“A World Without Fathers”: All Our Pretty Songs

A review of All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

by REBECCA, March 3, 2013

hook

Beautiful, carefree Aurora lives every moment to the fullest and takes what she wants, whether she’s moshing at concerts, throwing elaborate parties in her mother’s crumbling Seattle mansion, or stalking her latest sexual conquest. Her best friend, our unnamed narrator, has always been content to be the moon to Aurora’s sun. They balance each other and they’re sure that nothing can ever come between them. But this summer they’re going to learn that everything in life has a cost‚ and that sometimes there’s no good choice to make when it comes to protecting the people you love.

review

I want to spend a second on the plot of All Our Pretty Songs, because I think the Goodreads blurb misrepresents it. And, although I’ll say more about it than I usually would, I don’t think it spoils anything—in fact, if I’d had a better idea of what the book was actually about, I would never have waited so long to read it!

Aurora is the daughter of a Kurt Cobain-esque figure who made it big and then died when she was a kid. Her mother, Maia, haunts the halls of their huge, crumbling house like a wraith, strung-out, leaving Aurora to do whatever she wants. Aurora and our unnamed narrator are a tight duo: they go to shows and parties together, hang out on the beach, and tell each other everything.

This summer, though, at one of Aurora’s parties, a beautiful musician named Jack shows up, and his music is irresistible and otherworldly. The narrator and Jack begin a romance, which surprises and delights her because people are always attracted to Aurora rather than her. But, as the narrator spends more time with Jack, Aurora drifts deeper into the world drugs and powerful industry people that her parents couldn’t escape. A world that will seduce Jack, too, though for very different reasons. In the end, the narrator has to go on a quest—but she isn’t sure if it’s a quest to find Aurora, or to find herself.

All Our Pretty Songs is a stunning debut by Sarah McCarry, with prose by turns lush and biting. It’s set in a realist Seattle, but, in a Francesca Lia Blockish kind of way, the city itself becomes a magical world in which music, art, clothes, and friendship create altered states that transcend realism. Then, of course, there’s the way that All Our Pretty Songs is an intertext with the Orpheus myth. Yep, as in, there is a Hades and a ferryman and other such familiar figures. I use the term “intertext” instead of “adaptation,” because:

1. An adaptation uses another story as its engine, whereas All Our Pretty Songs simply dips into the world of mythology to animate the stakes of the story, which are not the stakes of the Orpheus myth.

2. A knowledge of the myth in question does not completely give away the entire story (thank you, god, Sarah McCarry for not falling into that shockingly common trap!).

3. I hate adaptations and I love this book; so there.

Dirty Wings Sarah McCarry All Our Pretty Songs is, at heart, a story about intimacy: how it empowers us, but also makes us susceptible to grief; how it reveals truths about us, but can also distract us from discovering those truths about ourselves; and how, finally, it is a force far beyond our control. The narrator’s and Aurora’s intimacy is one of sisters, and it echoes the intimacy their mothers had before the aftermath of Aurora’s dad’s death divided them (their story is the subject of the second book in the series, Dirty Wings). The narrator’s intimacy with Jack is a revelation to her, since she’s never thought of herself as beautiful or lovable. And, as the story progresses, the narrator feels a greater intimacy with her mother as she finds herself replicating some of her mother’s struggles.

As I mentioned, I hate adaptations. I nearly never come away from them convinced that the adaptation was anything other than an uninteresting and unnecessary cheat in which the author took a narrative blueprint and danced all over it, either to lend legitimacy to their work or to avoid having to think up a narrative arc on their own. But All Our Pretty Songs completely earned its intertextuality with Greek mythology because it managed to cut to the heart of their power. The Seattle that the narrator, Aurora, their parents, and Jack live in is one in which music and art is a calling; an avocation. For them, it is worth sacrificing for—indeed, much of what they do already feels like they making sacrifices to it. Sex and drugs are just two of the ways they can both sacrifice and escape. It feels absolutely right, then, that music and drugs would narratively open up the visible world to the invisible just as they do figuratively.

It’s interesting to look at ratings of All Our Pretty Songs on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever because it’s one of the most equal distributions of opinions I’ve seen. I’m always intrigued by books where it’s split between half the people loving it and half hating it; that’s usually just an indicator of taste. All Our Pretty Songs is clearly a book that readers are ambivalent about, though. In some ways, I think it’s a very atypical young adult book, which might account for the spread: the audience it’s marketed toward isn’t expecting its slow dreaminess, or its focus on prose, or its meandering quality. And, to come full circle, I think the blurb (and the cover, which I think is a real mis-fit) sets readers up for a coming-of-age love triangle set in the Seattle music scene. And that’s definitely not what we get.

