Friday, January 25, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: Send by Patty Blount

I honestly can't remember how I came across Patty Blount's Send. I'm sure I could blame it on Goodreads or Bookpeople or one of my other usual suspects. I'm always looking for new young adult fiction, and Send did not disappoint.

The Situation: Dan's real name is not Daniel. But he and his parents agreed that they would not even say his real name inside of their own home. After moving to Long Island to complete his senior year of high school, Dan's primary objective is to be invisible - keep his head down, do his school work, don't get to close to anyone, and most important of all, just stay out of trouble. Dan did something when he was 13 that caused a fellow student to end his life. After his stint in juvie, Dan continued to pay the price by a vengeful father turned stalker who continues to follow his family and cause them to move from city to city, and also by an unrelenting and unmitigated sense of guilt that Dan can't seem to help but indulge. But the changed names seem to be working. This new city and new school doesn't seem to notice Dan and his family, and he may be able to finally make it through high school.

The Problem: On the first day of school, before school has even started, Dan has made an enemy and gained a reputation. People have already taken notice of him and started talking. Because of Dan's past and experiences in the juvenile center, Dan just can't bear to see someone be a target for bullying and not help out. And the kid he helps out is a constant target, so Dan is on constant watch. By the end of the first semester he has a couple of good friends, an enemy, the kid he protects, and a sort of girlfriend who keeps giving him mixed signals. Soon, it seems that he has been protecting the wrong person the whole time, and there are crucial parts to a much bigger story that he has been missing, all while making himself more and more visible. Oh yeah, and he talks to the way that could get him committed.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that deals with the extremely real issue of bullying and what it can lead to. In the past, Dan was the bully, and now, he plays the role of protector and knows the signs and what to look for. Blount attacks the issue head on and does not shy away at all from the truly harsh aspects of this problem in today's schools. Blount explores how the bullying affects not only the victim and the bully, but also the families of both parties, and how the wounds can and do take years to heal, for everyone. The terrible tragedy that happened at Columbine is mentioned briefly, but Blount mostly focuses on the use of social media sites as a tool for bullies, as well as email, and the good ole standby, physical violence. Blount also explores the reasoning and actions of those who stand by and do nothing. Something that is brought up in the book that I was glad she touched on was how the parents of both the aggressor and the victim are almost completely clueless about what is going on in their child's life. They are genuinely shocked to learn that their child was in any sort of trouble, and this is a significant problem since too much of the time that realization comes when it is already too late. The author unpacks the full complexity of the issue fully and doesn't hold much back.

My Verdict: I am tempted to say that every young adult out there should read this book, but I always cringe when people say that about any group of people concerning whatever book, TV show, movie, etc...and especially when the group they mention is one in which I happen to belong. Also, it makes it feel like more of an assignment and I don't want this novel to have that stigma. It is a fantastic book that is about more than just the effects of bullying and its consequences. It goes deeper than that. And I think having the narrative voice come from a reformed bully who has been from hell and back (and still willingly resides there sometimes) is incredibly effective and gives it a different feel than if it came from a victim or bystander or third person omniscient narrator. This book does what I feel like Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why failed to do. It is convincing and the characters feel real, as does their pain.

Favorite Moment: When Dan is finally able to be honest about his guilt and honest about what really happened when he was 13. It is when I finally felt some hope that he was going to be okay despite his present circumstances.

Favorite Character: Dan's grandfather, Pop, is that no-nonsense voice of reason that Dan needs in his life. Everyone else kind of walks on egg shells around him or constantly feeds him half-truths instead of just saying what needs to be said. Pop says what he wants, whether Dan wants to hear it or not.

Recommended Reading: I really don't want to recommend Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, because I honestly don't think it is all that great. But right now it is the only book coming to mind because it deals with a sequence of events that lead to the suicide of a teenager. I just don't think Asher treats the subject with half the honesty that Blount does.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Nonfiction: How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston's How To Be Black was nominated for Best Humor in the Goodreads Choice Awards, and that is how I came across it. Being someone from the African-American community, I had to at least read the synopsis and see what people thought of it, and what I saw and read was enough to convince me that I need to give this book a chance. I'll go ahead and say that the title is meant to be funny, and while the book does address quite a few serious issues, Thurston approaches all of them with a refreshing sense of humor.

