Friday, November 30, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: In Between Days by Andrew Porter

Andrew Porter is a local (to me) San Antonio author who currently teaches at Trinity University. So it makes sense for me to be excited to read his most recent publication, In Between Days. Local bookstores were buzzing about it, and that gave me plenty of reasons to pick it up.

The Situation: The Harding family is sort of just...existing. Elson has recently divorced from his wife, Cadence, and is currently living on his own and continuing his work at a Houston architecture firm. He does have a girlfriend, Lorna, whom he loves (or at least thinks he does) because she is basically very different from his ex-wife and everything he has been used to. Cadence has also sort of moved on and is in a relationship with one of her professors. Their son, Richard, resides in the post-graduate space all college graduates have come to know and love (or hate) as he writes poetry that he never does anything with while working at a local coffee shop when he isn't getting high at a friend's house. And finally, there is Chloe, who is attending school on the east coast. Well, at least she was, until she was sent home on a suspension and events start to take a turn that effects everyone at home. If the Hardings thought just existing was hard enough, then they really weren't prepared for this.

The Problem: Chloe's boyfriend, Raja, is involved in an "incident" at their school, and Chloe has been implicated enough where the school finds it necessary to send her home while the investigation gets underway. But that isn't the end of it. After a few brief days, Chloe's family loses contact with her altogether. Even Richard, whom she has always been incredibly close to, can only guess where she is, what she is up to, and who is with her. Soon, government officials are showing up at Cadence's house, wanting to bring people in for questioning, asking if anyone knows where Chloe is or if they know anything that can help them find her. Chloe is in real trouble, and her plan of hiding out is only making things worse for her and her family. And if dealing with her wasn't stressful enough, Elson and Cadence attempt to navigate their post-divorce relationship, while Richard still isn't sure what exactly it is he wants to do with his life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel telling the story of the modern day broken family during a particularly difficult time in their lives. Porter's story shows how certain behaviors and events can repeat themselves across different generations (that whole "sins of the father" thing), while also pointing out that ultimately we all make our own decisions as to who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives. Also, like quite a few books I have come across recently, this book highlights just how far some of us will go to get what we want, to get out of trouble, and how willing we can be to sometimes drag down those closest to us to get it, including people in our own family. Throughout the novel, family and friends get exploited and taken advantage of, often ruining the relationship forever and placing people down a path they will never recover from. But again, it was their decision, and they made it. And while the narrator is ultimately third person omniscient, Porter shifts the viewpoint between all four Harding family members in a way that is somehow not the least bit confusing. Having multiple viewpoints is always nice in that it gives the reader more information than what they would have access to if they were sticking with just one character.

My Verdict: I wanted to like this book more than I did, but the ending just kind of ruined it for me. I didn't quite believe that things could actually turn out the way they did and that life would be just fine. Don't get me wrong, Porter doesn't just tie everything up in a neat little bow. This is a messy situation that never gets completely cleaned up. But even so, something about how everything turns out just didn't ring true for me. Also, these characters, particularly the Harding family, are some of the most selfish characters I have ever read about...and I have what Homer Simpson would diagnose as a "reading problem" (bonus points if you can point to which Simpsons episode he says that in). I have read about a lot of selfish people, and for me, the Hardings would be right up there with Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. Alright, maybe they aren't quite that bad, but there are moments where they are pretty close. However, I do like both Wuthering Heights and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the selfishness, coupled with the ending, of Porter's novel just left an overall bad taste in my mouth. Even so, I am excited to check out whatever book Porter publishes next.

Favorite Moment: When Richard realizes that his current situation, even without the craziness surrounding his sister, is not the way he ultimately wants to live his life. 

Favorite Character: I would have to say Richard, but even he barely makes it in. The novel is full of people that are so broken and selfish that it is hard to truly like anyone like I would in a Dickens novel. I can feel empathy for them, but then they'll make a decision that will completely turn me off.

Recommended Reading: I am actually having a hard time making connections between this novel and others I have read, but I do keep coming back to Paper Towns by John Green. In Between Days is not a young adult novel like Paper Towns, but Chloe reminds me quite a bit of Margo sometimes because of her disappearance and how devoted the people around her seem to be to her happiness.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Classic Fiction: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This is my first attempt at a D.H. Lawrence book and, like a lot of people, I picked it up because of the controversy that has always surrounded the story, and not necessarily because of my limited knowledge of the actual plot and characters. Lady Chatterley's Lover is one of those books that will probably always live in some sort of infamy, and that alone will be enough for people to pick it up.