I’m incredibly excited by this debut and I can’t wait to read the second book. Are there places that feel a bit repetitive here or drag a little? Sure. But the prose is so lovely and the voice of the narrator so true that I was always compelled to read, sentence-to-sentence. If it’s not to your taste, you’ll know it in ten pages because, yes, that’s how the whole book is. But, if it is . . .

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War For The Oaks Emma Bull

War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull (1987).

Eddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making. My full review is HERE.

Violet & Claire Francesca Lia Block Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Ecstasia Francesca Lia Block Primavera Francesca Lia Block

Violet & Claire (1999), Weetzie Bat (1989), Ecstasia (1993), Primavera (1994), by Francesca Lia Block. Violet and Claire are a duo similar to the narrator and Aurora. All Our Pretty Songs is to Seattle what Weetzie Bat is to L.A. Ecstasia and Primavera have a Bachanalian/dystopian take on music’s power to create and destroy.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth, Hannah Moskowitz (2013). The line between realism and myth is blurred in Teeth, and the prose is beautiful. Check out my full review HERE, and my post on the genre of the Oceanic Gothic, of which I’m convinced Teeth is a part, HERE.

procured from: the library

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

Morsels: Delightful little things I’ve recently read.

by Tessa

There are few things more miraculous to me than a really good picture book. It must be economical in prose and relatively bold in picture, but immediately suggest a whole world and character, or cast of characters. It has to have details that mark it as a unique thing, but carry a universal message so it can be quickly resonant to its readers. Comfort and novelty in a well-designed, beautiful package.

I just read a slew of good, short books. Some are picture books, some are books with  pictures. But they all share a talent for attention-catching. Here are my morsels:

1. Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

hermanandrosie

I was tipped off to this title by super-librarian Betsy Bird’s Fuse No. 8 review on SLJ. As usual, her review covers all the bases illuminatingly, but I’ll add my personal likes.  The basic plot is that Herman and Rosie love similar things (Herman: “potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean” Rosie: “pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape. . . and watching films about the ocean.”), and live near each other. They both are sustained by their music and their routines despite feeling sort of lonely. . .until things fall apart. Will they find each other?

I’m not a NYC-fetishiser, but I do enjoy a city-in-the-winter, lonely-in-a-crowd vibe, and this captures it. Gordon’s palette ranges from bright blue piercingly sunny winter days to muted brown snowy nights. Nothing’s ever too bright; he brings the duality of neon and worn down floorboards of ajazz club to the picture book. He plays around with the page, repeating formats occasionally, but not over and over. Because the story is about 2 characters who are experiencing similar life journeys (and who obviously must meet by the book’s end!) there’s a lot of mirroring going on, in a seamless fashion. The art itself is full of collage and faux-scribbly elements, with a base of watercolory wash.

2. Fata Morgana by Jon Vermilyea

fatamorgana

Koyama Press and I both described this as “a feast for the eyes” . . . independently! Actually, I said “visual feast” and they said “feast for the eyes and mind”. Potato potahto. The day after I read this I looked up what Fata Morgana means, and listen to this: according to the Oxford Dictionary of Weather, 2nd ed. (by STORM DUNLOP!!), Fata morgana is a specific type of mirage, “in which the image of the actual surface appears in the form of a wall. The effect occurs when the temperature profile has an inflection, but is also relatively gentle. The atmosphere exhibits lensing properties but these are astigmatic, resulting in a redistribution of brightness within the image, often creating the effect of light and dark arches, and distant buildings.” and, according ot the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 2nd ed., comes from “a mirage seen in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily and attributed to Morgan le Fey, whose legend and reputation were carried to Sicily by Norman settlers.” And if you don’t know, now you know.

Jon Vermilyea‘s Fata Morgana is a wordless, mostly plotless book of not-quite-psychadelic fever dreamscapes. So I’d say the title is apropos. Vermilyea’s cartooning suggests the weight of its characters. It has a real density to it, and he covers every landscape with intertwining details that push to the forefront of the page, forming a wall of round, drippy lines forming trunks and faces and bridges and who knows what. The coloring is bright, mixing pastels with bold, almost neon tones. It’s disorienting at times, and my only wish is that it were a series of fold-out posters so the gutter hadn’t gotten in the way.

3. The Bramble by Lee Nordling & Bruce Zick

thebramble

Fun fact: It turns out that Lee Nordling was the comic strip editor for Nickelodeon’s Rugrats comic. It’s not apparent right away, but after knowing that, I can see the influence of the Rugrats in the human characters of The Bramble. But the kids in this story skew more towards older picture books. They could exist anywhere from the 70s to now, and that’s what I like about them, with their skinny limbs, bulbous noses, and giant heads.

