Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbovsky

Really, really enjoyed this. An intelligent and witty coming of age story that's full of charm and emotion- not a desperate teen-aged emotion, like you might expect, but an intelligent emotion that sort of acknowledges the immortality of youth, but also the briefness of it.

The narrator, Charlie, is a little obsessed with the concept of memory and time, worrying whether these are his glory days and he isn't noticing it, and if he'll tell his kids stories about his past. He worries that his kids will see pictures of his youth and think he looked happier at their age than they feel now. Charlie seems too to understand the complexities of life, feelings and relationships, whilst also being quite bad at conducting them. He sees things that others don't, he's painfully honest, socially awkward and inexperienced, but incredibly intelligent and aware of everything. He's also the best gift giver since Santa Claus, stunning his friends to silence with his incredibly personal and thoughtful presents.

The narrative is told through a collection of letters addressed to somebody that Charlie knows that we don't. He claims that he's chosen this person to write to because "she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have." The letters are his way of understanding what's happening in his life and dealing with his unusual moods and his over-sensitivity. He talks about the tragic deaths of his friend Michael and his much loved aunt, events which affected him a great deal and continue to govern his occasionally erratic behaviour. Though we later find out something about one of these people that has probably caused more of Charlie's problems than he initially reveals. We follow his struggles to cope with adolescence; sex, drugs, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, homosexuality, domestic abuse, teenage pregnancy, abortion and rape.  It sounds a lot of "issues" for such a short book, but it handles them in a characteristically straightforward, if slightly bemused way.  Whilst it's pretty safe to assume the average teenager won't have experienced the entire plethora of issues detailed in the book, most will have probably have had some experience with some of them, either directly or through friends.  It's pretty easy to relate to the experience of Charlie' even if your adolescence was less eventful. Though it may sound disproportionately grim, Chbovsky captures some beautiful moments in the story. The sense of possibility and promise that comes with being 16, the feeling of being infinite- finding the books and the songs and the films that will be the soundtrack to your life and wanting to live in and remember every moment.

I think that was one of the most successful things in the book, and something that I'm sure the majority of readers can relate to- the way the author acknowledges that families are messy. A lot of the time they have nothing in common besides a handful of genetic material. But families are strong, and despite the agonies and the arguments, tears and overwhelming urge to strangle stuff, families do care for each other and will pull together when they need to.

More in the vein of SE Hinton's The Outsiders than Catcher in the Rye, though parallels obviously exist. It's more about learning to be yourself, to realise what it is that makes you unique and to deal with being unusual then it is about being unhappy or disillusioned, or being a moaning little rich boy like Holden.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Wonder, by RJ Palacio

Argh, where do you start with a book this good?  I'm running a Carnegie Shadowing Scheme this term, so I'm getting to read a lot of excellent YA literature.

Wonder, is brilliant.  August, the first narrator is intelligent, sensitive and funny, but he's facially disfigured which has affected his entire life.  His older sister knows she's always going to come second to her brother's needs, and what's so sad is that she totally accepts it.  Not because she's noble, or because she's a martyr but because she loves her little bro.  However much August's family might treat him like he is 'normal', and however normal August feels, in reality he sticks out like a sore thumb.  His descriptions of his first term of school are agonising- it's tough for any kid, but for somebody as eye catching as Auggie it's devastating.  He talks about the stares and the whispers, the betrayal that he experiences and his desperate attempts to fit into life in Middle school and how he learns to stand up for himself and for his friends.

The first person narrative is warm, authentic and full of a strange sort of energetic youthful intelligence.  I kept forgetting that this was written by an adult woman, the voice of August is so compelling and his story feels so thoroughly genuine.  I thought the reference to "The Cheese Touch" from Diary of a Wimpy Kid was a really nice touch, too.  The tone of the writing is pretty similar, to be honest.  Like Greg the Wimpy Kid, August doesn't want to be popular or academically outstanding, he just wants to be unremarkable, to keep his head down and get through school in one piece. The constant scrutiny and judgement, the struggle to fit in and the social minefield of being 10 is something that every person can relate to, whether they have August's condition or not.

We hear from other people in August's circle of family and friends- for a little kid he seems to have a big impact on people's lives.  There's diary entries from his handful of friends from school about their first impressions of him and how his personality and spirit won them round, stories from his sister about how August's condition has impacted her upbringing and her relationships and the struggle she has between her feelings that she has for her brother- shame, pride, love and jelousy.  Ultimately, in comparison to her brother she feels that her life is simple and that she can't complain.  We also hear from her boyfreind who is new to it all, and his sister's best friend who's known August his whole life.

It's a cliché to say it's what's on the inside that counts, but that's something that this book really drives home.  Disability of any kind has such a variety of social stigma attached to it, and as much as people are curious about people that look or act differently- the fact still remains that we are all people.  And that's pretty much all that there is to it.  It made me want to be a nicer person, which is an impressive feeling for a book to evoke.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A Boy and A Bear in a Boat, by Dave Shelton

Hmmmm.  For the first Carnegie 2013 shortlist book I've read, it's not off to the best start.