The Situation: Lady Constance Chatterley lives with her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, in Wragby Hall, their estate in Nottinghamshire, England. Sir Clifford has been left paralyzed from the waist down from his military service, and therefore will not be able to provide an heir to Wragby. He has officially but kind of unofficially given Connie permission to have a child by someone else in order to produce an heir, and he would simply raise the child as his own. Taking on a lover wouldn't exactly be a stretch for Connie since she has done it before and was more sexually experienced than Clifford even before they got married. Connie has already carried on one affair with a painter, and has now started seeing the estate's gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.

The Problem: It would be one thing if Connie could have a brief affair with Oliver, get pregnant, and then go back to Clifford and live happily ever after. But of course, things don't quite go that way. It starts with the fact that Connie doesn't actually much care for Clifford. And she is increasingly enamored with Oliver. Oh yeah, and he is technically still married to someone else as well. So while Connie has found someone who can cure her sexual frustration, she is still legally bound to someone who never will, and she is growing increasingly anxious and annoyed and feels more and more trapped in her situation. And soon, all attempts to "fix" things only make matters worse.

Genre, Theme, History: This has been classified as a romance, but it is also an argument that Lawrence is presenting about the mind and body. Essentially, you need both to be engaged in a relationship for it to work. Connie is dissatisfied with her husband because he is all mind, and literally cannot perform sexually. Oliver left his wife because of her overbearingly sexual nature. In each other, they are able to find both, and their relationship slowly builds over time into something real. There is also the underlying theme of class conflict. There are several characters, Clifford included, of which it is stated that they cannot stand any sort of rising up of someone beneath them. Clifford likes clear class lines of where people are and he would like for them to stay that way. There is the obvious social contrast between Connie the aristocrat and her lover, Oliver the working man, but there is also the conflict between Clifford and the men who work in the coal mines he owns.

This is also one of those books that will always show up on banned books list, and has one of those interesting publication histories that involves false copies, copies that were smuggled into countries where it was banned, copies that were published but heavily edited to omit certain words (when it was first published, it was against the law to publish many of the words Lawrence used), and there was even an obscenity trial in 1960 when Penguin books finally published the full unexpurgated version. And now would be the usual time when I would say something about the book being pretty filthy by 1920s standards but that no longer applies today...except that is does still kind of apply today. Even for 2012 standards, the book is still pretty filthy.

My Verdict: I think this is one of those instances where if there wasn't so much controversy surrounding this book, it wouldn't be that popular, because honestly, it isn't that good. The dialogue isn't all that coherent, the relationships aren't believable, and overall the writing just wasn't that great for me. And the ending leaves much to be desired. If it wasn't for the filthy words and dirty scenes, I don't think anyone would care. And this is one of those stories that has been told to death and told better. And that fact that this is an argument doesn't really help anything.

Favorite Moment: When Clifford has to be helped up a hill by Oliver due to his disability, despite him obviously wanting to make it up on his own. Eventually even Connie helps as they have to push Clifford (who isn't  exactly light) as well as the motorized chair he uses to get around outside.

Favorite Character: She may be tiresome, but I do like Clifford's nurse, Mrs. Bolton. She's perceptive enough to see what is really going on, but is loyal to Clifford and does take really good care of him.

Recommended Reading: I've decided to recommend Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It isn't the exact same type of story, but it is pretty close, and I think Tolstoy does an infinitely better job. However, be warned, Anna Karenina is a door stop. So when you have a few months free, I'd say it is worth taking a look at.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards Final Round

After more than 800,000 votes, the Goodreads Choice Awards Final Round of voting has started. Book lovers are able to make their voices heard now through November 27th, when the voting will close for the last time. Winners will then be announced on December 4th, and we can all start reading and making predictions for next year.

I am so pleased to report that This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz has made it into the top ten in the Best Fiction category. It will still be competing against J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, not to mention the other eight finalists who have managed to make it through. Diaz still has my vote though, so I have my fingers crossed.

I also have my fingers crossed for Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone, which is still holding steady in the Best Historical Fiction category. Other favorites that are still in the running include Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth for Best Science Fiction (although it will have to put up a serious fight over Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker); Susan Cain's Quiet for Best Nonfiction; Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu for Best Humor; and John Green's The Fault In Our Stars for Best Young Adult Fiction. 

Naturally, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl has made it through to the final round in both the Best Mystery & Thriller Category as well as the Best Goodreads Author category. I can definitely see it winning in at least one of these, if not both. Another book that I read recently but didn't much care for has also made it to the finals. Cheryl Strayed's Wild has been nominated for Best Memoir & Autobiography, and I am having a hard time understanding why. The following behind Gone Girl makes sense to me, but not so much for Wild. Oh well, but that is what makes awards like these that are decided by the public so much fun: you get more than just one person's or a small panel's decision.

