Book Review: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

The Universe Versus Alex WoodsThe Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Release date: June 25th, 2013
| GoodreadsB&NThe Book Depository |
My rating: ★★★★☆

In case you didn’t know, in secondary school—especially in the early years of secondary school—diversity is not celebrated. In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit. Actually, in secondary school, being different is pretty much the only crime you can commit.

At one point or another, most teenagers believe the universe is pitted against them. For Alex Woods, that seems to be the case—literally—as a chunk of meteorite crash-lands through the roof of his home and knocks him unconscious. Alex survives, but not without side-effects. In the aftermath, Alex gains the attention of media and develops an onset of epileptic seizures, but it is not just Alex’s fame, medical history, or the scar on his head that marks him an outcast. Wildly curious and interested in science coupled with social awkwardness makes him a target for school bullies. It is these bullies, however, who chase Alex right into Mr. Peterson’s yard. What starts as a rocky, uncertain relationship between the thirteen year old and Vietnam war veteran steadily turns into a life-altering friendship.

Now, at age seventeen, Alex once again finds himself at the center of media hype, but for different reasons entirely. His actions have set the country in uproar, and upon stopping at customs, he is found with 113 grams of marijuana and a full urn of ashes. Told from the viewpoint of the naïve yet exceptionally perceptive and smart Alex, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a clever coming-of-age story. It’s a novel that comes full-circle, beginning and returning to the specific event which opens the story. Similar to that of a memoir, the pages in between reveal Alex’s reflections—from the moment the universe collides into Alex’s life to his friendship with Mr. Peterson and beyond.

Alex presents an endearing naïvety by nature, yet this is one quality he continually grows from. An insightful and observant individual, Alex does not lack keen awareness, and when that clarity is ever clouded, he fights to understand. He is more than smart, looking at the world through an innocent’s eyes—a common feature among coming-of-age stories. Alex is intelligent, evolving in character, odd in terms of typical teenagers, and quite the saint. Above all of Alex’s qualities, however charming, it is his belief in doing “the right thing” that wins me over. No matter what consequences may result, fear does not seem to phase Alex. Instead, he readily accepts what he believes he must do and any punishment that comes with it. In this respect, he displays valor—a characteristic that not only earns my respect, but makes him a valuable person to know.

“Still, not all scars are bad, Alex. Some are worth hanging on to, if you know what I mean.”

I believe that Alex is the heart of this novel, as the story rests and depends on his musings. It’s centered on the events in his life during a certain span of years, or rather: The Universe Versus Alex Woods is Alex’s story thus far, and in part of this story lives Mr. Peterson. The friendship that grows between the two characters becomes a turning point, as both Alex and Mr. Peterson affect one another through irreversible change—and for the better. Some of the book’s most gripping scenes prosper from this unexpected but somehow ordinary relationship, and much of the growth this book experiences stems from these parts. It’s a poignant aspect: one teenage outcast and one reclusive war veteran who find each other, connecting through their obstacles, Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and perhaps through loneliness.

In the long history of human affairs, common sense doesn’t have the greatest track record.

The story Gavin Extence has written is a blast of fresh air: compelling, profound for its thoughtfulness, and touching with a sweet twinge of humor. I find that the charm and uniqueness  Gavin has instilled into his novel is difficult for me to communicate. It’s simple: I fear that I will ruin the plot for anyone who has yet to read this story. I fear that by saying more, I will remove the story’s capability to affect prospective readers. I can only encourage others to pick this book up and discover Alex’s story for themselves.

At a surface glance, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is the coming-of-age tale about a peculiar boy growing up under even more peculiar circumstances. This story, however, runs deeper than that. It’s thought-provoking literature that displays the small wonders in this vast, complex universe. At the same time, it handles expansive issues centering on life, death, personal right and responsibility. What I appreciate about Gavin’s way of dealing with these facets to the story is this: they are what they are—nothing more and nothing less. Gavin’s aim is not to persuade the reader of anything, but to let the story unfold and allow the reader to get lost its wonder. For a debut, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is immensely likable and it’s one that I won’t soon forget, and I suspect that its appeal will withstand decades to come.

