Friday, June 28, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

I am just now hopping on the Sarah Dessen train. With her new book, The Moon and More, published on June 4th, I decided to start with her previous release, What Happened to Goodbye. My fingers were crossed that I wouldn't be stuck with an annoying, whiny, and entitled adolescent narrator talking about how unfair life is for 400 pages. What I got instead was both surprising and refreshing.

The Situation: McLean Sweet and her father Gus have just moved to Lakeview, North Carolina in the middle of her senior year. Normally it would be a pretty difficult thing for a teenager to finish out their last few months of high school in a brand new town, but for McLean, she just plans to do what she has done in every other new town she has ever moved to. Because of the nature of her father's job as a restaurant consultant, this will be McLean's fourth move in two years. She's become a pro at it, even beyond just knowing what to pack and how to pack it. She even knows what it will take to make a clean break if she has to move again, with no hurt feelings, for herself and anyone she has formed a relationship with.

The Problem: McLean ends up breaking her number one personal rule almost immediately, which is to go by some variation of her middle name (Elizabeth), and never her real first name. Her system of interrupting her teachers on her first day and correcting them is interrupted during homeroom, and somehow she never recovers. Like a domino effect, not only are people calling her by her first name (something that even surprises her father), but soon she finds herself having made real friendships and forming real bonds with people, not the least of which is her sweet if not socially awkward neighbor Dave. And with the knowledge that she could be packing up and moving within as little as eight weeks, McLean becomes uneasy as she lets people get to know the real her; something she never does as she has been three different people in the last three cities she has moved to. Oh, and her mother, whom McLean blames for the divorce and her current nomad status, won't stop calling and wanting her to visit. And when McLean lets her anger get the best of her and lashes out, Mom has no problem bringing in the lawyers to revisit the custody agreement. Even though McLean doesn't quite know who she is in yet another new town, she knows she won't be able to be who she was if she were to move back to her hometown with her mom.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that deals with the all-too-common issue of the effects of divorce on the kids. When McLean's parents divorced, she decided to not to stay with her mom and stepdad in her hometown, but instead joined her dad in moving from city to city every few months, constantly readjusting to a new lifestyle and new friends instead of ever really settling down. This further leads to McLean's issues with identity that first surface during the divorce, as everything she has known and has been used to is taken from her. McLean also doesn't feel like she has anywhere she can call "home," or a stable group of people she can refer to as "family." Some of her conversations with her mother are definitely cringe-worthy. And while some readers (including myself) would be cheering her on to cut ties and move on, McLean also reminds us, mostly through memories, that this woman is still her mother, and things just aren't that simple.

My Verdict: Again, this is my first Dessen novel, so I don't know if this is just what she does and how she does it every time, but for me, this novel was so incredibly refreshing to read and a lot of fun. The writing was straightforward and honest, and the narrator, McLean, wasn't the adolescent nightmare I sometimes anticipate encountering when I pick up a new young adult novel. Yes McLean was angry, and bitter, and resentful, and suffering from the effects that come from the decisions adults around her had made, but she wasn't annoying about it and didn't alienate the reader. Instead, I found myself caring about her and really cheering her on. And Dessen kept the novel interesting without making it seem unrealistic or far-fetched. Now I am certainly excited to read The Moon and More when it comes out. I am curious to check out past Dessen novels as well to see how they stack up against each other.

Favorite Moment: When McLean and her new friends go over to Riley's house for family dinner. First of all, it is exactly the kind of southern home-cooked meal I have grown up with and love. We're talking fried chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese...the works. Even McLean, who has a chef for a dad and has eaten some of the greatest food that America's best restaurants has to offer, admits that the dinner Riley's mom cooks is the absolute best she has ever had. Of course, her observation that this is the first time in a long time that she has sat down to a real family dinner may contribute to that, even if it isn't her family.

Favorite Character: I adore Deb, the super spazzy and always surprising but lovable outsider who finds her way into McLean's small group of friends. She is that girl who is always way too eager to make you feel welcome in whatever new environment you've entered into. She's really sweet, and sometimes a bit intense, but always a great friend to have around.        