I think what has surprised me the most so far is that all of the books I have mentioned and have been keeping track of since the beginning are still in this thing. And really, anything can happen.

Cast your vote here, and again, winners will be announced December 4th, just in time for the holiday shopping season and trying to find that perfect read for the perfect someone.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers

Yep, I did it again. I went for the apocalyptic novel yet again, despite my disappointment with this type of novel in my earlier attempts to branch out. I just couldn't resist a novel that took on the zombie apocalypse, but from the perspective of a teenager instead of an adult. This Is Not A Test follows a group of teenagers as they try to survive the early days of the world's end. It is another take on a popular idea, and I just crossed my fingers and dove right in.

The Situation: The end of the world would actually not be that big a deal to 16 year-old Sloane Price. Six months ago, when her sister and best friend, Lily, ran away from home, that was the end of Sloane's world. Since then, she's just been thinking of ways to make it official. Before Lily left, they dealt with their abusive father together and were able to take care of each other and watch out for each other. Now, Sloane is by herself with the awful man, and sees no reason to keep trying to survive. I know what you're is this not the problem?

The Problem: The end of the world, the real one, is actually here. As awful as Sloane's abusive father is, what is happening on the outside is actually much worse. Before Sloane is able to end it for herself, the world has started to crash down around everyone else. The infected flood the streets, attacking anyone with a pulse. Barricading doors and windows only works for so long before those barriers give way and the infected come in, hungry for the living hiding out inside. And these aren't the slow living dead of old. These zombies are fast and incredibly hungry. Sloane finds herself barricaded inside the local high school with five other teenagers. It is by far the safest place in the city, but even it isn't invincible. And with six scared teenagers as its inhabitants, the situation quickly becomes tense. Think William Golding's Lord of the Flies gone horribly wrong. Yeah, I know...the whole point of Lord of the Flies was that it did go wrong...that is just how much worse this situation becomes. It all causes Sloane to wonder what if suicide is still the best way out. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult incredibly horrifying and terrifying young adult novel. Here's the thing though: the zombies aren't the only threat. The main threat throughout the majority of the novel are the six teenagers inside the school. Blame for prior events is thrown around menacingly, some are used as bait, others are threatened, no one is trusted, and yet they have no choice but to trust each other on some level because they are all trying to survive, together. But if it is impossible for the group to survive, how far will the individuals go to ensure their own safety? Oh yeah, and then there is still the issue of the zombies. It seems that every zombie book or movie or television show treats zombies a little bit differently. They are all basically infected human beings who have been bitten by another infected and either turn while they are alive, or they die and then turn, and then proceed to hunt down other living humans. Like I mentioned before, Summer's zombies are fast, but they are also clumsy. They aren't smart, but they are strong, and they don't work together. They have one goal, and that is to feed. 

My Verdict: I really like this book. I know, I was surprised too. I don't know if it is the fact that it is written from the perspective of a teenager, or that it is a young adult novel, or that the zombies really aren't the main factor, or that there aren't many adults present. Maybe Summers is just that good a writer. Whatever it is, I actually enjoyed this book. Young adults and adults alike would enjoy this novel and could probably relate to the struggle to survive against pretty impossible odds. Will I continue to read other novels about the apocalypse? Probably not. But that is through no fault of this book.

Favorite Moment: This book has one of those moments that I love when a character says something that profoundly foreshadows something that is to come. And even though the reader doesn't quite know it for sure, something about the way it is written or the way the character says it let's us know that something important has been spoken into the future. If done well, you know it when it happens, even if the character saying it is just a kid. And when the foreshadowed moment finally comes, it is almost as if the reader and author have shared some inside joke. It's incredibly satisfying.

Also, over and over, Sloane makes a point to say she wasn't raised to believe in God, but she prays anyway. Many books today like to have at least one character make the case that there either is no God or that they don't care if there is. Situations don't get much more hopeless than Sloane's, but she still prays. And the point may be that when close to the end, a lot of people do.

Favorite Character: Rhys Moreno may not be the leader of the group of six, but he probably should have been. He's smart, he's tough, and he isn't totally out for himself. He's not perfect, but he knows that, and he knows he doesn't need to be. He just needs to keep going. 

