Friday, February 27, 2015

Nonfiction: Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul

Richard Pryor is my father's favorite comedian of all time (with Red Foxx being a very close second). I remember as a kid my father retelling some of Pryor's jokes from his albums, while cleaning the language up considerably, and him laughing harder than I would. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I was even allowed to listen to cleaner parts of the albums, of which my father still owns on vinyl. And to this day, I haven't heard any of them all of the way through because they are so filthy, and Daddy still remains hesitant to share them with his daughter in all of their vulgar glory. I picked up Scott Saul's Becoming Richard Pryor not in an attempt to finally see the uncensored world of my father's favorite comedian, but also because I was genuinely curious about the man who set himself on fire in 1980, something I didn't learn about until I was an adult. I knew there was more to the man than just his comedy albums, 80's movies, and the fire incident. And while I like Wikipedia, I decided I couldn't lean on it if I wanted the whole story.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a biography of the late Richard Pryor, an African-American comedian and actor. The author begins the book a couple of generations before Pryor's birth, starting by framing the world in which his grandmother, Marie, grew up. Marie is the woman who would ultimately raise Richard and to whom he would refer to as "Mama" well into adulthood. From this starting point, Saul tells Pryor's life story with intimate, and often painful, details. And while the story naturally ends with Pryor's death in 2005, Saul stops telling the story with such detail when the narrative hits the year 1980. Of course Pryor was still active after 1980, even doing one more comedy routine after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but Saul decided to end the story right when Pryor reached the height of his popularity. Pryor's story is one filled with violence (a lot of which he was the source of), drug and alcohol abuse, racial tension, struggle with identity, and women (and even some men). Naturally, many other Hollywood names appear throughout the story whom Pryor came into contact, with some of the more notable ones being Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, James Earl Jones, Chevy Chase, Lily Tomlin, Billy Dee Williams, Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, and Pam Grier. His road to becoming a household name was not a straight one, and he wasn't completely out of the woods once he got there, as easy access to money and drugs often made it easier for him to get into trouble. Becoming Richard Pryor certainly doesn't seem to hold back on the truth about one of Hollywood's most interesting and mysterious figures.

My Verdict: Having a vague understanding of parts of Pryor's life, I new I was going to be in for a pretty crazy story, and I was proved right. Becoming Richard Pryor was often incredibly hard to read. And for some reason, I foolishly believed that once the narrative left Pryor's hometown of Peoria, Illinois, things would get better and maybe less tense, but I was wrong. Throughout many chunks of his life, Pryor was generally not a likable person, and many in Hollywood didn't want to risk working with him because he was so volatile. Saul certainly managed to convey Pryor's radioactive and almost always on the edge of exploding personality. The author gave a full picture of a man who would often be called one of the funniest people alive, while also being so troubled and tragic. Since honesty is something to be expected out of anything nonfiction, especially something like a biography, I would say Saul certainly met that expectation. He did his research, thoroughly, and put what he found on the page, as hard as it may have been to read sometimes. But I can also say that the book wasn't just 400+ pages of a hard life story. There were bits that would make many Pryor fans smile as they read some of the quotes from interviews, movies, TV, and especially his comedy routines. 

I will say that I was disappointed that the book didn't continue into the rest of Pryor's career after 1980. It gives a general description of were his career went after the fire incident, but not in the same detail and with the same amount of attention as the rest of the book received. It is still a thorough story of Pryor's life, but I wanted a little more.

Favorite Moment: When Pryor gave an Emmy he had won to Juliette Whitaker, a woman in Peoria who was one of the first people to encourage him in his talents and give him a venue to use them in a small local community theater.

Recommended Reading: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is more of a memoir than a biography/autobiography, and of course, Martin is a different kind of comedian. But it is still a good read and remains one of my favorite memoirs of all time.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Science Fiction: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This is yet another novel that was nominated for a 2014 Goodreads Choice Award. I had already added Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven to my always present and incredibly long "to read" list, but went ahead and purchased it not only because it was nominated, but also because the always awesome staff at BookPeople in Austin, Texas had featured it on the "New Fiction" shelf, and there was only one copy left. And let me just begin by saying, I now get what all of the fuss was about.

