Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

13273327Blurb:

The sheltered son of a Jewish mobster, Art Bechstein leaps into his first summer as a college graduate as cluelessly as he capered through his school years. But new friends and lovers are eager to guide him through these sultry days of last-ditch youthful alienation and sexual confusion–in a blue-collar city where the mundane can sometimes appear almost magical.

Review:

Take a dull boy in a dull city during a dull, liminal summer. Not an adult but soon-to-be, not really anything yet but certain he will be. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh begins at this doorway and records Art Bechstein’s quest for a summer of whimsy and profundity that will change him for the better.

June finds Art making fantastic new friends who all seem to know how to live better than he does. Inspired, Art sits atop a hill in Pittsburgh and thinks this:

I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

June leads to July and then August, sultry months that will find Art in various predicaments that are recounted nostalgically even as they are happening for the first time, and throughout Art will interrogate himself: How does one become “big”? But to answer how, it is necessary to answer what. What does it mean to be “big”?

Each character approaches bigness differently, and Art finds something to envy with every one. Big, mean Cleveland steps onto the page straight from a Hollywood action sequence. He is undoubtedly the biggest character in the novel. But you don’t even have to squint to notice how small he is inside. He resorts to showing off to hide his emptiness, and yet everyone around him idolizes him, fears him, historicizes him even though he’s a 20-something who has barely started living.

The other two principals in Art’s motley crew are Phlox, the girlfriend described as a movie star beauty but who is terribly mundane beneath it all, and Arthur, the cultivated gay man who feigns coming from a palace but actually grew up in a 2-bedroom ranch. Every character starts out big but pops at some point, floating downwards towards the blue-collar streets of Pittsburgh. Maybe down there they aren’t big, but there they can stop and think for a while. And maybe there, like Art, they’ll learn that bigness doesn’t come with living; it comes with remembering. Philosophizing, exaggerating, daydreaming—whatever you want to call it. People are big when they give you something to think about.

5 out of 5 stars

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Review: Notes on a Scandal [What Was She Thinking] by Zoë Heller

1270384Blurb:

Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense–and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.

Review:

Another novel in what I’m tentatively labeling the “pedophilia genre,” Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal reads much less perverse than previous entries in the genre mostly because Heller shifts the focus from the relationship between the adult sexual deviant and his or her child lover to the relationship between the adult deviant and her older, possibly also deviant friend.

The tone here is sanitized, careful. It’s narrated by Barbara, a senior teacher at a London school where she befriends Sheba, a younger teacher who meets Connolly, a fifth-year schoolboy who becomes her lover. Barbara is erudite and constructs her reconstruction of the events almost as if she is writing a British comedy of manners. Explicitness is explicitly ignored, recounted briefly and factually to provide a narrative frame but nothing more. In fact the most libidinous moments occur not between Sheba and her boy nymphet but between her and Barbara.

There’s also just something decidedly less sinister about a female criminal. We are more likely to laugh and jeer at a woman who breaks the laws of sexual consent than we are to curse and spit at her. Is it because women are more prone to seek love? Although the book is subtitled What Was She Thinking, it’s difficult to say what Sheba was thinking, her thoughts being filtered through Barbara’s recollections and biases. But there is a strong averral that Sheba was in actual, unadulterated, genuine love with Connolly, which shouldn’t complicate matters but seemingly does. Sheba becomes a pitiful character, someone to sympathize with even as she awaits her trial for obvious wrongdoing.

And in that unwanted but undeniably sparked sympathy lies the question: do books that discuss the intimate lives of pedophiles glamorize them? I.e., for all of its eponymous hubbub, Lolita is a book about Humbert Humbert. Notes on a Scandal accomplishes an even weirder trick: it’s not about Connolly, the 16 year old boy lover; it’s not about Sheba, his 40-something-year-old pottery teacher and lover; it’s about Barbara, Sheba’s senior citizen friend, confidante, and keeper. In adding a third level of displacement from the real victim, Heller suggests that Sheba may be just another victim. The age difference between Sheba and Barbara is nigh equivalent to that of Sheba and Connolly. And despite the absence of sexual perversion in their relationship and the admittance that they are both fully acting adults, it’s just as controlling, one-sided, and desperate.

