points are the reflections of the narrator and the day-to-day life interactions she has with others and the dog, Apollo (one of the few named characters). Yet, though the narrative is written in a choppy manner, it strangely flows quite smoothly. It flows like the thought processes of a person, jumping from one idea to the next and sometimes returning to revise or question a previous idea (sometimes comically so).

I think it was in the narrator's descriptions of the life of a writer where I made my strongest connection. With the death of her friend, a professor and a writer, the narrator finds a connection between being a writer and being miserable. Why is it that a highly successful writer would commit suicide? Is there something about the act of writing that makes a person miserable? Having made my own attempts at writing novels, I understand this. Even though I grow excited with the idea of writing, it takes a lot of effort and willpower to get myself to actually sit down and write. And then I might go for months writing every day before I lose the willpower and stop. At this point, the writer feels some kind of draw to return to "their vomit," as the narrator's deceased friend referred to it. I understand. And when the narrator then seems to question why so many people want to go into writing, I also understand. The number of books published is astounding, so much more than anyone could conceivably read in their lifetime. This book points out that if everyone stopped publishing books for a year, it would have no effect (except on the economy). There's almost a sense of nihilism - almost.

And yet, Nunez does not take the elitist stance and suggest that only the select few with real talent continue writing. In fact, she doesn't really take a stance at all. The novel places contradictory ideas on the same page and refuses to weigh in. Oftentimes the ideas of other authors or famous people are placed on the page without additional comment, or anecdotes are told, or films are summarized (at least two films, including White God, are summarized seemingly in their entirety), and sometimes the point is made implicitly, sometimes not at all - sometimes it is there because it relates to the topic. When the book takes a break from telling its story, it feels like a heavily researched essay in which all of the evidence is laid out without the support of a unifying thesis. This is a book that trusts its readers' intelligence and curiosity. It's one that allows you to become comfortable with its narrator, and though the time you spend with it will be brief, its impact will be far more lasting.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese is about the adolescent's struggle with finding his identity, and it is also about finding balance with his cultural identity in white America. There are plenty of things that Gene Luen Yang has spot on, such as romantic feelings and teenage angst, and there are also plenty of laughs in both his tale of young Jin Wang and the tale of the Monkey King. Jin's struggles with other people are something everyone can sympathize with. His cultural roots and Chinese appearance leaves him the butt of racial jokes. Even his well meaning teacher responds to a students ignorant comment about Chinese people eating dogs with an ignorant comment of her own: that Jin's family probably doesn't eat dogs anymore since they live in America now. With his pariah status, it is a foregone conclusion that he would become friends with the Taiwanese Wei-Chen Sun.

The story of the rebellious Monkey King, who has ambitions of being elevated to a dog, is also well-told and amusing, even if the action scenes are a bit elementary. There's a clear connection between this story and that of Jin's in that each character feels a sense of shame with their own cultural identity because it turns them into outcasts. Each character attempts to shed their ethnic identity in order to fit in. Jin changes his hair style to get a girl's attention, and the Monkey King begins wearing shoes and alters his shape to appear less monkey-like. In Yang's conclusion, though, he seems to present an either-or scenario - either one turns away from one's cultural roots, or one embraces them. There is no in-between, and there is a sense that something is sacrificed or lost no matter what choice is made. In embracing his cultural roots, the Monkey King becomes docile rather the enjoyably rebellious and ambitious individual of the first part of his story. And Jin must choose whether to be wholly Asian or white, rather than adapting to both cultures.

There is a third story here, about Chin-kee, the distant cousin of the white American, Danny. The Chin-kee story appears satirical at first glance, with a laugh track appearing anytime Chin-kee enacts one of his many cultural stereotypes. Chin-kee is not just a satire of the stereotypical outsiders might have of a Chinese citizen, but he is also how people like Jin fear that others view them. So in a way, Chin-kee could be seen as an internal conflict. The way that Yang merges these three stories breaks some of the magic, since two of these stories are clearly fantastical, while one is realistic - so they don't merge particularly well or believably. As entertaining and truthful as much Yang's novel is, I find that falters in its conclusion.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Review: Rules, by Cynthia Lord

Catherine, the main character of Cynthia Lord's Rules, copes with having an autistic brother by drawing and by keeping a book of rules that he must follow, such as "Keep your pants on in public" and "No toys in the fish tank." These rules help her brother, David, keep a sense of order, even when he can't help but violate the fish tank rule. The rules also keep Catherine sane - even though David doesn't seem soothed by the rule, "Late doesn't mean not coming," whenever her dad is late to come home, it is at least a way to respond rationally to his behavior. In terms of plot and character development, Rules has clear markings of a YA novel, but in its treatment of those who are disabled, it is much more mature and real. This novel is at times funny, but it is also wise.