The Situation: Thurston is a Harvard Graduate who brew up in Washington, D.C. during the violent and tough "crack years" of the 1980s. Through his mother's insistence that he not only get a good education, but a diverse one, Thurston was exposed to many disciplines and ideas that are not stereotypically considered to be part of the black Americans experience. Thurston can swim, he learned to appreciate travel from an early age, he's into organic food, enjoys British comedies, is politically informed...the list can go on and on. Out of his 30+ years of experience being black, he decided to write this handy guide book for people of all colors. The book is not only geared towards black people, but also anyone who has befriended, worked with, or even heard of black people (see what he did there?). And every chapter - from "How to Be The Black Friend" to "How to Be The Angry Negro" - ultimately leads to the final chapter, "The Future of Blackness," in which Thurston presents his theory of where American is headed, and where he would like for it to go, when it comes to the issue of race.

The Problem: As anyone in this country with any sort of racial awareness at all would be able to see, even writing such a book that is even ironically titled "How To Be Black" is going to touch a lot of nerves and make many people extremely uncomfortable, if not downright angry. Even to approach the issue of race in American with a sense of humor can invite a myriad of criticisms and complaints, and mostly because people, black or otherwise, are just not in the mood to deal with this. But as Thurston ultimately points out, we have to deal with this in order to make any sort of progress. To sit around thinking we are enjoying some sort of "post-racial" American just because we managed to get Obama in as president, twice, does not mean we can start believing all of our past racial issues have been taken care of and that there is no need to bring it up anymore. But that isn't the only problem: young black people often have to deal with doubting their own blackness, and mostly due to the pressures from their black peers. Are they black enough? Are they too black? Thurston addresses all of these issues with chapters like "How Black Are You?" and "How's That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?" It is a complex issue, and while Thurston attempts to give it the attention it deserves, he approaches it with a sense of humor, which he believes can take a lot of the pressure off of those who get uncomfortable when it comes up.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is non-fiction that is part memoir, part user manual/handbook, and somewhat political. Placed in between his practical (whether humorous or serious) advice are stories from Thurston's own life, such as what it was like as an African-American at Harvard, and his life growing up in the 1980s in Washington D.C. This book was published in February of 2012, so Obama has been re-elected since then, but the book does bring up current events issues of the time such as Herman Cain's candidacy for president and the growing Tea Party movement. Probably the one theme that was bigger in this book than the general one of the state of the black community in America, was the issue of black people feeling like they aren't black enough and constantly having to prove their blackness to others. Everyone, black or not, seems to have their own idea of what being black really means and what makes a fully realized black person in this country. Ultimately, no one has to prove anything to anyone ever, and everyone else needs to just chill out. 

My Verdict: Thurston strikes a great balance between taking on serious issues with a sense of humor, and still somehow presenting those issues with the severity they deserve. I mean, if you have to discuss a serious and difficult issue that most people would rather just avoid, why not have some fun while you're doing it and make it as easy as possible on everyone. The bits about his childhood and adult life are never boring, and the how-to parts are often laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, every black person, and non-black person, will get something out of this book. The one issue I take up with this book is the noticeable lack of any mention of the black church in America. I'm not looking for a whole chapter on it or anything, but it is a big part of our history and I feel something is definitely lacking since it isn't there. But otherwise, this is a fantastic read.

Favorite Moment: There were many great moments, but my absolute favorite is when Thurston provides step-by-step instructions to the black employee on how to navigate a buffet table at an office party that happens to include watermelon. Basically, there is a stereotype out there that black people love watermelon, and I'll go ahead and let you in on the not-so-secret secret that this stereotype is 99.9% true for every black person ever. So Thurston provides advice of how to get said watermelon on your plate without validating to your non-black co-workers the mostly true stereotype that black people love watermelon. Hilarious.

Favorite Quote: "Upon graduation, I was conscious of the fact that I could be me and thus be black but not have to be black in order to be me."

Recommended Reading: I would like to recommend pretty much any book by either Junot Diaz or Edwidge Danticat. While Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American, and Danticat is Haitian-American, both have written both fiction and nonfiction (or semi-nonfiction in Diaz's case) that deal with their experience as part of the new immigration to the U.S. I recommend them because they give different perspectives of what it is like to be a minority in this country and not be African-American.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: True Believers by Kurt Andersen

I decided to post about Kurt Andersen's latest novel True Believers. It is a reflective story about one woman's experiences growing up in 1960s America, and how her decisions back then led her to the life she is living now. One decision in particular will follow her out of the 60s, and lead her to another decision that could once again change everything.

