Feb 26, 2012
by Perry Moore
When one is sixteen or seventeen or even eighteen-years-old, existing—not living, for living is an altogether different notion, a different concept which requires effort and certainty and, even in the vaguest sense of the word, goals that existing do not necessarily require—is difficult enough, what with high school and hormones and the world being, in true teenage vernacular, unfair. Thom Creed is no stranger to these things because they are exactly what he is burdened with. And because the world is unfair, he is also gay and has superpowers, both of which he tries to hide from his once-hero-but-is-now-shamed-father.
It doesn’t end there: one particularly horny night, as Thom browses on his father’s laptop smut images of Uberman and playing with himself, he accidentally drops the computer, destroying it. To Thom’s horror, his father, oblivious to the condition of his computer, brings it to work the following day. Thinking that the pictures of an obviously edited Uberman would still be on the computer even after it is repaired and Hal Creed eventually figuring out his son’s secret, Thom runs away. Before he knows it, villains are hijacking the bus he’s on. The League comes to the rescue, and witnessing Thom exhibiting his powers (unintentionally)—healing a mortally mounded civilian—Captain Victory recruits him to be a part of the League’s probationary squad. Thom goes home finding, to his relief, the still-kaput laptop, and insisted to have it repaired with his own money. Everything goes well, his relationship with his father undamaged, and he’s managed to save a life and to be recruited by The League—but he now has two secrets to keep from his father and one, still, from everybody else.
If you have read comic books growing up, even if it weren’t something you grew up to love, reading Perry Moore’s Hero is not unlike the experience you get from reading comic books; in fact, you could almost imagine the story progress panel by colorful panel, the font, the costumes, and the flying instead of the narrative format of the novel. Perry Moore’s prose is light. It is not overbearing. Equal parts sincere, tragic, and funny. But what makes this book stand out from other LGBT-themed Y.A. literature lies in the manner in which the novel’s theme is explored: Thom Creed is a superhero and he’s gay—but Hero is not at all a book about being gay, or at the very least, not only about Thom’s being gay; the particular is not rubbed into the readers’ faces as hard as most novels with similar themes are. Thom Creed tells his story the only way a fifteen-year-old know how and shows his world the way his eyes see it: immature, raw, heartfelt, borderline-angsty, borderline-sappy, but above all, Thom paints himself and his world believably.
Add to the already perfect mix are the wonderfully written characters: Typhoid Larry (whose power can literally make people sick), Scarlett (a hot girl with a fiery tongue and blazing attitude), Ruth (an old lady equipped with precognition), and Golden Boy (he’s basically The Flash of the novel). Hero also pays homage to the already existing superheroes we have know by naming most of the members of the League after their obvious counterparts—Warrior Woman (complete with her lariat and tiara), Captain Victory, Uberman—which treads along the line bordering parody, and is very amusing.
The late producer of The Chronicles of Narnia did know how to tell a story, and a good story at that: The very comic-esque battle sequences; Thom’s love for his father and his father’s love for him, love both of which do not know how to express; what it feels like to lead a double life, to have two identities, constantly afraid of being found out; the constant search for love and belonging and for that “one moment in their lifetime when an entire crowd of people cheers them on for something, one moment to feel exceptional, one moment that lets you know you really do mean something in the universe.” Reading the book, one senses the very palpable feeling that everything is possible and has a happy ending—as it should be. And to be honest, it feels like flying.
Sep 28, 2011
You Shall Know Our Velocity!
By Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers does not drive you into the heart of his sentences in the shortest, most direct path; he takes you in an elaborately circuitous route, but a route teeming with beautiful landscapes and scenery you would not otherwise have seen, would be glad to have seen, without ever having to stop to refuel, always fast, always moving. He will send you, sometimes quite literally, going from one place to another, soaring and spinning and tumbling, and then back again with his minute details and vivid descriptions and words you wish you have written.
And he has an equally robust story to match in You Shall Know Our Velocity!.