The longest-lived of these particles could exist for only a few hundred-millionths of a second before decaying; the shortest-lived were so unstable that their existences couldn’t even be ‘observed’ in a conventional sense. They popped into being and were gone in the same tiny fraction of an instant, so quickly that no instrument had yet been invented that was sensitive enough to register their presence, which could only be inferred post mortem. But the more I thought about this, and the more I thought about how old the universe was, and how old it would become before it suffered its final heat death—when all the stars had gone out and the black holes had evaporated and all the nucleons decayed, and nothing could exist but the elementary particles, drifting through the infinite darkness of space—the more I thought about these things, the more I realized that all matter was akin to those exotic particles. The size and scale of the universe made everything else unimaginably small and fleeting.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hachette Book Group/Redhook for providing a free copy of The Universe Versus Alex Woods in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. HydeThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Behold: the regal and mystery that is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, if only I found it regaling and mysterious. A notable classic whose references still hold widely popular, the mystery has been stripped away—even for someone such as myself, who has never watched a film adaption. I am, however, familiar with the story and duality Jekyll and Hyde represent. Although far from a purely angelic being, Jekyll is neither good nor bad. What Dr. Jekyll equates to is an ambitious scientist who incidentally unleashes an evil from within himself. Now released, to be contained and muted beneath Jekyll’s morals and persona doesn’t appeal to the conscienceless Mr. Hyde. Confined in one body, a great struggle for dominance between two entities ensues, and what Jekyll might’ve hoped would be his success threatens his very life and reputation.

My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring.

This much I knew, as should everyone else. The puzzle piece is continually exploited and its references bomb pop culture. The mystery, then, is no longer a mystery. The shock value is nulled, but I didn’t read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to hitch a ride on supposed thrill. Of course I liked the idea of knocking out another classic from my to-read list, but I also sought horror and hoped to be a first-hand witness to Jekyll’s torment. What I read, unfortunately, does not match up to what I had hoped to read. Where is the fright? The anguish in Jekyll’s eyes? Hyde’s fear and pursuit for control?

I found that it’s impossible to observe any of this because Stevenson denies his readers access. Some may disagree with my statement, but we—the readers—find ourselves strapped to Mr. Utterson’s side, hearing the story mostly through his account. (And in past tense no less.) Trapped in an outsider’s perspective, I, too—like Mr. Utterson—become a third party to the events of Jekyll and Hyde. I cannot observe the one most intriguing aspect, and everything I looked forward to reading about was crushed by Robert Louis Stevenson. Or, depending on how you look at it, Hollywood excelled in raising the standards of my expectations.

Mr. Hyde, as it turns out, is not the monster I expected. Stevenson only provides rare glimpses of the man, which does nothing to indulge my fantasy of an incorrigible evil that stalks nighttime streets. More importantly: rather than the individual of Jekyll or Hyde, what gives this novella power is the interrelationship between the two forces. Hyde begins as a dormant entity that emerges as a ruthless tyrant, growing to completely replace Dr. Jekyll. I am left in a disappointed state, because I believe the split individual(s)—the doctor and his freed cruelty—deserves spotlight. Had Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde differently, the duality of human nature could have been more deeply explored.

This is not to say I don’t enjoy or appreciate the theme. I did, in fact, take pleasure in reading this despite frustrations. The idea that people contain an alter ego, or two opposite forces, skulking beneath the public display of themselves is an interesting thought to tamper with. Although I had obvious disappointment—almost an anticlimactic experience—this literary work is long-standing and continues to see success. It remains a classic, and I feel that its references in popular culture will outlive many of us, which I think is enough reason to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde at least once. I certainly don’t regret the short little while it took me to finish Stevenson’s story, and I’m quite glad I set aside the time.

This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

Book Review: The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

The End of the AlphabetThe End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

My rating: ★★★

Death? Yes, yes, death hovers near us all. And it is sad that it makes us sad. But I know a story.

Such is the life of Ambrose Zephyr. At 50 years of age, Ambrose is diagnosed with a fatal but unidentifiable illness — an illness that, within 30 day’s time, will leave him dead. Yes, the doctor offered, writes Richardson, unfair would be a very good word about now. Zephyr’s soon and imminent death, however, makes up only one element to this story.