The Situation: Arthur Leander has just collapsed onstage while playing the title role in William Shakespeare's King Lear. As former journalist-turned paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary rushes onstage from the audience to perform CPR, most everyone else in the audience and on the stage still haven't quite figured out that Arthur is no longer acting. But once the curtain actually drops, and all attempts to revive Arthur fails, the world begins to become a completely different place, and not because a famous actor has just died. 

The Problem: Jeevan never reaches his apartment after leaving the theater, as a frantic phone call from a friend of his working in a hospital emergency room informs him that a deadly and fast-spreading flu is infecting seemingly everyone. After stocking up on supplies at a nearby grocery store, Jeevan arrives at his brother Frank's apartment, barricades them both inside, and waits. Over the next few days and months, the world, as everyone knew it, ends. Planes will no longer fly. Cars will cease to be used or even useful as gasoline goes stale. Electricity will no longer be generated. And luxuries such as the Internet and wifi will cease to exist. The population around the globe will dwindle to only the few who were either lucky/resourceful enough to survive, and those who happen to be immune. In the years that follow, small pockets of civilization will pop up, built by those that wish to remain in one place, while some, like Kirsten Raymonde, will travel with her fellow actors and musicians, performing Shakespeare for the survivors they find along the way. But such traveling means a risk of encountering people like The Prophet, who insists that the plague happened as a way to weed out the darkness and leave only the good behind. Not only does he believe himself to be "the light," but he also manages to recruit followers that help him raid other towns, stealing their weapons and ammunition for his own use. Station Eleven tells the story of a selected few before, during, and after the pandemic. All of them are somehow connected, mostly through Arthur, but also through the struggle to survive the unimaginable. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction book that is alternately set in the past and in the future. Just as it changes focus between many of its characters, it also switches back and forth from before the plague and after, while also not neglecting the horrors of the early days when the sickness was at its most dangerous. Many post-apocalyptic novels focus almost entirely on the days after, with a little mention of what life was like before, and almost no mention of what it was like during the actual outbreak. Station Eleven meets the plague head on and talks about the struggle of early survival, glossing over nothing. Eventually, the reader is given both background and closure on pretty much every primary character that is introduced. Arthur is sort of the focal point and every other character seems to have some sort of link to him: Miranda, Arthur's first ex-wife, is the author of the comic book that features a Dr. Eleven. It's a story that makes it into the hands of several characters over the years. Clark is Arthur's best friend and is given the terrible task of notifying the family of his death, but ends up stranded in an airport once the flu hits, a place where he will end up spending the rest of his life. Kirsten was a child actress in the same production of King Lear that ended up being Arthur's last, and now continues performing Shakespeare with the traveling symphony. And Jeevan now uses his studies in paramedics to care for the sick or injured in the settlement he chose. Everyone is separate, but still linked, with their own stories of struggle and survival.

My Verdict: This book was much more involved and intricate than I had initially expected, but it was a nice surprise. Not only does Mandel tie everyone's stories together in just the way that I like, but she also manages to fully explore the scenario of the apocalypse. Instead of avoiding the tense and always heart-breaking detail of the early days of the pandemic, Mandel talks about it in detail, even with all of the difficulty that can come with writing about such a thing, but it ends up being incredibly worth it. The reader gets a fuller story, and I know I became more invested in humanity's next steps. And while post-apocalyptic stories are nothing new, Mandel managed to not have Station Eleven become either predictable or so incredibly dire and bleak that the story is hard to read. Not every scene is original, but they are somehow written in a way that makes them feel like they are. As I said in the introduction, I get now what all of the fuss was about. 

Favorite Moment: Any time when the reader was given even the slightest glimpse into how everyone's story was connected.

