Permanent Record

Permanent Record by Leslie Stella9781477816394

publication date: 2013
pages: 282
ISBN: 9781477816394

Permanent Record was a YA book with an uncommon main character – Badi Hessamizadeh, also known as Bud Hess. Badi was a young Iranian-American living with his family in urban Chicago. When we met Badi at the beginning of the book, he was in mandatory therapy after a suicide attempt and was leaving his old school because of his threats against students and blowing up a toilet.

When Badi started at his new school, his parents forced on him a new Americanized name – Bud Hess. Along with the new name, Bud wanted a fresh start at his new school, without the bullying and depression and maybe even with some friends. As the story continued, Bud refused to take his medication and his narrative became increasingly paranoid and violent. Bud found himself in almost the same situation he was in at his previous school.

The tone and voice of this book was classic young adult. It was angst-filled, with a lot of talk about girls and rebelling against parents and other authority figures. The dialogue was usually good, but not necessarily realistic. Leslie Stella did infuse the book with a lot of humor, some of it dark. For example, Bud described the new freshmen in school as having “the stunned look of livestock.”

I also liked the setting of a Middle Eastern-American household. Stella did a great job conveying Bud’s family as realistic Americans with an Iranian culture and background. Here was how Stella introduced Bud’s father:

We’re halfway through when Dad clears his throat, puts down his fork, and turns to me. “Son, I have some news for you.” . . . Dad lifts his palms in a gesture of surrender. “Now, now, do not derange yourself.” My father emigrated to this country – right here to Chicago, in fact – from Iran thirty years ago, and while he has only the slightest accent and is completely fluent in English (and Farsi and French), he’s retained some dialectical oddities.

Stella deliberately crafted the pace of the book. As Bud’s narration devolved into paranoia and desperation, the tone of the book gradually became less coherent and more frantic. Throughout all this, Bud’s actions and motives became less justifiable and more threatening. And yet we were still supposed to root for him, or at least identify with him. I thought Stella did an effective job of making Bud a sympathetic character even as he was unequivocally plotting violence against his alleged enemies. However, it did raise the question: how much sympathy, understanding, and forgiveness should we give a violent person, know matter how mentally ill or how bullied they feel?

What the book lacked in depth and character development, it made up for in an unusual plot and setting and funny writing. For people who like YA, or for those encountering depression, I would certainly recommend the book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Teen Librarian Toolbox
Drunk On Pop
School Library Journal

Dark Lover

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider9780374282394

publication date: 2003
pages: 423
ISBN: 0-374-28239-0

I picked this book up as I was wandering through the library. The title caught my eye because it was also the name of the first book of a romance series I sometimes read called The Black Dagger Brotherhood. When I started the book, I knew almost nothing about Rudolph Valentino and the era of silent movies.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian man born in 1895. He moved to New York City when he was 18, where he became a dancer and an actor in bit parts. His first big break was in 1921 as the lead in the successful silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That role led to many more parts and to him being a new kind of sex symbol: the dark and mysterious, maybe even a little evil, lover. He had a short and powerful career and died at the age of 31 of stomach ulcers.

Dark Lover was obviously well-researched. Leider described Valentino’s life in great detail and included several passages about the biographies of the people closest to him, including his immediate family and his wives and friends. Leider also uncovered facts about Valentino’s life that had been forgotten or had been wrongly presented in other accounts of Valentino.

Although Leider’s writing did not sparkle with wit or originality, she did present a fun tone throughout the book, and an undeniable passion for the subject. Here was her description of the negative implication of Valentino dancing for money when he first arrived in New York:

American opinion found nothing strenuous in dancing done by men, whether in ballets or ballrooms. [Russian male dancer] Nijinsky, who appeared in New York in 1916 with the Ballets Russes, was slammed in the press for being effete. To move with graceful insinuation, wear citified evening clothes, show off, and make a woman sigh as you swept her across the floor – sorry, it just wouldn’t do, especially if the woman was picking up the tab. The [dancer’s] slicked-back hair became a symbol of what made him suspect. Instead of being rugged and leathery like a 100 percent American, his oiled hair and manner made him “smooth” and slithery, like the fabled snake in the grass.

The book also contained three different sets of photographs. Leider found some wonderful pictures of Valentino, including a photo of a shirtless Valentino wearing skintight goatskin pants and playing a flute.