Meet Zappora Ashkenazi, more commonly known as Zipper. A literary editor for the third-most read fashion magazine, brilliant cook, reads everything, has impeccable fashion sense, but most of all, Zipper is the loyal and loving wife to Ambrose Zephyr. With the distinct absence of children, the couple dedicate more time fulfilling their careers and living “contentedly” together “in a narrow London terrace full of books.” What happens, then, when a couple create an ideal life together — a union in which needs are met by each other and through their work — once the other is gone? Contentment shatters, and Zipper must cope with the facts. In a month, she will be alone; no husband and no children.

And what will I have when he’s gone?

Nothing. No growing ancient together, no retiring to the pied-à-terre, no children, no grandchildren, come to that. No more. No life. Nothing. Blank.

But you never wanted children, Kitts said.

I never wanted this. I is for I don’t know what to do.

Zippper, feeling a deep sadness, anticipates Ambrose’s loss and examines life choices — likely regretting that she never had a child — while wishing not to let go. If one extends time from days to weeks to decades, it will still come short, as there is little time to live in comparison to how much life could be experienced. As Zipper feels torn between wanting to make the most out  of limited days but wishing those days were not limited, Ambrose faces his own death and what he never accomplished in life. What is a couple to do?

Indeed, said the doctor. Arrangements.

Ambrose Zephyr suggested, for all in the outer office to hear, that the doctor might want to wait one damn minute before suggesting that Ambrose might want to arrange his remaining days. Days that until moments before had been assumed would stretch to years. With luck, to decades. Not shrink to weeks.

As such, husband and wife agree on a rash decision to travel the world, but perhaps not in the way one might think — and certainly not in the way Ambrose initially planned. Ambrose Zephyr and Zappora Ashkenazi: A.Z. & Z.A. From the beginning to the end of the alphabet and back again.

In under 200 pages (depending on the copy; mine meets 119), the couple’s adventures and turmoil could have been wrung out, extended, and glossed in rich detail inside a 300 -500 page novel instead. Yet the swiftness is rather appropriate, and, as I find it, where the appeal rests. Hand a person generations of time, and he will still wish for more. There is difficulty in saying goodbye and accepting what is in order to let go, to release the grip on something that was expected to last or taken for granted.

In fluid, conversational tone, Richardson’s charm sits in the vast scope of story-telling accomplished through brevity. Not overtly sentimental, Richardson manages to pack in enough pow and flair that, through the power of simplicity, captivates intrigue and grasps emotions. Both nimble and discerning, The End of the Alphabet is tale about love and life I recommend anyone journey.

“An alphabet of the language of lovers, a beautiful fable of art and mortality: elegant, wise, and humane. I like to think of the happiness this book will bring. I’m sure it will be given as a gift between lovers, and will inspire many journeys — geographical and emotional.”

— Chris Cleave, author of Incendiary

For those interested, watch C.S. Richardson share his thoughts on The End of the Alphabet below:

Top Ten Tuesday #1

Top Ten Tuesday is an original weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Click here to read more and join!

Yes, I decided to finally participate in the Top Ten Tuesday meme — the prompts always look like such fun, and I couldn’t refrain much longer. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday list is: Top ten characters I’d switch places with for 24 hours.

1. Eskarina Smith from Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

A female wizard?! No such thing, unless you are the brilliant, forever-squinting Esk. “Girl power” — pushing the concept of sex equality — plays a huge theme in the third Discworld book, and I adore this little wizard-witch’s perseverance. Everyone loves to inform Esk (and with steadfast certainty) what she cannot do simply because it’s not “right” — it’s unheard of! — for women. After spilled tears, hard work, and determination, it all pays off when the chance comes to prove herself. As a smart character, I would hop at the opportunity to trade a day for Esk’s life  — the first female wizard allowed entrance into The Unseen University.

2. Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
The B&N leatherbound edition sits and sits on my desk — unread, I’m sad to say. Although I did read The Chronicles of Narnia (book 1) as a “tween,” and while Aslan and Mr. Tumnus remain favorites, Lucy wins my favoritism over her other siblings. As the youngest, her ‘childish’ perspective makes it easier to believe and see in things others don’t. How I wish I still saw the world this way!

Courtesy of Fanpop

3. Eskar from Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Out of ALL the characters in this lavish novel, I somehow found myself pining for more Eskar. I admire Seraphina: she’s intelligent, daring, and strong, yet also vulnerable. I love Seraphina, I do, but Eskar is something else entirely.

