Friday, April 29, 2016

"Preparation for the Next Life": An Achingly Gritty Love Story

But, he said, you cannot have these beautiful things if you lead a bad life, if you are sinning, doing what you want.  of course you must live properly and obey the law.  he pointed at the bilingual Arabic and English sign over the mosque's doorway, which he read aloud for her.  It said Preparation for the Next Life. 

Sometimes reading a book hurts.

Atticus Lish's highly praised debut novel "Preparation for the Next Life" might just break your heart. It might make you rethink The Patriot Act.  It might make you understand the endless cycle of tragedy that many veterans face.  It might make you consider the plight of illegal immigrants who only want to work hard and find a way in to the American dream.  It might make you ponder what real love means, and sacrifice, and poverty, and PTSD, and prison release, and justice.

I'm still thinking about the edgy story of Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from Central Asia, who only wants a better life, but finds instead a dirty mattress in a New York tenement building that redefines living in the slums.  She meets Skinner who is fresh off of his third, violent tour in Iraq.  While she wants to work and make New York City her home and prove that she can make it as an American, he wants to find a good time and forget the lost friends and exploding life in Iraq.

Their story broke my heart.

Skinner isn't a bad guy, but his circumstances made it hard for him to be a good guy.  He suffers from PTSD and suffers even more from the neglect of the U.S. Government after he served 3 tours in Iraq. Drinking, drugs (prescription and non-prescription), smoking and pornography cloud his days spent in a small basement apartment in Queens.  Zou Lei tells him "Something has shook your mind.  It could be some bruise inside the head." Maybe that is why he chooses the terrible place to reside where he's only asking for trouble due to his landlady's  ultra violent son, Jimmy who recently was released from prison.

Zou Lei and Skinner fall in love even though she is older than he is, even though she is an illegal immigrant, and even though he is sometimes very mean and rough with her.  They bond over an almost spiritual love of hard workouts.  She loves to run (which comes in handy for her many times throughout this novel) and he loves to push his body over his edge with weightlifting.

Lish's style is jarring and coarse and at times hard to slog through.  Each sentence is densely packed with details.  There are no quotation marks for dialogue and everything in this novel is grim, depressing and violent.  At times the song "Skid Row" from the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" popped in my head, but even skid row is too happy of a place for Skinner and Zou Lei who can't get a break regardless of how much they try.  And they do try to get ahead, but life and circumstances don't always allow them to get where they want to go.

It's a tough read, but I was reminded of Ken Kesey and his rambling "fog" chapters with the Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There is power in the rambling stream of consciousness writing style of Lish and the book needs the grittiness of the prose to tell the story truthfully.

Life isn't always beautiful, and this book is a harsh reminder of that brutal reality.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"A Monster Calls": Letting the truth loose

"Stories are wild creatures," the monster says.  "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

Back in the summer of 2011, I attended a Summer Writing Institute at Millersville University.  The professor in charge of the whole institute recommended the book 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness to all of us.  I paged through it when she passed it around for us to inspect; it looked dark, and creepy - a twisted childhood nightmare.

It's not that at all.

This book is one that I will be recommending to everyone, and one that I am so glad my daughter, Raina, and I chose for our 2nd mother / daughter book club selection.

I finished it in a day.  Raina (who is now in 5th grade) finished it in about 3 days.  We both loved it.

The premise of the book is that thirteen year old Conor is visited by a giant yew tree monster different from the monster in his reoccurring nightmares.  The visiting monster tells Conor that he only comes walking in matters of life and death.  Conor's mother has been very sick so Conor believes the monster is there to save her, but in reality what the monster wants more than anything is for Conor to tell the story of his truth.  When the clock strikes 12:07,  the monster comes walking and shares 3 separate stories with Conor that explore the complexity of human beings.

Big questions of evil and good, invisibility and loneliness, loss and pain, the power of holding on to our beliefs, betrayal, revenge, and telling the truth resonate through this beautifully crafted novel.