Recommended Reading: I am tempted to recommend either Golding's Lord of the Flies, or Colson Whitehead's Zone One. The problem is, I don't actually like either one of those books that much. However, for those readers out there who typically do enjoy novels about the zombie apocalypse, Zone One is probably a good choice. Be warned though, it doesn't have half as much action, and the writing is a little too clean. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodreads Choice Awards Semifinal Round

The semifinal round of the annual Goodreads Choice Awards has started and will be open to voting through November 17th. In this round, the write-in votes from round one have been taken into account, and now each category has five more books to choose from when voting. Once again, winners will be chosen and announced on Tuesday, December 4th.

I will be sticking with my vote for Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her in the Best Fiction category. However, due to the write-in option, the popular The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling has been introduced and will no doubt prove to be a strong opponent.

I am also sticking with Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone for Best Historical Fiction, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars for Best Young Adult Fiction, and Susan Cain's Quiet for Best Nonfiction.

Much to my annoyance, there hasn't been much in the way of additions to compete with Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in both the Best Mystery & Thriller and Best Goodreads Author categories. I was hoping the write-ins would provide some strong opponents, and maybe they have, but none of the new books interest me personally. I get why people like Flynn's book, I do, I personally just can't seem to get behind it. Oh well, we'll see what happens.

Other nominees from past blog posts that are holding firm include Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth for Best Science Fiction as well as Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu for Best Humor.

I am super curious to see how this round shakes out and what the choices will be for the finals. When the final round opens on November 19th, each category will display the top ten books and it will be the readers' last chance to vote for their favorite.

You can vote in the semifinal round here If anything, even if my favorite doesn't win, I got a lot of good future reading ideas out of this, and that is always a good thing.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is the latest mystery/thriller from author Gillian Flynn. This is one of those books that showed up on my Pinterest page thanks to, and after reading the premise, I had to know more. Usually mysteries and thrillers are not for me, but something about a missing persons case that points towards the husband who maintains his innocence just intrigues me...I blame the surge in crime shows from recent years.

The Situation: Nick and Amy Dunne are getting ready to celebrate five years of marriage. There have been some serious ups and almost terrifying, but they have made it to five years. And on the morning of the day, things seems to be looking up. They have survived both of them losing their jobs; the move from trendy and cultured Manhattan to Nick's Midwest hometown of Carthage, Missouri;, taking care of Nick's caustic but still kicking father; and the death of Nick's sweet mother, her illness being the reason they moved in the first place. But even through all of that, they are still here and still together. Amy has put together her annual scavenger hunt, leaving clues and treasures hidden around the surrounding Carthage area for Nick to find and that will ultimately lead to his anniversary surprise.

The Problem: After Nick returns home from helping his sister, Margo, with the bar they both own, he realizes immediately that something is very very off. The front door is wide open, and Amy is no where to be found. There are signs of a struggle, and as the police begin to investigate, everything points to Nick. And while he vehemently maintains his innocence, he also can't stop lying. He lies about where he really was for a good chunk that morning; about the disposable cell phone he has in his pocket, in addition to his real one; and about a few things that always make him look bad when the truth is eventually found out. He also can't seem to help but look uninterested, bored almost, with the whole thing. Like he honestly couldn't care less if they find her. And eventually, the town, the media, even Amy's parents, start to believe this is true. And then there is the issue of Amy's diary, which will reveal more than anyone, including the reader, is prepared for.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a mystery/thriller with way more thriller than mystery, especially since all of the answers are given to the reader before half of the book is over, but everything still isn't quite solved yet. Also, the tricks and twists and turns continue up to the very last page. Many parts of this book made me feel like I was reading a Philip Roth novel. It was partly all of the twists and turns, but also partly the amount of just pure hatred coming out of every other character. Oftentimes it is all just so uncomfortable. Flynn explores the often used plot of the murder/missing person investigation that starts to point towards the husband until he is the only suspect, and soon, he becomes the most hated person in the country. Then Flynn brings up the question of what human beings are willing to do in order to not be the bad guy, or even look like the bad guy, even if they are. How far will people go to feel loved? How far will people go to present themselves a certain way? How far will people go to win? And does it matter if others are destroyed in the process?

My Verdict: If you like thrillers, read this book. If you like characters that self-righteously adopt the victim mentality, read this book. If you like endings that provide little to no hope, read this book. If you like experiencing a slow decline in your faith in humanity, then read this book. Otherwise, don't let yourself be bothered. I was prepared to like this book, but instead ended up giving it one star on Goodreads. The first part is absolutely enthralling. But by the beginning of the second part, the book takes a turn that it never recovers from. In fact, things just continue to get worse. I felt the shift immediately and was consequently disappointed. Remember that feeling I mentioned before of having read a Philip Roth novel? Yeah, that wasn't a good feeling for me (anyone who has read one of his novels and despised it will know what I am talking about). The people in this novel are the kind of people few of us want to hang out with, and the thing is, I don't want to read about them either. And the constant victim mentality that permeates this story gets old incredibly fast...especially when the supposed "victim" has done more harm that anyone.

