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Friday, January 17, 2014

Paper Towns

Paper Towns
By John Green

Don’t be fooled by the fact that our protagonist is in high school. This is not a YA book.

Instead, it is a wonderfully written examination of human goals, perceptions (both of self and others), ideas, and connections.

It is a coming of age story, a hero’s quest story, a road trip adventure story, and a story about life. With universal themes, witty dialogue, complex and yet toally believable characters, and an ending that is pitch perfect, this is a modern classic.

I cannot say enough good things, but I want to say something specific about the characters.

We have a host of high school troupes. We have the friendship dynamic, the boyfriend girlfriend dynamic, and we have the unrequited love dynamic. We have characters who fall under the LGBT umbrella who are fully accepted. Every single character is written in a realistic compelling way. These are people we know and people we wish we knew. The dialogue is so real (and at ties hilarious) that it is hard to believe that this is a book.

The plot is well paced with the story having clear acts that shift in tone and purpose but work together almost seamlessly. Incorporating literary classics like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as well as pay pop culture homage and use modern day tech (the internet plays a significant role) in a totally plausible way, the story manages to still be timeless.

I highly recommend this very quick read to anyone who has felt lost, anyone who has wanted to peer behind the sets of their own lives, anyone who has hidden behind a public mask.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Dinner

The Dinner
By Herman Koch

(Not one of the Koch brothers)

Premise: Two couples have dinner and discuss their children. The entire book takes place at this meal. It is a story about parental sacrifice.

That… didn’t sound very interesting to me. However, the idea of the whole thing happeneing over the course of a many course meal… that was a bit intriguing from the narrative structure point of view.

Boy, am I glad I read this book.

First off, yes. The present day action all takes place around one meal. However, the author uses flashbacks ( a lot of flashbacks) to give context to the discussion and the action at the table. Thankfully we move back and forth easily; it is always obvious where in time we are.

Secondly, yes… sort of. This is a story about parental sacrifice. But it is so much more. It is about parental responsibilities and about human responsibilities. It is about legacy. It is about violence and repercussions. It is about turning a blind eye… or blinding oneself to avoid seeing.

There aren’t a lot of characters, but those that ae introduced, even the side character of the waiter, are given unforgettable details and quirks. The dialogue is fine, as far as it goes, but what really shines in this book is the story; the complicated, layered, and downright creepy story.

As the adults discuss, and pointidly don’t discuss, what it is their children have done (and not done), the onion is peeled letting us in deeper and deeper to what many would consider a parental nightmare.

Layers. That’s really what this book is about and what holds it all together so well. Layers. Layers of guilt, of action, of inaction… layers of the past, and in a shocking twist, layers of decisions and choices that affect the future.

I really don’t want to spoil any of the surprises for you… I highly recommend this book. Note: do not power read. This story, like a fine meal, is better savored and digested slowly. Trust me, barrel through and you will miss some of the wonderful subtlety and nuances that make this book a rare and delightful feast.

Any more food puns? Nah, I think I’ll stop.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Love Saves The Day

Told mostly through the perspective of a cat named Prudence, this novel was mostly a delight.

I have a low tolerance for the schtick of "animal voices" in fiction, but this novel did a great job of evoking a very cat like response to the unfolding drama. Prudence is dismayed when her Most Important Person, Sarah suddenly disappears... but she is even more upset when Sarah's daughter Laura and her husband Josh invade her home, pack up all the Sarah-things and then transplant everything, Prudence included, to a new home across the city.

While trying to come to terms with her new life and roommates, Prudence deals with the grief of a lost loved one with surprising depth. Interwoven in her memories of Sarah and her adventures with Laura and Josh is a back story of a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

There were laugh at loud moments as well as some profound messages of love and hope... and of course, a happy ending.

But there were also a few things I didn't like about the novel.

While most of the narration comes from Prudence (and is done in the first "cat" perspective), a few chapters focus on Laura... and jarringly are told in the third person.  As if that wasn't complicated enough, there are a couple of Sarah chapters too... which are not only in the first person, Sara, but are conversational in tone... as if she is telling her story (to whom we don't know) from beyond the grave.

Chapters 1 - 4: Prudence
Chapter 5: Laura
Chapter 6: Prudence
Chapter 7: Sarah
Chapter 8 and 9: Prudence
Chapter 10: Laura
Chapter 11 and 12: Prudence
Chapter 12: Sarah
Chapter 13: Prudence
Chapter 14: Laura
Chapter 15 and 16: Prudence

The reason for the narration change seems to be to give the readers more information so that the plot movement makes more sense. While this is accomplished, it is still awkwardly done. Sarah's chapters are full blown flashbacks that fill in a lot of missing facts, but are unsettling because she didn't share these facts with either of the other characters while she was alive, and yet they are essential in our understanding of Sarah as a person.

I just think that either the shared narration should have started earlier (four chapters in is a long time to suddenly change anything) or have been handled differently.

Regardless of the narration, the other thing that was slightly cumbersome was the "sticky point", the thing which all the negativity and family drama between Laura and her mother Sara hinged upon. There is an awful lot of lead up to this traumatic moment where their lives took this horrible turn and nothing was ever the same and Laura just couldn't get over it even years and years later because oh my god it was so big and so nasty and... And then we read it, and it is somewhat of a let down. (And we read about it from Sarah who isn't the one still dwelling on it!)

And then another character, who had been referenced but had yet to show up,does in fact show up, and she solves Laura's problem with a direct "get over yourself" sort of moment... and then... the problem is pretty much solved.

... /raised eye brow/ ...

Of course, as happens in most animal point of view books, the animal has a near death experience but since we all know that there is going to be a happy ending, the drama isn't really there, even if the writing is particularly strong in this section.

So.  All in all, I enjoyed the story this book told. I loved Prudence as a character and enjoyed her cat-itude about things like food and The Monster (vacuum cleaner). The book was a fairly quick read and did have some universal truths to point out in terms of loss and communication. In short, it was a good book and I am glad I read it even if I am picky and easily bugged by things that probably wouldn't even phase a more casual reader.