The Bramble is printed in blues and browns, and concerns a boy, Cameron, who bravely tries to make friends by crashing a game of tag, but is obliquely muscled out of his notions of friendship by the other boys refusing to play along with him. Instead, they just shout “You’re It!” over and over. Dehumanizing, no? Funnily enough, there’s a giant bramble patch right at the edge of the park. A creature is spying on the failed tag game, and Cameron catches a peek of it. In its haste to hide itself, it leaves its necklace behind. So Cameron follows it into the Bramble to return the necklace.

Thus follows a not-so-vaguely Wild Things type adventure. Cameron ends up defeating a weird sentient blob/tongue/wave thing by using the same bullying Tag tactics that were used by him, which endears the creatures of the Bramble to him and makes him more confident and able to leave the Bramble and befriend the bullies.

Clearly I have issues with that part of the story. What resonated with me was the wordless sequences where Cameron opened himself up to rejection, was rejected, entered a new, strange situation, and this time found acceptance. The emotional tone was spot on there, and it’s worth taking a look at the book just for that. I’m excited to see more picture books take a darker tone at times, since the shelves can sometimes feel glutted with pastel bunny love fests (they have their place, for sure,  but shouldn’t be the only thing out there.)

4. The Hole by Øyvind Torseter

thehole

“The Hole has simple, expressive drawings created by pen and computer, and there’s a hole punched right through the book, so it exists in real life, even if it can’t be explained.” – Enchanted Lion Books description

So, apparently Enchanted Lion Books has been around since 2003 and I’m just learning about it via The Hole. Now I have a whole backlist to discover!

The guy in The Hole has moved into an apartment. It has a hole, and the hole keeps moving. Of course, the hole is not moving, the drawings are moving. But the drawings are reality, if the reader accepts it, so the hole is moving. We see the dude realize what’s happening, call someone about it, capture the hole, and take it somewhere (I won’t spoil it, ha ha.) The one simple conceit is magical in and of itself, and Torseter’s simple lines and open spaces make it more charming, like you’re watching someone drawing the story for you (very Harold and the Purple Crayon!) There are some good photos of the art at the Brain Pickings review.

5. Hilda and the Troll by Luke Pearson

hildandthetroll

Hilda’s been around a while. This is the Flying Eye Books edition of Nobrow’s Hildafolk. Luke Pearson also wrote and illustrated Hilda and the Bird Parade and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, the former I’ve read and really liked, the latter of which I am looking forward to reading. He says that The Midnight Giant is “a follow up to Hildafolk, my 24-pager of one year ago, but it’s more of a reboot than a sequel and is hopefully the first of a series of albums exploring the same world.”

I had no trouble reading them out of “order” – Hilda is a self-assured girl and goes about her world so matter of factly that I couldn’t help but folow with a sympathetic attitude. (As in, my brain tuned into her vibes or something).

In this adventure, Hilda goes out to draw rocks, finds a troll rock (a troll that is in rock form), puts a bell on its nose for safety, and falls asleep instead of getting back to her house. The troll wakes up, and Hilda has to find her way home and also find a way to make things right with the troll. Trolls hate bells and she has set it up for eternal torment, because its arms can’t reach the bell on its nose to remove it.

The magical Scandinavian world here is a delight. It’s our modern world, but a more tuned into things like trolls and horned foxes and tree men. I love Hilda -she’s serious about her self and her interests, and still realistically a kid. She learns to see a bit more about her assumptions in this book, and her carelessness, and in the Bird Parade this learning continues. And she knows the value of being cosy in a rainy tent:

hil5

I hope all of you have something nice to read while sitting on a couch or in a tent, watching the snow fall or the rain drizzle or the breeze blow things around.

Why Fans of Young Adult Literature LOVE The Voice

The Voice

by REBECCA, October 2, 2013

Obviously, I am talking about myself; I love The Voice with a passion that I usually reserve for soft cheeses in ash rinds. I love it because I love music and great vocalists, but there are plenty of other shows I could be watching were it only good singers I was after. No, it’s the narrative structure of The Voice that makes it so compelling, and its tropes are straight out of YA fiction.

