Tag Archives: 4.5 stars

#25: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan

Begun: 3/29/2011
Finished: 3/30/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4.5/5

Note: I would like to take this opportunity to boast that I am now ahead of schedule.  I have complete 25% of my book goal and the year will not be 25% complete until Friday.  Go me!

It really hurts to give this book less than five stars.  It is nearly physically painful to type that “4.5” instead of “5” for my overall rating, because 99% of the book is the best kind of fabulous that there is.  It is only because the climactic moment in the last fifteen pages is so contrived, so unrealistic, so cliched and so off-putting that I’m knocking it down a half a star.  Even with that ending, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

That being said, I almost stopped reading it at the second chapter.

Let me explain.  The book is the story of two teenaged boys who do not know each other, both named Will Grayson, one straight, one gay.  John Green writes Straight Will Grayson, and David Levithan writes Gay Will Grayson.  They alternate chapters, each writing their own Will Grayson’s first-person point of view.  The leadoff chapter is Green, and I immediately fell in love with his style, his Grayson, but mostly with the character who’s arguably more central than either of the Wills, namely Straight Will Grayson’s gay best friend, Tiny Cooper, who is possibly the awesomest gay character I’ve ever read.  He’s a huge, hulking football player who is fabulously, openly gay and real in a way that transcends stereotype.  Tiny is searching for love while he tries to get the school to finance a production of Tiny Dancer, the stage musical he’s written about his life. Green seems to be writing from inside my own head.  He’s drawing his cultural vocabulary from the same sources that I do, even using some of my own personal favorite non-words like “confuzzled,” and this made me feel comfortable in his prose immediately.

Then…the second chapter.  The first of Levithan’s chapters featuring Gay Will Grayson.  His sections are written in a no-caps, alternative-punctuation style that annoyed me right away, and Gay Will Grayson is the most irritating, stereotypical Emo Goth Kid imaginable, with the detachment and the clinical depression and the woe, betide.  I nearly didn’t make it through.  But I wanted to get back to SWG and Tiny Cooper so badly that I kept reading.

Then this amazing thing happened.  Gay Will Grayson got better.  I don’t mean to say that he became less emo, but his self-expression became more layered.  Then, something truly awful happens to him, and this awful thing leads him to finally meet Straight Will Grayson and Tiny Cooper, and somehow I found myself liking Gay Will Grayson as well.  He and Tiny make a stab at having a relationship, while Tiny tries to make Straight Will Grayson abandon his self-imposed detachment (read: defense mechanism) long enough to date their cute friend Jane.  Tiny gets the funding for his musical, and things escalate from there.

I can’t say too much about what put me off so badly about the ending without spoiling you.  It was logistically not believable, first of all, it wasn’t thematically fitting, second, and it was too over-the-top and feel-good for a book that had been pretty fiercely dedicated to truthfulness up to that point.  It’s like they took the “And I’m gay!” ending to the movie In & Out and dialed it up to eleven.

But that isn’t enough to make me not recommend the book.  I loved it, and the characters are fantastic, especially Tiny Cooper, the very model of a modern gay teenager and somebody we’ve never seen before on the page.  A unique creation, both character and novel, and a great read.  As a young-adult title, there isn’t any sex (just some kissing) but a fair amount of sex-referencing and R-rated language.

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#22: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Begun: 3/24/2011
Finished: 3/24/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4.5/5

This was truly a one-sittting book, or anyway a one-lying-down book, since I read it in bed.  It was so short and quick that once I’d gotten 1/4 of the way through it I knew I just had to finish it.  It moves fast and is compelling enough to pull you through to the end in a couple of hours.

It is a simple microcosmal tale of Edward and Florence, eight hours’ married in 1962, both of then anxious about their upcoming wedding night since both are virgins.  Edward is eagerly anticipating it, but Florence is dreading it since the whole idea of physical intimacy disgusts her despite her real love for Edward.  The book sits lightly with them as they try to eat dinner and finally transition to the bedroom, then jumps back to how they met, their courtship, their individual childhoods and the events that brought them here.