Who is the victim here? Connolly? Sheba? Barbara? Connolly is excused by pleading immaturity. Sheba knows her relationship with Connolly is forbidden but is helpless before her own vast emptiness. So Heller forces us to ponder: can the guilty also be victims? Is prey and predator but a human imposed dichotomy? Criminalize Sheba, punish her, chain her we must; but blame her gently, softly, with a kindness that comes from being happy and knowing better. We are left then to assign most of our rage to Barbara, Sheba’s jailer if Sheba were wise enough to see the lock and key. If we strain our eyes, we can see how Barbara might be just another victim in a long chain of victims, of prey and predator, of people who hurt others because they are hurt themselves. But there is no god hovering above Barbara manipulating her strings. We can imagine one, of course: a vicious mother, a bygone lover, a society that condemns spinsterhood but condemns lesbian relationships even more vehemently. Heller hasn’t provided a perpetrator to Barbara’s victimhood, however, so the blame rests there, with the oldest, the wisest, and the loneliest.

Books like Notes on a Scandal complicate issues that we don’t want to see as complicated. They interrogate questions that we don’t want asked and tell us that victims are not isolated, even in black and white crimes like an adult sleeping with a minor. Open your eyes to the chains of guilt but know that the blame will always and must always come to rest in one place and on one person.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

20967058Blurb:

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

Review:

I’ve put a bit of time between finishing Tana French’s newest entry in her amazing Dublin Murder Squad series and writing this review. Which is probably a good thing. Because my initial reaction was, “5 stars! Finally a new Tana French book! Callooh! Callay!” while my more measured, 7-days-later reaction is, “4 stars. Still great, but…lacking?”

The problem with the mystery in The Secret Place is, ironically, its lack of mystery. I am notoriously awful at guessing the culprit in mystery novels, but even I, the anti-Sherlock Holmes, guessed the correct killer from the very start. I never swayed in whom I believed it to be, and while I kept waiting for French to pull the floor out from underneath me and show me what a simple fool I had been to eat up her red herrings with gusto, I eventually realized that, wow, these really aren’t red herrings; the killer is justthat obvious.

But no big deal, I don’t read French’s mystery novels for the mystery and I suspect my fellow diehard fans don’t either. Where French has always excelled is with the development of her characters, especially the detectives, and the subsequent complete emotional annihilation of these characters, followed shortly, of course, by the reader’s own personal emotional annihilation. And here, well it’s a strange complaint, but I didn’t feel sufficiently emotionally annihilated? I wanted to feel more pain, i.e., Broken Harbor-level pain that empties you and exhausts you. Basically, Tana French didn’t put my heart through a blender this time, and I’m slightly upset about it!

The story—particularly a final reveal that emerges even after apprehending the killer—still punched me in the gut, just not quite hard enough. The Secret Place is about teenage girls, the magical feel of adolescence, and the apparent invincibility that comes with finding yourself and a group of close friends for the first time. Thematically, it broaches similar questions as my favorite Tana French novel, her second book The Likeness, in that it’s about friendship and belonging. Throughout the story (which impressively unrolls in a 15ish hour period) we observe the evanescence of friendship between the various boarding schoolgirl suspects and the growth of friendship between the two lead detectives, Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, who are both too tough and focused on their careers to concern themselves with companionship.

But we also learn that choosing friendship means choosing to be blind, to ignore your friends’ mistakes and to hide your own from them. By opening yourself to others, you also close off parts of yourself and from this choice can come the most exquisite joys and the most devastating pains, particularly when you’re a mere 16 years old. Detectives Moran and Conway forgot that, and I had too. Leave it to Tana French to remember and record it vividly, to see its beauty yet to tell us its truth.

4 stars out of 5

Review: If I Stay (#1) and Where She Went (#2) by Gayle Forman

6990472Blurb:

On a day that started like any other…

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, admiring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating he only decision she has left—the most important decision she’ll ever make.

Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting, and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving.

