Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam: A Very Pleasant Novel of the Elderly Curmudgeon Reevaluates His Life/Attitudes Stripe

Professor Chandra Follows His BlissProfessor Chandra Follows His Bliss

by Rajeev Balasubramanyam


Hardcover, 345 pg.
The Dial Press, 2019

Read: April 11 – 15, 2019


Cambridge’s Professor P. R. Chandrasekhar is an emeritus professor of Economics, and someone who has come so close to winning the Nobel that it’s jarring to many he hasn’t (well. . . “many” might be a stretch, who actually knows leading economists?). But he’s also alone. His ex-wife and youngest daughter live in Colorado, his eldest son is in Japan and his other daughter won’t let anyone tell him where she is. While he has no room to complain, clearly bits of his life could’ve gone better. He seems well-regarded by those still around him, and while he’s a hard teacher, he seems like a good one.

After a health scare (there’s some humor in it, don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book), and due to worries about his youngest daughter’s behavior, he takes a sabbatical to California. Things don’t go so well with the daughter, or his ex, or his ex’s new husband (the man she had an affair with before leaving Chandra). The trouble with the new husband leads Chandra into going to a “spiritual retreat” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Any type of spiritual retreat is the last place that anyone who knows this irascible conservative would expect him to go — including Chandra himself. But he goes, and as he’s the type to throw himself into anything he’s doing — no matter how silly he thinks it is. He plunges into the exercises.

And he doesn’t experience a giant epiphany turning him into a spiritual kind of guy. Nor does he find the exercises silly and spends the time mocking the experience. Instead, he starts to re-examine some things. Like the way he interacts with his kids, and how they react to him. So he starts trying with them in ways he hadn’t before — and it doesn’t go that well, honestly. But he makes some in-roads.

He ultimately returns to his home in Cambridge and makes some adjustments there, too. Eventually, some things happen that do permit him to further rehabilitate things with his children — and life in general.

I was really worried that this would be about Chandra finding some sort of enlightenment, throwing off all his accomplishments and convictions and becoming a totally different person. Instead, he becomes more thoughtful, more understanding and a better version of himself — with opportunities for further development. I don’t think that’s giving too much away, I hope not anyway. He’s worked hard all his life, and now starts to realize the price he and others paid for him to work as hard and as much as he did, and to achieve the success he has.

Chandra is a fascinating guy — I like the way he thinks. I like the very subtle humor in his approach and response to things, and wish more people in his life could catch it. I’d have liked more time with his daughters, I liked both of them and we only get to see the beginnings of better times between them and their father. Between family, new friends and new acquaintances, there are just too many characters to dig too deeply into. Which is one of the biggest problems this book has — too many great characters to fully appreciate any who aren’t in the title.

This looks like a “lighter” book from the title, cover, etc. — and it is. But it deals with some bigger ideas, just not in an overbearing way. It’s also not as funny as you’d expect from the description (or the blurbs on the cover). But there are subtle bits of humor throughout, and one or two very comedic moments. There aren’t laugh out loud moments — but there are plenty of smile quietly to yourself moments.

Balasubramanyam’s writing is strong, his characters are great, and he can keep the story moving well. He balances the lightness and the darkness of the story well, and while it’s not the kind of book that has a twist or three in the end, there are some things that you probably won’t see coming until they happen (and feel inevitable once they do).

At the end of the day, this was a very pleasant novel with one very interesting character, and a few too many other characters. Some of which had the potential to be just as interesting, but we couldn’t spend enough time with them because of their number. Trim a few of those, so the reader can focus those remaining and this book becomes much better. As it stands — I may not find a lot of bliss in these pages, but I found entertainment and relaxation and would certainly read Balasubramanyam in the future with great interest.

—–

3 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

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KA-E-RO-U Time to Go Home by B. Jeanne Shibahara: A Sweet Novel (with some pretty big problems)

KA-E-RO-U Time to Go HomeKA-E-RO-U Time to Go Home

by B. Jeanne Shibahara


Kindle Edition, 259 pg.
2018

Read: April 5 – 8, 2019


Every so often I get a book that I struggle writing about. I know what I want to say about it, but I’m worried that my point will get lost. So, stymied, the file sits blank on my screen for a couple of days while I hem and haw. I’ve been doing that for most of the week about this book (and afraid it was going to happen last week). Hear me out.

