26 August 2015

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

Last week, I read Carrie Mesrobian's SEX & VIOLENCE, and it was amazing, so of course I dove right in to her second novel, PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY.

I'd already heard bits of PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY before, when Christa Desir read from a few scenes during workshops at Midwest Writers Workshop, so I already knew it was another excellent, voice-filled novel. In SEX & VIOLENCE, Evan was compelling and so, so readable, but PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY's Sean was even moreso: whereas Evan grew into being a likable narrator, Sean started off that way. He was a good guy with a good heart, doing his best to figure shit out.

Sean's got a pretty crappy home life. His parents are getting divorced, his dad is in rehab, and he's constantly at war with his older brother. He wants to get away and join the Marines, but he knows there's no way his Mom will approve of that, so he has to wait until he's eighteen and she can't stop him. Sean hooks up with Hallie, a senior girl at a party, and their relationship is brief and intense—Sean loses his virginity to her—but then she leaves for college, leaving Sean heartbroken.

Enter Neecie, Sean's coworker at the Thrift Bin, who used to wear hearing aids (and still does, but they're less obtrusive), and is apparently hooking up with the school's hockey stud on the sly. Sean and Neecie become fast friends, and maybe more—Sean isn't sure about that part.

PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY was an amazing study of a boy about to become a man, complete with all the firsts and foibles that go with it. Much like SEX & VIOLENCE's Evan, Sean makes mistakes sometimes, but he tries and he tries.

I adored PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY. It was absorbing and it was lovely and it really made me think.

More on that last point, but it's kind of a spoiler, so you should definitely go read the book first.

I can wait...







Okay.

There's a scene toward the end of the book where Hallie—who Sean has been "casually" hooking up with—tells him that she had an abortion. And then she admitted to Sean that he wasn't the only guy he had been sleeping with.

And my immediate, visceral reaction was: What a slut.

I'm not proud of it. I think I was more hurt on Sean's behalf than anything, because it felt like Sean still had feelings for her, and it seemed like such a huge betrayal.

But it was an intense reaction. It really shocked me how quickly I fell into slut-shaming. I never thought that about Evan in SEX & VIOLENCE, after all, and I didn't think it about any of the females in SEX & VIOLENCE either, even when they were sleeping around with multiple partners. Was it because I was in Sean's head that time? Is it a general failure of my own empathy as a man? A cultural thing?

What do girls who read PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY think about how Hallie acted? What if Sean and Hallie's genders had been swapped?

I don't know. But in a way, I'm glad I had the reaction I did, because it's important to think about these things, and PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY really made me think.

25 August 2015

The Naming of Things

It is a strange truth that, at age 31 (I know, I still cry about it sometimes), I'm still as self-conscious of my name as when I was four years old.

My name, Adib, means scholar in Arabic—which is interesting, since I'm actually half-Iranian. Iranians speak Farsi and use the Persian alphabet, but due to the Islamic conquest of Persia many centuries ago, the two languages and alphabets are closely intermingled. So, even though my sister has a Farsi name, mine is Arabic, and that's cool, I guess.

But living in America—the Midwest, no less—it's not always easy to have a name like Adib. When I introduce myself, the general response is "huh?" or "what?" or sometimes even "Steve?" if the person has a hard time discriminating voiced and unvoiced consonants.

My middle name is Kevin, which is fairly innocuous, though the last name negates that. Should I have gone by Kevin growing up? Maybe. I didn't actually know there was such a thing as Going By Your Middle Name until I was in fourth grade or so, at which point all my classmates already knew me and it was far too late.

So now, today. I'm fairly self-confident, at least as much as a bald guy who used to be a hundred pounds heavier can ever really be. I'm decent at being a grown-up adult. I have a pretty strong sense of humor, even if it's a little weird at times.

So why do I still feel weird when I have to give my name at a Starbucks?

Well, not really a Starbucks, because no one comes out of Starbucks with their name on their cup. But other coffee shops, or restaurants, or even just shaking someone's hand. Why do I feel so self-conscious?