With or Without You by Brian Farrey1. Overcoming an obstacle to get a chance at your dreams is a major trope of YA lit. The Voice milks this trope for everything it’s worth: each singer tells the story of how she got into music—stories of everything from disfiguring accidents, racism, and terminal illness to the deaths of loved ones, brutal bullying, and devastating acts of nature. But what gets each and every one of them through their hardships is the power of freaking music, y’all. Now, I know that probably sounds cheesy (and not in the good, ash-rind sort of way), but there is really nothing that gets me as much as the way that people can transform the horrible, the unfair, and the devastating into art. I did a whole post last year that was a list celebrating YA books that feature characters who use creativity as an outlet because I really think it’s one of the most powerful stories there is. And to hear those stories and then watch these singers come on stage and just annihilate . . . well, it’s pretty inspiring.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills2. Relatedly, unlike American Idol et al, which operate according to a cattle call mentality, where we laugh at as many contestants as we clap for, The Voice is totally sincere. Sure, the coaches make fun of each other good-naturedly, but at the end of the day their genuine passion for the voices they’re hearing is humbling. Relationships between a mentor and a hopeful are definitely the stuff of YA fiction, even though many of the contestants on The Voice aren’t young adults. The show’s sincerity, further, makes it doubly easy for me to feel good about my devotion to it. Where some similar shows either take themselves too seriously or seem to be laughing at anyone who really invests in them, The Voice feels more like the Magic: The Gathering group that met at lunch in your middle school and was legitimately psyched to find other people as excited about getting down to it as they were.

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going3. Because the premise of The Voice is that the coaches cannot see the singers until they choose to turn their chairs around for them, the disconnect between what a singer sounds like and what she looks like is a theme on the show with which any YA reader will be very familiar. Dynamite singers discuss the way the music industry has been unwelcoming to them because they aren’t white enough, young enough, thin enough, attractive enough. Over and over, we hear stories of prejudice and bullying that makes the singers feel like their only fair shot is to audition blind, which is what led many of them to The Voice. This is an issue that looms large in YA fiction, certainly. The limitations that we place on ourselves, our talents, and our ambitions based on how others treat us, or how we believe they see us, is at the heart of a lot of YA lit, as is breaking through the ceiling of those limitations.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins4. Once the blind auditions are over and each coach has assembled a team of twelve, the Battle Rounds begin, in which two singers from the same team sing one song in an epic sing-off for the chance to continue in the competition. This is a Hunger Gamesworthy drama that wreaks Machiavellian havoc on the singers, the coach that must make the decision, and the viewer. Forcing the coach and the viewer to choose between two very different, but both appealing, singers is precisely the tension that makes the much-loved/oft-scorned trope of the love triangle so powerful (and so polarizing) in YA lit. It’s intoxicating to know that there is so much talent to choose from, empowering to decide who is worthy of staying, and humbling to have to end someone’s dream. I mean, at least that is totally how I feel every time I’m forced to choose between two really attractive, really talented people who want to date me. Right?

The Culling by Steven dos Santos5. Because The Voice has to be watched in real time (if you have tv, which I don’t) or online (which I do), there isn’t the option to marathon it (my favorite way to watch tv), which is a real shame, because the arc of The Voice is not that of your mama’s reality show. Unlike most reality tv shows, which are episodic and therefore repetitive, there are multiple phases of The Voice, so we watch the singers develop, see their personalities as artists cohere, and get attached to them, just like characters in a novel or fictional tv show, which is a really smart narrative choice. First we’re introduced to the singers’ backstories and fall in love with their voices. This is like the first quarter of a book where we meet the characters and see who’s who. Next, before we’re too, too committed, but after we’ve formed allegiances, we have to watch singer after singer die from exposure, arrows to the throat, poison berries, and tracker jacker stings be eliminated from the competition in the Battle Rounds. But wait! There are steals, whereby some lucky singers are saved and switch teams, shifting allegiances immediately—just like when a character is blackballed by her friend group and has to find another table to sit at in the cafeteria (or my father moves cities and has a new favorite sports team).

Friday Night LightsThen, after the teams have been whittled and stolen down to their very essences, when you think you couldn’t bear to lose even one more person, most of them leave you and go off to college! Ahem, I mean, get eliminated. Because the third stage of competition finds us in the Knockout Rounds, where two singers from a team compete against each other with songs they each choose for themselves. Here singers’ personalities emerge even further and who the judges choose to continue in the competition depends as much on their song choice and vision as it does on their execution. This is the part of the book where a character realizes that she has to be true to herself because even if she succeeds, if she does so on someone else’s terms, it ain’t nearly as sweet. Finally, the Live Rounds shift the power from the judges to the voting audience, changing it from Debate Team to Popularity Contest (there goes the neighborhood) in a display of “taste” that has often been as heartbreaking as having your school cancel its football program, if you know what I mean.