Favorite Quote: "I cleared my throat, looking into that fire in front of me. The logs were perfectly shaped, the fake flames flickering. Pretty yes, but no real warmth there. Just an illusion, but you didn't realize that until you were up close and still felt cold" (P. 267).  This quote fits into this book in so many different ways that to explain them all would not only make this post much longer than it needs to be, but it would also completely spoil the entire story.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Sarah Ockler's Bittersweet, mostly because it also deals with the effects of divorce, and has a large amount of the action set in a restaurant. Many readers and critics have compared Ockler and Dessen, and I do see the connection, but they are also two different writers with their own styles.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Horror Fiction: The Croning by Laird Barron

With Laird Barron's new book, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, due out soon, I decided to try out his debut novel The Croning. While horror may be my favorite type of movie, I generally don't gravitate toward that genre when it comes to books. Also, in today's literature, it is hard to get away from zombies and vampires, two things I have very little interest in. Since The Croning didn't seem to have either, I figured it was worth a try.

The Situation: Donald Miller and his wife Michelle are living out their final years in a house they used to treat as their summer home, but has now become their permanent residence. While Don has more or less retired as a geologist, Michelle's research and anthropological studies continue, as does her desire for travel and adventure. Throughout their years together the couple have raised twin children, and seen the world...including parts of it that most people either ignore or genuinely have no clue are there. Don looks on most of the memories he shares with Michelle with fondness, although he has been struggling with his memory since the early fifties. Some memories come through clearly, while others drift away right as he tries to recall them. And still other memories, mostly bad ones, will come upon him suddenly, sometimes in a dream when his sleeping. It is these memories or dreams that will show Don what is actually happening in the world around him.

The Problem: No matter how much Don tries to ignore the obvious, things just aren't quite right in his life. Situations and events surrounding Michelle, both past and present, have never been right, and many people have attempted to tell him this throughout the years. She's incredibly secretive about some aspects of her work, some of her former colleagues have died under incredibly suspicious circumstances, and even her family history is full of questions. And now, at the age of 80, things seem to be spinning out of control again and Michelle is once more at the center of focus. Terrible memories Don had somehow forgotten are starting to resurface, and they offer up only one horrifying explanation for what is going on around him. While it would be awful enough for he and his wife to be affected, it turns out that his children, and their children, may end up as victims as well. One fateful trip into the forest surrounding the house may be all that is necessary to end Don's living nightmare, but will it be the ending he hopes for?

Genre, Themes, History: This is horror fiction that deals specifically with the occult, with a little bit of fairy tale mixed in. The novel starts off with a sort of alternate version of Rumpelstiltskin, and the events in that story eventually lead up to what has been happening throughout Don's lifetime. Instead of going with vampires or zombies as the creature of choice, Barron sticks with, for lack of a better term, the boogeyman. What unnerves Don so frequently are the things that go bump in the night...the kind of stuff that sets a person on edge when you're lying in bed and attempting to convince yourself that that creepy looking shadow on the wall is only a shadow, and that surely you didn't shut the door to the cellar all of the way, because if you did, it wouldn't still be open right now. Many aspects of what Don goes through feels a lot like a nightmare the poor guy just can't seem to wake up from. Anthropology and the study of indigenous cultures also plays a heavy role as that is Michelle's field and many of her adventures lend to the events of the story.

My Verdict: Meh. Sure, it's scary and all. And I appreciate a decent piece of modern horror fiction that stays away from vampire and zombies. But even so, I guess I expected more from this. I'll go ahead and spare you (spoiler alert!): in this particular story, evil wins. And you can see it coming from about 200 pages away. It may not have been so obvious if Don wasn't such a clueless, bumbling idiot most of the time with absolutely no ability to assert himself in any way when it comes to his wife. Granted, his lack of memory doesn't help, but he has been warned multiples times, and has also lived through a few of his own awful adventures, which have seemingly only helped turn him into the cowering man we now read about, instead of helping to enlighten him to what the world around him is actually like. It is an excellent premise and for the most part extremely well-written, but somewhere the plot just falls short. And the ending, while pretty epic, fails to fully satisfy.

Favorite Moment: When a group consisting of Don, his son Kurt, his friend Argyle, and Argyle's friend Hank decides to split-up while wandering the woods. I only picked it because of its absolute absurdity and the fact that every horror movie ever has used it and it never, ever, ends well. It just further illustrated just how clueless the characters in this book are.

Favorite Character: I couldn't make a call here. Don is clueless, Michelle is unsettling, and everyone else is either evil or useless. 

Recommended Reading: Once again, much like the last time I covered a horror novel, I can't think of anything to recommend. I have yet to meet a horror novel I really liked. Although, to be fair, I really haven't read that many. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I am finally coming through on my promise to post about Haruki Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84. Now, I have to go ahead and say it: this book is long, like Don Quixote long. It doesn't come close to beating War and Peace, but the hardback edition still clocks in at a little over 900 pages. And based on my previous experience with a Murakami novel, I knew I was not going to be bored.