Catherine is frustrated that her brother makes it difficult to establish friendships with other kids, and she is also frustrated that her parents' work life sometimes means she needs to babysit David. She daydreams about the new girl moving in next door and imagines them flashing Morse code to one another with a flashlight and going to the pond for a swim - just them. The girl next door doesn't turn out to be quite what Catherine wants - but she is a nice girl. The nice thing about Rules is that Lord avoids creating stereotypical characters. Kristi, the new girl next door, could have been a stereotypical mean girl because she befriends Ryan, who Catherine makes out to be a bully. But Catherine is not exactly a reliable narrator. What she sees as bullying might just be innocent fun - David seems to enjoy it when Ryan teases him, and there's nothing mean-spirited about it. 

Catherine befriends a boy in a wheelchair, Jason, at her brother's therapist's waiting room. Jason can't talk, so he points to word cards on a tray attached to his wheelchair. Their meet cute is when Catherine draws him without his permission and his mother becomes upset. But it turns out that Jason doesn't actually mind that Catherine drew him. He quickly befriends Catherine, and she draws new word cards for Jason to extend his vocabulary, feeling he needs words like "Awesome!" and "Stinks a big one!" The scenes when Catherine brainstorms new words and how to put them in picture form are an English teacher's dream come true: What are important words for somebody to have in their vocabulary if they can't speak? And then, what are different ways a word can be used? There's one part where Catherine uses the word murky, referring to her feelings, but the best way she can describe it is by telling a story about diving to the bottom of a pond and pulling out the murky bottom. There are plenty of moments in Rules like this that give the reader pause to think.

Many stories that focus on the "Other" tend to sentimentalize that "Other." But Lord does not make David or Jason any more sympathetic than she does Catherine. Their actions and behaviors are realistic. The book does coast through the last quarter or so, having conflicts right out of many other YA stories, but that's a pretty small detail considering the book's brisk pace and target audience. So, while I admired much of Lord's novel, I didn't fall in love with the whole, but I am happy to have had the opportunity to read it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: Finders Keepers, by Stephen King

Finders Keepers reads almost like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories, in the sense that the main hero doesn't enter until late in the game. Only in this case the reader knows the mystery, and it's a lot bloodier. Though Finders Keepers is a sequel to Mr. Mercedes, it could almost stand as its own story. Bill Hodges, the hero of Mr. Mercedes, is a minor character here - important, yes, but not the focus. This is a strange story in that all of the major players don't actually meet one another until late, late, late. Finders Keepers is all set up and development - maybe too much - but always moving quickly, always entertaining, and thrilling, if predictable, in its conclusion.

The first part of the story alternates between its hero, Paul Saubers, and its villain, Morris Bellamy. Morris has no connection with Mr. Mercedes. We first meet him in 1978 as he robs and murders the famous fictional author, John Rothstein, out of revenge for selling out his Jimmy Gold character. Paul, on the other hand, in the present day does have a connection to Mr. Mercedes - his father, Tom, was crippled by the Mercedes that Brady Hartsfield drove into a crowd of job seekers that fateful day. The connection between Paul and Morris is the author, Rothstein, and what Morris stole from Rothstein. These early chapters, the entire book in fact, largely serves the plot. They are also meant to develop the character, but I didn't find any of the characters particularly engaging. They were pretty vanilla. In fact, I think one could describe this story as a whole as vanilla, but it is an entertaining kind of vanilla.

Without having read the third book in this series, End of Watch, I would think that this is an unnecessary story. Hodges and company (Holly and Jerome) from Mr. Mercedes, serve largely as deus ex machina characters in this book. King assumes we already know them well, and thus their development as characters is stalled. They are here to remind us of their existence, as is Brady (whose final chapter serves as an after-the-credits scene a la a Marvel superhero movie, whetting your appetite for the next chapter). Still, necessary or not, I found every page engaging and nothing boring, even if King probably could have reduced the story's length. I know that he likes to give readers a bang for their buck, but that doesn't means readers want redundant details.

