The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

The Blue Notebook by James A. LevineTitle:  The Blue Notebook

Author:  James A. Levine

Paperback: 210 pages (ARC)

Published:  2009

ISBN:  9780385528719

Acquired:  won through LibraryThing’s ER March 2009 batch

Challenges:  The ARC Reading Challenge 2010, New Author Challenge 2010, POC Reading Challenge

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine is a fictional novel told from the point of view of Batuk Ramasdeen, a 15-year-old prostitute living in a closet-sized “nest”, as she calls it.  It is written like a journal or diary and gives a graphic glimpse of the life of a child sex slave.  While it’s called “The Blue Notebook”, it is written in three separate collections of pages, the first being contained in the blue notebook for which the book is named, while the other two sections were written on hotel paper then later plain paper.  The reason I mention this is because, in a lot of ways, this book felt like two separate and distinct stories, falling in these different segments.

The first part, the part written in the blue notebook, was inspired by Levine’s experiences when he traveled to Mumbai as part of a research trip for his work at the Mayo Clinic.  While there, he interviewed several street kids on the infamous Street of Cages, when he noticed a child prostitute writing in a notebook.  He talked with her for a long time and her story and what he saw there stuck with him and led him to writing this book in hopes of shining a light on the tragic events occurring to such young children, stealing their childhoods, their souls, and often their very lives.

“The Blue Notebook” section is hauntingly real and fairly true to the character of Batuk as a young girl who was sold into prostitution by her own father at the age of 9.  Now 15, Batuk is an adult woman, aware of her sexual allure, one second, then a playful, giggling, daydreaming child the next, writing stories and telling jokes to cheer up her friend.  She tells us from the beginning that she is prone to waxing dramatic, and, at times, her writing has a poetic beauty to it, with metaphors and stunning word pictures.  It does have some amount of stream of conciousness to it, as she may be talking about having sex with the men in one sentence and then write about some event back home before being brought to Mumbai in the next.

Batuk is unusual for a child of the streets, and even unusual for the men that she services, in that she can read and write.  She tells of having TB and spending 12 weeks in a missionary hospital where she had had the privilege of a tutor three times a week and was even sent away with a goodbye gift of a box full of books for her to keep.  As soon as they’re home, she has her father close his eyes as she reads a story to her father and then waits for his reaction.

Father did not say a word until I finished.  As I concluded the story, I peeked under his hat; his eyes were shiny and tears were streaming down his face.  He just stared at me.  “Father, there are happier stories, let me…”  “Batuk, that is not why I am crying.  I never imagined that any child of mine would ever learn to read… this is your ticket out of Dreepah-Jil.”  He caught his thoughts and continued to speak excitedly.  “We will have to find you a teacher… One day you will be a… doctor, a lawyer.”  I interrupted, “Or a teacher.”  “Yes, darling, or a great teacher, Batuk.  Come to me.”  I went to my father with another book tucked under my arm, the magical abhang poems of Namdev.  As I read words I barely understood and soaked them within me, my father held me.  That night we both created dreams for me.  Neither he nor I ever aspired to my becoming a prostitute.(embolden added)

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine, page 82 (ARC)

While “The Blue Notebook” section is stark and unvarnished glimpse into the lives of the street children, most all-too-short lives, at that, the remainder of the book is crap, to be honest.  I could really feel the children who had inspired Levine in the first segment, but in the second half of the book, it all felt sleazy.  It felt like I was reading snuff kiddie porn.  I’m not giving anything away, I don’t think, in telling you Batuk dies.  I knew it within the first 20 pages that it would not end well, and at the end of The Blue Notebook, there is blatant foreshadowing, and you know by then, if you didn’t already, that she was going to die a cruel and violent death.  So did she, sadly, and she was powerless to act on that prescience, because after six years of conditioning, it never occurred to her to run.