So, it is for these reasons (and more, like, say, awesome music, and the fact that it resurrects Carson Daly from his mid-to-late-1990s MTV Total Request Live VJ past and puts his crooked little face back in the action) that I am totally, unapologetically a fan of The Voice. And, I’d wager, they’re why a lot of YA lit-loving folks love The Voice when they couldn’t care less about shows like American Idol. What do you think? The Voice: love it? hate it? indifferent to it? Tell me why in the comments!

Sarah Dessen, Redux

A Review of The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

Viking Juvenile, 2013

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

by REBECCA, September 11, 2013

“Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough. Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.

Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby. Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she’s going?”

The Moon and More is Sarah Dessen’s long-awaited twenty-thousandth novel and I was kind of looking forward to it, hoping it would be in the vein of my favorite Dessens,  Just ListenThe Truth About Forever, and Lock and Key.

Just Listen by Sarah DessenSadly, The Moon and More retreads the most familiar (and least compelling) of Sarah Dessen territory. As with all her books, it’s a well-written, well-woven slice-of-life. Unlike her better books, though, The Moon and More‘s characters are, for the most part, bland and unlikeable. Our protag, Emaline is bland, uninsightful, and I didn’t care about her at all. She doesn’t have any interests, really—doesn’t seem to read, care about movies or politics or sports or . . . anything. Her only charming moments were when she interacted with her little brother. Theo, the geeky and impassioned urbanite who Emaline dates after Luke, is annoying, selfish, and snobby, and Dessen doesn’t make any attempt to hide it, which made me like Emaline even less for being interested in him.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah DessenEvery Sarah Dessen book has a theme—a takeaway message. The better books, like Just Listen and The Truth About Forever, have subtle and intricate themes that drive the books forward. The theme of The Moon and More, as you can guess from the title, is balancing expectations of grandeur with those of moderation. Emaline’s Not From Here father and boyfriend think that anything that isn’t everything is nothing, but Emaline is happy with more more modest goals. I think this is a theme that a lot of readers can identify with and I applaud Dessen for writing a protagonist who isn’t consumed by being superlative (even if she does renege a bit at the end). As a theme, however, it’s . . . well, boring. Moderation, sadly, does not make for a dynamic narrative.

The Moon and More has it’s funny lines and its charming moments. Summer jobs, always a Dessen feature, loom large here, and the scenes of Emaline’s job working for her family’s realty company are detailed and interesting. The split between the locals and tourists in this small beach town are, as always, well-drawn. Really, though, I read the first 200 pages of The Moon and More wondering when it was going to start and the next 200 wondering when it was going to end. The Moon and More reads, more than anything, like a dull Sarah Dessen knockoff—as predictable and formulaic as her books’ covers.

Sarah Dessen

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Secrets: Sketchy

A Review of Sketchy (Bea Catcher Chronicles #1) by Olivia Samms

Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2013

Sketchy Olivia Samms

by REBECCA, April 3, 2013

characters

Bea: 3 months sober, and with her sobriety has come the rather disturbing ability to draw what people see

Chris: Bea’s bestie at her new school, he’s sweet and accepts Bea, creepy powers and all

Willa: she was recently raped but won’t pursue charges for fear of having her own secrets exposed

hook

Bea is the oddball new girl in school, an outsider because of her reputation, her style choices, her addiction, and—oh, yeah—her power to draw whatever truths people are thinking. Girls in Ann Arbor are being attacked and the one who survived goes to Bea’s new school. Can Bea use her gift to draw the truth out of Willa? Will anyone believe her even if she can? And why is Bea so hell-bent on solving this case, anyway . . . ?

worldview

Ann ArborOk, so I can’t lie—my primary motivation in reading Sketchy was that it’s set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up! And I’m really glad I did, because it was definitely a fun read. Sketchy finds Bea three months sober and dealing with her newfound gift as she starts Packard High School, a big change from the private, all-girls school she’d attended before rehab.

Since I grew up in A2, I couldn’t help but try and figure out where everything was taking place. It’s mentioned that Bea’s house is on the edge of University of Michigan’s campus, so I thought Packard High must be modelled on Pioneer High School; besides, Pioneer is close to Packard Road. The novel opens, however, with some boys finding Willa’s body when they go to smoke pot at the creek near school, which reminds me so much of Huron River Ratswandering across the street from Huron High School to the river . . . so, you know, I could be wrong. Further suggesting it may be modelled on Huron is that students call Packard High Packrat High, and Huron’s mascot is the River Rat, chosen, for anyone who’s interested, by a landslide write-in vote when Huron first opened. It was a reclamation of the term, originally derogatorily flung at those students who lived near the Huron River but were forced to attend Pioneer High because there wasn’t yet a second high school in town. Or, at least, that’s the story I always heard. I went to Huron, in case you were wondering. (Which is it, Olivia Samms; I need to know!)

