A lot of the reviews I've read of this book from fans of Lamott's are rather harsh, so perhaps it works out in my favor that I'm going into this total...moreA lot of the reviews I've read of this book from fans of Lamott's are rather harsh, so perhaps it works out in my favor that I'm going into this totally unfarmiliar with her work. As a newcomer, I really enjoyed it, even though it wasn't entirely what I was expecting.
Lamott has a unique, lyrical, absolutely beautiful style of writing that instantly draws the reader in. It's clear that she tries to see joy in everything and everyone (part of one essay is devoted to her- sucessful, I might add- attempt to stop hating George W. Bush) and that too comes across in her writing- nevertheless, she's not above the black humour that makes all of the great memoirists worth reading. So her style wins her lots of points.
As for content, it's a mixed bag. Most of the essays are wonderful, a few go nowhere and seem to have no real point. They're also divided into sections, often for no apparent reason- the only section with any continuous theme is "Samwheel", in which all the essays are about Lamott's son.
I think a big part of the reason I liked this book so much is that I see a lot of myself in Lamott. A Christian who sometimes struggles with her faith, is inspired by the Zen and Buddist spiritual leaders, is against the war in Iraq, and is pro-choice? That's me! So identifying with Lamott was no problem for me. It will, however, be a problem for the many conservative Christians who will pick up this book expecting to find something more akin to their own philosophy. Even I was a little confused by the fact that the books advertised itself as "Thoughts on Faith" but didn't seem to contain a large number of thoughts on faith- at least not any more than thoughts on politics, family, friends, or getting older. In the end, though, I thought it was a great book, and am looking forward to reading Lamott's other works, which if other reviewers are to be believed are even better. (less)
So, this was kind of a disappointment. This book came at such a high recommendation that I was expecting much better and more in-depth analysis of Sed...moreSo, this was kind of a disappointment. This book came at such a high recommendation that I was expecting much better and more in-depth analysis of Sedaris' works than I really got. Most of Kopelson's "insights" were things I pretty much figured out for myself, and things I'm fairly sure most readers would be capable of figuring out for themselves as well. Kopelson skims along the surface of most of his points, providing neither thoughtful analysis if Sedaris' fiction nor his autobiographical essays. Occaisonally he touches on a comparison between the two, mentioning vaguely the influence Sedaris' family obviously had on his fiction, but doesn't bother to follow through. I admit I may have missed something by knowing nothing about Proust (and Kopelson quotes from Proust frequently and sometimes for pages at a time) but all in all I felt that reading this was a bit of a waste of time. (less)
It amazes me that Dave Barry never seems to run out of subjects to satirize, but it amazes me even more that even after writing so many books and so m...moreIt amazes me that Dave Barry never seems to run out of subjects to satirize, but it amazes me even more that even after writing so many books and so many columns, he is still so hilariously funny. He never seems to repeat jokes, and his brand of witty-yet-sophomoric humour never gets old.
In this book, Barry turns to the subject of money, offering advice on how to get some that will, I'll warn, get you killed or arrested should you actually follow it. Underlying all of it is the basic joke that our society revolves around something so utterly meaningless- "Fort Know could be full of Cheez Whiz, for all you know!" he exclaims. Still, Barry has adopted the same persona he uses in all his "advice" books- that of an underqualified hack trying to make money by giving bad advice. This too somehow never gets old.
Barry frequently wanders off onto tangents too, something that would annoy me with most authors- but he makes it work, partly by wandering away from the original subject with such skill that you barely notice it's happening, and partly because these tangents are always very funny- a tongue-in-cheek summary of Donald Trump's book of financial advice is one of the best parts of the book.
Dave Barry is one of the best humourists in America, and "Money Secrets" definitely matches up to his usual standards. It's a great read. (less)
Sometimes, you pick up a book expecting just a light read, something to do between the Great Works of Literature you've been meaning to get around to,...moreSometimes, you pick up a book expecting just a light read, something to do between the Great Works of Literature you've been meaning to get around to, and you get to be pleasantly surprised by the fact that the book you've just picked up is one of the best (recent written) ones that you've read in a long time. I had the pleasure of having that experience with "Rockville Pike".