For me, the book was about one hundred pages too long. Leider included a lot of detail throughout the book, from her descriptions of Valentino’s clothes and purchases to the summaries of his movies. Someone with more than a passing interest in Valentino’s life presumably would have found the content more engaging. To me, the book seemed repetitive at times and would drag on. Leider never elevated Valentino’s story to be more than just a recounting of facts.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Guardian
London Review Of Books
Curled Up With a Good Book

S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst9780316201643

publication date: 2013
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-0-316-20164-3

This book was a lot of fun. The physical book that the reader actually held in their hands was a first edition of the 1949 book Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Within that Straka book, were notes in the margins, written by Jen, a college student, and Eric, a graduate student seeking his Ph.D. on Straka and his works. There were also several related papers stuck in the Straka book, like a copy of a telegram sent by Straka in 1924 and a postcard sent from Eric to Jen in 2012. All these different layers of narratives made for an intriguing book. There was also a lot of mystery within the Ship of Theseus story written by Straka, and surrounding Straka’s identity and death, and around Jen and Eric’s relationship and work.

The different narratives within the book gave me a choice as to how I could read it. I thought the best way I would be able to judge the Ship of Theseus text and the Jen and Eric annotations was to read each story separately. So I read Ship of Theseus and it’s footnotes first, without looking at Eric and Jen’s notes or the material stuck in the book. Then, after I read to the end of the text, I read the later notes and material.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst obviously spent time creating this book, and the effort paid off. The different voices of Eric, Jen, Straka, Straka’s editor, and other characters were all varied and interesting. There were several clues and codes within the book that the reader could investigate and untangle. Also, the added material within the book, like letters, photos, and newspaper clippings was all detailed and well-done. Probably the most exciting part in the book for me was when I turned a page to find a hand-written map drafted on a napkin. As I was unfolding the map, I felt like I really was going on an adventure.

I was impressed by the distinctiveness of the different character voices. For example, here was a passage from Ship of Theseus about its main character, S:

It’s not so much the killing that exhausts S. as it is the planning and rowing and trusting and traveling and stalking and killing and escaping and rowing and sewing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and planning and rowing and trusting, all the while knowing that Vévoda is hunting him, too. . . .

And here’s a typical passage in the margins between Eric and Jen:

[Eric]: Sometimes I wonder: how much of this am I doing just to get back @ Moody? And Ilsa, too?
[Jen]: You’re doing exactly what you would have been doing. You’re just a little more intense about it.
[Eric]: Apparently I’m allowing you to make rash decisions (which admittedly, benefit me indirectly).
[Jen]: You’re not “allowing” me to do anything.

Although I enjoyed the book, parts of it could be annoying. For example, it’s very nature made it self-indulgent. Doug Dorst was able to write a book and then write notes in the margins commenting on how interesting and well-written the book was. Also, the Ship of Theseus narrative was sometimes excessively stylized.

Overall, it was a fun, intriguing book that left several mysteries unsolved for those readers who want to solve puzzles on their own.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Guardian
Hypable
The Telegraph

Roots

Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life
goodreads

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited ­­by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black9781416989530

publication date: 2010
pages: 415
ISBN: 978-1-4169-8953-0

This book was a compilation of short stories compiled by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. The book pitted zombie stories against unicorn stories, with the zombie stories championed by Larbalestier and the unicorn stories promoted by Black. The stories were by several authors, including Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, and Cassandra Clare. Each story was prefaced with an argument or an exhortation by both Larbalestier and Black.

In my opinion, the zombie side won. Although, actually, as readers, we often all lost. Even the best story, a zombie story by Alaya Dawn Johnson, left much to be desired. I don’t know if the authors weren’t very interested in the theme, or couldn’t explore what they wanted to explore in a short story, but the stories were usually hurried and lacked solid characters. Also, the dialogue was often rushed or unrealistic. Additionally, if the story was action-oriented, the action frequently did not make sense. Here was an example from the story “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik:

Otto yowled as whatever had been boiling in the cauldron went pouring over his alligator-skin shoes and steaming over the floor. He whirled and came at them with the wand. “What did you do? How did you do that? I’m going to flay the skin off your bones –” Then he got close enough that Alison could pull the Princess Leia maneuver and throw the chains around his neck. She jerked them tight and dragged him in close as his face went purple and red, and she snatched the wand out of his hand.

That paragraph was typical of the abrupt, confusing action that occurred in many of the stories. Also ineffective were the editorial passages written by Larbalestier and Black before each story. At times, Larbalestier was downright mean! This was how she introduced the first zombie story:

Hallelujah! After wading through Garth Nix’s ye oldey unicorn muck you now get to read a proper zombie story. Since Holly [Black] bored you all . . . I thought I should fill you in . . . on the different kinds of zombies.

Although none of the stories or writing jumped out at me as anything spectacular, there were a few highlights. Libba Bray’s zombie story “Prom Night” was good, as was Kathleen Duey’s unicorn story “The Third Virgin.” Alayah Dawn Johnson’s story “Love Will Tear Us Apart” piqued my interest enough that I read one of her books. The zombie story “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan, was perhaps the most well-written. Ryan’s writing was haunting and lyrical:

A lizard slides over her toes, and she jumps, her fingernails raking against the tiles as she scrabbles to stay put. She feels like someone has planted a tree in her chest and then pressed fast-forward on the world, branches growing and twisting and pushing her apart from the inside. It’s hard to breathe in the thick night air, and she tastes the dampness of impending rain in the back of her throat.