There are so many things that I’d typically complain about in a book — casual disregard for grammar, sentence structure, mechanics; characters that behave like characters in a book, not people; a plot that makes sense to no one (well, part of it, anyway). Really, this is not a good novel.

But . . . dang it, there’s something about this book that I liked. It’s like a long, meandering Sunday drive — or walk in the woods — you take a windy road/path to nowhere in particular — occasionally stopping at a scenic overlook or wandering from the route for a bit before resuming. You don’t get anywhere fast, you may hit a bumpy/rocky patch, but overall you count it as a pleasant afternoon.

So Meryl’s a Vietnam widow (it’s pretty unclear when this happens — other than her son is an adult now) comes into possession of a flag that belonged to a fallen Japanese soldier from the War in the Pacific. She’s pushed to go to Japan (where her son teaches English) to return the flag to the soldier’s family. She ends up going on the trip and finds the freedom and ability to move on from her husband’s death.

The love story is ludicrous. Actually, there are a couple of them (three) — and they’re all ridiculous, and old Disney cartoons do a better job depicting love. They’re not the actual heart of the book — but man, they get all the attention. The heart of the novel is this simple story of the return of this flag to what’s left of the family of this soldier.

When the novel focuses on that story? It’s a real winner. I can believe those people, I can believe those reactions. I can believe it– and I want to read it (not just put up with it). In addition to this, the looks at Japanese culture are great — on the whole, this novel doesn’t focus on the parts of Japanese culture usually featured in books/films.

We spend way too much time with characters — pages and pages — just for them to appear for a paragraph or three in the story. As interesting as these journeys into backstory may be, by the time we get back to the story for them to disappear just drives me crazy.

To put it in the kindest way I can: this is a very idiosyncratic with a charm that is its best feature. It’s sweet. The historical and cultural insights are great (and almost worth the effort alone). If you give this book a chance — and a lot of leeway — it’ll win you over.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, I think it’s clear that my opinion wasn’t that swayed by it.

—–

3 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator): A Fantastic, Moving, Fun Tale of a Grieving Widower

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator)


Hardcover, 337 pg.
Atria Books, 2014
Read: April 2 – 3, 2019

[His wife] often said that “all roads lead to something you were always predestined to do.” And for her, perhaps, it was something.

But for Ove it was someone.

I’ve been fully intending to read all of Fredrik Backman’s books after I read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (3 years ago), but there were a couple of things holding me back. 1. I loved My Grandmother so much that I didn’t want something to eclipse it; 2. I didn’t want to be so disappointed in one of his other books that it tainted my memory of My Grandmother. I finally told myself to get over it and just read him — what did I really have to lose?

That was obviously the right call — this was just fantastic.

If at this point, you haven’t heard of this book and decided if you’re going to read it or not, I’m not likely to persuade you. It’s sold about as many books as a person not named James Patterson, J. K. Rowling or Steven King should be able to expect. There’s been a movie made of it in Sweden and Tom Hanks is working on a version, too. This book is practically a phenomenon, and in the years since it’s publication, the author, Fredrik Backman has practically become an industry. So, if you haven’t read it by this point, there’s probably a reason, I’m not going to convince you otherwise. Nor do I think I can contribute much to the discussion about the book beyond what’s already been said. But I’m still driven to talk about it a bit.

Ove is a recent widower who has decided that it’s time to join his wife, and attempts to kill himself by various means in order to do that. But like an aged (and more dedicated) Lane Meyer, he can’t complete the deed. Something always interrupts him — generally, it’s the fools and incompetents that are his neighbors needing his help. Somehow these people have reached adulthood without learning how to back up a vehicle towing a trailer. bleeding a radiator or any number of things. So he stops what he was doing, helps his whatever neighbor needs it (complaining about it and insulting them all the time) and tries again the next day.