"Rockville Pike" was a great novel. It was funny, it was touching, and moreover, the author had obviously put a great deal of thought into the world of the novel. This isn't something you tend to think of realistic fiction authors as doing- after all, they get OUR world to play with, don't they?- but I think it is something that the best realistic fiction authors do. With the right combination of characters, setting, and tone, you can create for yourself a place and time that could easily exist in real life, yet which still stand out, making the book more than a mundane chronicle of something that could happen to anyone, but a miniature universe all by itself. The vaguely absurdist Rockville Pike, where everybody knows each other's business but nothing is quite as it seems, certaintly qualifies as that.
On top of which, well, Susan Coll is just a really great writer. I fell in love with her prose, and her postmodern style of referencing literary tropes, and her sly, dark sense of humour.
The only thing about the book I had a problem with was the character of Delia, who seemed confusing, unneeded, and rife with unfortunate implications. (I could get into that, but I won't.) If not for that subplot, I would have given the novel five stars. I loved it. (less)
The Gateway Award is an annual award that goes to the best young adult ault novel of the year, as voted on by teenagers (but nominated by adults). Eve...moreThe Gateway Award is an annual award that goes to the best young adult ault novel of the year, as voted on by teenagers (but nominated by adults). Every year, I promise myself that I will read all of them, having something of a vested interest in YA literature. I never do quite get around to it. This year's going to be different, though, and I will review all of the books here, mostly so I remember which ones were good come voting time.
The first book I've selected, mostly because I happened to run across it in Border's the other day, is "November Blues" by Sharon M. Draper, and if it's any indication of what kind of books get picked for this award, this is going to be a somewhat difficult project. "November Blues" was not an enjoyable read, and out of all great YA novels out there, it's amazing to me that this one makes the list.
For one thing, it follows just about every cliche of the genre. Right down to the tiny little ones, like the apparent requirement that all main characters have quirky names. The main character is called November, apparently just for the sake of the groan-inducing pun (it is supposed to be a pun, right?) in the title. November also has a friend named Jericho, who starred in a another novel by the same author, "The Fall of Jericho". I haven't read it, but I have no desire to. Another genre trope shoehorned into the book: November isn't sure she was ever in love with Josh, her boyfriend, who's a nice, funny guy but, according to her, has no real depth. Young adult novels are full of relationships like that- except that the novel starts just after Josh's DEATH in a horrible accident, so the whole thing comes off as a little icky and out of place, and November as a shade insensitive.
This book is blantently a Very Special Episode of something- whether it's the series or the Gateway Award list, I'm not sure, not having read any of the other books in either category. But it's obvious that somebody needed a teen pregnancy book (the premise of the book is, by the way, that November is pregnant by her deceased boyfriend because they just didn't think to use birth control the night he died; November is an idiot). The premise unfolds with absolutely no twists and turns, except in the B-plot about November's much more interesting friends' battle with mean girl Ariana. Josh's parents do threaten to sue for custody, but there's no suspense there- Draper makes it clear that, in her universe, November will be a great mom, and her baby will fix all here problems! Which it does. The book seems, at times, to think teen pregnancy is a pretty great idea. Not convenient, sure, but the actual baby part is cool. When it's not being weird, it's just boring. Incredibly boring. Insanely boring. I've seen this basic premise done better a dozen times!
November does nothing to make it any more interesting, either. There's a recent trend in YA fiction towards female characters who function as nothing more than blank slates onto which the story can be projected. All right, no, scratch that, it's not a recent trend or just in YA fiction. Male characters has always gotten personalities and quirks, female characters get backstory and feelings for male characters. November literally has no personality except for her pregnancy and her relationships with her friends. And I am tired of things like that.