I heard a joke a few days ago, in reference to San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Baumgarner, the bane of the KC Royals (GO ROYALS! GO SPORTSBALL!):

Which statement makes more sense:

"Madison won the World Series" or "Madison's mom is bringing orange slices today"?

Names affect how we perceive people. So maybe the problem is I'm not sure if my name fits how I want other people to perceive me.

I'm not saying I want a different name. I like my name. I think it fits me fine.

But I wonder if the me I see when I hear my own name is the same me that other people see when they meet me.

20 August 2015

Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian

Carrie Mesrobian's books had been on my radar for a while, for a number of reasons, but they became even more imperative after I met author Christa Desir at Midwest Writers Workshop. At the sessions I attended, Mesrobian's books were used as examples of excellent voice (in general), excellent guy voice, and authentic, honest portrayals of sexuality.

And then I started listening to the podcast that the two authors co-produce, The Oral History Podcast, which is about sex in YA literature, and it's hilarious and wonderful and everyone should listen to it.

Anyway. SEX & VIOLENCE.

Even Carter's father moves around so often, he's never finished a year of school the same place he started it. He's always the new kid, and he never has any friends, but he finds ways to meet people: he's identified the profile of The Girl Who Would Say Yes, so at least he has someone to hook up with. But at his latest school, when he hooks up with a girl whose ex isn't over her, he ends up getting attacked—so badly he gets a ruptured spleen—and his father moves him (again!) to his old home in Minnesota to recover.

I knew going in that SEX & VIOLENCE would be so much more than the title suggested, but I was still surprised at the turns it took. The story follows Evan's struggle with PTSD, his work with his therapist, and his making friends for the first time ever. It follows Evan getting to know his dad for the first time. And it follows him redefining his own attitude toward sex.

I can't talk about the things that most impressed me with the story without giving away the ending. But here's what I can say:

I loved the voice. It was spot-on. I've read a lot of books lately that had male narrators where the guy felt stifled, robbed of emotion and depth. Carrie Mesrobian got Evan spot on: he felt things deeply and passionately, he just didn't know how to express them out loud. But he knew how to express them to me, the reader.

I loved the cast of characters. I felt like I was really on that lake in Minnesota with him, like the friends Evan made were all people I knew.

I loved that Evan made mistakes, even when he knew he was making them, and he didn't know how to break his own pattern of behavior. That's one of the truest struggles of being young: knowing something is wrong but not knowing how to fix it.

I loved how honestly sex was portrayed. It was never romanticized, but it was never sensationalized, either. And I saw what a big part of Evan's character sex was: not the having it, but his attitudes toward it, his formative experiences with it. There were some surprises in there that I was not expecting.

I loved watching Evan heal and regress and grow up and grow wiser and still do stupid shit sometimes.

SEX & VIOLENCE was not a "fun" read. It was dark and moody at times, and I so desperately wanted Evan to be okay. But it was a truly enjoyable one, hard to put down and impossible to forget.

I'm already most of the way through Mesrobian's next book, PERFECTLY GOOD WHITE BOY, and I can't wait for her forthcoming third book, CUT BOTH WAYS.

And, of course, I can't wait for the next episode of The Oral History Podcast.

Christa Desir was right: It really is like a dirty Prairie Home Companion.

17 August 2015

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

I've never before gotten to the end of a book and said to myself, "This book was badass." Until now.

Daniel José Older's SHADOWSHAPER was freaking badass.

SHADOWSHAPER tells the story of Sierra, a Puerto Rican girl living in Brooklyn who works on murals in her spare time and has found that boys always stop being interesting to her as soon as they open their mouths. And she's a little self-conscious of her body and her hair but mostly she's cool with who she is and where she's at in life.

That is, until she gets thrown into the world of shadowshaping: the ability to communicate with and empower the spirits lingering in Brooklyn by creating art that the spirits can inhabit.

Sierra finds out her own role in the shadowshapers' legacy, even as she has to contend with a villain trying to destroy it. With the help of her friends, her brother, and Robbie, a Haitian boy with a shadowshaping legacy of his own, Sierra tries to outwit, outfight, and outspirit her foe.