Ove’s struggles with the neighbors and his botched attempts to end his life are interspersed with his life story — his troubled childhood, career, early years of his marriage and the tragic end of it. The writing here is incredibly effective — and Backman doesn’t even try to hide his emotional manipulation — he essentially calls his shots sometimes — and it works. He plays whatever tune he wants and the reader dances to it. Try to get through the paragraph where Ove thinks about missing holding his wife’s hand unmoved, I dare you. I was teary at least once before the midpoint of the work — and about a half hour after finishing the book, I had to go back and re-read the last few pages with dry eyes so I could be certain I read what I thought I read.

Ove in his cantankerousness, his particular and peculiar way of approaching life — and in his grief — is a fantastic character. But I think that his neighbor, a Muslim immigrant mother of three, who deices that her angry old neighbor needs a friend (whether he wants one or not) and then becomes that friend (which he definitely doesn’t want) is an even better character. Parvaneh is smart, kind, fun and loving — and as stubborn as Ove. Next to his wife, she’s the best thing to happen to him. There are plenty of other great characters (the overweight computer tech who lives on the other side of Ove is a fine example).

I laughed, I cried, it moved me, Bob.

One of the easiest 5-Stars I’ve ever given. If you keep putting off reading this — knock it off, read the book.

—–

5 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

Dispatches from a Tourist Trap by James Bailey: Jason’s Woes Follow (and Grow) in his new Small Town

Dispatches from a Tourist TrapDispatches from a Tourist Trap

by James Bailey

Series: The Jason Van Otterloo Trilogy, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 253 pg.
2019
Read: April 1, 2019

Sometimes lately I feel like life is a chess match, and no matter how hard I look at the board I can’t see the next move. Or maybe I think I see it, but really I don’t. Like my pawn is sitting there, all ready to put the other king in check, and somehow my queen gets swiped and two moves later I’ve lost the game and my pawn is still waiting there, impotent and useless.

So Jason mother’s Janice continues her bad decisions when it comes to men — she leaves her husband for a new guy, who happens to be the dentist she’s started working for. We met him in The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo, and they clearly didn’t waste time resuming whatever it was they had back in high school. Janice has moved herself and Jason to her parents’ house, enrolled Jason in a school filled with very friendly people, and tried to move on with her life.

Jason realizes full-well that his choices are a life with his grandparents and a much smaller school, hours away from his friends and girlfriend; or life with Rob, near them. As much as he doesn’t want to be in Icicle Flats, he knows it’s the better choice available. But he complains the whole time about it — this is good for readers, Jason complaining makes for an entertaining read. This time, he’s not just complaining in emails, he’s set up a blog, too. I was wondering how the blog was going to work instead of the emails — it’s actually a really good move, allowing Jason to tell longer stories without the emails being too long.

Which is good — because he has long stories to tell this time. There’s a literature club he’s involved with at school that’s discussing books that ruffle the feathers of many, which leads to all sorts of trouble. There’s a flirtation with pirate radio. A camping trip that is fantastic to read about (and probably not a lot of fun to live through). A disastrous experiment with eBay. And basically, a bucket-load of culture shock. Also, after a few short weeks of dating, Jason’s first real relationship becomes a long-distance one. High school relationships are bad enough, throwing in a few hour bus-ride into things is just asking for trouble. So yeah, between emails and his blog — he’s got a lot to write about, and his friends have a lot to respond to. Somehow, they make it through the school year more or less intact.

Jason feels incredibly authentic — immature, self-centered, irresponsible, but he’s got his moments. He can put others before himself, do the right thing because it’s right — not to stay out of trouble; But man, he can be frustrating the rest of the time. There were a lot of opportunities along the way here for him to be a better friend, a much better boyfriend, son and grandson; and he missed almost all of them. He comes through when necessary, don’t get me wrong and he’s not a bad guy — I just wish he’d grow up a bit faster. Which again, means that Bailey has nailed his characterization, this his how people his age should be.

