Friday, April 24, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

When The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was consistently compared to Gone Girl, I was naturally hesitant, because I didn't like Gone Girl. But then I read reviews from people who clarified that this new suspense/thriller novel was similar to Gone Girl in that it has many twists and turns and is incredibly suspenseful, and that is something I could get behind. So, with still quite a bit of hesitation, I decided to try it out.

The Situation: Rachel takes the same train into town everyday, that makes the same stops, allowing her to look at the same houses and observe the same people. The perfect couple, Jess and Jason, live just a few houses down from where Rachel used to live before her life fell apart not too long ago. But that would never happen to Jess and Jason, Rachel has decided. Having observed them from the train for quite awhile now, she not only has given them imaginary names, but also imaginary jobs, personalities, hobbies, everything. She imagines that they have the life she ruined, by wanting something she can't have so badly that she began to drink, heavily. And even though her ex-husband, Tom,  has moved on and remarried, that doesn't stop Rachel from sending drunken emails and text messages, calling the house, and even coming by the neighborhood. So while her life remains far from perfect, and seems to get a little further away from perfect with each passing day, Rachel imagines that Jess and Jason have what she has lost.

The Problem: One day Jess, whose real name is Megan, goes missing, and it is all over the news. This would shatter Rachel's perfect image of the couple whose house she could always see from the trains, except that image was already damaged when she saw Megan in the house not too long ago, kissing a man that wasn't Scott, her husband. And if Rachel's behavior was not already erratic and embarrassing enough, her obsession with her imaginary couple brings her to the attention of the police, whom she contacts when she feels they need to know about the other man. It's bad enough that Anna, Tom's new wife, has wanted to take legal action against Rachel for some time, hopefully getting her out of their lives for good. But now she is also seemingly involved with the awful disappearance of Megan, who lived just a few houses down. As Rachel fights her alcoholism, she also willingly entangles herself in an investigation that has nothing to do with her. At worst, it will be her most public embarrassment and shaming yet. But at best, she may find out what really happened to Megan, what it has to do with her current situation, and what really happened the night she went missing.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a suspense/thriller novel set in and near London around late 2012 to summer 2013. For the most part, the novel centers around five people: Rachel; her ex-husband Tom; his new wife Anna; Megan, the woman who goes missing; and Scott, her husband. At first the book starts with Rachel telling the story. If there were ever an unreliable narrator, it would be this woman. Sometimes she drinks so much that she doesn't remember the horrible things she did the next day, so other people have to tell her. But the book also switches to Megan's story once in a while, up until the day she goes missing. At first it would seem that the story would be a little clearer coming from her, but that proves to not be true, especially when she begins having an affair with her therapist. And then there is Anna's side of the story. For the reader, she is the last remaining hope for any sort or sanity, but believing even her poses a problem as she pretty much delights in the fact that she stole Tom from Rachel and loved being a mistress, even before she realized that her husband's previous marriage was in a bad place. The entire novel comes from three incredibly broken women whose issues shine through how they tell of the events happening around them. But even with these shifting perspectives, one thing that always stays constant is the train that passes by the houses. It is the train that Rachel takes into town everyday, despite having lost her job months ago and really having nowhere to go. Anna hates living by the tracks, not only because of the noise, but also because she is living in the house Tom shared with Rachel. And it is the view from this train that will allow Rachel to see into Megan and Scott's lives. If she wasn't able to see them from a distance everyday and decided in her head what their lives must be like, she most likely would have never gotten involved once Megan turned up missing.

My Verdict: I'll just go ahead and say that I enjoyed this book so much more than I did Gone Girl. I make no pretense about not liking that book, especially the ending. However, my dislike of it actually started before the ending as it took a turn about 1/3 of the way through that I knew it would never recover from, and it didn't. For me, The Girl on the Train is just a better story with better pacing and a better mystery to solve. The characters are still painfully terrible people. At one point I wasn't anxious about the story at all because everyone deserved to have something happen to them at some point. Rachel specifically is one of the most frustrating narrators I have encountered in a long time (although Scarlett O'Hara still takes the top spot). She could barely stay sober long enough to follow through with anything effectively. And even when she was sober, she would do stupid things or say stupid stuff that most people with any amount of common sense could realize would only make the current situation worse. And really, Megan and Anna weren't much different. But even with the terrible characters, I found myself enjoying the book all the way through. It does have the twists and turns that everyone said it did, but they are well done and tied together beautifully.