Although Zombies vs. Unicorns contained some compelling tidbits, I would not recommend it unless you are enamored with its subject matter.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of this book:

Fantasy Book Review
Dear Author
Books: A True Story

Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld 9781400068326

publication date: 2016
pages: 488
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6832-6

In Eligible, Sittenfeld deliberately and explicitly created a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic, Pride & Prejudice. Basically, Sittenfeld took the Bennet family, along with the Lucases, the Collins, Fitzwilliam Darcy (of course!), and everyone else, and plopped them into Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2013.

If you’re not already familiar with the story, Pride & Prejudice centered around the Bennet family – including the five Bennet sisters: beautiful and sweet-tempered Jane, witty Liz, uncaring Mary, complacent Kitty, and Lydia, the baby. Living with the five sisters were their often out-of-touch parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The main plot complications of the story stemmed from Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to get all five of her girls married off, and moneyed.

Sittenfeld followed this main plot almost exactly, but she included many modern devices, like pre-marital sex and techies from Silicon Valley. Sittenfeld also did a satisfying job of carrying over the personality traits of each of her characters. However, she kept each of the characters modern and not as though they were throwbacks from an older time. For example, Jane was still sweet, but she wasn’t a pushover and she wasn’t just sitting around waiting to get married. Possibly the most effective character was Mr. Bennet. Sittenfeld aptly portrayed his dry, almost mean, humor and approach to life. Here was a perfect example:

[T]he door opened, and there appeared a male nurse in aqua-colored scrubs . . . “Fred!” The nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurses’ name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

Sittenfeld also perfectly kept intact a major theme of the original: that when we allow our pride and our prejudices to shadow our lives, we do ourselves a disservice.

Along with the modern retelling, Sittenfeld included several current issues, such as race, sexuality, the gender spectrum, and single motherhood. Sometimes Sittenfeld could get a little preachy on these subjects, but generally the book, especially the character of Liz, handled these topics well, in a Liz Lemon white-guilt sort of way.

The book also paid homage to Jane Austen in a subtler way: Sittenfeld captured something true about humanity through her characters, dialogue, and story. Here was a small example:

Liz said, “I guess I’m a Cincinnati opportunist. In New York, I play the wholesome-midwesterner card, but when I’m back here, I consider myself to be a chic outsider.” Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care. Still, when he spoke, it was more disappointing than she’d expected.

He said, “That chili we had – I liked it okay, but I keep burping up the taste of it.”

I genuinely liked this book. It was cute, fun, and compelling. For those of you who liked Pride & Prejudice, I would recommend this just for the novelty of it. For anyone else, this is a contemporary story with vital characters and plenty of wit.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton9780316074315

publication date: 2013
pages: 830
ISBN: 978-0-361-07431-5

In this long, sprawling novel, Catton investigated luck, destiny, and love in 1860s New Zealand. Rather than relying on conventional narration and character development, Catton instead presented her plot using personal letters and story-telling techniques and jumping from present to past to future. She also focused on the heavens.  As explained by Catton at the outset:

For the planets have changed places against the wheeling canvas of the stars. . . . But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no long sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past.

Catton used her tangled writing to introduce a mystery: just as a stranger has arrived in town, a man is found dead, a woman found half-dead, and a missing man not found at all. This was all presented against the backdrop of a New Zealand mining town and, for some reason, the celestial and astrological arrangement of the time.

Catton’s writing was heavily stylized. She used a wordy, convoluted style, which brought to mind a learned bore from Jane Austen times. Here was an example from very early on in the book:

For the first time – perhaps because of his growing frustration, which served to focus his attention more squarely upon the scene at hand – [Mr.] Moody felt his interest begin to stir. The strange silence of the room was hardly testament to the kind of fraternity where all was shared and made easy . . . and moreover, [Mr.] Balfour had offered very little with respect to his own character and reputation in the town, by which intelligence Moody might be made to feel more assured of him!

Catton attempted to fit so much into this book. She had about 15 fully-realized characters, along with a love story, a supernatural mystery, painstakingly accurate star charts, and a meticulous writing technique.

For me, almost all of it fell flat. The characters were well-explained but uninteresting. The love story was pointless, and a little insulting. Anything supernatural was never explained; nor was anything to do with astrology. The meticulous writing was impressive, but only made the book seem daunting and overly-indulgent. When I closed the book, I had this thought: just because someone spent a lot of time crafting something does not make it good.

Catton obviously spent a lot of time writing this book, and I sure spent a lot of time reading it. But, that’s not enough of a reason for me to recommend it to you.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Slate
Book Page