I’m less than thrilled with Bailey’s approach to religious characters in these two books. I’m not questioning that there are people like the characters he depicts running around everywhere and that the situations would’ve played out a lot like they did here (but some of it pushed believability). I just would like a small indication that there were some sincere people trying to do the right thing in the middle of all this.

Having talked about The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo just two weeks ago, it feels hard to talk about this book beyond some of the plot changes — this feels like the same book, just with new problems. Which is pretty much the point, right? I still like Jason (as frustrating as he can be), his girlfriend is fantastic, I want good things to happen to Drew. Jason’s already complicated life is about to get a lot worse, which should prove very entertaining for the rest of us. A strong follow-up in this series.

—–

3.5 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Few Quick Questions With…Ian Shane

So, I just blathered on about Postgraduate, the great novel by Ian Shane. And now, here’s a little from the Man Himself in response to some questions I had for him. I hope you enjoy. For those keeping score at home, after a few Q&As of one of my theories being validated, I totally whiffed one here. I still liked the answer, just wish I’d asked a better question 🙂

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”?
First, in the interest of full disclosure, Postgraduate is semi-autobiographical. For a while, I was running an Internet classic alternative radio station (which has been offline for a couple of years). During this time, I was having a hard time finding a story I wanted to write. There would be ideas here and there, but nothing ever developed into a compelling story. On a whim, I picked up a copy of Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel. It’s a memoir based on Spitznagel’s quest to rebuild his lost record collection. Not copies of the albums he lost, mind you…the actual albums. His musical mid-life crisis inspired me to write about mine.
In the writing of Postgraduate, what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
I was really amazed at how quickly I wrote the first draft. I have a day job, so the amount of time I have to write is limited. I decided to track my progress on Facebook to keep myself accountable to my friends. The first night, I wrote 1330 words. The next night, I wrote 1557 words. Then it started to become a thing…how many nights can I write more than a thousand words? In the first week, I wrote 10,269 words. I started Postgraduate on October 25, 2017, and I finished the first draft on February 1, 2018. The total was 92,947 words in 97 days. I’ve never had a writing streak like that before, and I am not likely to ever have one like that again.
Danny’s reaction to the news that his favorite record store had closed (and some time ago), was one of my favorite parts of Postgraduate. Is it one of the semi-autobiographical parts of the book? Tell us a little about the store/its closing.
This is very autobiographical. There really was a Cats Record Store in my hometown (Evansville, Indiana). Cats was the place to find stuff from The Smiths or Elvis Costello. It was as I described it in the book…hardwood floors, cedar walls, and a general warm feeling when you walked in. There were two locations, on the east side and north side of town (the north side was the one I went to often). Not too long after I left town, my brother had told me that Cats had closed. I just assumed he meant the one on the east side. A few years later, on a visit to town, I decided to go to the north side and see what they had to offer. When I got there, I was grief-stricken to see the “For Lease” sign on the door. It really felt like a death.

However, showing that Cats had closed also served two subtler purposes. One, I wanted to have something unexpected to happen for Danny. It shatters the frozen-in-time, idealized image of the area around campus he had in his head. Something had to be not quite right, and that’s what I chose to be the missing ingredient.

And, as an aging Gen-Xer, I wanted to have an image of how people get music today, as opposed to how we did it when I was a college student. Hard copies, at least on a digital format, have fallen out of favor with “the kids.” I realize by saying this, I run the risk of sounding like the old guy who complains that a ticket for the moving picture show used to be only a nickel.

Why is it, do you think, that male readers respond so strongly to books about music? (your novels, Hornby’s, etc.)
I think it’s because guys (especially when we’re in our teens and 20s) have a terrible time expressing how we feel. I don’t want to get all “blame it on society,” but we were taught at an early age to not show our emotions—boys don’t cry (you know, kinda like that Cure song), and we have a hard time hashing out what was going on in our heads. It’s a thing of beauty when a songwriter reads our minds and says something more eloquently than we ever could and does it in 4/4 time. It grabs us and shakes us to our cores. In a way, music becomes a part of who we are. That’s the reason we made mixtapes to impress women. We couldn’t find the words to say we liked them and wanted to get to know them better, but Neil Finn could. So, we’d let him and the rest of Crowded House stand proxy for us for four and a half minutes.