This story is tragic and sad, because we as readers (especially with a modern perspective) can so clearly see how Edward and Florence are going wrong and we want so badly for them to find each other, but will they?  You want to reach through the pages and shake them, urge them to say this or that and if they do or do not follow our advice, we’re helpless, just as helpless as they are.

The book is simply written but artful and things are very clear.  There are a couple of veiled references to possibly trauma in Florence’s past that have given her this horror of physical intimacy, but she doesn’t see it, and in 1962…well, I don’t have to draw you a map.

#19: Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth

Begun: 3/11/2011
Finished: 3/19/2011
Format: Trade Paperback
Rating: 4.5/5

This book was released in 1969.  At the time, it was hugely controversial, and it’s not hard to see why as it is when one reads some formerly controversial novels with the eyes and sensibilities of today (ever read Peyton Place?  Not so shocking).  Some sections of this book definitely made me go “DAY-um.”  Steeped in the sexual revolution, this is still Roth’s most famous book even given his forty years of acclaimed output that followed it.  Reading his books in order as I am, I’m struck by this sudden shift in tone, as if Roth consciously sat down to write it with a “No More Mr. Nice Writer” attitude.  He just let it fly, as does the narrator, with frequency (the frequent and vivid descriptions of masturbation were revolutionary at the time).

The book is a long monologue by the narrator, Alexander Portnoy, centered on his oppressively Jewish childhood and his current life of sexual disinhibition and the conflict that’s engendered in him between these two warring impulses.  The book is very raunchy.  I don’t like to use words like “filthy” or “dirty” to describe sexual themes because I dislike the equating of sexuality with dirtiness, but if I did use those words, they would be appropriate here.  At the same time the book is funny, sometimes screamingly so, and paints such a vivid picture of Portnoy’s life, whipsawing back and forth in time, that one feels they’re living it with him.  Portnoy’s parents, the overbearing Jewish mother and marytred father, approach caricature but skate the line with such finesse that one can’t help but believe in them.  Made me grateful to have grown up in boring old Protestant Wisconsin, tell you what.

Roth is often accused of misogyny and I can see why.  Portnoy’s girlfriend is portrayed as a sex-crazy none-too-bright shikse with ridiculous aspirations to respectability and family.  I’m not sure this qualified as misogyny exactly, as there are no doubt women in the world like this.  Her character is never blamed upon her, and Portnoy’s inability to deal with it is blamed on nobody but him.  And Portnoy described two other women who were important in his life, speaking of them with respect and admiration – although the message is undercut when he all but rapes one of them in the only scene in the novel that made me really uncomfortable.  No doubt as was its intent.

There are a lot of books that get banned or protested against that I don’t understand why.  This is not one of those books.  Doesn’t mean I agree.  But I can understand why more buttoned-up people would object to its content.

Book #16, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston

Begun: 3/6/11
Finished: 3/8/11
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4.5/5

Yes, it’s almost six o’clock in the morning as I write this blog post and I’ve just finished this book having not been to bed yet.  Why am I writing this blog post now instead of grabbing a few hours’ shut-eye before I have to go to work?  I couldn’t tell you.  Perverse sense of closure?  Intense desire to increase my book-progress tally?  Maybe I’m just crazy.  It’s been suggested before.  But one of the reasons I stayed up reading was because I feel like crap and can’t sleep.  I think it was something I ate.  Might as well finish the job right. [Note – I wrote the post at 6 a.m. but am posting it later in the day at a more reasonable hour.]

After seeing “127 Hours” (excellent movie) I became interested in the real story behind it.  I remember hearing about it at the time, we all did, but that was eight years ago.  It led me first to the 90 minute Dateline special Ralston did with Tom Brokaw, and then to Ralston’s book.  I didn’t know what to expect.  The extremely obvious and cheesy choice of title didn’t bode well (no surprise here that the filmmakers chose to re-title the film).  Also, no co-author was listed, so either Ralston had written the book himself (always cause for caution when a non-writer undertakes such a task) or he’d had it ghostwritten.  Again, none of these were encouraging signs.