The story itself was inspired by Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer before she was able to write it. Ness does her story incredible justice and 'A Monster Calls' won both the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration (the illustrations by Jim Kay are haunting and absolutely perfect for this novel).

Raina and I decided to go out for sushi (which she discovered that she loves on our trip to Mexico ).  At first she was distracted by the activity or people pouring into our favorite local sushi place, Kumi.  But when we started uncovering the layers of the monster's 3 stories, she got her quizzical look on her face and asked important questions and gave insights into what she believes in situations where the truth is involved.  We discussed at length when it is important to lie to yourself and when it is important to tell the truth because the monster tells Conor "Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all." Most people in the book (with the exception of the monster) lie to Conor possibly to protect him, but it is only to his detriment.

I don't want to give the entire story of this book away, so I will stop gushing about it.  Know that it is short.  It isn't necessarily a happy book, but there are moments that the banter between the monster and Conor might make you smile.  You also might cry, but I don't think this book will give you nightmares of any sort.  It will stick with you after you finish it. And, it will make you think deeply about the complexities of the human spirit; we often have contradictory thoughts, but it is our actions that are most important of all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda": A new spin on YA romance

We all keep secrets.

In high school, those who we had the biggest crushes on rarely knew our true feelings.  I remember staring at that back of one my crushes in my AP English course every single day knowing that I would die of embarrassment if he ever found out.

In Becky Albertalli's debut novel, 'Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda' she deals with the coming of age / coming out / first love story of Simon Spiers, a 16 year old, whose secret email correspondence with the mysterious Blue is about to blown wide open by Martin, a class clown who blackmails Simon to help him get closer to Simon's friend, Abby.  Martin stumbles upon Simon's open email to Blue in the school library and takes a screenshot of it explaining to Simon that he truly believes most people would be totally cool with him being gay at the same time he tells Simon that if he doesn't help him with Abby, he'd share the email with others.

That's just not cool.

So Simon sweats it.

He worries about Blue who wants his identity to be concealed.  He worries about how his totally heterosexual 'Bachelor' addicted family will take the news if they find out he is gay. He worries about his friend Abby and how he will actually get her to even notice the goofy and annoying Martin.  He's always just worrying about something because when we have our secrets that we don't want others to know, it makes us worry when we think they might find out the truth.

Albertalli does a great job of creating lovable characters that her readers adore and want to protect.  Her years as a clinical psychologist helped her get inside their heads and create believable email correspondences as well as believable high school drama (and we aren't just talking about Simon's role in his high school's theater production of Oliver).  There's friend drama and love drama beyond Simon and Blue, but the sweetest moments of this book come in the form of Blue and Simon's growing email flirtation and Blue's concealed identity.

In their emails they discuss family and friends as well as the burden of coming out.  "Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it shouldn't be this big awkward thing whether you're straight, gay, bi or whatever.  I'm just saying." It's true.  It's hard enough to deal with being in love and revealing your vulnerability to another or your family when you are straight, but adding the extra pressure of society's perception is almost soul crushing.

In the twists and turns of this novel, Albertalli tries to keep it real.  And it feels mostly real until the truth comes out and then all the sudden things feel too easy like the wrap up at the end of Family Ties. Maybe I am cynical after teaching high school for so long, but not everyone would be so excepting of homosexuality and those who chose to voice their distaste would not be dealt with so swiftly.  Don't get me wrong, we've come so far even in the last 5 years, but there are still a bunch of close minded individuals who are under the guise that their religion tells them that homosexuality is wrong who have plenty of support for their beliefs, too.

I'm glad, though, that love in this novel, prevails vs. ignorance. I'm glad that Simon doesn't succumb to the few haters.  I'm glad that all the friends stay friends and that Simon's family is as awesome as they are.

I needed a fun, quirky, nerdy love story to restore my faith in homo sapiens everywhere, and that is just what 'Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda' does.