When we read a book like High Fidelity or Postgraduate, we relate to using music as a primary coping mechanism (like Rob and Danny respectively) more than we get Heathcliff walking along the moors. While dealing with my last breakup, I listened to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis on a continuous loop while drinking a heroic amount of whiskey. I didn’t spit out a two-page soliloquy while standing on my patio and looking at the moon. It’s just how we do it now.

I’d imagine that in a novel like this, it’d be difficult to keep from making Sam (the one that got away) an idealized woman, or Angela (the adulterous ex) into . . . an idealized harlot, I guess. Especially with this being written from Danny’s perspective. How do you walk the line?
I don’t really know if I thought about it too much while I was writing Angela and Sam. I just had a full picture in my mind who these women were…their wonderful qualities and their flaws. I had an idea of what made Danny and Angela work and what didn’t. The same was true with Danny and Sam.
Thanks for your time and willingness to let me badger you with these questions – again, I really enjoyed Postgraduate and truly hope that it finds the audience it deserves.

Pub Day Post: Postgraduate by Ian Shane: A Funny, Nostalgic, Touching Novel about Maybe Finding Lost Loves/Dreams/Friendships

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane


Kindle Edition, 409 pg.
45rpm Media, 2019

Read: March 25 – 26, 2019

“. . . you did a bad, bad thing.”

“Then why are you helping me?”

“Because that’s what friends do. Someone needs to stand next to you when the world falls down around your ankles, and the other starting players seem to be leaving you one by one. You’re still my boy, but I question your decision-making skills.”

We meet Danny Jackson on one of the worst days of his life — the day his marriage legally ended (it was over long before). Danny’s quick to assure us that he’s had worse days, and not just because he doth protest too much (no matter what it looks like at the moment). He’s 44, about to be kicked out of his house, in a job he hates (many reasons are bigger than being forced to use Comic Sans, as bad as that is) and really has no idea what the rest of the year will bring — much less anything after that.

One of the many accommodations Danny made to get along with his wife was to trim his 4,000+ CD collection down to 150, and now that he finds himself without a real home or family and a strong need to fill up his time so he can’t dwell on that he starts rebuilding that collection — not with current music, either. But with the songs and albums that defined him at that age where music is so important to define, mold and express one’s identity — college. Before long, Danny’s investing some real money in stereo equipment as well as CDs. At one point a neighbor/friend from the apartment building says something about Danny having enough of both to start his own radio station.

This idea sparks something within Danny and he sets to do just that — not a real radio station (or even a pirate station), but an Internet radio station modeled on the one he learned all about Radio on in college, “The L.” While putting in the work necessary to launch an Internet station, Danny starts dreaming and scheming. I was honestly a little surprised to see how much work was involved, but after reading this I realize that’s just because I know so little about radio (even online) and hadn’t given it any real thought before.

He doesn’t just want to launch this passion project, he’d like to bury the hatchet with a bunch of people from his college days — and what better way to do both together than by launching the station in their old studio while they’re all returning to say goodbye to a mentor as he prepares to retire. Danny’s already speaking for the event, so that part will be easy. He trusts the others will be there, too — getting them to go along with his plans will be the trick.

Danny doesn’t know what kind of audience his online version of “The L” is going to have, but he figures there’s some audience — he’d listen to the kind of station he’ll be launching, why wouldn’t others his age? So kicks off (and then some) this story of friendship, lost loves, abandoned dreams, the love of music, and the attempt to recapture what we’ve lost (through fault of our own, or not). While we follow Danny’s rebuilding in 2017, we also get (in alternating chapters) the story of how the magic was assembled back in the day, and how it primarily fell to pieces (Danny had a significant roll in that, it turns out).