Anyhoosier, Sketchy is set in a realist world—except for Bea’s power, of course. For anyone from A2, you’ll recognize landmarks like the Arboretum, North Campus, and frat row. But if you’re not from Ann Arbor, you’ll probably enjoy Sketchy anyway. Olivia Samms manages to get in a bit of the grittiness of addiction while still keeping it realistic in a teenage, college town context. We learn how Bea got into drugs in well-paced flashbacks, and we learn what her connection is to the current spate of girls who are taken, raped, and then killed. Well, killed except for one—Willa, who was left for dead—who crosses Bea’s path at Packard High.

Sketchy Olivia SammsBea is a talented artist (even when she’s not drawing the truth out of people), daughter of two artist parents, and seems like a pretty cool person when she’s sober and not extracting your deepest secrets. She sticks up for Chris when he’s bullied for being gay, and she honestly wants to help catch whoever is hurting people (and is willing to go to great lengths to do so). Sketchy is fast-paced, so we don’t get huge insight into Bea, despite her being our narrator, but I anticipate more of that as the series continues. I don’t mean that she isn’t a fleshed-out character—she is. It’s just that her narrative isn’t really about her; she’s the camera we see through.

The background of Bea’s family was particularly interesting—and it seems pretty clear that it’s something that will come into play more as the series continues. Bea is half black and half Italian, and issues of race come up, if superficially (for example, Bea has always been self-conscious about her hair, the texture of which prompted some of her classmates to call her “Chia Pet” and “Beaver-head” in elementary school). I’m always glad when a character’s race is something that an author attends to intentionally, although the stark terms of Sketchy‘s take on ethnic generalizations made me a tidge uncomfortable at times.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

As a mystery, as I mentioned, Sketchy doesn’t really do it for me—that is, it’s pretty obvious who the attacker is and the whole thing is wrapped up quickly and tidily. But that was ok with me; I enjoyed the ambiance, and I was more interested in learning about Bea’s art and her family dynamic (and her outfits—girlfriend is a thrift store queen!) than the mystery itself. Further supporting the central mystery not really being the strength of the book is that Bea suffers from a case of the I-can-catch-the-killer-myself-no-problems!, often an unpleasant turn in YA mysteries.

Still, though, even with the mystery angle not really holding up (and some very stiff dialogue—I move that we stop pretending anyone refers to each other by name more than once a day, even if it seems like it’ll help keep the dialogue tags clear), I still enjoyed reading Sketchy and am curious to see who Bea “catches” as the series continues. I’m hoping we learn more about Chris, Bea’s bestie at school, who is self-conscious about being a bit of a scaredy-cat, but has made contact with a promising hottie by the end of the book, and about her father’s relationship with art. All in all, despite surface-level resemblances to other YA mysteries where the protag is aided by a special power, Sketchy felt like its own take, and it had just enough grit to keep things interesting.

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Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). This is a great YA mystery, and similarly atmospheric. “When one twin mysteriously disappears, the other immediately knows something is wrong—especially when she starts experiencing serious physical traumas, despite the fact that nobody has touched her. As the search commences to find her sister, the twin left behind must rely on their intense bond to uncover the truth” (from Goodreads). My full review is HERE.

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Fade Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Gone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher trilogy by Lisa McMann (Wake, 2008; Fade, 2009; Gone, 2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Sketchy, by Olivia Samms will be available on April 30th.

Favorite New Show? White Collar!

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

White Collar

by REBECCA, January 21, 2013

For a few years, Netflix has been recommending White Collar to me and for a few years I’ve summarily dismissed the recommendation. My logic: “You know what’s boring? White collar crime.” But, through a series of (frankly uninteresting to anyone but me) circumstances, I found myself deciding I’d give the pilot a whirl, just to prove to Netflix that they were wrong. That, while, sure, I love me some Law and Order SVU and some Bones and some Lie To Me does not mean that I’m a sucker for any procedural show with a unique premise and a set of codependent partners.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. Turns out, I am a sucker for a smart and unique show with codependent partners, which White Collar definitely is. So, to save you from making the same mistake that I did and, thus, depriving yourself of a true joy, I present to you: 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

1. Expertise & Monomania! Holy hell, is there anything that delights me more than people who know a shitload of super-specific information about a lot of things and a single-minded drive to pursue those things? No! (Or, at least, nothing that’s any of your business.) So, the premise of White Collar is that Neal Caffrey (played by the delightful Moby Dick final chaseMatt Bomer)—expert art forger, counterfeiter, thief, confidence man, and all around freaking charmer—cuts a deal with the FBI to be released from prison (he’s already escaped once, NBD) as an expert consultant in the white collar department. He’s partnered with agent Peter Burke, who put him in prison in the first place. The point? Neal is an expert in all things associated with forging, art, counterfeiting, breaking in places, stealing things, puzzles, and math. He can forge the Mona Lisa, signatures, and any piece of identification you can imagine.