A small boy  boards a boat captained by a bear.  A talking, rowing, boat owning bear.  With opposable oar-holding-thumbs and everything.  The origins of this remarkable creature are never revealed.  The boy never asks.  I get that it's a kid's book and animals do all kinds of crazy shiz in books, but I'm still trying to work this particular story out.  The boy, incidentally, talks about his mum, school and so on, so it's safe to assume that up until this point he has led a relatively normal existence.

Speaking of never revealed, we also do not find out where this unusual duo are headed.  The boy simply asks to be boated to "the other side".  Things that we do discover: bears like tea, but not fire.  Polish comics are indecipherable to the non-polish.  Elderley sandwiches are not appealing.  A Captain is only as good as his hat.

I can't quite decide who this book is pitched at.  (Is this one of the judging criteria?) On the surface, it's a simplistic narrative.  Nothing particularly hard to understand happens.  A sea monster, some fishing, a couple of games...I guess it is an adventure story, but it's a very mildly paced adventure story, gently pootling along.  The language is seemingly simple, the sentences are short.  However, thrown in every so ofter are random passages that are actually quite conceptual, ironic or sarcastic.  Not the sort of thing that you would find in a book aiming for the readership that this book appears to be aiming for.  The sort of thing which makes you wonder why the sentences are so short or the majority of the language very simple.  It's pretty disjointed really.

I did enjoy the role reversal that began to happen in the latter part of the book- the reluctant boy has to become brave and has to learn to be part of a team, embracing sudden leadership when the (until recently) good spirited and eternally optemistic bear has a sudden, pretty justified, crisis of confidence...

Bear. Boy. Boat. Moon.
All in all, I'm not keen.  I can see why it was shortlisted because it is unusual.  BUT.  It has no identifiable beginning, a load of random middle, and then no discernible ending.  However, the illustrations are brilliant, I do enjoy a good picture.  In all, the whole books feels like a picture book that has been extended to prose.  If it wasn't a picture book, then the author has missed a trick. 
Would probably be nice read aloud though.  But it would take quite a while.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

Another Broadway Book club choice, another debut novel that I would have never usually read! This novel tells the story of a middle aged couple, Jack and Mabel, in the 1920s who, after a tragic miscarriage of a much-wanted and only child, move to the Alaskan frontier to start again.  They've grown apart over the years and their lack of children has only served to distance them more.  In a rare spell of happiness and bonding, they build a snow-child one night in their yard and after that are visited each winter by what they believe to be their snow child made real.

One of the best things about this book is the sense of place that is established.  Although, I always find that snowy locations always come alive much more easily than any other type of setting.  Independent of what is written by whom, there's a magic quality about snow that allows the imagination to really go crazy.  You would have to be a truly inept author to not manage to make snow seem real and magical.  

We did discuss this book at our meeting last week, but I'm going to limit this post to the thoughts that I had whilst reading it, or it would be huge!

I don't really believe in spoilers, but I know some people do, so:

*Spoilers*   *Spoilers*  *Spoilers*

I think the thing that annoyed me the most about this book was that it tried to be two things at one.  The author is trying to have her ambiguity cake and eat it.  Ivey goes to great length to illustrate the other-worldliness of the snow child.  She's a fairy, a nymph, a ghost or a spirit.  She describes how she appears and disappears in the blink of an eye, she's so slight and pale but is able to survive, alone and wearing only a thin dress and moccasins, the harsh and impossible winters in the Alaskan wilderness.  She wilts and overheats indoors, suggesting that she's almost made of snow.  She conjures flurries of flakes and leaves no footprints behind her in the snow.  For the first half of the book, this unknowingness is maintained.  Is Faina real or is she imaginary?  Whenever Mabel talks about her to Esther, her no nonsense, mother of four neighbour, it seems that there is no real evidence of the existence of Faina.  Nobody sees her over the course of about 8 years, she leaves no tracks, the snow angels she makes with Jack and Mabel disappear within minutes.  Esther humours her friend, but puts it down to 'Cabin Fever'.  Jack will never talk about Faina to anybody other than his wife.  This half of the novel works well.  It's never truly established either way.  BUT THEN.  We discover that Faina has a flesh and blood father.  He is dead, but he is real life none the less.  She is seen by other eyes.  She is seduced.  She becomes pregnant and produces a real-life baby.  There can be no ambiguity now.  However Ivey still tries to maintain the suggestion of other-worldliness.  But it just doesn't work now.  It can't now there is concrete evidence of her existence. 

Incidentally, the novel seemed to suggest that only by having children can a woman be made 'real'.  Esther is a productive, confident and fulfilled woman.  It seems that having 4 sons has played its part in this.  As Martha experiences her virtual mother/daughter relationship with her Snow Child, she becomes more independent, happier and productive.  She rides horses, shoots guns and plants turnips.  But it's only once she experiences a type of motherhood via Garret and Faina. Her improved relationship with her husband is attributed to the Faina factor too. On top of than, nobody sees Faina as a woman until she is pregnant.  I know it's set in the 1920s, so I guess people would've expected children, but it was written in 2012.  I'd have liked to have maybe seen a more modern attitude.   I'd like to think it's possible to entertain the possibility of a happy life without children.  Yet another reason why (in my opinion) Faina should've proven to be imaginary.  A placebo.