The Situation: Karen Hollander has led in incredible career as a celebrated fact, she is so celebrated and accomplished that she was recently nominated for the Supreme Court. She has even written several successful books, but has just now decided to wrote her memoirs. Her fear is that, as she gets older, the memories will be harder to recall with any real clarity. She is already 64, and has heard that memories can really start deteriorating around the age of 65. She admits (or boasts, it is hard to tell which) that she is reliable and conscientious to a fault, which comes in handy as she has kept years worth of notes she has taken, newspaper articles she has clipped out, and mementos she has been given, all to help her remember exactly what happened in 1968. If she is going to publish a tell-all book about the one moment that changed her life (and a few other lives), - the one main thing that motivated her to turn down the nomination to the Supreme Court - then she wants to get it right. As Karen begins telling the story of her life during the 60s, it all seems innocent enough as she describes herself along with her two best friends playing James Bond and executing fake missions that they came up with themselves during a period of being obsessed with the Ian Fleming books. 

The Problem: At some point, when Karen and her friends are no longer just children, and they have long stopped "just playing," things get very real and very quick. Karen and her two friends are now in college in Boston and have picked up a fourth member, and all four of them are part of the larger group of protesters in the 1960s who were against the Vietnam War. By 1968, the Bond villains they pretended to chase and the Bond girls Karen used to pretend to be seem like a supremely childish fantasy as there is the new villain of LBJ and his refusal to stop this war. So instead of pretending, Karen's little group decides to take real actions that have real consequences. Kind of adds a new twist to that line everyone hears as a kid (and sometimes as adults), "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt."

Genre, Themes, History: This is a reflective coming of age tale told by someone looking back on their life during a specific decade, and in this case, that decade is the 1960s. It could be argued to be a historical fiction novel because of this, but I would also like to argue for it to possibly be an adventure novel or even a political one. From the time Karen and her friends start reading James Bond novels up until high school, they enjoy acting out fake missions throughout Chicago that they have put together themselves. They only stop doing so because, as everyone seems to do when they hit high school, they grow up and decide that this play acting thing is beneath them and, more importantly, they fear they'll be made fun of if anyone from their high school were to find out. But the book also starts to get more political as Karen talks about her teenage years, because this is when the Vietnam War, the rioting, the protesting, and the all-around craziness of the 60s comes in. General themes of luck, religion, and free will are discussed, as well as how different advancements (TV, the Internet, social media) have shaped how teenagers interact and respond today versus how they did when Karen was growing up.

My Verdict: I have very little to take issue with in this book. I enjoyed it a great deal, and especially appreciate the high attention to detail Andersen seemed to put into the story, specifically with the reflective parts that took place in the 60s. It sometimes read more like a memoir than it did a fiction novel, and for those of us too young to know just how crazy the 60s were, I feel like Andersen gives us a pretty fair representation that shows that while things may be crazy in the new millennium, that craziness isn't all that new to our society. The few things I do take issue with are the same things I take issue with in a lot of contemporary novels, and that is the seemingly trendy and popular literary device of having at least one homosexual character, and another that has turned their back on religion...and sometimes they are the same person. I give Andersen more of a pass because in his novel, these two characters are very well-developed and it does not at all seem like something he just wrote in there because everyone else is doing it. Andersen also puts them in the 1960s backdrop, which immediately gives these characters a different sort of depth than I have seen in other contemporary novels. However, everyone else is doing it, so that makes it hard to look past it either way. Even so, I enjoyed the book immensely and learned way more about the 1960s and James Bond books and movies than I ever thought I wanted to. The additional historical knowledge alone made the book worth it.

My Favorite Moment: When Karen admits that she and her revolution minded friends weren't as revolutionary as they thought themselves to be at the time. In reality, they were teenagers that just happened to grow up in the 1960s. And like every teenager throughout the history of time, they thought they had it all figured out, only to find out they don't, and acting like they did was going to cost them.

My Favorite Character: This was difficult for me since this is a mostly coming of age novel, and pre-teens/teenagers have the capacity to annoy me...especially self-righteous ones who think they're the only ones who truly "get it." So I chose Karen's sometimes boyfriend, Stewart, who is basically able to dig up the most hidden background information on pretty much anyone. He won't even say words and phrases like "FBI" or "CIA" out loud in public, can have what basically amounts to lie-detecting software installed on his phone at any time while having a conversation with you, and is the type to use disposable cell phones for certain types of conversations. Basically, Karen grew up to have a relationship with a very Bond-like person.