Oh, Eskar: that one cool saarantras who makes a few brief appearances but leaves a lasting punch of an impression. By her draconian nature, she is a constant blankface with inquisitive but superior air. Her demeanor expresses a coolly indifferent attitude — very casual but stern. When it comes down to it, Eskar is head in charge and owns it, and I’d simply love to strut in all that awesome.

Courtesy of Harry Potter Wikia

4. Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Luna, compared to the rest of Harry Potter characters — and possibly tied with Dobby — is the one I adore most. Utterly quirky, she is fascinatingly peculiar. For that, I think she possesses a great perspective on people and on life. Luna is often misjudged, but rarely — if ever — is she quick to (mis)judge others. Were it possible, I’d trade my humdrum life for Luna’s unconventional one, if only to immerse myself in her environment and see the world through her eyes.

5. Voldemort from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Read it again if you must. Yes, I said Voldemort. What I would do to be the almighty powerful Dark Lordess, worshiped by evil minions, and die the ugliest duckling who ever lived… Oh.

6. Bea from How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
Bea and my former teenaged self have so much in common that I felt Standiford observed me from afar and violated my thoughts. The narrative comes across as openly honest to what Bea thinks and feels, and I loved her loyalty most. Overall, I think she is a wonderful separation from typical female characterization, but I am truly jealous of her friendship with Jonah!

Their friendship borders a fragile line between a beautiful friendship to inseparably unhealthy. The two don’t harbor romantic feelings for each other, but Jonah feels  jealous when other guys show interest in Bea. Although Jonah never expresses attraction to other girls (or guys, for that matter), I know Bea would feel bitter, too. But hey: I wish I’d had a friend as great as Jonah in high school. Shooting squirt guns at prom attendees as you drive by to have a night of fun — just you and your BFF — and haunting time-traveling parties…

7. Annie Cresta from Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Annie is mentioned in Catching Fire a few times, though little becomes known about her character. Even then: her spotlight has a weak bulb, and it flashes past her in seconds. Her character is such a small background figure in Mockingjay that you may only remember Annie for her connection to Finnick Odair. Finnick, in fact, is why I’d trade places with her — Mr. Odair, reportedly gorgeous, is an honest and funny guy who Katniss doesn’t spend enough time with.

Most of Finnick’s time is spent with Annie. Annie — I am sure she is likable person, but we don’t see enough of her for me to know or care, and I only care about Finnick Odair.

Well, don’t expect us to be too impressed. We just saw Finnick Odair in his underwear.

8. Miles “Pudge” Halter from Looking for Alaska by John Green
I’m not sure what it is about Pudge, but I think he represents a good portion of the “adorkable” definition. Besides: he gets to live my youth’s dream, which is to say that he attends boarding school. I think Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language implanted this idea of boarding school + friends + adventure!time = a mostly great year. But Pudge experiences tragedy — an event that changes him but learns to grow from. He has a wonderful circle of friends, and even though I think a bufriedo sounds sickening, I want a culinary orgasm too!

9. Lou from No & Me by Delphine de Vigan
Put plainly, I find Lou charming. She feels burdened by world problems and nears the point of outrage when she contemplates solutions — how simply something could be solved if invading factors didn’t make situations complex. She thinks it’s cruel how she is afforded so many ‘luxuries’ in life when there are people who live on the streets. That’s when she meets the homeless No, and Lou’s personal world grows greener and richer for the friendship that blooms.

Lou and No have a sweet, genuine friendship, and Lou’s authenticity as a caring human being wins my approval stamp. Yes, I definitely would not mind stepping in her brave shoes.

Courtesy of Empire Online

10. Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens

Scrooge, we all know, is far from flattering and even farther away from likable. Stingy, he also has a foul mouth rank with bah‘s and humbug‘s, and I feel not an ounce of pity when he finally meets the Ghost of Christmas Future. No one loves Scrooge! Everyone is eager to sell his belongings, not having the faintest pinch of guilt or sadness. No time for mourning the grumpiest old man known in town, is there?

I’m not stingy, nor do I scrunch my nose like a spoiled, irritating brat, but I do have “humbug days” (sometimes weeks, even). Scrooge’s experience and respective change remind me how important kindness and laughter are, so yes: I’d switch with Scrooge, but just for a day.