Monday, June 29, 2009

Nevermind the Goldbergs

Title: Nevermind the Goldbergs
Author: Matthue Roth
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $16.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0439691885

When first approaching Nevermind the Goldbergs, I was pleasantly surprised by the uniqueness of the idea behind the novel. You have Hava, a punk-rocking seventeen year old who's from New York City and happens to be an Orthodox Jew. While in the city, she inhabits a very enclosed world, filled with rules, beliefs, and ideas completely foriegn to those in the secular world. When cast for a television sitcom about a family of Orthodox Jews (like the Cosby's, only Jewish, the book says), Hava is thrown into the Hollywood world, a place that doesn't exactly embrace all the conservative tenants that Orthodox Judaism does (like shomer negiah--girls aren't supposed to touch boys they aren't related to). Reader is compelled to watch Hava navigate this strange new place with a certain amount of cynicism, arrogance, and a surprisingly genuine love for her religion and God.

The biggest thing I can say for this book is that it educates you. Clearly Matthue Roth has a brilliant knowledge of Orthodox Judaism--not just the extensive and numerous laws and rules, but the culture and daily life that goes along with it. There were so many nuances between Hava and the other Jewish characters, particulaly once out of the sheltered neighborhood in New York, that you felt like you were in on an inside joke you otherwise would be clueless about. Roth suddenly makes you this honorary member of the Orthodox Jewish community, where you eat and pray with the characters and understand the numerous difficulties in being a very religious person in a very secular society.

But that's just one small part of the book. The story is really Hava's story, and unfortunately, I found her to be barely palatable. She (and many of the other key characters) is unlikable. While her conflicting emotions about the situation she had been flung into were understandable and natural, her handling of them mad her come across as a bit of a bitch. She tries very hard to maintain a sort of cool, mainstream appearance while maintaining her religion at the same time. While admirable, her belief that she is doing it well leads to a sort of "cooler-than-thou" attitude that isn't flattering. While I understand and know first hand, having been a teenage girl myself, that these feelings and behaviors are common and relatable, the writing doesn't make them feel common or relatable.

There are other character issues as well--no one seems to like each other. Hava doesn't seem to care for any of her friends at home and is only friends with them because she is forced to spend time with them. The actors with whom she works are, for the most part, not likeable (either weak-willed or incredibly catty and two-faced) and they don't seem to like Hava. There is back-stabbing and a sort general stand-offishness (or cruelty, even) that is bandied between the characters. For example, I was completely taken aback by the nastiness between Paula, the actress portraying Hava's onscreen mother, and Hava. At one point Paula puts a television in Hava's dressing room with live feed from her dressing room, so Hava can watch her having sex with another actor. Disgusting, right? Unbelievable that a forty-year-old woman would do that to a seventeen year old, right? And I'm supposed to enjoy reading about these people? Not so much...

That said, all the main characters have multiple dimensions. While you may not like them, you get why they are the way they are. Hava and one the girl playing her sister on the sitcom, Evie, need to grow up. They need to mature and learn that the world does not revolve around them, though with fame being thrown in their faces, I see this will be hard.
See, I'm talking about them as if they're real people. While Roth may not have crafted the friendliest of characters, he has gone beyond the one-dimensional heroine and created a complex person.

Another issue I had was how Hava arrived in Hollywood. The novel starts with her leading a normal life in New York--going to school, hanging out with friends, and enjoying her favorite music. While at school one day, she gets a call that she's been cast in a sitcom. Did she audition? No. Did she send in a tape or headshots? No. She was "discovered" by producers, somehow, after she was in a rather play about composer John Cage. She flies out to Hollywood the next day and starts filming shortly after. And her conservative parents are okay with it. Does this seem a little strange to you? First of all, I don't know what parent, religious or not, let's their underage seventeen year old just go to California alone, with no supervision, to be on television. That struck me as extremely odd and kind of a cop-out on Roth's part. Shouldn't there be some tension between her and the parents? An argument? Something?! Secondly, and perhaps this is just my naivete about how Hollywood works, but would they really cast a complete nobody in just a day? That struck me as odd, too.

When authors sort of take the easy way out and don't bother to give an explination for things (and I felt this happened a lot over the course of the book), it makes it very hard on the reader. If I am not fully invested in what you have to say, meaning, I'm not willing to believe everything you tell me, the story becomes nothing more than a poorly told fairy tale.

I think, perhaps, the fact that I wasn't privvy to everything that was going on kept me from enjoying the book. Hava's relationships with people for example--one moment they're cool and fun, the next they're losers, or vice versa, and there is no explination for the sudden change. Or how and why she does certain things. There are a couple of times where Hava runs off when she should be filming the T.V. show. You get the impression that she's frustrated, but nothing's happened. I spent a great deal of time sitting there, book open in my lap, jaw dropped, asking, "But why?"

Roth does an excellent job in crafting complicated characters in interesting situations. I kept reading because I wanted to what Hava would do next, and wondered if she would remain Kosher or how she would (or if she would) maintain shomer negiah. Despite my feelings towards the characters, I wanted to know the end (though I had to push myself to get there). In any case, the idea behind the novel was a good one, the characters well crafted (for the most part), if a bit mean, but the plot was too thick, too confused, and trying to be too many things at once (a coming of age story and teen drama mixed with an homage to Judaism, punk rock, and California).

Comparable Reads: I honestly can't think of anything I've read that it's like. Uniqueness is something Roth seems to have going for him. If you've read it and can think of something, feel free to leave a comment.

