Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cross-blog Pollination: Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This year, for the first time, the school district where I work included the winners of the Stonewall book award in its announcement of the American Library Association Awards, which includes the Caldecott and Newbery Awards for children's literature.  The Stonewall award is given to those high-quality books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes that are aimed at younger readers.  This was a huge symbolic milestone for me.  I was, to my knowledge, the first openly gay teacher in my school district when I came out 13 years ago, and the acknowledgement of books for children and young adults with LGBT themes felt like official acceptance.  I'd read from this genre pretty extensively for a diversity project during my master's degree in reading, but since then I have not always kept up with new books with LGBT themes.

Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz was a Stonewall winner for 2013, and within a month of the announcement I had seen it referenced, or had it recommended to me, at least a dozen times. And it deserves the praise!  It tells the story of 15 year old Ari, a loner living in a Mexican neighborhood of El Paso, and Dante, the quirky, outgoing young man who becomes his first true friend.  Both Ari and Dante are dealing with the usual host of adolescent issues-redefining your relationships with your parents and family, navigating the treacherous waters of the high-school social strata, transitioning to adulthood, and, of course, dating and first loves.  With Dante, Ari finds an unexpected friend; effusive where he is reticent, affectionate where he is reserved, outgoing where he is taciturn.  For some reason, this friendship works for both of them, and the boys share many secrets with each other over the course of their friendship.  Ari finally has someone to talk to about the brother in prison that his parents won't even acknowledge exists, and Dante finally has someone to whom he can admit that he would rather kiss boys than girls.  Ari's feelings about Dante are confusing and unsettling, and their friendship is not always smooth sailing, but in the end both boys find comfort, a deep kindness, and love.

One of the wonderful things about this book is that while it has strong LGBT themes, it is not just a "gay" story.  Like any "real" person, Ari and Dante are both more than just their sexual orientation, and Saenz does an excellent job of showing the intersection of things family connections, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation in creating identity.  To be honest, while I was certainly drawn into the story of Ari and Dante's friendship, the part of the story that was the most touching to me was Ari's relationship with his father, a Viet Nam veteran who never left the war behind.  Their interactions, and Ari's longing for meaningful interactions with his distant father, are a large part of the emotional engine that drove this story.  Saenz also takes on the issue of gay bashing, which despite the improvement of the general climate for LGBT people in our country is still too often occurring.  The fact that the novel is set in the late 80s, when I myself was about the age of Ari and Dante, gave it a certain resonance for me that a young adult reader wouldn't have, but Saenz did a good job creating an authentic setting that any reader should be able to appreciate.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Session, by Judith Kellman

Meh.

OK, I guess that's not really a review, though that is pretty much how I felt after finishing this mystery/thriller. The premise sounded promising.  P.J is a psychologist at Rikers Island women's prison.  During a "wedding" that she approved between two inmates, one of the "brides" was killed.  P.J. is blamed, and fired as a result.
She thinks that her biggest problem is making her rent, until she gets a call from one of her former patients at the prison, who is sure that she saw the victim's husband, a known batterer and sociopath, at the prison the day of the murder.  When P.J. can't get the police to act on the word of a schizophrenic inmate, she decides to investigate on her own.  Chaos ensues...blah blah blah.

Here's the deal.  P.J. as the narrator is self-deprecating and funny-or at least, Kellman tries really really hard to make her that way.  Too hard, in fact.  The one-liners and sarcastic rejoinders (both internal and between characters) felt forced to me.  And I didn't really buy the story.  As an Alex Delaware fan from way back, I'm willing to go with the "mental health professional turned investigator", but in this case I couldn't really figure out P.J.'s motivation for getting involved, nor did I really believe the path her investigation took.

There were some things that worked in this book's favor.  P.J.'s relationship with her extremely successful deaf sister was interesting, as was her complicated relationship with her ex-husband, who just happened to be (you've probably guessed already) a district attorney.  And there was a sub-plot involving P.J. and her brother Jack that was sort of interesting on its own...at least, it was until it became completely predictable.  But Kellman did a decent job of doling out information in such a way that I kept reading until the (unsatisfying) end.  So, in the final analysis-not awful, not great.