Favorite Moment: When there begin to be hints that Anna's world isn't as perfect as it seems.

Favorite Character: None. No one. Everyone is awful and people are the worst.

Recommended Reading: I won't say Gone Girl, because I could never recommend Gone Girl. So instead I'll recommend Night Film by Marisha Pessl, although it is more on the haunting and scary side, as opposed to being a suspenseful thriller.   

Friday, April 17, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

I first took notice of today's book when it started showing up around Goodreads as a book to be excited about in 2015. Before it officially became available, people were already raving about Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. But when I read the synopsis and realized what this book was about, I hesitated. In its simplest form, the book is about a pair of teenagers who have made a suicide pact. Not only is that a heavy topic to read about, but the author could either handle it well, or poorly. However, given the generally positive reactions the book had already gained, I decided to take a chance and go for it.

The Situation: Aysel Seran wants to die. A deep depression has taken over her life and she is ready to be done with her miserable existence. She can occasionally remember moments when things weren't so bad, when she was actually happy, but when her father committed a terrible crime that shook the entire town of Langston, Kentucky, Aysel's entire life changed. Instead of living with her dad during the week and only visiting her mom and her new family on the weekends, Aysel now lives in her stepdad's house and shares a room with a half-sister she feels she has nothing in common with. She feels like her family wishes she wasn't around, and the kids at school don't talk to her, although they clearly talk about her. Add in a miserable job with the isolation at school, and being avoided at home, and Aysel is done with living.

The Problem: Aysel wants to die, but she doesn't think she has the courage to go through with it, not by herself. So when she finds a partner in Roman through a website that specializes in pairing people together who want to commit suicide, it looks like she may actually be able to do this. Roman is even more determined to die than Aysel. After living with the guilt from a terrible tragedy for nearly a year, Roman wants a partner who will jump in the Ohio River with him. He is both terrified of not being able to do it because his worrying mother rarely lets him out of her sight, and that Aysel will flake out on him. And while Aysel and Roman get to know each other and make their plans, Aysel starts to wonder if she can go through with it. And if she can't, how can she convince Roman to back out as well?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that focuses on two teenagers who have decided to kill themselves, but for different reasons. Aysel (pronounced like "gazelle") is the narrator of the story. As a young Turkish girl in small-town Kentucky, it is safe to say that she never really felt like she fit in. She was never incredibly popular or anything close, although once upon a time she did have friends. But when her dad committed a terrible crime, Aysel pushed away anyone who hadn't distanced themselves willingly. With the story being told from her point of view, the reader gets her constant assurances that people don't like her (and maybe they don't), that people are talking about her (and maybe they are), and that her family doesn't want her around (although she is pretty good at pushing them away). But even with only her perspective to go on, it is clear that things aren't quite as dark as Aysel wants to believe. And the title of the novel comes from Aysel's favorite subject in school: physics. She feels like her heart has collapsed in on itself, threatening to take the rest of her with it. While Aysel feels like her depression is eating her from the inside out, Roman feels the same about his guilt over his sister's death. Unlike Aysel, Roman used to be, and still is, quite popular. But even this continued popularity and support doesn't keep him from wanting to end his life.

My Verdict: There are parts of this book where Aysel's sadness, and sometimes Roman's as well, could be felt from the page. The title of the book could not be more perfect, as I often felt like my own heart was incredibly heavy with Aysel's sadness and loneliness. And the character of Roman genuinely made me nervous because he is so insistent on going through with something that many people couldn't imagine making real plans for. Warga doesn't treat the subject lightly, and she doesn't make fun of it or skirt around the issue. This is a book about two broken people who are tired of being broken. It is heavy, it is often dark, and it is incredibly sad and heartbreaking. But the topic was treated with the honesty it deserves, even if that means the book was sometimes painful to read. With that being said, the book also isn't sad and depressing just for the sake of being sad and depressing. And I honestly wasn't ready for it to end when it did. I wanted it to go on and tell me more. So I guess it wasn't too painful if I wanted it to continue.

