Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human
Title: Symptoms of Being Human
Author: Jeff Garvin
Publication Date: February 2, 2015
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 352
Age Rating: Readers over 13
My Opinion: 8/10

Hi, Readers!

       After finishing my summer job, I have had a couple of weeks at home to relax before heading back to school.  Ever since I've gotten home, I've been a reading machine!  I've read more pleasure books in these past two weeks than I did the entire school year.  One novel that I found particularly intriguing was Symptoms of Being Human, by Jeff Garvin.  It focuses on a subject that I was entirely unaware and uneducated about - being gender fluid.

       Having a congressman for a father does not make life easy for Riley, and switching to a new school allows for a fresh start with new classmates.  Although it takes a few days, Riley finds a couple of quirky friends that are accepting and welcoming.  However, other classmates - football players and their girlfriends - act particularly menacing towards Riley.  Why is this?  They attempt to determine Riley's gender in a negative manner.  When Riley's therapist suggests starting an anonymous blog to share thoughts and feelings, Riley decides to give it a try and finds it extremely helpful.  However, Riley's true identity gets out and animosity begins to spread.  Riley has to decide whether to become brave enough to take a stand for gender fluidity or to sink back into the shadows.

       Wow, I have to say, writing that novel summary was much harder than most.  This is because I attempted to write the entire thing without using gender pronouns referring to Riley, as Garvin does throughout the entirety of the novel.  It is much harder than it looks, and my summary seems to dramatically overuse Riley's name in place of any pronouns.  Somehow, Garvin manages to write all 352 pages without saying she/he as pertaining to Riley's gender, and the result is phenominal.  At times, I found myself wondering if Riley was truly a boy or a girl.  But then I discovered that was the point of the novel.  It doesn't matter what gender Riley was born as because that is not what Riley identifies with.

Whatever., by S.J. Goslee
       I certainly learned a lot about the topic of gender fluidity.  I was vastly uninformed, and I feel that Garvin handled the heavy concept of gender identity with respect and awareness.  I also recently finished reading the novel, Whatever., by S.J. Goslee, which is about a teen named Mike who discovers he is gay.  Although the novels are uncomparable as pertaining to characters and writing styles (and no offense to Goslee - your novel was hilarious), I can honestly say that I think Garvin was more respectful than Goslee in his approach of the subject.  By taking care to write an accurate, and more importantly, serious, plot line, Garvin spreads information about gender fluidity.

       Frankly speaking, I'm glad I decided to pick Symptoms of Being Human off the shelf of new novels at the public library.  It wasn't one of the typical comedic or fantasy novels that I typically gravitate towards, and I knew that solely based on reading the inside cover.  I wasn't sure how I would feel about the gender identity discussions, and I didn't feel in my comfort zone , but I learned a lot and my eyes were opened.  I'm glad I gave it a shot, and I recommend you do the same.

Happy reading, and best of luck to everyone in the new school year!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: Populazzi

Title: Populazzi
Author: Elise Allen
Publication Date: August 1, 2011
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 400
Age Rating: Readers over 13
My Opinion: 6/10

Hi, Readers!

       Wow, I can't believe how fast summer has gone by.  I just realized how long it has been since my last post!  Guess I've been pretty busy.  In a week or so, I will be packing up to return to school for my sophomore year of college.  With it will come new opportunities and adventures, but I will always treasure the memories I've made this summer.  Having such a crazy summer definitely took a toll on my daily reading.  However, I've had a couple of weeks of relaxation in which I've read a few novels, one of which being Populazzi, by Elise Allen.  Although the novel lacks substance and is extremely cliche, it was an entertaining read that managed to captivate my interest.
High school popularity chart
High school popularity
as described by Pintrest

       When Cara switches high schools for the start of her junior year, her childhood friend Claudia comes up with a social experiment of sorts to help Cara move up the popularity ladder at her new school.  Cara starts off on the bottom rung, meeting a lovable theater geek named Asher.  However, Claudia encourages her to continue working her way up to become the Supreme Populazzi - the most popular girl in school.  Cara's mother and step-dad encourage her to focus on her college interview for Northwestern, but instead, Cara continues to form new relationships and delves deeper into the foundation of high school cliques as she becomes wrapped up in her social life.  Will she be able to balance her new image with who she truly is, or will she crack under the pressure?

       Populazzi has got to be one of the most cliche high school popularity novels I have ever read.  And I'm not saying that's a bad thing!  It was a pretty basic plot line - the new girl willing to do anything to become popular.  The characters weren't even that likable, aside from the heartthrob, Archer.  For some reason, though, the mindlessness of the novel and the mob mentality made me want to keep reading.  I knew exactly what would happen, and I liked it.  Populazzi is what I would call a "safe" read.  You know exactly what you're getting - the fantasized high school experience with mean girls, bullies, jocks, and theater geeks - with no surprises, and that was perfectly fine with me.