I mean...seriously. This book was just awesome.

It had a brilliant cast of characters. Sierra was so enjoyable to read, so vividly drawn, so different from the typical protagonist and so freaking real.

Her gang of friends and her family were spot-on, layered, and had their own nuances.

And Brooklyn was presented in all its contradictory glories: the mix of old and new, of gentrification versus tradition, of wealth and poverty. Brooklyn burst with life (and death!).

I really freaking loved SHADOWSHAPER. The ending was perfect. It really felt like Sierra's story could go on—but there was no messy cliffhanger to annoy me. Instead, I felt really good at the end, and hopeful that I will get to see Sierra and company again.

Also: wow! Diversity in YA is kind of a big thing right now. But it's been a while since I read something that got things as right as SHADOWSHAPER did. The cast was full of diversity, but not to fill some quota: these were real people, with lots of facets, and the story was so strong because of it.

13 August 2015

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Man. I've read so many books about suicide this year. THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE was another addition to that stack, but it was definitely one of the better ones.

High school senior Lex's younger brother Tyler committed suicide just before winter break. In the months since then, Lex has drifted apart from her former friends, broken up with her boyfriend, and has been going through the motions at school, despite being a straight-A student with ambitions of getting into MIT. Her divorced parents have been struggling, too: her distant Dad never talks about Tyler, and her mother has taken to self-medicating with white wine.

THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE's approach is different from the other books about suicide survivors I've read: it's a family story, studying how Lex and her family cope with the loss and try to move forward with their lives. That's not to say there's no focus at all on why Tyler did what he did—it's just not the main thrust.

Hand's prose was melancholy and achingly beautiful, but it was so heavy at times, it was hard to sustain my usual reading pace. I had to put the book down several times to get a breather. I think that's okay—hard books should be hard to read. Ty's specter hung over the entire plot, and I getting to know him through Lex's recollections made me lament his death all the more.

I liked THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE a lot, but I didn't quite love it. The characters never excited or moved me as much as I wanted them to be. They were real, well-drawn people, but the sort of cathartic change I enjoy in books never really occurred.

All that said: I would definitely recommend THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE to anyone who asked.

11 August 2015

On Daylight

I know it's a bit late to make the observation, but: It's summer.

Summer means sunshine.

To be fair, if you live in the Midwest, summer means ALL POSSIBLE PERMUTATIONS OF WEATHER EXCEPT MAYBE SNOW (THOUGH THERE WAS THAT ONE TIME WE GOT SNOW ON MAY 1).

But generally, summer is sunny, if humid. And there is something about sunny days—especially the nice, high-pressure ones with low humidity and a little breeze—that makes me feel very creative.

Today is one such day. I feel bursting with energy.

It makes me wonder if the Sensory Deprivation Closet is the right writing environment for me.

More and more, I dream about a desk in an office with a great big window, or even a solarium!

I don't know what the solution is right now. But I am doing some serious thinking.

10 August 2015

You and Me and Him by Kris Dinnison

I had been looking forward to YOU AND ME AND HIM for a long time. I had read the blurbs and it sounded amazing. I almost pre-ordered it.

I'm glad I didn't.

I wanted so, so much to love this book. The setup was brilliant, the voice was stellar. I started off in love with the characters.

But somewhere along the way, everyone and everything started to feel flat. No one surprised me the entire book.

Maggie, the girl with weight issues, never really transcended herself. She wallowed in her body-image issues and then found her fabulousness or whatever. She stood up to her bullies.

Nash, her gay best friend, was melodramatic and never transcended the stereotype of the gay best friend that we've seen time and time again.

Tom, the flirt, was flirty the whole time and that was his thing, and though we occasionally got glimpses that maybe, maybe there was more to him, he ended up doing something to remind us of how shallow he was.

Kayle, the bitchy former-friend, stayed a bitchy former-friend.

No one changed. No one grew.

I got what the book was trying to do. I really did. It just...didn't work for me.