Will, the troubled, literally distorted protagonist, and Hand, his equal parts annoying and hilarious and exasperating and hysterical best friend, go around the world to disburse $32,000, in one week. A doomed cause at the outset, but that is beside the point, or is it really?
The story, narrated by Will, is set “after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.” If you are one who follows a certain “one hundred page rule,” you might not immediately like the book (or not at all) because for almost three-fourths of it the only detail about the main plot you have with you, and that you will find yourself coming back to is the fact that Jack died (who is Jack? how did Jack die? How is Jack’s death relevant to Will and Hand and their plan to give away $32,000, across the globe, in one week?), and before Will and his mother drowns in a burning ferry in Colombia, which is briefly mentioned at the beginning but is not really part of the story, at least not immediately, and nothing more that has relative value. Eggers gives away the core of the story so frugally it comes across as useless information which, depending on how much affection you have for Eggers, may or may not appear admirable, may or may not appear frustrating, but what he lacks in that department, in giving away details of the plot, he compensates with the geniuses that is Will and Hand, with their wit and humor and flawless dialogue, with Eggers’ beautiful writing.
It is not until the last one hundred or so pages that we finally understand what their journey is for, why they are where they are and why the $32,000 must be given away, why it is titled “You Shall Know Our Velocity!” Toward the end is the part where everything finally makes sense: this is a story about grieving and making amends and finding one’s purpose in this world, not merely to find meaning in existing, but meaning in living. And for a writer to be able to make his reader stick to the story, however frustrating it may seem at the beginning, on the surface, until the very end takes great skill, and Dave Eggers has exactly just that and exhibits it fiercely, unapologetically, and has written an ultimately beautiful story.
May 19, 2011
by Susanna Kaysen
Girl, Interrupted is a book about Susanna Kaysen’s admission at McLean Psychiatric Hospital from April 27, 1967 to September 4, 1969, during which time she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
The book is as much about mental illnesses as it is about discovering oneself. Although the author drives us toward the particulars of mental illness, what it is and what it does, she inconspicuously veers us away from it and tells us what it meant to her, how she sees it. Kaysen plays with the idea that she had been wrongly diagnosed. At eighteen she was showing signs attributed to Borderline Personality Disorder, and though she pleads guilty to these charges (instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood; uncertainty about long-term goals or career choice), she then asks, “Isn’t this a good description of adolescence?”
Kaysen chronicles the condition of her fellow patients and the harsh system they were subjected into at McLean, famous for its clienteles Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles. Security screens. Checks. Maximum-security wards. Seclusion Rooms. It paints a vivid picture of the inner workings of a mental hospital. We are also introduced to McLean’s resident patients. There is sociopath, Lisa, an ex-junkie who enjoys harassing staff members; a disfigured patient Polly, hospitalized for schizophrenia and depression; Kaysen’s roommate, Georgina Tuskin, hospitalized for schizophrenia; and the “seasonal event” Daisy with her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Another argument this memoir explores are the themes related to mental illness and the society’s perception toward it. In Mind vs. Brain, Kaysen distinguishes the Mind, a series of thoughts that conceptualizes consciousness, from the Brain, a complex series of neurochemical processes, a distinction pertinent to treating either. There is also Velocity vs Viscosity, the fast and slow type of insanity, and Freedom vs. Captivity, a concept which believes that to be free, one must be held captive.
The book raises evocative questions; some angry, some frightening, some even fantastic. But the most important question unfortunately seems unanswerable: just who exactly is crazy and who decides it?
May 9, 2011
Look at the Birdie
by Kurt Vonnegut
Look at the Birdie is a collection of “unpublished” short stories by the late Kurt Vonnegut, published in 2009 two years after his death. In this anthology we are given a rare glimpse of a young Vonnegut, years before he was heralded as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, finding his voice in his earlier works as a writer, a style so exclusively his that we have found in his later works Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, among others.