The Situation: Tengo Kawana is an aspiring writer who teaches math at a local cram school in Tokyo, Japan. He hasn't had anything published yet, but he has come extremely close to winning several awards, and it is really only a matter of time before he gets the recognition he deserves. In the meantime, his ruthless and somewhat narcissistic editor has come up with an opportunity for Tengo to make some good money and put his novel-writing skills to use as a ghostwriter. Meanwhile, also in Tokyo, Aomame has an appointment she must keep, but her taxi is stuck in traffic. She takes the strange and probably illegal advice of her taxi driver to get out and use the highway's emergency exit. For both Tengo and Aomame, their lives are about to take a turn that neither saw coming, and returning to the way things were may not be an option.

The Problem: The "opportunity" that Tengo was offered is not quite above board. The short novel he is to ghostwrite was already written once by a beautiful, but strange and enigmatic young girl. Unfortunately, the first draft is not ready for the general public, but the story is compelling. Tengo's unscrupulous editor has the idea to have Tengo rewrite the story so it can be submitted for a prestigious literary prize. Needless to say, if the general public were to find out, it could lead to problems for everyone involved. As it turns out, this would be the least of their worries. Unbeknownst to Tengo and his editor, the publication of the book lets out the secrets of a local organization that they would have rather kept hidden, and now Tengo has drawn their unwanted attention. As for Aomame, she becomes involved in her own scandal as her wealthy benefactor gives her an assignment that will, at the very least, cause her to give up her life as she knows it, and at the most, cause her to lose it completely.

As if all of that wasn't enough, Aomame has become convinced that she has entered some sort of alternate reality that she has started to call 1Q84, as opposed to the actual year it should be, 1984. How she entered this alternate reality, she isn't sure, and she is even less sure how to get back.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction book that could also be called science fiction as it deals with alternate realities, alternate history, parallel worlds, etc. As you can probably guess, because alternate realities are a major theme, there are a lot of doubles, in various forms, throughout the book. There are many people who share similar pasts, interests, and even fates. Even the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame, serve as each other's double in many ways, starting with a few shared experiences from childhood. Of course, Murakami is in fact referencing George Orwell's 1984 with his title, and the classic book does come up many times throughout the story. The book is an interesting way for the author to pay tribute to the classic dystopian novel. Another important theme is that of meta-fiction. The events that occur in the novel Tengo helped ghostwrite end up taking place in the real world. And I just want to point out, it is pretty ingenious to have a piece of fiction that everyday readers within the novel praise for its quality and inventiveness be a part of the actual novel itself. It's a way for the writer to come out and say that his own story idea is awesome, without coming out and saying it himself. And he would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for us pesky bloggers...

My Verdict: These days it is a big risk to decide to devote your precious reading time to a 900 page novel that could very well end in regret. Fortunately, Murakami's novel was worth it to the very end. It may not be my favorite novel of all time, or even one of my highest ranking as far as ratings, but it was well worth the time investment. Also, kind of like anything written by Charles Dickens, this book slowly gets better the further it goes along. It takes time to get thoroughly invested and involved with the characters. In fact, there were times when I was less than interested in the two main characters and found them to be pretty pathetic and useless. But ever so tactfully, Murakami changes all of that around and makes these two relatable to the point that I was concerned for their well-being. So if you have ever read anything by Murakami before and wasn't turned off by him, it is worth it to check out 1Q84.

Favorite Moment: Any moment when it is revealed to the reader that everything will actually work out fine always makes me happy. There are many moments of doubt as danger seems to be closing in, but throughout the novel, there is an overhanging sense that things are going just as they should be.

Favorite Character: In this book, there are none righteous, no, not even one. But even so, I decided to pick Tamaru, the bodyguard for Aomame's wealthy benefactor and her estate. He's not exactly what most would call a warm and fuzzy guy, but he is protective and careful, and when given the task of taking care of something he does so to the absolute best of his ability (which is really really good) and takes the job very seriously. He's the kind of person you look at and immediately think, "Ah, things are going to be okay." 

