Welcome to another edition of Sharing Our Snacks, in which Rebecca and I each recommend YA brain food that they think the other would enjoy crunching and munching! Rebecca recommended this book to me with no explanation as to why. She just knows I like pictures of internal organs, I guess. Check out our other shared snacks here.
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review by Tessa
Loa Lindgren: has a lot on her plate, and even more on her mind
Corey: Loa’s absent friend, in more ways than one.
Esther: Loa’s accidentally (?) dead friend
Asta: Loa’s formerly ill, now dead sister
Jack: successfully friendly with Loa, has found therapy in the ceramics department.
The Bony Guy: Death. Haunts Loa.
What does it feel like before things gets better? That’s where Loa Lindgren is now. Luckily for us, her inner narrative is bleakly funny and sprinkled with observant details, even as she wades through a swamp of grief, depression, and PTSD.
The Freak Observer starts with Loa’s recounting of the accident that kills her friend Esther. Esther runs out into the road along a curve and gets hit by a truck. Loa’s parents, in a cold and almost practical reaction, are mad at her for missing work because of it. Now Loa won’t get more hours at the Cozy Pines retirement home. They need the money because her father is out of work.
But this isn’t the worst of Loa’s problems. Her sister Asta recently died from a genetic disease that left her unable to care for herself, and this is what really broke up Loa’s world. She has terrible nightmares where Death haunts her, and crippling attacks of panic from her PTSD, but no money for therapy.
A third layer of the book concerns Corey, a boy who functioned as Loa’s friend, escape from the rest of the world, debate partner and sometime sex buddy. He is gone, abruptly leaving for school in Europe.
Loa is left alone to trudge through each day.
What was the book’s intention? Was it achieved?
The description on The Freak Observer’s jacket simply says that it’s “about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.” And that’s a smart move on their part. Because writing out all those things that are going on in Loa’s life during the course of the book make it sound like a total slog to read. And it’s the opposite of a slog. It’s a fast ride through a tunnel, bursting out on a view of a city lit up at night.
Blythe Woolston has given Loa Angela Chase levels of introspection, but a darker sense of humor, and more poetic observational skills. For example, one of the first ways we learn about Esther is through a story about the first time Loa saw her as a kid, ending with this statement: “Esther is dead now. She was a defender of puppies and whacker of pigs, and now she is dead.” (4). And she watches everything in her life in that way, with a little detachment, but with care. She takes the time to mention that “Chickens don’t always cluck…. When they are happy, they sort of hum–they chirp–they purr. The chickens are all around my mother waiting for her to make them happy. They are singing to her in their chicken way.” (19).
Reading The Freak Observer is visceral in that it’s like looking at something’s insides. It’s fascinating and vulnerable and bloody. It’s for good reason that the (kickass) cover features a large photograph of a (human?) heart. And the first person narration is used to full effect. Since Loa is narrating, the reader sees the world that Loa sees, and interprets people according to her views of them. It also serves to stretch out terrible moments, like this one:
“…I didn’t see the rest of the picture right away.
Then I saw Esther.
My first thought was
Her heart has fallen out of her body.
I didn’t know that could happen. I didn’t know what to do. So I just froze there on the cutbank.
I don’t know how to put a heart back into a body.
It was the only thought I had, and it wasn’t very useful.
It seemed like a long time, but it wasn’t really, because Abel was right behind me, and he pushed me out of the way. I slid down the bank in the loose dirt and rocks. Then I just sat there where I fell. I watched Abel while he grabbed his sister and tried to make her be alive.
I could see that her heart hadn’t fallen out. The muscle on her arm had been torn away from the bone. It was just a lump of muscle. Her heart was safe inside her, but she was still dead.” (12-13).
Most wonderfully, this is a book about living with loneliness, done undramatically, as when Loa observes that:
“I’ve known a lot of people, grown up with people, and done stuff with people. I know what color their bedrooms are and if they like to eat a dill pickle before they go to sleep. I watched people outgrow sweatshirts. …But friendship is something more than breathing the same air or touching the same basketball. Not much more, maybe, but something.” (74).
or when she remembers her dead dog Ket, saying: “I still miss Ket and the way he used to look at me like he wanted to know what I wanted him to know. It is the sort of look that can easily be mistaken for love.” (191).
But this isn’t a good book just because it describes those feelings and realizations so perfectly. It’s a great book because it lets Loa grow and gives her a little relief and it does it naturally. None of the bad things about Loa’s life feel overwrought, and none of the better things feel like plot devices.That’s what good realistic fiction should be. I’m so glad that Rebecca recommended this little gem for me.
If I Stay
First person narration, heartwrenching subject matter. This one’s a little more forced in tone and execution but I didn’t care because I was too busy gulping it down and trying not to weep. Mia narrates her days of trying to decide whether to stay in her broken body or die, after a car crash kills her parents.
Looking for Alaska
There’s something about the truthfulness of Loa’s voice that reminded me of John Green narration. And they both have black covers with one lone photographic element. And there’s death in this one too.
I won’t lie, this book is hard to get into. I almost stopped reading it. So in that way it’s nothing like The Freak Observer. But what it does have in common is a complex, loner girl protagonist who is rewarding to get to know and who feels real.
Disclosures & Digressions
Digression: Can I just say how impressed I was with Woolston’s dream descriptions? Usually dreams in fiction are such bald allegorical crap. Not so here. Let me quote:
“The Bony Guy likes disguises.
I am watching a late-night show. There is a guest who tried to pay for a cruise with a glossy photograph of the host. The host declares that it ought to be as good as money. It is a picture of him. people like him better than any of the guys on the money,don’t they? The audience applauds wildly. Then he has a quiz for all of us. Question 1: Would you watch a bunny rabbit eat some lettuce? Question 2: Would you watch a bird peck something dead by the side of the road? Question 3: would you watch dogs eat a live donkey? The audience applauds wildly.” (92-93)
Disclosure: Blythe Woolston sat at a table with me and other librarians at ALA last summer for 5 minutes to shill her books, and she was very personable.
Procured from: the library