Weather Vonnegut tells of a story of a seemingly magical—and inconspicuously evil—device that speaks through a person’s mind through an earpiece; of two myrmecologist brothers uncovering an ancient civilization seemingly disparate from theirs, but in truth most parallel to their own; or of a squabbling couple whose marriage is strained because of a petty misunderstanding; the reoccurring themes the fourteen stories in this book explores are the foibles of the mind, the perpetual battle between good and evil, the tragedy of the human folly, making all fourteen stories into one cohesive body.
They are all written with such deceiving simplicity you are left wondering what hit you at the end of each story. The titular story “Look at the Birdie” had the exterior of a pleasantly curious story but has left you with an eerily sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. Similarly, “Ed Luby’s Key Club,” (a personal favorite) a disturbing story of a corrupt town that begins in a gloomy tone, culminates in the vindication of the wronged and concludes in a field-of-rainbows-and-butterflies fashion, leaves you with the conviction that good will ultimately and always triumph over evil, that all of our endeavors will in due time be rewarded.
Look at the Birdie, true to Dave Eggers’ words, is “relentlessly fun to read.” All fourteen short stories. It’s rare to come across a good anthology of short stories these days, much less a posthumous one. But then again, it’s Kurt Vonnegut. So it goes.
Apr 28, 2011
Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea
by Chelsea Handler
You might have probably heard of her at some point or another; she’s started out as a stand up comic, had since published three books, and has her own late-night talk show Chelsea Lately. Chelsea Handler was known for her quick wit, outstanding sarcasm, and unapologetic sense of humor.
In this laugh-out-loud collection she incorporates her talents as a comedienne into text, making her stories completely her own. Are You There, Vokda? It’s Me, Chelsea recounts Handler’s pandemonium of an earlier life, how she inadvertently tells the whole school in third grade that she was planning a sequel to Private Benjamin with Goldie Hawn, experiences babysitting a fourteen year old sugar addict when she was twelve during one of their summers in Martha’s Vineyard, dating a read head, sojourn to Sybil Brand Prison for Woman that stemmed from a DUI arrest, and many other ridiculous situations she had woven herself in growing up.
Never mind Handler’s not being a brilliant writer, forget the lack of nuggets of wisdom and sudden epiphanies. If you can establish a relationship with a book, however strange that relationship may be so long as you’ve enjoyed its company, then, by all means, it is a good book. (That is why jettisoning a dull read is not a crime; there really is no point in reading a literature you find no interest in. You wouldn’t learn from it, the same way you’ve never learned anything past Algebra in Mathematics.) The simple reason why I liked this book is this: it made me laugh. It was a breezy read, undemanding, and simply hilarious.
There is nothing more I can say about the book but this: If you don’t like her sense of humor, chances are you wouldn’t really enjoy reading this collection and might end up chucking it out the window; if you do, you’ll like it just fine.
Apr 17, 2011
by Richard Milward
In Richard Milward’s debut novel, Apples, you’d think nightly hardcore partying, sex, drugged up, booze-guzzling teenagers, are as normal and prevailing as the ever so dreary weather of England. Perhaps it is, for I have never been there and I wouldn’t really know. Nevertheless, the book explores such themes in the lives of young teenagers in the port of Middlesborough in northern England. Narrated by protagonists Adam and Eve, as well as few secondary characters, a streetlamp, and a butterfly, it tells the story of modern-day, not-so-commonplace English teens and their lifestyles.
The story—there wasn’t much of it, to tell you the truth; Apples is a collection of vignettes that, although chronologically sequenced, imposes an impression of walking along that proverbial long and winding road which goes nowhere. Fortunately, all you have to know is this: Adam, an awkward, socially-inept teenager with a case of OCD, and gets constantly beat up by his father, is madly and hopelessly in love with Eve, the too-hot-to-handle blonde bombshell and every straight boy’s wet dream. Eve however is too cool, too gorgeous, too superior for her to even notice Adam’s existence. Incidentally, Eve’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and is dying, but that doesn’t stop her from her going out with her friends and getting mortalled every so often. Eventually the two establishes a friendly relationship, Adam grows a backbone and finally stands up to his father, one of Eve’s friends gets knocked up and ultimately throws the baby into the river, Eve’s mother’s condition gets worse and she gets knocked up herself, and loads more tumultuous events not really worth mentioning—a hot mess.