Favorite Moment: Any moment when Aysel was able to see how her family really feels about her.

Favorite Character: This was actually pretty tough for me to choose, but I finally landed on Aysel. She is hurting, and her decisions are a result of being tired of being in constant emotional pain. While that isn't exactly fun to read about, I didn't feel like Aysel was playing the victim. The reader gets access to the thoughts she refused to express to people in her life. And maybe the fact that I still liked her even with knowing all of her deep dark secrets is proof that she should reach out more to the people around her. 

Recommended Reading: I think Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead would be a great follow-up to this book. With both novels, the importance of communication and reaching out to people close to them play a key role in the narrators' healing.       

Friday, April 10, 2015

Nonfiction: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

There was no way I could pass up a book with such a title as this one. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae was a no-brainer as far as books to pick out for this blog. I didn't know much about Issa Rae before picking up this book, but knowing that the book's title comes from her award winning web series of the same was enough fr me. Also, it doesn't hurt that I feel like "awkward black girl" could have been applied to me when I was younger...pfft! Who am I kidding? It could still be applied to me now.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book written by Jo-Issa Rae Diop, an actor, writer, and YouTube personality. From the outset, Rae admits that the reader will have a hard time keeping up with the many locations changes throughout the book, as she and her family moved around a lot, mostly between the east and west coasts, with a few trips to Senegal thrown in for good measure. And while the book is focused heavily on Rae's life growing up as an awkward black girl (ABG), other chapters include one on the many different types of black people, of which the ABG is one; the different types of co-workers; black hair and Rae's struggle with her own; and even a guide on how to eat in public if you aren't the most grateful eater. I have to admit, the advice in this section may prove useful to me as my mother, and even one friend in college (Keysha H. I am looking in your direction), has had to shout "Get your head out your plate!" at me on more occasions than I care to mention. Even when talking about her own personal experiences, Rae does not hold back and even courageously confronts, head on, her parent's marriage and divorce. Rae does not pull punches when talking about what happened, how she felt, how she still feels, and how she reacted. She is also honest about her relationships with guys, the mistakes she has made, and the lessons she learned. And of course, something else that Rae is completely upfront about, is how painfully awkward she can be. Many of the awkward moments even come from her attempt to connect with other black people, whether it be through music, dancing, television, or even fashion. She talks openly about her past need of validation from other black people of her own blackness. Yeah, it's a fascinating thing many people just don't know about, but it's there.

My Verdict: The "awkward black girl" market may seem like a niche one, and maybe it is, but there are more of us than people think. And I think the publication of this book is a kind of testament to that. While the book is often funny, as I mentioned before, it is mostly just honest. In fact, it is the kind of honest that makes me wonder how her parents feel about their lives being laid out like this in their daughter's book. But really, if you're going to write a memoir, or anything nonfiction really, you have to be prepared to tell the truth, and that is what Rae does. And of course, I think that more than just awkward black girls would love and benefit from reading this book. It has been lumped together with Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and earned praise from Kaling herself, as well as Lena Dunham of Girls fame, and Larry Wilmore, the "Senior Black Corespondent" on The Daily Show. I certainly recommend it as a window into a world that many people just don't know about.

Favorite Moment: While the time she quotes Junot Diaz comes in at a close second, I think I'll have to pick her descriptions of the different types of black people. Seriously, it is useful stuff.

Favorite Quote: When talking about "The Nerdy Black": "For the general population, try not to confuse the Nerdy Black with hipsters. Nobody cares about hipsters and they don't even deserve a category." Zing!