Who is this book for?: This book will, at the very least, intrigue your smart-ass teenage girl. Hava isn't a mirror, like many heroine's in these types of books tend to be, but a mannequin. You might have the same clothes, and similar figure, but she's completely different and almost unrecognizable at the same time. That idea, I think, can be intriguing to teenager who is struggling to fit in, but doesn't want to fit in at all.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $8.99
ISBN: 0316013692

If you're one of those people who's a sucker for a good go-get-'em story, this is it. Sherman Alexie's first novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a true-to-life novel written from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, Junior Spirit, a Spokane Indian, living on a reservation in Washington State. Junior was born hydrocephalic ("water on the brain" as Junior puts it) and not expected to survive, and if he did, he would live as a vegetable or with mental retardation for the rest of his life. Sounds like a fun book, right? Well, Junior turns out okay--he's actually a pretty smart kid with a love and talent for drawing. When a teacher at his reservation high school suggests (well, practically demands) that he transfer to a school off the reservation that would better fuel his potential, he does. Alexie describes and artist Ellen Forney shows a boy who's past tells him he should not succeed, but he does anyway.

This novel would not be nearly as intriguing if it were not for the setting. For those of us who didn't know much about life on an Indian reservation, this was a wake-up call. This is not simply some kid in poverty trying to fight for a better life. He is trying to beat off generations of abject poverty, distrust of an entire group of people (white people), and a cycle of abuse and alcoholism. The serious lack of hope slaps you in the face while reading certain passages. Alexie, having grown up on the reservation where the story is set, is well aware of this life and does not sugar coat the situation. While Junior is a funny and bright kid, a blast listen to, there is a sense of bitterness when you read about his life on the reservation and the painful awareness he has, knowing everything Native American's have lost as a people. Reservation life is a major player throughout the book. Junior has to face the biogtry at his new school (he is the only other Indian there, as the book says, besides the mascot), but he also must face the anger of community members back on the "rez." While Junior is already grappling with typical teenager crises, he must also maneuver between two cultures and try to maintain an identity.

And it's not just the bitterness that you can hear when you read Diary but every other emotion that Junior experiences. It feels as though Alexie froze his voice at fifteen and was able to put it on the page. For anyone who has any extended interaction with fifteen-year-old boys, you'll hear them here. There is a certain friendly self-conciousness that travels with kids at that age, and it's here in this book. And it's there in a variety of scenes, not just in the ones that are authentically "boy" (boners, girls, masturbation, fighting, sports), but in other, more serious topics (racism, hope, death). And since Junior is a cartoonist, there are a number of really great accompanying illustrations, which enhance the whole experience of reading Junior's words, because you are privvy to both forms of his thoughts.

This is also the first book I've read in a long time that actually had a natural plot. It didn't seem quite so contrived, or like a teen drama series on T.V. So many books in this genre have a very predictable plot: things suck, something changes, things suck less, things are GREAT, something happens, things suck more than ever before, things get better and/or are great again. Here, the good and the bad come all at once, or take turns, but I kept waiting for that terrible thing to happen (and terrible things do happen), but there isn't that dramatic, hear-wrenching moment where everything in Junior's life is destroyed. Things get hard, yes, not to minimize some of the heart-breaking things that occur, but some good parts of life are preserved. Junior remembers that, despite all the crap life is throwing at him, life is still worth living. This is one of the most important messages in the novel--no matter what, life is still worth it, you can move on, and you can have hope.

Comparable Reads: The best thing I can compare this to is Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks and Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Junior reminds me of Bone and Holden in the sort of tough-kid acidness and the general weird-brilliance all three seem to posess. So, if you've read either one of those books and enjoyed them, this is a definate must-read.

Who is this book for?: Give this book to your middle to high school aged son, cousin, brother, nephew, best friend, whatever. It's hysterical, talks about heavy subjects without getting corny or actually feeling heavy, and is just overall fantastic. I also think it'd be a good choice for someone who isn't a big reader. It's a fast read, the language is accessible, and it has pictures (who doesn't love pictures?!). Fair warning, though, it CAN get crude. My tolerance is pretty high, but if you're a parent handing this to your kid for summer reading, be warned: there is talk about masturbation, erections, and sex. Nothing graphic and probably not anything most teens don't already know and talk about, but it's good to know.

Happy reading!!

What's this about?

What I'm about to share with you are my adventures in literature--the ups and downs, the great triumphs and the unbearable losses. I love to read, and it's a passion that I want to share with others, either through teaching, writing, or through this blog (if anyone bothers to read it). Over the course of the summer, and hopefully through the upcoming Fall and Spring semesters, after I finish a book (hopefully there will be many), I plan on posting a review. If anything, the writing of the review will be an exercise for me in working with literature, something I certainly need. At the most, I hope this blog might someday become a tool for someone in choosing a good book. I don't claim to be an expert in literature, inherently knowing what is "good" or what is "bad" by our culture's somewhat arbitrary standards (I still don't get what's so great about Hemmingway...), but I read a ton, and I read a pretty large variety of books, and that, I feel, gives me some level of credibility. Expect to see everything from old classics (think Dickens, Austin) to contemporary (McEwan, Atwood) to completely random children's books I've been reading my 14 month old. And please, please feel free to let me know you're reading along. Comment on reviews. Tell me they're great, tell me they're total crap. Let me know if you've read the book, too, and what you think! I want to know that I'm not the only one on this adventure. So, c'mon, let's go!