I understand what Levine was trying to do with The Blue Notebook, and I think it commendable, and according to the back of the book, all the profits from the book is being donated to organizations that help missing and exploited children, so the fact that Levine didn’t write this book for the money touches my heart.  This fact also makes me feel bad to give a frank and honest review, but the truth is, the second half of the book feels like a gorean child molesters erotica book.  Batuk is raped repeatedly, and basically answers, “Thank you, Master, for the pleasure.”  She’s kicked and beaten and starved, and all that is horrible and fits into where Levine wanted to go with the story, but the way in which it was written felt like a male fantasy. 

IDK, I’m not saying he enjoyed writing it, just that it felt creepy, like when you were a kid, the uncle at the family picnic that hugged you a little too long.  He didn’t do anything wrong, per se, he just hugged you, but it leaves you feeling like you’re crawling with cooties and need a scalding hot shower.  Yeah, the second half of this book is like the creepy uncle.

I’d say that if you’re inspired to buy this book because doing so helps out children, just donate directly to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.  Don’t bother with the book, just donate the $10 straight to the cause.

For all that he wanted to do with this, and for the beautiful sections that the book does contain, I’m going to give The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine 2.5 out of 5 stars.  That represents a balance of what I loved and what I hated, I think.

Other links of interest

The Street of Cages:  In Mumbai the Sparrows — children of prostitutes — are being rescued and given an education, thanks to a remarkable project – A Times Online article also by James A. Levine

Other Reviews:

Lisa at Books On the Brain

Petunia at Educating Petunia

Nicole at Linus’s Blanket

Natasha at Maw Books

Jen at Devourer of Books

Rants and Reads at The Novel World

Rebecca at The Book Lady Blog

Swapna at S.Krishna’s Books (is there a book she hasn’t read?)

Meghan at Medieval Bookworm

Jennifer at The Literate Housewife

Jill at Rhapsody in Books

Laurie at In Laurie’s Mind

At this point, I’m just gonna stop adding links because, apparently, I’m the only person left in the blogosphere to read and review this book.  If you’d like to add you review to the list, link it in your comment 🙂

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Katka by Stephen R. Meier

Title:  Katka

Author:  Stephen R. Meier

Paperback:  107 pages

Date Published:  2008

Publisher:  booksurge

ISBN:  9781439216330

“Gavin why are you here in Prague?”  Katka asked as they were walking along one of the cobblestone streets.
The question seemed to be one that Gavin didn’t like answering, and one that caused a bit of duress.
“I just wanted to get away for awhile,” he finally answered.
“From?”
“Life.”
It was the way he said it.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, just every now and then you need to take a step back and reevaluate things.”
She just listened.
“I just couldn’t stay there.”
Thinking about it made Gavin angry, very angry.  He had done everything by the book, had gone to college, gotten a degree and a job right out of University.  One complete with benefits, a matching 401k, everything.  Perhaps it was a life that he never really wanted, but still, his parents had been so proud.  He never saw it coming.
Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
“Why Prague?’
“To find you,” Gavin answered with a smile.
They both laughed.
“No, my buddy Pat lives out here and told me to come out and that I could work at his bar.  He’s been out here for awhile now and loves it, so I figured why not.”
“Do you like it?”
“I love it, especially right at this moment.”
It was cheesy, but the right thing to say at the time.
Katka loved it.
They stopped walking and turned to one another.
They stared deep into one another’s eyes.
“You’re absolutely stunning,” he said pushing a piece of hair out of her face.
She blushed.
They they kissed.  The kind of kiss that moves mountains, creates dreams.
Writes a fairy tale.

Katka by Stephen R. Meier, pages19-20

First of all, I want to get all the unpleasantness out of the way.  I did not like this book.  At all.  I was in pain for most of the (thank gawd it was only) 107 pages.  It wasn’t as bad as The Gun Runner’s Daughter (worst book ever), but it was bad.  I give Katka by Stephen R. Meier 1 out of 5 stars.