"November Blues" is not a book to which I would give any award. Here's hoping the other candidates are better. (less)
“Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac” by Gabrielle Zevin (who also wrote “Elsewhere”, a fantasy novel I have read several times and am very fond of, so I’m...more“Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac” by Gabrielle Zevin (who also wrote “Elsewhere”, a fantasy novel I have read several times and am very fond of, so I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t heard of this book before) is, ironically, the only Gateway book I’ve read so far that is actually memorable. I mean, sure, it’s only the third one I’ve read, but “November Blues” and “Right Behind You” were so boring that it seems like thirty. When I look back on those books, I may remember a few details (“It was about the guy who set fire to a dude, right?”) but not much else. Here’s what I will remember about “Memoirs”:
1. Let’s start with something pretty shallow: the cover. The copy of this book I have (a hardback) has both an awesome cover and an awesome jacket. The jacket features typewriter keys, one of my favorite motifs, and the one right in the middle has a question mark on it. Also, the title and author’s name are in an adorable shade of blue that I want to paint my bathroom with. That’s a compliment, if you were wondering. And the cover itself is a snazzy metallic silver color with some kind of tile pattern. I am very impressed by all of it.
2. Also, the chapters? Have no title, and merely start with a graphic of a typewriter key corresponding to the number of the chapter. I cannot overstate how cool I think this is. Maybe I’m easily impressed. But I really like typewriter keys.
3. The book is divided into three sectioned entitled, respectively, “I was,” “I am,” and “I will”. I think we have now established that Gabrielle Zevin has more style than any other teen lit author ever. I adore her.
4. It avoids cliché- well, the clichés of its sub-genre. As you may have guessed from the title, Naomi gets amnesia, and the plot of the book is based around her attempts to deal with the fact that she’s forgotten the last four years. Among the things she doesn’t remember: her parent’s divorce, her half-sister, her dad’s fiancé, her best friend Will, her boyfriend, and most of what she learned in school during that time. So yeah, this sucks. But! It is not boring. If this book had been written by most teen authors, I’ll tell you what would have gone down. Naomi would have woken up prettier and skinnier than she remembered being, had a hot but cruel boyfriend who probably played football or something, bitchy new friends, and two old, dorky friends who she’d abandoned. There are tons of novels like this! The fact that “Memoirs” is not one of them is, simply put, awesome. The person Naomi was before the amnesia wasn’t a horrible bitch, she just wasn’t the same person she was four years ago. I love that.
5. Naomi’s boyfriend, Ace. He plays tennis, and instead of being a nasty abusive Jerk Jock, he’s just a guy. I love characters who are just a guy. Ace is just a guy who’s dating a girl he’s not really sure he’s in love with, and becomes really confused when she shows up one day with a completely different personality. And who wouldn’t be? They break up, but Ace is not demonized. He’s just not right for her, but he’s actually kind of a sweetheart, despite being dense. He buys her tennis wristbands! Aww.
6. The main character is a major geek. This always enders me to characters. I can’t read about some boring blank slate of a person who has no apparent hobbies (well, I can and have- hello, November- but I vastly prefer not to). Hobbies, and in particular geeky hobbies, really help me believe that this is a real person who does things other than angst. Naomi, who is the main character, plays tennis, is a dork about old music, and believes that a good yearbook, like the one she edits, has the power to change the universe. I like her three times as much already as I would have if none of that had been mentioned.
7. Back to Naomi’s love interests. She has three, the third of which will make this list as well. The second is a dude named James, and the reason he is making this list is because he is perhaps the one thing about the novel I truly did not like. Hey, I said memorable things, not good things! James is a “bad boy”- he’s got issues, he’s a juvenile delinquent, he used to stalk this one girl at his old school. But by far his worst crime is being ridiculously whiny. He never shuts up, and he especially does not shut up about how if Naomi were “normal”, she would never love him. It is so, so, so, SO irritating. How Naomi puts up with him, I have no idea, except I guess she wouldn’t need to because her personality leaves the building in every scene they are in together. About two-thirds of the way through the book, he goes off to a mental facilty, thankfully, and stops affecting anything at all. I have no idea why he is in the book at all, unless it’s just Zevin’s pathetic attempt to make the novel socially relavent (“hey girls, don’t date bad boys” would I suppose be the message here). And though he is totally unnecessary to the novel, I suppose it’s possible that he’s the reason it got nominated. And so for that I thank.