Danny’s glory days really were that (until they weren’t) and it was a lot of fun reading about them — especially when Sam’s on the scene. His 44th year wasn’t that great for him (it did improve from that inauspicious start), but it was almost as much fun to read, especially when Sam’s on the scene. Sam’s the one who got away from Danny, the love of his life, etc. She’s close to idealized, but Shane’s careful not to let Danny do that to her (more than anyone would in memory).

The focus of the novel is (rightly) those two, but Danny’s friendships with Marty — the Program Director of the L — and Tom are easily as important. The novel could’ve worked almost as well with the Danny/Tom relationship as the center instead of Danny/Sam. Tom was Danny’s high school friend who came to college with him and developed a radio show with him, both planning to keep doing radio together after college. One of my few problems I have is that I think we needed a bit more of Tom early on. I know he’s Danny’s partner, and the emotions both have toward each other (in the 90’s and 2017) indicate that, but he always seems to be playing second fiddle to Sam or Marty. Marty’s sort of the older brother figure to Sam, Danny and Tom — down for a good time as well as advice, and is just cool to read.

Mindy, Marty’s co-host, is a character I could’ve used a little more of, too — just because I really liked her. The narrative nowhere needs more of her, but I just liked her and wanted more. The professor, Dr. Black, they assemble to honor is a perfect mentor figure. Even Angela, the adulterous ex- that derailed Danny’s career, is a pretty well-designed and used character — but she’s about the only one in the book I don’t want to see more of.

I don’t mean this next sentence as a negative, no matter what it sounds like. There are few narrative surprises for the reader — by a certain point, you know pretty much how each storyline is going to go. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises (pleasant and otherwise) for the reader, but it’s not that kind of story. You may not know exactly where Plot X will land, but you’ll know the ZIP Code for it early on. And that’s fine — the pleasure’s in the journey, and Danny ending up where you know he will is just a satisfying confirmation.

If you like Danny, you’ll like this book. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t like Danny, but I have to admit it’s possible. I think we clicked almost instantly, I was definitely on board in the first couple of pages. It’s possible you may not like Danny as a person, but would like his voice (well, Shane’s voice), I suppose. That should carry you through, too.

On his website, Shane talks about the impact Aaron Sorkin has on his writing — when you get to passages like this, it’s pretty obvious:

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I didn’t think you’d find out.”

“Really?”

“Did you have any idea before today?”

“None.”

“Then it’s a mystery to me as to why I’d think that.”

I can’t help but hear that last line in a Richard Schiff voice. But the book doesn’t only read like the work of a Sorkin-devotee. It has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose — no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Unlike Sorkin, Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. I could’ve easily read another 400 pages of these people without breaking a sweat.

You know how maybe the best thing about Zach Braff’s Garden State was that killer soundtrack? That’s almost the case here. Shane has assembled a great playlist on Spotify to go with the novel — stuff that Danny refers to in the book, and stuff he’d listen to. I’ve been introduced to a lot of music that I probably should know through it. Most of what I’ve written in the last week (and some of what I’ve read) has had it as a soundtrack, and that’ll likely hold true for a while longer. I’m embarrassed to admit how little of it I knew going in — Danny, Tom and especially Marty would be ashamed that someone who went to college in about the same time as they did wouldn’t know this stuff. Maybe I should’ve listened to more college radio. Unlike, Garden State, Postgraduate can be read without it (and without knowing the music), but this is a great touch. If for no other reason than there’s going to be a couple of songs you’re going to be curious about after reading about them, this is a great resource.

How much did I like the book? Despite being given a copy (which I’m very grateful for), I bought one. I might give a few away. Danny feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper — it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (the problems with that clause deserve their own post, but you all know what I mean). There’s an eleven year gap between Shane’s first two novels, after reading this you can only hope that his third will arrive much sooner. While I wait for whatever’s next, you should go read Postgraduate. You’ll feel better than James Brown if you do.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Few Quick Questions With…James Bailey

I’ve had some really good Q&A’s this year — which is entirely due to those providing the A’s. Here’s one of the crème de la crème. Now I wrote about James Bailey’s book, The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo a week or so ago, but I didn’t have time to read and post about the sequel by today, its release date. So instead, I’ve got this little back-and-forth with the author to celebrate the release of Dispatches from a Tourist Trap. I’ll try to get something written about it by the end of this week, but I know better than to promise anything.

