Stand Alone Book

Jul 1, 2013

Heft by Liz Moore

Book cover for HEFT by Liz Moore
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Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.

The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves

Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.

Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.

When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.

Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.

The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)

My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)

This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.

Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.

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Quotes from Heft

The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.

Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.

I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.

Jun 1, 2013

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Book cover for FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel
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In her graphic novel and memoir, Alison Bechdel—of Bechdel test fame—relates the story of growing up in the confusing intensity of her dysfunctional childhood home—and in the family’s funeral (“fun”) business—in 1970s Pennsylvania. When her father, Bruce Bechdel, dies unexpectedly while she is away at college, Alison must face a series of unanswerable, existential questions. Why did her father make the life choices he did? How and why was her relationship with him always so strained? Fun Home is Bechdel’s journey toward accepting both her father and herself.

A Cathartic Journey Toward Acceptance

Fun Home is immediately relatable as Bechdel capitalizes on the things so many of us have experienced: the family member who obsesses, the secrets we sense swirling around us in childhood but never quite understand, the awkwardness of puberty, and the mundane moments that take place in our own back yards.

Weeding comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Bechdel alternates between stories from her childhood and early adulthood. Her childhood is all about confusion—the confusion caused by her parents’ distant, dysfunctional, and mysterious relationship, yes, but also just the simple confusion that comes from having a child’s understanding of the world.

Oven comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I could read and look at comics about Bechdel’s childhood all day. One after another, they are a delight.

Unfortunately, Bechdel’s reflections on her college years are not so neatly portrayed. It’s as though she were unable to distance herself from them in the same way—understandable, perhaps, but also less enjoyable. Whereas her reflections on her childhood are poignant and witty, her reflections on young adulthood are all about searching for an answer. Suddenly, what’s “nonlinear” seems more disjointed, as though Fun Home is less of a planned memoir than it is a cathartic personal project.

Lesbian comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

At nineteen, Alison Bechdel comes out as a lesbian to her parents. It’s a recent revelation, even for her, but one she knows has always been true. Her father, Bruce, is surprisingly accepting, while her mother is concerned and disappointed. Then a secret, the secret, is revealed: Alison’s father is gay, too. Bruce has tried “fixing” himself many times over the years but has always “failed.” All at once, so many things make sense—and so many others do not.

As if coming out and learning of her father’s deeply closeted status wouldn’t be enough to shake Alison, Bruce is killed in an accident a few months later. Chillingly, Alison and her mother wonder if it was an accident at all.

Suicide comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Alison’s story is interesting, but she does such a good job describing her father that I would have much preferred a book about him if I couldn’t have a book that was just about her childhood. You see, Bruce Bechdel is heartbreaking—and fascinating through that heartbreak. In his life story are all the people who’ve forced themselves to live a lie in order to survive the society around them.

Memoirs eventually require authors to come to conclusions about their experiences and themselves. These conclusions can fall flat or come out hackneyed and overly dramatic. In Alison’s case, she attempts to understand her father and her relationship with him through a filter of literature, the one interest they always shared. The result is sort of a pretentious mess, which usually seems to be the case when anyone tries to make life more profound by bringing up the classics.

Ulysses comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Also, if one more writer uses The Great Gatsby to try to make sense of life, I just might to lose it.

Gatsby comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I like the humor and candidness found in Fun Home, especially when Bechdel discusses her childhood—and I’m not about to suggest she’s come to the wrong conclusions about her own life, by the way—but her memoir doesn’t quite resonate with me by its (eloquent) end. Even so, Fun Home is well worth a read.

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The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Book cover for THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick
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When Pat Peoples’ mother brings him home from the neural health facility, he sees it as a turning point in the “movie” of his life. Perpetually optimistic, he believes he will soon be reunited with his wife, Nikki. First, though, Pat knows he must continue to improve himself, to become the man Nikki always needed him to be. With the help of family, friends, and American football fans, Pat discovers life may not always go according to plan, but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Stereotyping Abounds in Silver Linings

My review should be prefaced with the following:

  1. I read The Silver Linings Playbook because I knew the film adaptation was “about mental illness” and had been nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars.
  2. At the time of this review, I still had not watched a trailer for the film.
  3. I did not read a review or even a summary for this book prior to reading.