I was pleasantly surprised.  The book is quite artfully written, but not in a ghostwriter way.  I’m putting the odds about about 95% that Ralston wrote the book himself with assistance from a good editor.  The narration is at once both guileless and self-conscious in a way that I don’t think a ghostwriter could duplicate.  Ralston is surprisingly eloquent about his ordeal and his own motivations.  He’s a very appealing narrator, relating the events of his life that led him to that canyon with frankness and a refreshing lack of braggadocio.  He talks with pride about his considerable feats of outdoorsmanship and mountaineering, to be sure, but like they say – it isn’t boasting if you can back it up.  This is a guy who once went on an extreme mountaineering expedition in which he summited four-plus mountains taller than 14,000 feet…in a row…in 48 hours…without sleeping…in the middle of winter.

Ralston doesn’t paint too rosy a picture of himself, though.  He talks honestly about the risks he’s taken, the things he regrets, and doesn’t shy away from admitting the bad choices he’s made and the mistakes that cost him.  He is humble in the face of his previous brushes with death.  Just a few months before his accident he and two friends were caught in an honest-to-God avalanche, and in a part-funny part-terrifying story, very early in his career as a mountaineer he was alone in the Tetons in waist-deep snow where he was stalked by a bear for twenty-four hours.  He talks about why he was so driven to seek adventure and solitude, what his motivations might have been, and one gets the sense that he’s spent considerable time soul-searching about why he does what he does.

And the guy’s just fun.  I mean, he’s lived a life most of us can only fantasize about, chucking a corporate job to go work in an outdoor outfitter’s in Aspen so he could dedicate himself more fully to his passion for mountaineering, skiing and hiking.  Hearing him rattle off all the awesome trips he’s taken and places he’s gone with his endless roster of friends and co-workers, not just outdoors adventures but concerts and beaches and wacky funtimes, you can’t help but wish to be among these people who live this kind of bohemian existence, following their favorite bands to Japan and taking off for a week to go hike to waterfalls.

Of course, the freak accident that cost him a limb is a bit of a downer.  But Ralston acknowledges that maybe some part of him had been wanting to be tested like this all along.  The situation he found himself in was a confluence of rarities.  He did usually tell people where he was going, that boulder hadn’t moved in probably millennia, and he wouldn’t be missed for a long time.  His description of his experience is interspersed with his biographical history and an account of how and when he was declared missing and how the search was going back home.  He relates the details of his six day ordeal unflinchingly and with a refreshing lack of hyperbole.  This is how it was.  This is what I did.  This is how I felt.  It’s nearly impossible not to imagine yourself in that situation and wonder if you could have done what he did, what he had to do.  I came away from this really marveling that he actually lived through this.  It is truly amazing given how egregiously the odds were stacked against his survival.  If he’d waited any longer to self-amputate, he’d have been too weak to live through it, but if he’d done it sooner, he wouldn’t have lived to get out of the desert — he only lived because a helicopter was already on site searching for him.

The book is a real page-turner.  The only thing that keeps me from giving it the full five stars it that at times some of Ralston’s accounts of his pre-accident mountaineering adventures drag on a bit.  For those of us who aren’t mountain climbers, one peak’s like another.  He tends to ramble a bit about those experiences, which is understandable given that that’s his whole motivation, but for us it’s a bit hard to connect with.

Book #8: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Begun: 1/30/2011
Finished: 2/15/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4.5/5

This book was recommended to me by several people, unsurprisingly given my interest in science, which is well known to just about anybody who knows me.  I found it fascinating, troubling, difficult and disheartening as well as thought-provoking.

The story is as much about the odyssey of the author to learn this story as it is about Henrietta herself.  Short version: in 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer, a very invasive kind.  Before that, doctors took a sample of her tumor.  A man named George Gey had been trying for years to cultivate cell cultures that could live.  No one had ever been able to do this.  Henrietta’s cells lived.  They still live.  They have been grown and cultured for sixty years, and HeLa, as her cell line is known, is one of the most commonly used cell lines in science today.  Its use led to the advent of countless therapies and techniques that have saved millions.  But who was she?  Who are her family, and do they know what her cells have done?

Turns out that the answer to those questions is more complex than you could imagine.  Her family and descendants, by various turns troubled, stubborn, hopeful, angry, generous and confused, don’t know what to make of it or of the reporter who comes asking about their mother — again.  The book asks questions that have no good answers.  But one thing it makes clear is that a quirk of biology  made Henrietta Lack’s cancer cells immortal, and chances are that you yourself or somebody you know has benefitted from science that they made possible.  That in itself is remarkable.