So sit back and enjoy this before you go to buy the book, which should have downloaded to my Kindle this morning. I’m going to go verify that as you read Bailey’s thoughtful and funny contributions below.

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”? What came first, the choice to go for a YA story instead of your adult novels or the story idea?
I have so many Chapter 1’s on my computer it’s not even funny, so, yeah, I have ideas bouncing around all the time. Some of them never get any further than a few notes jotted down on a scrap of paper. The idea for Jason came to me while re-reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 . I thought it would be fun to try something like that, but more modern. I went with email instead of a diary. I got the image for his parents from my neighbors, who are probably closer to Rob and Janice than most people would want their parents to be. They are prone to fighting, occasionally physically, in their driveway. Any time we see a police car in the neighborhood, we almost expect to see it stop in front of their house. As for Jason, I wanted a likeable (if sometimes mildly self-centered) protagonist. On my last novel, Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed, I started with the concept of a borderline asshole for the main character. He was definitely selfish, sometimes worse. One of my beta readers tabbed him a sociopath. I did soften him a little after that. I wasn’t quite aiming for sociopath. And I think he grew enough by the end that readers wouldn’t throw stuff at him if they met him on the street. But for First World Problems I wanted someone more likeable, and hopefully Jason comes across as a decent kid.

As for the YA angle, I’m not always even sure what counts as YA. I suspect most YA books are read by adults at least as much or more than they are by teens. Is it the protagonist being young, dealing with teen trials and tribulations, or is it the reader being young? Is Nick Hornby’s Slam a YA book? (One of my favorite Hornby novels, btw.) For me, when I read something that falls under the YA umbrella there’s often a nostalgia factor in there somewhere, and sometimes a “man, I’m glad I don’t have to relive all that again” factor. But when you look back on your life, there’s something about those high school years, as good or bad as they were, that never fades. Most of us will remember life as a 14-18 year old much more distinctly than we will life as a 24-28 year old or 34-38 year old, etc. It’s a formative period. Still, once I finish off the series, I’ll probably go back to writing “adult” books. (Though when you say it like that, it sounds like adult films, which have a seriously different meaning.)

I honestly laughed out loud there. Also, I have to confess — I’ve never read Slam. I bought it when it came out, my wife read and enjoyed it. But the Hardcover is sitting on my shelf. I really need to.

Anyway, why did you choose to go with an Epistolary book? What are the specific challenges that come with it — are there specific benefits?

As mentioned in the first answer, I was riffing off Adrian Mole a little when I started this project. The first couple of drafts were all Jason. I didn’t work in replies from the other characters until later. A friend who read an early draft said it was hard to get a feel for anyone else’s personality as it was. I’m really glad I changed course, because it definitely allowed them each to show more of who they are. Drew, especially, but Gina as well. Want a challenge? How about telling your brain to ignore all the spell-checker issues when writing her responses. While I was editing the rest of the book to make sure the spelling and grammar was correct, I had to keep making hers worse. She was fun to write. I only hope everyone can decipher what she said.
Ugh! I meant to talk about Gina’s grammar and spelling — how could I forget about that? It was so nice to read intentional misspellings and atrocious sentences. I’ve read too much of both lately in theoretially edited works.

Why 2003? Why not something more current — or further back? (Feel free to mock any of my rambling about the time)