But, just as interestingly, Neal is an expert at reading people. He is immensely charming and can tell what people want and what their weaknesses are. It doesn’t hurt that he is distractingly handsome and dresses really well. (Seriously, though, he’s the kind of handsome—not so model beautiful that it’s ridiculous and smiley enough to be super engaging—that I can’t imagine having to deal with it on a daily basis. Like, I wonder if Matt Bomer’s boyfriend is ever trying to tell him that, like, he put too much chili powder in the stew and instead finds that he’s just been staring at Matt Bomer’s face, not having noticed that forty-five seconds have gone by?) As the show continues, Neal’s many and varied expertises keep revealing themselves. Seriously, it’s goddamned beautiful to watch (just make sure you’re not feeling like a failure when you start watching).

2. A Married Couple Without Kids! Peter Burke and his wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen, aka Kelly Kapowski from Saved By the Bell in a charming turn) have been married for ten years and have no kids. Why does that matter? Because it’s one of the few portrayals on tv (at least that I’ve seen) of a couple who have a great relationship where they actually care about the details of each other’s lives as opposed to being bored with each other, cheating on each other, or only caring about their kids’ lives. They’re pretty cute together, and not in a gross, schmoopy way. Elizabeth runs her own party planning business but she’s also super into hearing about FBI stuff; she often gives Peter insights and likes to talk through cases, and she’s smart, so it’s charming. Anyway, I didn’t notice for the whole first season how rare (and refreshing) it is to see a couple that is crazy about each other (and their super cute dog!).


white collar 3. Odd Couple In Love!
Speaking of couples in love, Peter and Neal totally adore each other and the show delights in how much they respect, admire, and infuriate each other. Peter (played by Tim DeKay, who I loved in Carnivàle) was the agent who pursued Neal for years and eventually put him in jail, and it’s clear that he respected the hell out of Neal as a brilliant criminal. When Neal was in prison, he sent Peter birthday cards and other such cheeky things. From the moment they start working together, it’s obvious that Peter is absolutely delighted by Neal, both professionally and kind of like a little brother. Neal clearly feels genuine affection and respect for Peter. Peter admires Neal’s charm, intelligence, and ability to always land on his feel; Neal admires Peter’s honesty, principles, and dependability. They are the perfect odd couple and goddammit it is delightful to watch their relationship develop. This is the definition of a buddy-buddy homosocial partnership (think Supernatural, but without that whole . . . brothers thing).

White Collar Mozzie4. Nerd Power! White Collar is definitely a show that celebrates the nerdy, from science to obscure historical factoids. Sure, many of the nerds in question are overly attractive, but not my favorite nerd. Enter, Mozzie (Willie Garson)! He’s Neal’s oldest friend and is brilliant, well-read, and nerdy! He has a penchant for wine, cravats, hanging out at Neal’s house, and clever turns of phrase. In combination with Neal, he’s devastating in a number of areas. Like, I think between the two of them they could probably topple governments or steal the entire contents of the Louvre.

When I first started watching White Collar, I thought it was a superficially fun show that kept me intrigued because of all the above. However, after a few episodes, I started thinking that it was a really smart show, in terms of writing. In each episode, there is a crime/scheme that Neal and Peter need to solve (that’s the procedural part). As such, each one is a little mini-mystery, like most procedurals, but unlike many shows of the whodunnit variety, White Collar‘s crimes are often much more complicated and smarter. These are elaborate schemes by criminals of Neal’s ilk, so it’s often as delightful to see the criminals’ intelligence as it is Neal’s. But it isn’t just the plots that are smart, it’s also the writing. One of my pet peeves in television writing is when characters don’t have properly differentiated voices (vocabularies, knowledge sets, syntaxes), but White Collar definitely delivers. Mozzie, in particular, has an awesome voice and backstory. You know a show’s writing is good when you don’t even notice it for a few episodes.