Recommended Reading: I think Baratunde Thurston's How to Be Black would be the perfect follow-up to this. Also part autobiographical and incredibly funny, Thurston's book is an instruction manual (of sorts) for anyone out there, black people included, curious to know what it takes to actually be black.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Door Stop: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

While Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago isn't as big of a novel as some of my other choices over 500 pages long (Atlas Shrugged, War and Peace, and Don Quixote are the ones that immediately come to mind), it is still a door stop, and a Russian one at that. But I managed to make it through and put together a post about it for today.

The Situation: The book opens in 1903 in Imperial Russia, and Yurii Zhivago is attending the funeral of his mother. His father had long abandoned him, but the narrator soon tells of the man's suicide by train after having squandered all of his money. Zhivago is taken in by his mother's brother, Nikolai Nikolaevich, who eventually moves him to Moscow to live with the Gromeko's, who have children of their own. It is under the Gromeko's roof that Zhivago will end up meeting the two most important women in his life, Tonia and Lara. Tonia is Alexander and Ana Gromeko's daughter, and she and Zhivago essentially grow up together. On her deathbed, Ana declares the two betrothed to one another before she finally passes away. Meanwhile, Lara lives with her mother and is tormented by a scandalous affair with an older man, Komarovsky. It is while Zhivago witnesses a scene between Lara and Komarovsky that he becomes infatuated with her.

The Problem: Eventually, Zhivago marries Tonia, while Lara marries her boyfriend Pasha. However, none of this stops him from loving her. Their paths cross when Zhivago is working as a doctor in a military hospital in another town, and Lara shows up in that same town looking for her husband and begins working as a nurse. They become good friends, but nothing more, and eventually Zhivago returns to Tonia. But their paths cross again when Zhivago and his wife flee to the Ural Mountains due to the hostilities during the October Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War, where he spots Lara while visiting the local library and follows her home. It is during one of his many visits back to her apartment that they end up beginning an official affair. This complication will end up being overshadowed by the events of the Russian Civil War, as Zhivago's skills as a doctor are highly sought after, diverting whatever plans he had for living his own life. Loving just one woman will prove to be a luxury, much less trying to love two.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in early 20th century Russia. The novel starts in 1903 with the funeral of Zhivago's mother, and ends after his death, continuing into World War II. For pretty much the entire novel, there is some sort of fighting going on whether it be a war or a revolution. Much of what Zhivago decides to do with his life and where he decides to live is contingent upon what is going on in Russia politically. The fighting doesn't initially introduce him to Lara, but he does end up reuniting with her several times over the course of his life because of it and how he must navigate around it. Zhivago, much like Pasternak, was the consummate individual and realized that the revolution would not allow him to be the individual he wanted to be. And because of the novel's individual stance, the Russian government refused to publish it, so Pasternak had it published abroad. The US government actually saw the novel as great propaganda to be used against the Soviets both because of its political stance, and the fact that the Russians were so adamant to not have it in print. 

My Verdict: While I think that overall the novel made for a great story, I had a very hard time seeing it as a romantic story or a moving biography like so many other people seem to do. Part of that may be my inability to have any sympathy or feeling for the actual character of Dr. Zhivago. I couldn't quite fully believe his supposed devotion to his wife Tonia, while he was so willing and eager to visit Lara and carry on his affair with her. And while he seemed to be a decent doctor, I still felt he was lacking as a man. And perhaps Zhivago is supposed to be a product of the conflict and turmoil that was going on in Russia at the time. But even so, when the man was able to be with his wife, he willingly chose to visit another woman, who was also married to someone else. As for it being a touching biography, I couldn't see much about Zhivago's life that would merit someone making a point in writing a biography about him.

Favorite Moment: When Zhivago is first discovering the library in the town of Yuriatin. The scene reminded me of the feelings I get when going through a library for the first time.

Favorite Character: I actually can't seem to choose a favorite character for this novel. I am tempted to choose Tonia, Zhivago's wife, but she honestly isn't in that much of the book compared to some of the other characters.

Recommended Reading: I you wish to read more Russian literature that includes stories or romance and heartbreak, then I recommend Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It is a lot longer, but not as long as War and Peace, which would also be a good choice.