Review:

This is one of those wackadoodle books where a young woman on the cusp of life meets a tragic fate and then floats around in a dead/near-dead state observing her friends and family. This type of plot intrigues me because the character always learns a lot about Life when she is reduced to an outsider incapable of action. It also bothers me, though, because I think: if a character is dead or comatose, shouldn’t she be, you know, dead or comatose? As a reader, my imagination has very few limits; I’ll accept ghosts, vampires, dragons, superviruses that only infect hermaphrodites born on Tuesday afternoons during a blizzard, but invisible floating (semi-)dead girls? That’s crazy!

Qualms about the premise aside, If I Stay is a short book overflowing with emotion. It unrolls over a single day and we alternate between the comatose protagonist Mia watching her friends and family cry in the hospital waiting room and the comatose protagonist Mia remembering happy stories with her friends and family from the past. The crux of the novel concerns Mia’s choice. After suffering a catastrophic car accident with her entire family, Mia asks, in the famous words of The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?” That is, should I keep living despite the fact that my life as I knew it ended today? Or should I simply give up and die, having nothing left to live for? The plot largely succeeds because the flashbacks are well chosen; we get to see what is at stake for Mia, what she’d lose (or depending on religious perspective, what she’d regain) if she dies.

Pondering what you would decide in Mia’s situation is fascinating. It depends on your faith and on your relationships, but for anyone, it’s a question with no good answer. Seeing what Mia chooses and why she chooses it makes If I Stay a worthwhile read.

3 out of 5 stars

8492825Blurb:

It’s been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard’s rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia’s home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future-and each other.

Told from Adam’s point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.

Review:

Well, this is a bit awkward. The only reason I read If I Stay, the prequel to this book, was to eventually read Where She Went, which has ecstatic goodreads reviews and is considered better than the prequel. And now, here I am, having read both books and having been decidedly underwhelmed by both.

Truly, I don’t have much to say about Where She Went. It run-of-the-mill YA in my opinion, only with MORE angst, something I never really thought was possible since YA already owns 99% of the world’s angst. Yes, there were some heartfelt moments. Yes, it was a fairly thoughtful exploration of loss—both in the sense of death and break-ups. Yes, it was decently well-written. But was there anything special about it?

No.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

7863274Blurb: It’s the end of Year 12. Lucy’s looking for Shadow, the graffiti artist everyone talks about.

His work is all over the city, but he is nowhere.

Ed, the last guy she wants to see at the moment, says he knows where to find him. He takes Lucy on an all-night search to places where Shadow’s thoughts about heartbreak and escape echo around the city walls.

But the one thing Lucy can’t see is the one thing that’s right before her eyes.

Review: What did you accomplish last night? I ate too many brownies, did a bit of reading, and slept for a fulfilling eight hours. Then this morning I woke up and finished Graffiti Moon and felt like a schlub. Because guess what Ed, Leo, Dylan, Lucy, Jazz, and Daisy—the wonderfully funny and flawed characters in the book—accomplished last night? They only explored the entire city of Melbourne, learned about art and themselves, forgot and remembered birthdays, took part in many bathroom stall pep talk sessions, averted an attempted robbery, and, oh, they fell in love.

In Graffiti Moon the entire plot and heaps of character development occur in one night. One magical night. Everything about this book is so ridiculously clever. Lucy, a whipsmart glassblower whom I think most dreamer/reader types will relate to, is on a quest to find Shadow, an enigmatic and brilliant street artist. Unbeknownst to her, the group of boys she and her friends have decided to celebrate the night with includes Shadow and his partner Poet. The narration is first-person alternating POVs, a technique that works perfectly since we see things unroll from two distinct but intertwined perspectives.

This book is so funny while also promising us that people have the capacity to change, the capacity to be better than they first appear. It’s a lesson on the falsity of first impressions. A lesson on taking a chance to get to know someone. It can be rather poetic in doling out these lessons. For example, my favorite quotation:

…and then I do know the truth. Then he clicks together, and I see him. His face is kind of lopsided for a second, like he’s trying to keep himself together, keep himself in the shape that he shows to the world, but he can’t do it anymore and everything in him is sliding out.

The characters in Graffiti Moon are smart. I’ve always bemoaned the paucity of intelligent teens in the YA genre, but I think I’ve found my cure with Australian authors like Cath Crowley. They construct humorous books that remain tethered to reality; imperfect characters that still function at a high mental level; love stories smothered in beautiful truths.

4 out of 5 stars