In short, I entered Silver Linings with very little knowledge of what it was about, and my review covers the confusion I felt while reading it.

In the first several pages of Silver Linings, author Matthew Quick sets the tone for the entire book: It’s to be one of those vague memory loss stories where the main character has to discover his own past. It’s here that you’re introduced to Pat Peoples’ stilted and juvenile, first-person narration, and I’ll admit I had no idea how I should view it.

Seemingly suffering from convenient memory loss, Pat strangely calls the neural health facility he’s lived in “the bad place” and refers to the separation from his wife, Nikki, as “apart time.” He struggles to understand certain emotions and has an almost childlike understanding of the world around him. Any negative reality is avoided in favor of the more hopeful “silver linings” of life. He occasionally has hallucinations involving Kenny G—seriously—which often result in violent outbursts. He’s prescribed numerous medications for his mental health, but no clear diagnosis is revealed.

Pat is neither a good main character nor an accurate portrayal of those who struggle with mental illness, neurological disorders, or traumatic brain injuries. There are times when Pat seems mentally handicapped (whether since birth or as a result of an accident, one can only guess for most of the book), clinically depressed, schizophrenic, or psychotic. In the first few pages, I even thought Pat’s stilted, aloof descriptions of his life were meant to indicate some form of autism.

In other words, Pat is whatever the author wants him to be in the moment, science and logic be damned. This is the sort of thing that happens after one watches half a dozen Hollywood films on memory loss and says, “What the hell? I’m pretty well a licensed psychiatrist now. Time to write that book.” And so Silver Livings seems to have been irresponsibly born to add to the plethora of poorly-researched media about the brain. Even once some minor explanations are given later in the book, not all of Pat’s problems can be attributed to them.

Silver Linings might be forgiven for its inaccuracies if you don’t care or know better, but the book has other problems as well. None of the characters ever quite come alive.

  • Pat’s mother comes closest to “popping” off the pages, but she’s less defined by her own actions than by the abusive and codependent relationship she finds herself in with Pat’s father.
  • There’s clinically depressed Tiffany, who doesn’t behave like any clinically depressed person I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a few—whose world revolves around Pat and a dance recital.
  • Cliff, Pat’s therapist, is defined by his love for football and the color of his skin (he’s a brown-skinned Indian! if you missed that, it’ll be mentioned again in a few pages).
  • Danny, one of Pat’s friends from “the bad place,” is mostly narrowed down to his blackness and just how stereotypical Quick can make him, but he “uncharacteristically” likes Parcheesi, so all the stereotyping is okay or something.
  • Pat’s brother, Jake, is only defined by his wealth, occasional violent outbursts or threatening behavior, and love for football.
  • Likewise, Pat’s father is known for his abusive nature and obsession with football.

You may have noticed a trend with the characterization of the men in this novel: they’re all big football fans. (Many of them also happen to be violent, encourage violence, or accept violence. Make of that what you will.) Pat’s (Quick’s) love for the NFL‘s Philadelphia Eagles is often used as a shorthand for adding depth to side characters. Nearly all the men—never the women—are passionate about football, enough so that they randomly chant team songs everywhere. I’ll admit that I don’t “get” watching sports, but I’ve lived around some pretty die-hard football fans, and never in my life have I seen people break into song as often as Quick’s characters do for the Eagles. Not only did this not add depth to the characters, it also quickly became repetitive and…um, weird.

Finally, Silver Linings‘ ending feels rushed, and loose ends remain for nearly all the characters. However, in Pat, Quick has created a character with numerous, severe problems that he then bestows an unrealistically positive ending upon. Pat eventually remembers his past, and of course the “silver linings” in his life aren’t exactly what he was expecting them to be, but he’s given some minor closure, which is more than can be said for several of the other characters. Still, it’s hard to care about any of it when you’re not sure what problems remain for Pat. There seem to be many.