Favorite Character: There are a few options here, but I will select Arthur's first wife, Miranda. For one, I have always liked the name Miranda, so I was immediately somewhat biased. Second, she is someone who can get lost in writing and drawing for the comic book she made up, even though she doesn't necessarily intend to submit it anywhere for publication. She just likes drawing and creating for this imaginary world that she came up with, and people like that always interest me.

Recommended Reading: We all know they are many post-apocalyptic novels out there to choose from; however, I will recommend The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or even On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Reaper by Kristi R. Johnson

I am just going to start off by saying that this is so weird. I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to write on my own book blog about the novel that I wrote. But here I am, doing exactly that. Reaper is my first book and it came out yesterday. So I figured why not write a post about a recently published novel, just like I would almost any other Friday. The only difference is that this time, the author is me.

The Situation: Ana "Reaper" Keating has just started her freshman year of college at the Hugo Liberal Arts College (HuLAC) in Prescott, Arizona. Dorm life will be incredibly different from her life in her hometown of Mayer, which is only 40 miles away. For one, she'll finally have reliable air conditioning providing relief from the Arizona heat. Second, she'll be living in a conventional residence, unlike the cave in the onyx rock quarry she grew up in. Third, for the first time in her life, she'll be away from her father, Jim, and instead have a roommate. Haley is also a Mayer High School graduate, so it isn't as if Reaper will be living with a complete stranger. Even so, Reaper isn't sure how her naturally antisocial temperament is going to fair in this new environment.

The Problem: Aside from having dependable air conditioning, something else Reaper was looking forward to was no longer looking being in the same town as the wealthy, powerful, and vengeful Goldwater family. But at the end of move-in day, Reaper learns that the youngest Goldwater, Ian, is attending HuLAC as well and has already come looking for her. Ian's father, Mr. Paul, still blames Reaper's father for what happened to Reaper's mom, who also happened to be Mr. Paul's adopted sister. Neither Reaper nor Jim like to talk about Sue's death, and for the last 16 years, Mr. Paul has proven to be bent on revenge. Before classes even start, what was looking like a chance to start fresh has turned into a new chapter of an ongoing nightmare. It may be the last thing Reaper wanted, but it is also what Jim has been preparing her for all of her life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in two small towns in Arizona. While both Prescott and Mayer are real cities in Arizona, I haven't been to either one, so all of the landmarks and locations are of my own imagination. HuLAC is also not a real college that exists anywhere. The one thing that is real in Mayer, Arizona is the onyx rock quarry. But again, I have never been to Mayer, so I have never seen the quarry, and I doubt very seriously that there is a cave in it that could be turned into a fully functional home with electricity, plumbing, and of course, air conditioning. I started this book back in November of 2013 as part of National Novel Writing Month. To my great surprise, I managed to reach the required 50,000 words that you need to "win," NaNoWriMo. And after adding another 25,000+ words in the early part of 2014, and doing some heavy editing, I submitted it to a few publishers, and here we are. And I decided to set it in college as opposed to high school because most YA novels are set in high school, which makes sense, but I feel like there aren't enough set in college. Plus, I believe that teenagers are curious about college, but ultimately know very little about it and aren't really sure what to expect if and when they start their freshman year. So college life in general is a big theme, as is vengeance, justice, and the idea of doing almost anything for family.

My Verdict: Not really sure what to say here since I wrote this one myself. There are parts of it that I am less pleased with than others, but overall I am really happy with this book. Honestly, when I first started out in those early days of November, I was afraid that I didn't have it in me. I was worried that I didn't have enough story to tell and that I would run out of steam at around 20,000 words. Well, that didn't happen, and next thing I knew it was mid-November and I was already at 35,000 words, with plenty more to say.

Favorite Moment: When Haley proves to be tougher than Reaper, or really anyone, believed she was.