What DID work for me, and what deserves a lot of praise, his how Maggie's issue with her weight was handled. She was honest and heartbreaking and proud and insecure and all the things I felt when I was overweight (and still feel now that I am a healthy weight). One of the characters said, more or less, I still see myself as fat, and that's absolutely true.

I loved the setting. Cedar Ridge was beautifully rendered. A road-trip to Seattle was vividly rendered. 

It was well-plotted and well-paced. I raced through it.

And then it left me feeling empty inside. It was like one of Maggie's delicious cookies: exciting but ultimately unfulfilling.

I was so sad.

05 August 2015

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston

For some reason or another, this book kept popping up in recommendations for me from various sites, so I finally bit the bullet and read it.

THE STORY OF OWEN: DRAGON SLAYER OF TRONDHEIM takes place in a version of our own world where dragons are everywhere, where they feed on carbon emissions, and family lines of dragon slayers are the only line of defense.

It's a great setup, and Johnston executes it well, giving us the story of Siobhan McQuaid, a classmate of Owen Thorskard, the scion of the Thorskard family of dragon slayers. Siobhan becomes Owen's bard, teammate, and, eventually, best friend, following him around Thorskard, a small town in Ontario, as Owen trains to be a slayer.

THE STORY OF OWEN was fun, whimsical, and oh so Canadian. Except there was no poutine, which is delicious, but anyway...

Even though I liked the concept, the book didn't end up exciting me. It felt like Johnston was pulling her punches quite frequently, and so many of the relationships left me terribly unsatisfied.

Siobhan and Owen never even entertained the idea of being romantically linked, and I thought that was brilliant—it's great to see a strong platonic friendship rather than romance for a change. But said friendship never deepened the way it needed to in order to be fulfilling.

The same could be said of most of the relationships in the book, and indeed of the adventure as a whole. Even the fight scenes, which should have been great set pieces, ended up just a bit shy of awesome.

But.

All that being said, I found THE STORY OF OWEN charming and fun. I enjoyed it enough that I already picked up the sequel.

One last thing: I noticed a lot of typos in the hardcover. It was a little off-putting. I don't hold that against the story, though.

04 August 2015

Rattle That Lock

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm freaking obsessed with David Gilmour.

He's got a new album coming out in September, and I'm seeing him live (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) in Chicago next April, a mere 248 days from today.

In the meantime, I must sate myself with the music video for his album's title song. It's got some really slick animation that reminds me a little bit of Miyazaki and a little bit of Gerald Scarfe.

03 August 2015

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta

Tom Perotta's THE LEFTOVERS came out back in 2011, and I put it on my to-read list after reading a review, probably in Entertainment WeeklyIt took me four years to get around to reading it.

I kind of wish I had waited a little longer.

I imagine with the HBO series based on the book, people are at least familiar with the premise of THE LEFTOVERS: a Rapture-like event (which got termed the Sudden Departure since no one could agree if it was the Rapture or not) caused a portion of the world's population to vanish. The selection seemed to be random: the worthy and the wicked were taken, without any discernible pattern.

THE LEFTOVERS, as the name implies, follows the lives of those who remained, as they try to live in their new world. The novel followed the sometimes-interweaving stories of several characters, but tended to focus on Kevin Garvey, a small-town mayor whose wife left to join a cult, whose son (ironically) also joined a cult, though a different one, and whose daughter has lost her direction in life.

I don't know. I didn't really like it.

The characters were all real, but in a sort of unlikeable way. Because the narration was omniscient, it was harder to find heroes and villains, or even to sustain empathy for characters when they would behave sympathetically one moment and egregiously the next.

I don't know.

I liked the premise. It was absolutely brilliant. And Perotta's prose was lean and mean and did its job. I just didn't connect with the story.

It turns out Perotta wrote the novel ELECTION, upon which the film—one of my least favorite films from my teenage years—was based. I didn't know that going in, but it makes sense: both paint a more cynical portrait of humanity than I enjoy reading.

It's cool, though. It's good to read widely and I don't regret reading THE LEFTOVERS.