8. Quirky prose about interesting things happening, which is one of my favorite things about young adult novels, is all over the place. I like books that go off on random tangents every so often, like this: “During the second half of the show, the kicking had lost its novelty for me and the women’s identical painted-on smiles were giving me a headache. It occurred to me that if any of the Rockettes got sick or even murdered, no one would notice. They’d just bring out an identical replacement, smack on some lipstick, and the show would go on without any noticeable decrease in quality. Somewhere, some poor Rockette would be dead and buried, and the only people who would notice or care at all would be her family. The thought made me depressed as anything.” I guess you could say I find Naomi’s narrative voice charming.
9. Thoughtful, too, actually. “That night, I took out my sophomore yearbook for the first time since I’d been back to school. I had originally been intending to look through it for inspiration for my photography project proposal, which was due the next day. Instead, I found myself turning to my class picture. There she was with her light gray hair and her dark gray lips upturned into an impenetrable grin. I wished she could talk and tell me everything she had ever felt or thought or seen. ‘What were you like?’ I asked her. ‘Were you happy? Or were you smiling because they told you to?’” See what I mean? Charming.
10. More characters now, I’m afraid. I am fascinated by Naomi’s family, and actually found them to be one of the most interesting things about the book. Naomi’s parents are divorced because her mother had an affair with another man- at one point Naomi actually called her mother a slut- and now both have new significant others. The memorable thing about this to me (remember, nowhere did I say that my memorable things had to mean something) is the fact that the two of them used to cowrite a series of travel books about their adventures as “the Wandering Porters”. How strange that must be, to tie your name to someone else’s like that, so that you will forever be remembered as being together even though you’re not anymore. You never think of couples in books breaking up after the last page. It’s a little sad.
Several things are inexplicably popular, at least allegedly, despite the fact that hardly anybody actually likes them. Evidence of this is seen with F...moreSeveral things are inexplicably popular, at least allegedly, despite the fact that hardly anybody actually likes them. Evidence of this is seen with Fruit-Roll-Ups- nobody eats those anymore- and the Republican Party. Another good example is Social Issue Novels, which if awards like the Gateway are to be believed are the absolute most popular class of novel for teenagers. This is not true. Nobody reads social issue novels. Teenagers hate being told what to do with their lives; did you really think they would read entire books you wrote to tell them what to do with their lives? Nevertheless, they continue to hand out awards to these books like it’s going out of style. (It was never in style.) Why? Well, because adults love it when other adults tell teenagers what to do. It provides the whole group with a sense of unity.
I bring this up because, much like “November Blues”, the next Gateway Award book I will be discussing, “Right Behind You”, is a social issue novel. It’s based around the idea of child criminals, which is something the author read about on the internet once and thought sounded like a good idea for a book. Basically, child criminals are like in comic books when they tell you the supervillian was evil when he was a little kid because he ate his parents’ eyeballs while they were sleeping or something, except it’s real life. It’s creepy and horrifying and quite frankly the kind of thing that should only ever have to happen in campy horror films, and I never really needed to know it was real life. The author of “Right Behind You” insists on playing out this plot in the most hideously realistic way possible, to the point that it’s irritating. The protagonist, whose name escapes me because I don’t care, killed a dude once when he was six or whatever, by setting him on fire, and now he’s getting out of juvenile hall and has to pretend to be a normal kid again. “Normal kid” of course involves a lot of drinking and Betty/Veronica love interests.
With a premise like that, it seems unthinkable that this novel could be anything but interesting, and yet it frequently wanders into “complete boredom” territory. How is this accomplished? The author has chosen to go with the “too much information” method, in which he tells us way too much about fascinating details such as Murderer Kid’s biology class. Nobody cares! This is a mistake I have seen many teen lit authors make- they forget that they are, in fact, writing for an audience of teenagers, who are going to take these things as a matter of course, and describe non-plot-relevant-but-important-components-of-modern-teenager-life-I-think things such as bitchy cheerleaders and wild teen parties as if they were strange rituals from an alien planet. Which of course to your basic author they are. They never went to any parties or talked to any cheerleaders. None of us have. Another trap of bad writing the author tends to fall into is skipping over huge passages of time with merely a paragraph stating, more or less, “Then some time passed. Here’s basically what happened to everyone”. Needlessly to say, this comes across as a bit sloppy.