Book #6: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Begun: 1/10/2011
Finished: 1/18/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4.5/5

There is a charming romantic comedy called “Keeping the Faith” starring Edward Norton (who also wrote and directed it), Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman.  It’s about a priest and a rabbi, best friends, who fall for the same woman.  It’s a lovely, heartwarming and funny movie that I’m puzzled never got much attention.  Anyway, Anne Bancroft plays the rabbi’s mother and is very convincing as a Jewish mother.  In the commentary, Norton talks about how convincing she is, even though Bancroft herself was not Jewish — though she used to say that she was an “honorary Jew” for having been married to Mel Brooks for decades.

I have a feeling that when I make it through all of Philip Roth’s books, I will feel much the same way.  It’s unlikely I will ever again have such sustained exposure to Jewish culture as I will have reading Roth’s ouevre unless I marry a Jewish man myself.

I have now finished my first Roth book.  Yay!  Only…twenty-eight to go.  Hoo boy.  I am nothing if not a woman up for a challenge.

Not that reading Roth is a hardship.  His prose is exquisite.  There is a reason that he won the National Book Award for this, his first published novel.  The titular novella is a multilayered and deceptively simple story about a young man’s summer love affair with a Radcliffe student.  Neil Klugman, the narrator, is so caught up in his romance with upper-class Brenda Patimkin and so certain that he must eventually lose her that, as with all self-fulfilling prophecies, he finds a way to make it happen.

This novella is a good read, but it’s followed by five short stories, each of which really pack a whallop.  My favorites are “Defender of the Faith,” about a Jewish army sargeant who is taken advantage of by a soldier who rather ruthlessly exploits their religious connection to get favors from him, and “Eli, the Fanatic.”  This last, the final story in the collection, is exquisite and heartwrenching and it’s going to stay with me for a long time.  Others of the shorts are less successful, but none of them are less than harbingers of Roth’s future greatness.

Book #1: Room, by Emma Donoghue

This blog isn’t just going to be about The Roth Project, which is, after all, a mere subset of my larger project to read 100 books in 2011.  So I will also be discussing the other non-Roth books that I read.

Book #1 is the much-buzzed-about Room, by Emma Donoghue.

(summary from Booklist) Five-year-old Jack has never known anything of life beyond Room, the 11-square-foot space he shares with his mother. Jack has learned to read, count, and process an imaginary world Outside through television. At night he sleeps in a wardrobe in case Old Nick comes to visit, bringing supplies and frightening intrusion. Worried about his curiosity and her own desperation, his mother reveals to Jack that the Outside is real and that they must escape. She tells him that she was kidnapped by Old Nick and has been held secluded in Room for seven years. Jack is brave enough to carry out their plan, and the two of them are compelled to adjust to life Outside, with its bright lights and noise and people touching. What is reconnection for his mother is discovery for Jack, who is soon overwhelmed by the changes in his mother and a world coming at him fast and furiously. Room is beautifully written as a first-person narrative from Jack’s perspective, and within it, Donoghue has constructed a quiet, private, and menacing world that slowly unbends with a mother and son’s love and determination. –Vanessa Bush

Writing a first-person POV is always a challenge, especially such a limited one as a five year old boy. It’s the rare first-person author who doesn’t end up resorting to the “overheard conversations” ploy to get into the narrative facts that the narrator wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Here, the atmosphere is so claustrophobic at first that it’s a natural fit; it becomes less so after Jack and his mother escape. I got a bit impatient after about the first quarter of the book for Jack and Ma to get out, but the story accelerated fast once Ma began telling Jack about the outside world. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it would be to comprehend the world when you’ve never seen it, but Jack’s often too-literal interpretations of things he is told rings true. I was disappointed a little in the direction that Ma’s character took in the second half but it’s certainly understandable, and the adjustment of Jack to the rest of the world is at times painful to read and, I fear, depicted a bit too easily.

But it was an amazing book. I recommend it.

4.5 stars out of 5