Becky Albertalli has a long and beautiful writing career ahead of her with many devoted fans who are eagerly awaiting another novel.  And that's no secret.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"The Vacationers": A Book to Take On Vacation

I just returned from a fabulous vacation in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.  Living in Chicagoland means that weather through April is iffy at best.  One sunny day of 65 degrees can easily transgress into a snowy day of 39 degrees.  On Saturday (the day we returned from Mexico where the weather was 85 degrees and sunny every day), Mother Nature melted down with one huge 24 hour tantrum.  It rained, it snowed, the sun came out, and then we even had thundersnow before the winds started punishing us for being human.

Because I was lucky enough to rejuvenate in Mexico, the tantrum didn't bother me.  I stayed inside and snuggled up next to the fire with a big cup of coffee and finished the second book that I took with me to Mexico - Emma Straub's novel "The Vacationers."

I admit that I purchased the book because of the pretty cover with the people floating in a pool of aqua blue (my favorite color).  It's a shallow reason for purchasing a book, but it called to me on the table of recommended reading at Barnes and Noble.  I'm so glad it did, because from the first chapter I was addicted to the story of the Post family's two week vacation to Mallorca, Spain.

The Posts are a family in crisis.  Jim, the 60 year old Post patriarch, recently retired from his job as Editor at the magazine Gallant, and spends his days moping around the house.  His early and abrupt retirement stemmed from his affair with a 20 something intern named Madison.  She tempted him and he gave in to her youthful seduction and was "let go" by the board.  His wife, Franny who is a food journalist and loves to cook, vows to never forgive him his transgression.  Their daughter, Sylvia, a petulant college bound slacker is saddened by her parents, but even more disgusted by her gym rat brother, Bobby, who has become a Miami stereotype - a muscle clad, club hopper who hates his real estate job and is indifferent to his cougar girlfriend, Carmen.  No one in the family enjoys Carmen's company because her thoughts veer to physical fitness all the time and she shares no common interests with the cultured Posts.

Along with the four Posts and Carmen, a gay couple, Charles and Lawrence join the family for this two week getaway.  Charles is Franny's oldest friend and confident and his decade younger husband, Lawrence is set on adopting a baby.

Once they arrive in Mallorca, the tensions and truths start to come out.  All of the Posts and even Charles and Lawrence must deal with infidelity in some way throughout the 14 day stay (the book's chapters are divided by the days - 14 chapters for the 14 day vacation).  Sylvia is still reeling from her kinda sorta boyfriend's betrayal with her best friend, and Bobby gets into predicaments because he doesn't want a long term commitment to Carmen.  Even Charles and Lawrence must deal with infidelity.

The men in the book are a bit drab with the exception of Sylvia's Spanish Calvin Klein model tutor, Joan (pronounced Jo-ahhhn).  Jim's sullen sulkiness becomes redundant, and Bobby's adolescent behavior is boorish.  Charles and Lawrence are almost indistinguishable.  Sylvia, Franny and Carmen add some spice to the book, but oddly the ones that are supposedly unlikable become likable.  Franny bugged me more than Jim.  Sylvia was more annoying that Bobby in parts.  And Carmen, the one the family liked the least, was at times the most genuine and likable character in the book even if her whole life revolved around the next workout and protein shake.

Nonetheless, the setting in the mountains of Mallorca along with the conversations and thoughts of the characters and their dinners together (tense and delicious), were enough to sustain a great narrative revolving around growth.

How do you move on after failure and heartbreak? How do you start the next phase of your life? How do you know for certain when it's time to move on in a different direction? All of these questions are central to this story and Straub is able to equally capture the tension and the wit in delicate family situations.

Even with the too quick wrap up at the end of the novel which seemed less than real, the rest of the story pulses with the times in life where we are conflicted with who we are and what decisions we need to make to move forward.  And who doesn't love a vacation story that ends well (especially when reading a book about a vacation on a vacation)?