Now, having said that, let me explain.  First off, I feel bad for not liking the book.  Meier spent 7+ years trying to get this story out there, and it’s definitely a labor of love for him.  I truly wanted to like this book, as the description sounded very intriguing.

Katka by Stephen Meier is a gritty, edgy novel of greed, love, and swindles gone very wrong.  When Gavin and his girlfriend team with her best friend Simona to pull a phony mail order bride scam in the Czech Republic, Gavin gets in way over his head in the high-stakes and dangerous business of selling wives.  When Gavin talks Katka, his girlfriend, into becoming part of the merchandise, planning to bait-n-switch the client in the end, things go awry and Katka disappears with the client.  Partnering with the jealous and volatile Simona, Gavin begins to lament this risky life he has chosen, but finds the money is something he can’t walk away from. Gavin’s doubts grow; the con begins to consume him, and he finds himself thinking of Katka, the fate he dealt her, and whether he can undo the biggest mistake of his life.  Written with staccato grit and streetwise savvy, Katka reads like a Quentin Tarantino movie.  Stephen Meier’s work will leave you begging for more.

So where did it go wrong?  The writing, mostly.  I think part of the book’s problem is that, originally, it was written as a screenplay and later adapted into a novella.  Nearly all of the book is written in short, punchy sentences, as demonstrated by the quote.  There are no indentations for paragraphs, and the grammatical and spelling errors were too abundant to overlook.  I was tempted to send the book flying when I came across “Gavin striked Dale across the face” on page 77 (just 30 pages more, you can do it!  I said to calm myself).

Also, the book’s timeline is disjointed with seemingly random flashbacks and bunny trails of side-thoughts.  Meier gives no lead ins to the changes and, by the time the story returned to original scene, I couldn’t remember what the heck was even going on.  It was all too irritating and confusing.

Adding to all that was the gratuitous sex and violence, and the overuse of the ‘F’ word that seemed more like, “Hey, I’m a tough guy because I say the F word a lot.”  I did expect sex and swearing, given the subject matter, but where it appears often appears out of place and contrived. 

Then there were the characters, most seemed mildly schizophrenic, behaving one way in one setting then flipping it in another.  I don’t think Gavin used the F word more than five times in the whole book when he was alone with Katka, which is why I thought maybe it was an attempt to butch him up.  The majority of them were underdeveloped, flat, and didn’t inspire me to empathy.  The novella is too short for the amount of characters used to be properly developed and for all the sub-plots to receive the needed attention to make sense.

HAVING SAID ALL THAT…..

There are glimpses of potential good in this novella.  It would be a really good starting place for a novel; it felt more like reading a concept for a novel.  It does have a feel, toward the end, of the movie Indecent Proposal.  I think it could be a great novel, but it needs a lot more work.  AND, a better editor (maybe a woman editor would help smooth out the edges?).

As it is, I think it would appeal to guys in their late teens to late twenties.  It has a feel of a dime store novel and of the old 8-pager… the pulp-fiction porno.

Here are a few other reviews of Katka, some people even liked it.

Chicago Center for Literature and Photography– rated it 7.3 out of 10 and said, “it’s not much more than just a basic pulp-fiction tale, nothing more and nothing less than a typical film-noir B-picture put out by Hollywood in the 1920s and ’30s, updated in this case for modern sensibilities and cultural references.”

The Faerie Drink Review  gave Katka a 4 out of 5.  You can also read Devyn’s interview with Stephen Meier here.

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Long and short of it…  I really did not like Katka, and after reading the interview, I feel bad for saying it.  Meier seems like a decent guy, who was inspired by real life events to write the story, and has been on a seven-year journey to finally see his baby born… and I’m pooping on it *sigh*  BUT… it’s not the kind of bad that I’d say, “Don’t read this,” because obviously some people do like it.  Also, I would love to read Meier’s next book, Teaching Pandas to Swim, though he probably won’t invite me to read it.

*now I feel guilty… off to buy 10 copies of Katka….*