At the very least, Pat needs to take a writing class to learn about the value of contractions because, Christ, he never uses them. Yes, that’s how I’m ending this review.

Aside #1: Probably in some attempt to make his book appear intellectual, Quick spoils a lot of the classics—Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—so if you haven’t read them, but plan to and hate spoilers, don’t read Silver Linings.

Aside #2: I eventually watched the movie. It made me want to throw things.

Buy The Silver Linings Playbook from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from The Silver Linings Playbook

After I returned to New Jersey, I thought I was safe, because I did not think Kenny G could leave the bad place, which I realize is silly now—because Kenny G is extremely talented and resourceful and a powerful force to be reckoned with.

He does the Eagles chant–“E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!”–which makes me laugh because he is my therapist and I did not know therapists could like NFL football.

…and I do wonder why women are always hemorrhaging in American literature.

May 29, 2013

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover for MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut
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Mother Night is the first-person account of Harold W. Campbell, Jr., an American spy in World War II who has been so good at his job that he’s lost his own identity. Follow Campbell as he recounts the tangled web of his personal history as a writer, spy, Nazi propagandist, and more.

Spies Make for Unreliable Narrators

I’ve encountered passages from many Kurt Vonnegut books over the years, but Mother Night is the first book by Vonnegut that I’ve read in full. It’s Vonnegut’s most favorably rated book on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good place to start. However, in hindsight, and given my general dislike of World War II fiction, I probably should have stuck with Slaughterhouse Five. As much as I sometimes enjoyed Vonnegut’s ideas and famed dark humor, I was unable to grow attached to Mother Night‘s story or characters.

The story starts off by employing metafiction. Vonnegut describes himself as the editor, not the writer, of the novel’s first-person account. It’s mildly interesting, but this ultimately has little to no impact for the reader. Adding another layer to the onion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got an onion.

Once you get past the intro, you meet Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the book’s first-person narrator. Campbell is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison for war crimes, specifically his involvement with Nazi Germany’s propaganda during World War II. While in prison, Campbell writes the story of his life, which is what you read in Mother Night. It’s the story of a man who has done both normal and questionable things. Throughout, Campbell claims he is an American spy who was embedded in the heart of the Nazi movement for a confusing mix of reasons. But is Campbell always telling the truth in his autobiography?

“How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?” said Wirtanen. “Hmm?”

Can a man like Campbell even believe himself?

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Uncertainty is one of Mother Night‘s core elements. Is Campbell being truthful? Is Campbell good or evil? Can good or evil be defined at all—if so, how, to what extent, and by whom? In Campbell’s case, does truth matter if it’s not a truth everyone else believes?

As a fan of unreliable narration, I enjoyed Vonnegut’s exploration of these questions through Campbell. However, for me, there is something missing from Mother Night. These questions are intriguing, but they have no depth on their own. They must be asked and answered through characters you love (or hate), characters that make you feel something. Unfortunately, Howard W. Campbell’s narration is dry, at best, and the supporting cast, though sometimes well-described, never seem that meaningful. Considering Nazi death camps get a few mentions, I feel like I should have had a more visceral response to something in this book.

Perhaps it’s my own dislike for certain parts of Mother Night—the subject matter, the appearance of pointless metafiction—but, after a while, I found I didn’t quite care if Campbell was being honest or not. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I didn’t care if his various romances worked out because they were boring—or, worse, melodramatic—loves. I didn’t care about those who hated him because they didn’t matter. For me, Mother Night is one of those books where I realize the ideas and messages have value, but find they are ruined for me because the characters never take hold of my emotions.

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous saying from Slaughterhouse Five, which also makes an appearance in Mother Night, is “So it goes.” It’s a salty way of expressing the inevitable nature of things, usually death. C’est la vie. I think Mother Night can be boiled down to a couple of words, too: So what?