You answered this one yourself in your review, almost exactly. I had to freeze it back in a time period when it was still realistic that guys like Jason and Drew wouldn’t have had phones. If I had set this in 2018, everything would have been in texts. That would be horrible. As it is, it still requires a minor suspension of disbelief that they would write in complete sentences, but then again, they’re intellectual fellows. I could have gone a little further back in time, but not much beyond the mid-90s. Earlier than that and email would have been a stretch for the opposite reason.
I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I now have a 1-star review on Amazon for each of my four books. Fortunately, those are the minority. I’m not sure about the “worst,” but I do have a stupidest. A guy gave my first book, The Greatest Show on Dirt, a 1-star review. All he said was, “not about baseball. Its a dumb story about people who work at a baseball stadium,” That’s it. Well, there’s a lot of baseball in the book. Not sure what he was looking for. But here’s the kicker. He’s also the guy who left a one-star review on my second book, Nine Bucks a Pound. For that one he said, “only started it. Not very good.” He posted both reviews on the same day. My question for him would be, if you didn’t like one, why’d you bother with the other? But you can’t respond to reviewers. There’s nothing to gain from it and a lot to lose. You have to just try to tune the negative ones out. Not always easy. Then again, if most of the reviews for a book are 4 or 5 stars, and someone posts a 1 star review, to me that says more about them than it does the author or the book.

And try to find a book on Amazon that everyone liked. My favorite novel of all time, A Confederacy of Dunces, has 221 1-star reviews. That book is brilliant. It’s hilarious, creative, the characters jump off the page. How in the world that all came together in one man’s mind just amazes me. But 221 people hated it enough to rip it on Amazon. When I see people saying “This isn’t funny,” about Ignatius J. Reilly, that tells me all I need to know about them. They have no sense of humor, whatsoever.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
If I thought hard enough about this, I’m sure I could come up with a handful, but the first thing that pops into my head is a book called Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers, by Tom Moran. And while I might wish I had written it, if I’m honest there’s no way I could have. It’s just too zany. It’s about a time traveling detective named Walton Cumberfield, who has to solve the mystery of why an old man broke into his house after Walton beats him to death with a Guinness Book of World Records (2008 edition). It’s a bit silly at times, and if you hate puns you might struggle with it, but it’s clever, creative, and fun. Walton reminded me in some ways of Ignatius J. Reilly (two Confederacy of Dunces references in one Q&A; is that a record?). There was a second book in the series, called A Debt to the Universe, that was enjoyable, but not quite as good.

I’ve loved time-travel movies and books since I saw Back to the Future when I was 15. I’ve toyed around with some ideas for writing one myself, but I haven’t quite hit on the right storyline yet. Maybe someday.

You care to give the elevator pitch for Book Two of the Trilogy? (and maybe a hint about Book Three, if you can)
Okay, I’m hardly kidding when I say it’s easier to write a book than it is to write a blurb about that book. I’ve finally finished rewriting the one that’s going to go up on Amazon, and you’re asking for an elevator pitch, which to me connotes something even shorter, so I’m going to hack it down slightly here. If you want the fuller version, you can find it up on Amazon (the book is available now for pre-order). Anyway, here’s my elevator pitch version:

Thanks to his parents’ separation, Jason is starting his sophomore year of high school in tiny Icicle Flats, a quaint Bavarian-themed mountain village three hours east of Seattle. This town has barely changed since Janice grew up there, and she’s only going back because she has a new boyfriend, who is also her new boss.

Leaving his friends is hard, but the worst part is leaving Sian, right when things were getting good. In between visits, they exchange a lot of email and phone calls, but long-distance relationships are always challenging, especially for someone like Jason who forever seems to be digging himself into a hole. Fortunately, Drew is just an email away. If only Jason would ever heed his advice.

Jason joins an after-school book club, where he hooks up with a couple of other students who love to push boundaries. Mayhem ensues, involving the school board, the town Christmas parade, and a pirate radio station. Who ever said life in a small novelty town would be dull?

As for Book 3, I haven’t started writing it yet, but I do have some ideas. Jason’s family will expand when Rob gets remarried and a new bundle of joy appears. Fortunately for his little brother, his stepmother is a competent adult, which brings the grand total to one in Jason’s circle. His relationship with Sian will be strained once more when she heads off to Ireland as an exchange student. Jason will learn how to drive. And Rob may see a UFO. For now, I’m envisioning the book covering the summer before his junior year (picking up where Book 2 leaves off) and running through the school year. But there’s a lot TBD at this stage.

Thanks for your time — and thanks for introducing me to Jason Van Otterloo.
And thank you, for your time and the opportunity to reach some new readers.