Recommended Reading: If I had read any of the Bond novels I would recommend one of them here, but I haven't, so I guess I really can't do that. So instead I will suggest Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody, an actual memoir written by an African-American woman who participated in sit-ins in the 1960s. I actually had to read this book for an intro history course and ended up enjoying it a great deal. It is a great first-hand account written from the perspective of a black person.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Classic Fiction: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is another one of those classic books that I was somehow never forced to read as a kid, but probably should have been. It belongs in that category with 1984 and Catch-22, but somehow not Catcher in the Rye, as I have come to believe that no one should be forced to that...ever. And with this being my first post of the new year, it felt appropriate to start 2013 off with a book about the future.

The Situation: Bernard Marx is a sleep-learning specialist in London, England. It is what would be the year 2540 to us, but the future society that Bernard lives in know it as the year A.F. 632 (A.F. stands for After Ford). Henry Ford, due to his discovery and advancements with the assembly line, has become a messianic figure to this world, as everything is now about efficiency and consumption and keeping everyone sublimely happy. The way they do this is by extensive conditioning from birth. Bernard is an Alpha, which places him on the top rung of society. But even if he was a Gamma or even an Epsilon, he would still be content with his station in life. In fact, he would be happy that he was not an Alpha, because he was conditioned to be perpetually content even before his birth. And with everyone content in their lot in life, and with everyone given a specific purpose and job in society, and with everyone encouraged, almost mandated, to have as many sexual partners as possible and to not limit themselves to one person ever, this is one of those "utopian" societies where everything does seem to be pretty perfect and everyone actually is happy. 

The Problem: Everything is not perfect. First, Bernard is not completely happy, despite being an Alpha, and despite being conditioned from birth to be content where he is. He is shorter than most of the Alpha males, and it is believed something went wrong during his early conditioning. While he gets a decent number of women, he doesn't get as many as other Alphas, and this has made him resentful and bitter. In fact, he is now resentful to the point that he has thoughts and ideas that undermine the practices of the society he inhabits. Eventually, while on holiday to a savage resort, where men and women are still born instead of manufactured through a tube, and don't have all of the advancements of the civilized society, he makes a discovery that brings him the fame and recognition he has always desired. But because of his own arrogance, his discovery not only brings down a few people in front of him, but may cause him to lose this society that has just started to recognize him - a society he now sees the value of, now that he is on top.

Genre, Themes, History: Brave New World is a dystopian novel that I would also like to put in the category of science fiction due to its taking place far in the future and describing technological advancements that we have yet to see in our lifetime. For me, the main underlying theme of this novel is that of free will. The people in Bernard's society do have free will, but they have been conditioned to only want to do a specific set of things, and they are truly happy despite their ignorance (in Huxley's novel, ignorance truly is bliss). The argument is that to go back to the way things were before Ford, where people could read Shakespeare, choose to worship God or Allah or whatever entity they choose, make groundbreaking scientific discoveries, appreciate art and music, etc, is to make people miserable again, which leads to strife and conflict and war. Also, if people are reading and listening to music, it is argued that they aren't consuming, and this society runs on consumption. It's like George Orwell's 1984, except most of the people are actually happy and the government tries to make sure they stay that way. It also appears that the entire world is on the same page. And those that don't conform to this world aren't exterminated as they would be by Orwell's Thought Police, but instead they are banished to an island to be with the other free thinkers. 

My Verdict: While the book didn't change my world or anything, I did enjoy it and found the dystopian society that Huxley presented here incredibly fascinating. It is hard to imagine a world where no one is ever a mother or a father because children are no longer born, but that is what Huxley presents to us here. And by presenting a society that actually tries to make everyone happy as opposed to just controlling them, Huxley gives the reader the chance to decide for themselves if forced happiness is better than true free will with all of its downsides.

Favorite Moment: When Bernard's friend, Helmholtz, is able to see right through Bernard for the hypocrite he is. All of a sudden Bernard is okay with this society he lives in only because he is currently its shining star.

Favorite Character: I would definitely pick Helmholtz. He actually doesn't have that big of a part in the book but he is somewhat of a free thinker like Bernard, but he isn't a hypocrite about it. Granted, he always enjoys more benefits than Bernard ever could, so he isn't bitter, but he still seems to be able to see society for what it is.

Recommended Reading:I can easily recommend George Orwell's 1984, as it is another dystopian novel set in England, but not quite as far in the future. Both books present a world very far removed from our own experience, but yet, they still manage to make us slightly uncomfortable because some of the issues and ideas hit a little too close to home, and may not be that far away from where we are now.