However, what I think is the book’s biggest failure is that it's floundering around trying to address problems that are really much too big for it. The major theme is that of whether the protagonist can ever forgive himself for killing another child when he was young, and whether other people would ever forgive him, whether indeed he should be forgiven. While this is of course a fascinating moral quandary and all that sort of thing, it’s a bit odd in that the author never seems to come to a definite conclusion about any of those questions, and while a lot of things happen in the book, sort of, Protagonist comes out of it all without any character development in any particular direction, and… I’m not sure why. Or how I feel about it, because while it’s always nice to see the old Aesop subverted, I was left wondering why the hell I’d even bothered to read the book anyway. It’s a book with no message that reaches no conclusions about the human spirit or unique teenage issues, and all in all I can’t help feel that “Right Behind You” didn’t do what it was built to do.
You know what I really enjoy? Historical fiction. I feel that it is often entertaining and features interesting characters, and at the same time we ca...moreYou know what I really enjoy? Historical fiction. I feel that it is often entertaining and features interesting characters, and at the same time we can learn many valuable lessons from it. Historial fiction is a real barrel of laughs, especially when the author thinks it's okay to substitute dates and facts for meaningful character development. That's just awesome.
Okay. The preceding paragraph was a lie. I do not like historical fiction. With a few examples, it is my least favorite genre of fiction. There are few reasons for this. One reason is that, unless the novel takes place during the Revolutionary War or the Holocaust, I generally have to do some research before I can even start reading it, because those are the only two periods of history we learned about in school. Also, however, historical fiction novels often think they can substitute historical events for character traits. Many historical fiction protagonists are what I like to refer to as "blank slate" characters, because they have no personality of their own. They exist only so the author can project their own opinions about the events of the story onto them, and, in the case of historical fiction, this extends to historical events.
Our next Gateway book is Tallgrass, which is about the concentration camp set up by the government for Japanese-Americans in the titular town, and Rennie Stround is a blank slate protagonist. To be fair, her case is not as advanced as many I have witnessed. She is not always a perfect angel, and she doesn't posess the magical knowledge of future standards of political correctness that so many characters in this sort of novel seem to have, but she is one of the few people in the book who is actually nice to the Japanese. Perhaps more importantly, she really has zero impact on the plot at all, other than standing around observing it and Coming Of Age In 1940's America. Teenage protagonists are always doing that sort of thing, and frankly it is starting to irritate me. This story would have worked just as well if she wasn't telling it (which she does in the kind of authentic eleven-year-old narration which really only hampers the author's prose) so why not just cut out the middleman and have her mother, who's more interesting than she is anyway, narrate the story? Because then it wouldn't be a novel for teenagers, that's why.
Aside from the obvious narrator problem, this is actually a fairly good book. Obviously, it's a social issue novel. This one is the Racism A Long Time Ago book- there's probably a Racism In The Modern Day book too, but I haven't read it. Thing is, I haven't read any books about the struggles of this particular group during this particular time in history, so I managed not feel as if the theme had been beaten into the ground as I go with many books recently. I think I actually learned something. Not a meaningful life lesson, mind. Just some factual information stuff.
It's also very well written, once you get past the whole "trying-to-sound-like-an-eleven-year-old" thing, which is kind of holding the author back. There are some parts about violent crime in Tallgrass, and these are far and away the best parts. I am not just saying that because I like violent crime, either, although I am a fan- I think it is the author's real forte, and what she should be doing. All she needs to do is get rid of Rennie and replace her with a cool detective or something, and she'll be all set.
So I guess the big problem with this one is that it's just far too much of a young adult novel. Adults need to get past this idea that teenagers enjoy meaningful coming-of-age stories. The only people who enjoy those are adults who are trying to convince themselves that being a teen involves a meaningful coming of age, whereas we teenagers know that it consists mainly of violent crime. (less)