Meh.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

I Hunt Killers, A Not So YA Young Adult Thriller

As a long time reader of mysteries and thrillers, it can be hard for new authors to hook me.  There are so many series that I love, from Jonathan Kellerman and his wife Faye, to Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, and Dana Stabenow.  I've read various iterations of the female private eye, the mystery-solving psychiatrist, or the gruff police detective, and it is rare that an author brings anything truly new to the table.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered a something novel and, frankly, really fascinating in a young adult thriller.

I Hunt Killers is the first novel by Barry Lyga, and I discovered it while attending a reading conference with my best friend.  As good as the workshop sessions are, the best part of the conference for me is the exhibit hall.  It is full of books and people (mostly teachers) who love books, milling around, flipping through pages, sometimes getting so engrossed that you realize you've already missed that session you were planning to go to.  I discovered this title at a booth for a small, local bookseller that deals primarily with schools.  It was hard to miss...the cover art if pretty striking and frankly I was a little surprised to find it with the other young adult books.  But after reading the blurb my friend and I both decided that we had to have it.  The premise that Lyga puts out is pretty simple, but ripe with possibilities.  The main characters, Jazz, is the son of a notorious serial killer.  Raised in the "family business", Jazz is now 17.  His father has been in prison for four years, and on top of the normal travails of adolescence, Jazz is trying to figure out whether he has become the things his father always wanted him to be-a sociopath.  When murders start happening in his hometown, murders that are eerily similar to his father's, he gets drawn into the investigation, and realizes that his horrific upbringing makes him uniquely qualified to help the police.  Jazz doesn't need some fancy profiling course from Quanitco-he finds he can think like a serial killer.  While this is a pretty great skill for solving the murders, it raises a whole host of questions for Jazz about his own identity, and his own capacity for violence.

I find this whole idea of the child of a serial killer becoming a hunter of serial killers fascinating.  I think that one of the reasons I read books about fictional serial killers, or watch documentaries about real-life ones, is because I want to figure out what it is that creates these human monsters.  As a person who believes people are inherently good, I want to know what went wrong along the way that created personalities with no remorse, empathy, or basic human emotion.  Brain research is coming up with clues as to what makes a person become this very specific kind of killer, but so far there is nothing definitive.  At the very root of Jazz's story is the while nature/nurture debate.  How much of what we become is a result of our genetic make-up, and how much is the environment we grow-up in?  And what about free will?  Increasingly, the answer is that what makes us who we are is neither one nor the other, but both/and.  Our genetic make-up may predispose us towards a certain path, but the interaction between that and our environment is too complex and sophisticated to tease out easily.  Reading the book, I got the strong sense that Jazz is a moral person, but when he questions himself, as a reader I found myself doing the same thing.

This book was classified as young adult by the booksellers, and I have found it on young adult reading lists since.  The main characters is a teenager, which is often a pretty good indicator that the book was written for that age group.  But the book is pretty gory.  Violent acts are described in some detail, and there is a sinister air about the while story.  While it was an easy read, I was completely drawn into the story, and I didn't feel any of the disconnect that I sometimes feel when I read young adult books.  When an adult reads books meant for a younger audience, sometimes the connection that we feel with the story or the characters is more of a remembered connection than an authentically current one, if that makes sense.  Reading a book about first loves brings back my own, but I don't have the same emotional response to it I would have had 25 years ago.  But with this book I was completely engaged the whole time, not just in the plot, which is in the end is fairly formulaic (it is essentially a procedural, after all)., but with Jazz as a character and the emotional roller-coaster he is on.  Perhaps what makes this story universal is that the journey of self-discovery and the creation of identity doesn't end in adolescence, and I suspect (and hope) that it continues as long as we live.  We might not be wrestling with whether or not we are a sociopath, but I think that each of us wrestles daily with being the best person we can be, which created a connection between Jazz and myself as the reader.

This is the first book in a series, which I could tell would be the case about half-way through the book.  I've already bought the second, Game, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Jazz's journey takes him-and the reader-next.