Recommended Reading: Obviously, it would be pretty much criminal for me to not recommend Orwell's 1984. But I also recommend the only other Murakami book I have read, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Parts of 1Q84 reminded me of the style and tone of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I found the larger door stop to actually be more enjoyable and easier to follow.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Nonfiction: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I'm fairly certain this book caught my attention thanks to Goodreads and Pinterest. Plus, the title was just too good to pass up. No way I could read the title Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness and not want to at least read the scenario. Add to it the fact that Susannah Cahalan actually went through this ordeal in 2009, just four short years ago, and my curiosity continued to grow.

The Situation: Cahalan is a young reporter for the New York Post, living in a studio apartment in Hell's Kitchen, just trying to make her own way through life just like any other recent college graduate. She likes her job and has actually been working at The Post since high school when she had an internship there. She has a serious boyfriend, Stephen, who has even met her parents, and all of her friends and family would describe Susannah as outgoing and talkative. The story opens during a bedbug scare in New York City, and despite the exterminators assurances that it isn't necessary, Cahalan insists that her apartment be fumigated just in case.

The Problem: Cahalan has absolutely no idea that her sudden preoccupation with bedbugs and her belief that she has bedbug bites on her left arm, is the first in a string of symptoms that will quickly magnify in intensity and lead to her hospitalization for an unknown disease. Other symptoms will soon include erratic and psychotic behavior, seizures, "zombie-like" movements, paranoia, being convinced that the TV is speaking to her, and other behaviors that are often linked to both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But perhaps the real problem is that Cahalan doesn't seem to be either bipolar or schizophrenic, and if doctors don't find out what is wrong with her soon, she may never return to her normal self, or even worse, she may die. As the mysterious disease progresses, it slowly takes over Cahalan's body, limiting her strength, movements, and ability to speak. It is a true medical mystery as expert after expert conducts various tests in the desperate attempt to save her life. The "month of madness" refers to a 28-day period that Cahalan spent at the hospital. She remembers being admitted, but everything after that is blank, and the little bits that do manage to come through are short and confusing.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that reads like an episode of House. The disease takes over quickly as frustrated doctors and specialist try to figure out what is happening, while grief-stricken family and friends can do little more than watch and pray. Things would almost be easier if Cahalan did have a mental illness, but the physical symptoms point to something much more serious. When Cahalan is finally successfully diagnosed, the disease she is said to have isn't that well-known, and not much research has been done on it because not that many cases have been pinned down. Now, largely due to Cahalan's story, many cases have been identified and it is possible that there have been, and still are, quite a few that were misdiagnosed as a mental illness. Cahalan was surrounded by people - doctors, family, friends, and colleagues at work - that refused to give up on her, even when things were at their most desperate. And while telling her story, Cahalan also explains the science behind what is happening to her in a way that informs and even holds the attention of even the most science-challenged person. A major theme throughout the entire account is that of memory, since Cahalan had to piece together a good amount of her story from accounts she got from her family, friends, and doctors. She also relied on videotapes from her stay at the hospital, and a few notes that she was able to take herself. In other words, she had to investigate a significant part of her own life.

My Verdict: This is a fascinating and well-written story. What makes it even more impressive is that it is a true story, and the author actually lived these events. Add to that the fact that Cahalan doesn't even remember probably the most significant part of the story due to the damage to her brain, and the whole account is, quite literally, mind blowing. As I said before, Cahalan had to investigate her own life, since she couldn't rely on her own memories. Cahalan begins the story at a point she believes everything started, but she is only able to continue up until the moment she is admitted to the hospital at NYU, as she hasn't been able to clearly remember the 28 days that followed. She is able to use her journalism skills to dig into her own past and write up an account of what happened, even though her true self was pretty absent through a good chunk of it. Cahalan includes notes she wrote herself, notes from doctors, picture, diagrams, and even descriptions of some of the video footage from her time at the hospital. Even as someone who isn't all that interested in neurobiology, I found the entire account incredibly fascinating, even after she is successfully diagnosed and we know what it will take to make her better.

Favorite Moment: "Favorite" is not really the word I would use for this moment, but it is definitely the part that struck me the most. As the disease progresses, Cahalan loses the ability to do certain things that everyone mostly takes for granted. There is a moment when she admits to no longer being able to read due to the amount of concentration it takes, and that is something I just cannot even imagine.

Recommended Reading: It was difficult for me to come up with a book to recommend since I don't think I have ever read a book quite like this before, so I will go with Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe. This book also deals with the issue of misdiagnosis of mental diseases and the problems that can arise from that. However, I don't believe Sharpe was ever in the same kind of danger Cahalan was, and her discussion has more to do with antidepressants than mysterious illnesses.