       Many characters were extremely stereotypical.  From Archer, the theater geek, to Nate, the stoner, to Claudia, the clingy best friend, each character portrayed a different high school stereotype.  Again, absolutely no surprises.  I don't think anyone would be surprised to hear that Cara became wrapped up in search of popularity and ditched her old friends.  It was nice - almost relaxing - to know exactly who each character was.

       Of course, the novel culminated with a school dance.  I don't know how many different ways I can possibly phrase the same thought - CLICHE.  But I still kept reading!  I was entertained!  The silly, simpleminded and self-centered high school drama made me thankful to be in college, but also made me laugh.  Therefore, I can't give Populazzi a high rating and I will not recommend the novel, but it was funny and endearing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it as a summer pleasure read.  What have you been reading this summer?  Feel free to leave a comment below - I love hearing from readers!

Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Book Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing
Title: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Publication Date: 1971 (1998 edition)
Publisher: Vintage Books
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 204
Age Rating: Readers over 15
My Opinion: 9/10

Hi, Readers!

       I feel like I'm starting to hit my post-modern stride.  Although Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is never a book I would choose to read on my own, I thouroughly enjoyed reading it.  Hunter S. Thompson did an excellent job mixing his background in journalism with his interest in writing a novel.  It was one of the most eye opening (and utterly hilarious) books that I have ever read, but not in the way that you'd expect.  

Duke and Dr. Gonezo from the movie version
       Duke, a journalist, is sent to Las Vegas to report upon the Mint 400 motorcycle race, and he brings along his attorney, Dr. Gonezo.  However, their journey ends up being the opposite of a business trip.  They fill a convertible with a plethora of powerful drugs, alcohol, and even a handgun, and set off for the city that never sleeps.  After spending days exploring Circus-Circus, seriously abusing narcotics, and causing trouble, Dr. Gonezo sends Duke a note inviting him to report on a drug convention held for police officers around the country.  Thompson's sense of irony is astounding; he sends two of the biggest drug users into an anti-drug convention filled with cops.  Run-ins with police, poor decision making, and a lack of sleep lead to Duke's imminent insanity as he seeks his own unique version of the American Dream in Las Vegas.

       For some strange reason, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was not available in my college bookstore, so I had to order it on Amazon.  I had it shipped to my house, and my mom gave it to me after one of my basketball games.  When she handed me the novel, she gave me a weird look.  "I read the back of the cover... you know this book is all about drugs, right?" she asked me.  I laughed, and replied, "That's American Fiction from 1950 to Present for you."  All joking aside, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is extremely drug-addled.  It is actually somewhat based on Hunter S. Thompson's own life, as well, so his many descriptions of various narcotics of different strengths seem to be extremely accurate.  Sometimes, I was actually overwhelmed by the terminology used.  Although I was definitely in shock about Duke's constant state of being high, it was definitely a perspective that I have never read about before, and it was quite a unique character viewpoint.  Las Vegas is the perfect setting, as well, because all of the flash and dazzle is amplified by being mentally and/or physically incapacitated.

Las Vegas       Maybe it's Thompson's drug-addled characters, or maybe it's just the ludicracy of the plot line, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is absolutely hilarious!  One of my favorite scenes in the novel is when Duke and Dr. Gonezo go to a taco stand.  Thompson spends three entire pages discussing the different types of tacos that they are debating on ordering.  Basically the whole time I was reading, I was like... "What the heck?"  To be completely honest, sometimes reading a novel as ridiculous as this can be a great escape from the dreary reality of rainy days filled with tedious college busywork.  

       I would definitely recommend Thompson's novel to my college-aged friends.  However, super conservative readers will NOT find it to be entertaining, quality literature.  The main characters are actually on drugs for the entirety of the narrative.  Don't say I didn't warn you in advance.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Book Review: Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays
Title: Play It As It Lays
Author: Joan Didion
Publication Date: 1970 (2005 edition)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 213
Age Rating: Readers over 14
My Opinion: 8/10

Hi, Readers!

       I have finally reached a breakthrough - I'm finally starting to understand post-modernism!  Woohoo!  Joan Didion does an excellent job representing the difficult power dynamics of Hollywood for both males and females in the 1970's in Play It As It Lays.  It's not a novel that I would typically enjoy, but Didion's powerful yet concise writing drew me in and held my attention.