Favorite Character: I had a lot of fun creating Jim, Reaper's father. I've been describing him to people as a Ron Swanson type, only less ridiculous, and even less of a sense of humor. He is a no nonsense type of person, trying to live his life in a world that is full of it.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, mostly because it is also set in college, but also because I am always looking for reasons to recommend that book. But as for as something that is somewhat gritty like Reaper, I recommend This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers.

You can order your own copy of Reaper at Black Rose Writing. It is has truly been my pleasure writing it, and I hope you have just as much fun reading it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is yet another novel that was nominated for a 2014 Goodreads Choice Award. Coincidentally, it is also one I had been wanting to pick up even before it was nominated. Seeing it on the list just felt like a validation to me that it really was worth checking out.

The Situation: After a tragic accident in Mexico, Alma and Arturo Rivera, with their teenage daughter Maribel, make their way to the United States after Arturo secures both a job and sponsorship from a mushroom farm in Delaware. It isn't that the Riveras are dissatisfied with life in Mexico; they simply believe that their daughter will have a better chance at healing in the United States. After her accident, she hasn't been the same vibrant, brave, and somewhat defiant girl that she was before. With Alma desperate for the return of the daughter she remembers, she convinces her husband that moving to the US is the right thing to do. Maribel has always been a beautiful girl, and she immediately catches the attention of Mayor, a nice if somewhat insecure boy her age who lives in their apartment complex in Delaware. And despite the difficulty Maribel can often have communicating, she and Mayor become good friends.

The Problem: Unfortunately, Maribel's beauty also attracts the attention of someone else, and Garrett has no interest in talking. Alma already struggles with her guilt over the accident that lead her family to leave Mexico in the first place. And now, no matter how hard she tries, she can't keep Maribel within her sights all of the time and guarantee she stays out of harm's way. She wants to tell Arturo about Garrett, but she hates the idea of making him worry, as well as the possibility of giving him anymore reasons to blame her. Of course, Maribel's problems aren't the only things the Riveras must deal with as immigrants in the US. Arturo's job at the mushroom farm isn't exactly ideal, and Alma longs to buy and make the kind of food she would have in Mexico, but can't afford it. Meanwhile, Mayor seems to be destined to spend another year of high school being picked on, and another year at home being compared to his older and more masculine brother. The lives of the two families become intertwined not only because of Maribel, but also because together they bring together all of the stories of the people who live in their apartment complex.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that tells the story of multiple people from Latin America that came to the US for various reasons. While the main narrators are Alma and Mayor as the story switches back and forth between their points of view, there are also brief sections throughout the novel that tell the first person story of others who live in the same apartment complex. The Riveras are from Mexico, while Mayor's family came from Panama, but there are others from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Paraguay. Immigration is certainly a theme, bu there is also a great deal of culture shock, especially for Alma. While she is trying to get used to her new home, Mayor is one floor down trying to hide from his parent's fights and the threat of his father's disapproval, all while trying to get closer to Maribel. "The Book of Unknown Americans" is certainly an appropriate title as the novel tells the story of many people who have made the journey into this country, but whose stories, the real ones, have never been told.

My Verdict: Despite the book's subject matter, it wasn't as heavy or hard to read as I thought it would be. While Henriquez does not take the subject matter lightly, this book is a surprisingly easy read. And unlike many books that switch between first person narrators, I didn't find myself dreading when the story would eventually switch to one narrator and then breathe a sigh of relief when it switched back. And the brief stories from the other residents of the apartment complex were both interesting and refreshing. I suppose my only issue was with the lack of communication between the characters, but really, how else would the reader get the tension that Henriquez played with so well.

Favorite Moment: When Arturo insists to Alma that she needs to forgive herself, because it's true.

Favorite Character: While I adored Maribel, I think my favorite character was actually Celia, Mayor's mom. The woman puts up with a lot of nonsense from her husband, Rafael, but at the same time she isn't a pushover, and is a great friend to Alma.

Favorite Quote: "But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people." 

Recommended Reading: I've decided to recommend The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Different country of origin, and a different type of immigration, but also a fabulous story.