The first half, whist it maintains the unknown, I quite enjoyed.  I liked the relationship between Jack and Mabel, how they were slowly rebuilding their marriage.  Good friends, hard work and a new satisfaction in seeing real fruits of the labour made them into new people.  Their lives were no longer defined by void, like they had been in the past.  Their relationship with Garrett too, made good reading; how he could really flourish away from his own family and become a dependable, valued worker, friend and surrogate son.  I really liked Garret- with a bit more hardship and a bit more tragedy, he could have been from a Steinbeck novel.  Silent but self sufficient and a true outdoors man.  His whirlwind relationship with Faina in the latter part though felt laboured and unrealistic.  Like the tying up of loose ends.  He died for me as a real character as soon as he laid eyes on her.  The whole premise of the novel falls down, characters and all.

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkein

Well I have finally done it.  It's taken the best part of two decades, but I've finally read the Lord of the Rings in its magnificent entirity. 

This series is my literary Everest.  My mum's cousin, who is as far as I know, the only 'reader' in my family, bought me the snazzy boxed set for my 9th birthday (which would be 1997, just in the interests of full disclosure).  I attempted many times over the years to read it.  I got further and further with each attempt, the latest of which was during the 1st year of my Undergrad degree.  I though  "I'm doing a lit degree goddamit, I should be able to read this".  Boredom inevitably took over each time, and I gave up, concluding that traditional Fantasy (of the Ork/Elf/Wizard kind) was just not appealing to me in the slightest.

Until one day, it wasn't boring any more!  Hurrah!  I know that the vast majority of the world has seen the film and/or read the books, so I kind of feel like it's mostly pointless recounting anything about the plot.  Although to be honest, there isn't a great deal of one, not for a while at least...

The worst kept secret in literature...
The salient points are as follows, I suppose.  A Hobbit, a species that is by its nature home-loving and adventure shunning, comes into possession of what is probably the most powerful object to have ever been created.  The One Ring.  He is as surprised as anyone to learn this, and sets about wondering how to get rid of such an item.  The first instalment sees Frodo, the heroic Hobbit set out on his journey with three faithful companions to the Ring's place of origin in order to destroy it so that dark powers may never gain possession of it.  During their early travels (and after a few perilous events) the ranks of their Fellowship are swelled by an enigmatic Elf (Legolas), a mysterious but inexplicable awe-inspiring hermit badass named Arragorn/Strider (he goes by many names, incidentally), Boromir representing the race of Men, heir of the Stweardship of Gondor, Gandalf the Grey and Gimli, the grumpy Dwarf.  The nine of them vow to do what and all they can to ensure that Frodo make it to Modor in as few pieces as possible in order that he be able to fulfil his quest and rid Middle Earth of the influence of the evil Sauron forever.  Sauron himself is conspicuous by his absence for almost the whole book.  He manifests himself briefly (Seriouly, of over 1000 pages, he gets like a single line of actual appearance) and only when he's defeated.  The whole book works on the concept that evil is an infection really, that Sauron may be the origin of the Evil vibes, but that weakness and cowardice in great numbers combined with even the most singular source of evil is what is threatens to destroy the world.

What can you say about a story that has been analysed and discussed in the most unimaginably minute detail? I mean some people live and breathe this. There are full blown Middle-Earth historians in real life. Tolkein has created a world that is so real that it has it's own mythology and lore, several of its own languages and calenders, its own history and legends.  It's much funnier than I remembered, Gimli and Merry & Pippin are all very funny characters and some of their dialogue is brilliant.  I feel like I must also give a special mention to Treebeard the Ent, as I just wished that Ents were real!  It's as British as socks and sandals too.  Even the most epic and deadly quest in fiction stops for tea and a pipe of tobacco.

Middle Earth in All its Glory
There's tragedy, there's treachery, sacrifice and sorcery, there are more songs, poems, ballads and odes than you can shake a stick at.  There are small battles, fought hand to hand, there are epic battles fought over entire realms.  If the word "Epic" did not exist, it would have been coined to describe this narrative.  There is heroism on a very personal scale, and the type of heroism that ushers in new eras.  I really don't think it's possible to describe just how rich and full Tolkein's world is.  Not just full in terms of its inhabitants and its customs and lore, but the fullness of the landscape- every forest and bridge and every plain and mountain range is painstakingly described and populated, the grass feels real and the leaves feel real.  It really is remarkable.  Enjoyed it so, so much.  It's a commitment, and it takes some powering through at the beginning, but it really is one of the most incredible narratives I've ever read.

My only criticism is of myself, for being so daft as to keep giving up on this.  But I suppose it proves that there really is no such thing as the wrong book, simply the right book at the wrong time.  Also Boromir never actually says "One does not simply walk into Mordor".  That, it seems, is a Peter Jackson invention.  I know.  Console yourself...