Favorite Moment: The ending. Not just because it meant the book was over (although that is part of it), but because it seems like things are going to end one way, but all it takes is a few harsh, but honest, words from someone that get into the head of someone else. And those words will continue to haunt that character, possibly forever, leaving them with absolutely no peace, which is something they have spent their whole lives robbing other people of. It is a different kind of justice.

Favorite Character: Nick's mother seems to be a genuinely wonderful woman, she just married the wrong man, but tried to do right by her children. In a way, her death is the loss of the last real voice of any kind of sanity and reason. Without her as an anchor, the whole thing unravels.

Recommended Reading: This will seem incredibly strange, but I will recommend Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. In Gone Girl, the Mississippi River plays a significant role as Carthage is right along the edge of it and it shows up a lot throughout the novel, as does the mention of both Mark Twain and his classic novel. However, I would also like to recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I would never have thought about it had Flynn not put in a mention of this book early on in the novel, but it fits wonderfully. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Nonfiction: Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe

Katherine Sharpe's Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are is part personal memoir and part research on the history of antidepressant use in America, and its effects on those who took them. The title is what mostly made me interested in this book (yep, I judged it by its cover), but also, as someone who has never taken an antidepressant of been diagnosed with any sort of depression, this is one of those subjects I know very little about and was interested in finding out more.

The Situation: In the summer of 1997, Sharpe was enjoying her last few months at home in Arlington, Virginia, before moving to Portland, Oregon to attend school at a small liberal arts college. As the move date approaches, she finds herself increasingly anxious about the major transition she is about to make. However, she does make it, and lives to tell about it. But on her first visit home during winter break, Sharpe's anxious feelings return and are amplified. Back at college, she visits the health center for counseling, and is diagnosed with depression and prescribed Zoloft. It is the beginning of a ten-year journey that will include her taking an antidepressant of some sort so her depression doesn't overwhelm her. 

The Problem: While the Zoloft does help, Sharpe starts to wonder what many wonder when they, or their children, are prescribed an antidepressant. Is this pill changing my personality? Am I myself anymore? Or does the pill make me myself? Am I really depressed? Is there something wrong with me? Even in 2012, there is still a serious stigma associated with taking an antidepressant, and yet, the number of people who take them is higher than most people realize. However, Sharpe points out that there is a pretty telling correlation between how often antidepressants are prescribed, and how much money doctors get from the pharmaceutical companies that make them. Also, the use of antidepressants is much higher in the U.S. than it is in any other country. Generally speaking, it would seem like Americans are over-medicated. There is a significant number of people who genuinely benefit from antidepressants, but there is also a significant number who seem to be taking them just to deal with everyday problems that everyone has. Oh, and 30% of the population is unresponsive to antidepressants or don't benefit from them at all. So what is there for someone who is legitimately depressed, but medication doesn't work for them?

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned in the introduction, this is a memoir, but Sharpe has definitely done her research, and interviewed many other people who have been prescribed an antidepressant at some point in their lives, whether they believe it worked or not, and whether or not they even still take it. Sharpe also goes over the history of antidepressants, and of depression itself. She addresses the issue of depression and antidepressants being stigmatized, and how so many people diagnosed feel that there is something wrong with them, or that they have something to be embarrassed about. The book is a very thorough discussion of the topic.

My Verdict: I learned a lot from this book. And I definitely enjoyed learning about the antidepressants of my generation more than I would have from a strictly scientific book or paper because of Sharpe's personal anecdotes and interviews with other people. Having a personal story, instead of just facts and figures from a PhD, really makes this book that much more fascinating. My only critique would be that certain parts aren't all that well-written, but the actual information and content is worth it.

Favorite Moment: When Sharpe points out that while some people who are prescribed an antidepressant, including herself, start questioning how the drug has altered their true self or whether what they are now feeling and sensing is real or just some side effect, there are people who are diagnosed that don't have that luxury. Some people genuinely feel better but start to question how their identity is affected, while others, for whom the drug hasn't worked, still just want to feel better. They don't have the opportunity to worry over their "true self."

Recommended Reading: I will recommend Quiet by Susan Cain. While Cain's book is not about depression or prescription medication, it does deal on the subject of introverts and their power to be incredibly influential. A few times in Coming of Age, Sharpe makes the connection between those who are depressed and those who are simply a little more introverted than most, and therefore have a harder time in new situations, or in crowds, etc. Cain's book sheds a lot of light on the mind of the introvert.