Hollywood       Maria (pronounced Mariah by my professor, but I'm doubtful) is a washed up Hollywood actress struggling to come to terms with her separation from her husband, Carter, the absence of her institutionalized child, Kate, and her various affairs with different men.  When Carter forces her to get an abortion, she spirals into depression and is only able to talk to her friend BZ, a movie producer.  She goes through the motions of life while watching those around her.  Maria's observations give her a number of insight to life as she knows it, and she questions what her purpose is and how to continue on with life.

       As you can most likely tell based on that short summary, Play It As It Lays deals with a variety of very diverse issues - abortion, monogamy and affairs, depression, the Hollywood system of patriarchy, sexual orientation, and identity.  These issues can be quite overwhelming at first because Didion throws readers right into the plot with hardly any character introduction.  We are forced to learn more about the characters and their histories as the novel progresses, making Didion's character development extremely interesting to read about.  One of my favorite characters is BZ because his identity slowly becomes revealed piece by piece over time.

Author Joan Didion
       One of the most interesting characteristics of Didion's writing in Play It As It Lays is the length of the novel's chapters.  The longest chapter cannot be more than five pages in length, and some chapters are as short as a few sentences.  Each chapter seems to be a different moment in Maria's life.  At first, they seem unrelated, but as the story develops, the chapters become more and more intertwined.  By the end, it reads as a practically coherent novel and many truths become evident.

       I personally found Didion's discussion of life in Hollywood during the 1970's to be fascinating.  Although her characters are not particularly likeable, they are very complex and well-developed.  I would recommend Play It As It Lays if you are looking for a fairly comprehensible post-modernism novel.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review: Why Are We in Vietnam?

Why Are We in Vietnam?
Title: Why Are We in Vietnam?
Author: Norman Mailer
Publication Date: 1967 (2000 edition)
Publisher: Picador
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 215
Age Rating: Readers over 14
My Opinion: 6/10

Hi, Readers!

       Don't be fooled by the title of Norman Mailer's novel, Why Are We in Vietnam? - its setting is not the dangerous, war-torn jungles of Vietnam.  Instead, he explains his own version of the Vietnam War by creating an elaborate metaphor about a hunting trip in the Alaskan wilderness focusing on a corporate executive and his son.  Mailer's stream-of-consciousness writing is unique, but in my opinion, Why Are We in Vietnam? lacks excitement and was not able to hold my interest.

       Why Are We in Vietnam is narrated by D.J., a wealthy, white teenager from Texas who is contemplating the idea of identity.  D.J. disjointedly tells the story of a hunting trip that he went on with his father, his best friend, and some of his father's employees.  His father, Rusty, is on a mission to shoot a grizzly bear.  A power dynamic comes into play when one of his employees, MA ("medium asshole") Pete, takes down a grizzly before he does.  At that point, Rusty and D.J. head off on their own in search of a hunt, and their father-son relationship is called into question.  Afterwards, D.J. and his friend attempt a "purification ceremony" in which they delve into the wilderness without weapons or supplies.  Mailer uses the backdrop of Alaska to focus on complex character dynamics that metaphorically mirror that of soldiers in the Vietnam War.

A quote from the author, Norman Mailer
       D.J. tells his narrative using a fluid timeline, and almost every chapter has a brief (and utterly perplexing) introduction, called an "Intro Beep".  These Intro Beeps serve to set the scene for what is to come, but they do so in underhanded ways and seem to have nothing to do with the story due to D.J.'s stream-of-consciousness discussions.  Although the timeline of the storytelling is difficult to follow at points, Mailer does an excellent job including D.J.'s discourse about identity.  Throughout the novel, Mailer forces readers to question reality by randomly throwing in that D.J. could be a white teen from Texas or that he could be a famous black disc jockey from Harlem.  It is pretty clear that D.J.'s true identity is that of the white teen, but the novel still calls into question what is actually true and what is fictitious.

       The aspect of Mailer's writing that receives the most criticism is his inclusion of obscenities.  Please be forewarned if you decide to read Why Are We in Vietnam? - almost every single page has swear words casually thrown into sentences. There are probably more bad words in this book than in all of the novels I've read... combined.  I personally find it interesting how Mailer is mimicking the rough dialogue of soldiers in the Vietnam War, and much of the language adds a comical air to a somewhat heavy subject, but it can be a bit of a shock to see so many vulgar words.

      Why Are We in Vietnam definitely grew on me as I kept reading it.  In the beginning, I thought that I would dislike it just as much as I have disliked the previous post-modernism novels that I had to read for American Fiction from 1950 to Present.  Luckily, it transitioned from having confusing narration to becoming more clear by the end.  I wouldn't personally recommend the novel, but I do think it has its merits and is a strong piece of literature.

Happy reading!