What made this book worthwhile was Richard Milward’s raw, matter-of-fact story telling. The narrators were deliberately devoid of emotional attachments to their accounts, in turn you don’t get engaged more than they are—and that’s a great thing. (I wouldn’t want to get too emotionally and mentally involved in Milward’s wayward and raucous and misfits of characters, thank you very much. That would require more effort than one could yield.) You become merely a witness of how their their lives pan out, neither caring much nor less, and you get to appreciate them more that way, I find. There were parts of the book that fondly regard: I especially adored the descriptive accounts of the butterfly and the streetlamp, it was cute; on the other hand, there was a particular chapter where Eve’s dyslexic friend narrates and it was read backwards (.sdrawkcab nwod sgniht deipoc I yllatnediccA) because, you guessed it, she was dyslexic. I hated it with a passion and I skipped it altogether. This book is admittedly not for everybody; Apples exploits strong explicit themes and unapologetically so. If you don’t like teenagers engaging in sexual activities, alcohol, and drugs, I doubt you would like this book.
In the end I never found out Milward’s reference to Apples and Adam and Eve, but perhaps I’m just reading too much between the lines.
Apr 5, 2011
Little Bee (The Other Hand)
by Chris Cleave
Little Bee is a story of a Nigerian refugee who seeks asylum in the land of the Great Britain, leaving the horrible oil conflict in the Niger Delta that had completely devastated her town and killed everyone in it. Sarah, a young mother and the editor for her magazine Nixie, met Little Bee in a beach in Nigeria two years before the events in the book, with her husband, Andrew, to save their marriage after an affair. The two women meet one tragic day and find themselves reconciling the bond they had once shared.
Chris Cleave has done a wonderful job portraying two very complex women with such intensity and believability that one would think he had not had any problems writing from a woman’s perspective. You have Little Bee, sweet and innocent and witty refugee girl who learned to speak the Queen’s English so that she could be like one of her people, who finds ways to kill herself wherever she is; should the man from her land come and capture her, she would not have to suffer. Then you have Sarah, the perverse, beautiful Surrey girl who marries her husband because her mother thinks them not suited for each other, who does a lackluster job at a stupid excuse she calls motherhood. The Narration is told in a dual perspective (Little Bee tells the odd chapters, Sarah the even), each of which is, in different levels, very distinct from the other; Little Bee’s narration, however filled with the pains and sorrows of her stories, always has that ray of happiness and hope that pervades not only her story but her character as well; Sarah’s point of view is never without grief and bereavement, there is always that sad, ominous vibe in it which is not at all unwelcome but should be perceived with caution.
The story has been, in more ways than one, an eye opener for me. A “revelation,” if you will. I have always acknowledged the fact that there are oil wars across the land, that it is currently happening in nations like Nigeria, nations that could barely put up a fight against foreign companies exploiting their oil, and the implications they yield, however, not to the extent portrayed in the book. It was almost tragic and sad how much our protagonist and her people has suffered because of “globalization,” a term Little Bee has regarded with curious fondness. It gives you a sense of how people like Little Bee, people in countries we often acknowledge but hardly regard in life, live and what happens to them and where they end up.
Little Bee and Sarah both had their share of story to tell, and although the consensus is that the former’s part is inherently readable than the latter’s, I will go ahead and tell you that Sarah’s account, however sad and drab and depressing most readers perceive it, made story complete; without the angsty and complex and all over the place quality of her voice, the book scarcely could have worked at all. Collectively, I would say that this is a book of such great story and characters, and really I like its cover—but that is another story.