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Quotes from Mother Night

“You hate America, don’t you?”

“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me…”

Most things in this world don’t work, but aspirin do.

His mother understood my illness immediately, that it was my world rather than myself that was diseased.

May 1, 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book cover for BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
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When Samantha “Sam” Kingston dies in a car crash, she finds herself reliving the same day, her last day, over and over again. In her efforts to get time and her life back on track, she finally sees how much pain she and her friends have caused others. Will she be able to fix what she’s broken?

Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day

Sam is a bully, a mean girl. With her friends, she rules the popular roost of Connecticut’s Thomas Jefferson High School. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Sam knows what it’s like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be the butt of the joke, and she knows how precarious her position at the top is. It can depend on something as seemingly unimportant and random as a girl grabbing her hand and asking her to join in on a practical joke. Knowing this is what makes Sam all the more desperate to remain on top, no matter what it takes. If that means calling girls “sluts” or “bitches” or “psychos,” so be it. If it means sabotaging others, cheating on tests, and lying, she’s in.

The way Sam and her friends bully their fellow classmates is real and raw and had me cringing over things I remember happening in my own high school. Author Lauren Oliver is fairly quick to get to the root of bullying, that it always goes back to some personal fear or pain. Teens spread rumors so no one will notice their own flaws and secrets. That’s an important lesson for young readers who may be used to seeing the black and white view of bullies versus “nice kids.” It’s more complex than that, and Oliver embraces the complexity.

There’s a lot of Mean Girls to be found in this book—enough that I sometimes wondered just how much Before I Fall was inspired by that film—but it ultimately goes to much deeper, darker places, to the twisted and truly cruel games some are willing to play.

Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single [rose for Valentine’s Day]. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.

When Sam finds herself caught in her own version of purgatory / Groundhog Day after a fatal car accident, she at first doesn’t take the hint. She continues to plow her way through people, doing and saying as she pleases, regardless of the harm she might cause. Sam eventually sees the error of her ways, though, and tries to fix all she’s broken or helped break. Deep down, she knows this is the only way she and those she’s hurt will find peace.

I like the book up to this point, but the conclusion muddles Oliver’s messages. What Sam decides she needs to do to make things right makes no sense and would actually have lasting, negative consequences. She decides to sacrifice herself for another person. Because doing that won’t cause any lasting damage, right? Worse, the resolution, if it can be called that, leaves many other problems hanging. There’s no resolving all the slut- and virgin-shaming. Issues concerning drunk driving, eating disorders, date rape, predatory math teachers, and more hang as loose ends. And Sam never even begins to get her friends, who have always joined in on the bullying, to change their ways.

Sam maybe couldn’t fix all the problems mentioned in the book, but some of the issues Oliver raises here are huge, and it doesn’t feel right that so many are never properly addressed. If we aren’t going to censor YA novels—and I absolutely do not think we should—then authors of these books have some duty to address the more complex subjects they let surface in their writing.

In a similar vein, there’s a boy, Kent McFuller, in all this, because it’s apparently impossible to write books for girls without some romance. Kent’s my other complaint. (The characterization of boys in Before I Fall is extremely lacking.) Kent’s thankfully not “the bad boy” Sam shouldn’t want but “can’t help” but want; in fact, he’s the really kindhearted boy. The problem, instead, is that he shouldn’t like Sam at all. It takes an absurd amount of cruelty—of abuse—for Kent to even remotely consider disliking Sam. If we’re going to complain about the young adult books where nice girls go for bad boys and put up with their abuse, I feel obligated to complain about the young adult books where nice boys go for bad girls and their abuse.

Before I Fall is a pretty good book, even if Oliver creates a big story with lots of problems that aren’t ultimately set straight. The characters and dialogue go a long way to salvaging everything, and there are still a few valuable lessons to be found here.

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Quotes from Before I Fall

Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.

She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.)

This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.

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