What's most impressive about this book is the creation of the story within the story. Rothstein and his Jimmy Gold story felt like they could have been real, a sort of Catcher in the Rye.  Perhaps it's less believable that a story whose character's main motto is "Shit don't mean shit" and "I'm not your birthday fuck" would be a major reading selection in high school, but you never know. It's impressive the way King integrates details of this fictional book series as if he was referencing a real book. Finders Keepers has a love for literature. Both Paul and Morris are lovers of fiction, and they often discuss their love for authors like John Cheever and Shirley Jackson, among many others. But it is Rothstein's Jimmy Gold trilogy that consumes their lives, to the point of behaving dangerously. King reveals the immersive power of literature through its power over its main characters - to the point that one of them becomes angry by an author's choices. Finders Keepers is also immersive, and though I feel he does Hodges a disservice, I'll refrain from making a visit to King's residence.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness is not a story so much as following the daily activities of a pair of intelligent characters as they visit London for their work. This is a work that challenges common conceptions of such things as animal predators in urban areas, the effects of trauma and stress, and what it means to be happy. Of course, plot happens, as when the two characters have a meet cute and begin to fall in love, and as their respective jobs pull them into conflict of some sort or other. This is a slow, absorbing read, one that changed my perspective in some ways, and also taught me a lot (the animal stuff is fascinating).

The first character we meet is Attila, a doctor from Ghana who specializes in post traumatic stress disorder. He is in London to give a talk on the occurrence of PTSD in the civilian population, but he also has other history in the city with a former love named Rose who is suffering early onset Alzheimer's. On top of that, Attila's niece has been evicted from her house, falsely accused of being an illegal immigrant, and her son has escaped foster care. As you can tell, Aminatta Forna fills her book with adult characters who have a lot of problems to juggle (Attila most of all), just like most of the rest of us. Attila approaches these issues with the composure of a detached doctor ready to tackle any stress with seeming nonchalance and authority.

Jean is an American visiting London to study the urban fox population, which has been increasing. Jean's purpose is to learn about the foxes, not resolve any issues. She has less of a network in London than Attila, as her ex-husband and her son are elsewhere. Thus it's not much of a surprise that she rather quickly grows fond of the large man she runs into (literally, during her morning jog).

This book, though, is not a romance. It has romance, yes - romance of the adult variety. Jean and Attila think about each other, yes, and Jean has the occasional insecurity as is normal, but the two do not obsess over each other. Forna allows the two characters to behave like mature, middle-aged, fully-fleshed out adults, like real people who have thoughts and interests outside of romance.

That this is not a romance is also evident from the opening chapter, which takes place in 1834. We follow a wolfer who happens to trap and kill the last of the wolves in the New England area. The importance of this chapter isn't known until much later. From a sequence in Jean's past we learn that the death of the wolf allowed the coyote to take its place - a smaller predator than the wolf, but one more suited to urban living and much more difficult to get rid of. Through these scenes with Jean, we realize that human happiness and mother nature are interlinked. The wolfer tracked down and killed the wolves because he was hired to do so by some farmers who were made unhappy by the wolves hunting livestock. Yet again with the coyote, and in London the fox, people complain and want them removed, as if their very presence prevents them from being happy.

Honestly, this was a difficult review to write. The novel is titled Happiness, but without that title, happiness as a theme would not be apparent. There are multiple subjects that seem unrelated - animals, nature, post traumatic stress, illness, immigration, race - but the thread, I suppose, is happiness. Many of these factors are used as a crutch to prevent people from being happy. At one point, Jean notes that people seem to think happiness means having the innocent naivete of an infant - and we also see another angle on this in the form of Rose, who seems blissful in her lack of awareness. I think what Forna is trying to show is that people must accept that happiness is not absolute, and that suffering does not mean there is no happiness. We must allow suffering to strengthen us, not hold us back. But this also might be an oversimplification. This is such a rich, complex novel, with so many ideas flowing through it and so much to teach. I'm glad I read it.

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.