5. A Conflict Of Interests! One surefire way to create persistent and natural dramatic tension is to have characters who share one goal or interest, but have essentially conflicting interests in another area. The reason Neal wanted to be let out of prison (and treasureescaped in the first place, as we learn in the first five minutes of the pilot, so I’m not spoiling anything) is because his ex-girlfriend left town and he wants to find her. So, alongside the cases that he works with Peter, Neal is also trying to solve the mystery of where she went. Then, in later seasons, he has even bigger personal . . . pursuits. This makes for a really awesome dynamic: Peter trusts Neal intrinsically as it concerns his expertise, and adores him as a person, but knows that very expertise could allow Neal to try and escape or perpetrate schemes under his nose. Neal, on the other hand, has obligations and desires that force him, again and again, to choose between them and his loyalty to Peter. It’s all very dramatic!

White Collar seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix now.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: But When?!

A Review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2007

By REBECCA, June 22, 2012

Someday This Pain WIll Be Useful To You Peter Cameron

characters

James Sveck: smart, sensitive James hates people his own age, dog parks, and “dead, meaningless language” like nice to meet you, too

James’ mom: thrice married, she owns an art gallery and is very particular about things

James’ dad: into keeping up appearances, he wants to be supportive but just ends up pissing James off

James’ grandmother: One of the few people James likes, she encourages him to think about lunch instead of woes

John: a co-worker at the gallery and James’ first crush

Dr. Adler: James’ therapist (mandated after a slowly-revealed incident), she is very therapist-y

hook

It’s the summer after high school and James is working at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan. His pretentious sister is dating a professor named Rainer Maria, his mother ditched her newest husband during their Vegas honeymoon, his father believes that he should never order pasta as a main course in a restaurant because it isn’t manly, and about the only people James can stand are his grandmother and his coworker, John. This is James Sveck’s life, and it’s kind of going to shit.

worldview

I cannot overstate how brilliant the voice of this book is! James Sveck’s (I love that name) voice is awesome, yes, but Peter Cameron’s tone throughout the book is hilarious, smart, and deliciously pathos-soaked. The tone borders on satire, but this is an effect of seeing the world through James’ eyes, I think. James is a very sweet, intelligent guy who would likely be considered to over-analyze the world. Rather, I think, James simply does not take it as a given that things that are important simply because of their established value; instead, he tries to figure out what he really wants, what he thinks is really important. He does not, for example, have any interest in going to college because he hates people his own age and believes he can learn more by reading on his own; he doesn’t see any reason to come out to his family as gay because it’s not like anyone comes out as being heterosexual.

My inclination here is to quote you huge sections of the hilario-genius of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You to convince you of its amazingness . . . but I’ll just give you medium-sized chunks, instead. In this scene, James’ sister has decided to begin pronouncing her name with a hard-g sound and their mother has returned from her honeymoon sans husband:

“‘Gillian!’ my mother said. ‘Please.’

‘It’s Gillian,’ said Gillian.

‘What?’ my mother asked.

‘My name is Gillian,’ said Gillian. ‘My name has been mispronounced long enough. I have decided that from now on I will only answer to Gillian. Rainer Maria says naming a child and then mispronouncing that name is a subtle and insidious form of child abuse.’

‘Well, that’s not my style. If I were going to abuse you, there’d be nothing subtle or insidious about it.’ My mother looked at me. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘why aren’t you at the gallery?’

‘John didn’t need me today,’ I said.

‘That is not the point,’ said my mother. ‘John never needs you. You do not go there because you are needed. You go there because I pay you to go there so you will have a summer job and learn the value of a dollar and know what responsibility is all about. . . . Please remove that plate,’ she said to me. ‘There is nothing more disgusting than a plate on which a fried egg sandwich has been eaten'” (8-9).

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a character piece, and James’ thoughts and observations make up the meat of the story. But Cameron is amazingly deft at sketching even the minor characters, so the atmospheres of the Manhattan art scene, James’ father’s office building, James’ therapist’s waiting room, and an ill-fated class trip to D.C. are totally realized.

In the partner’s dining hall of Jame’s father’s office (after James’ dad instructs him that pasta is not a manly option), James informs his father:

“‘I can’t bear the idea of spending four years in close proximity with college students. I dread it.’

‘What’s so bad about college students?’

‘They’ll all be like Huck Dupont.’

‘You’ve never met Huck Dupont.’

‘I don’t need to meet him. The fact that his name is Huck and he got a full hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota is enough for me.’

‘What’s wrong with hockey?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘if you like blood sport. But I don’t think people should get full scholarships to state universities because they’re psychopaths.’

‘Well forget Huck Dupont. He’s going to Dartmouth. You’re going to Brown. I doubt they even have a hockey team'” (34).

It’s not all fun and semantics, though. James behaves badly on the Gent4Gent dating site, and has to go to the therapy mandated after the terrible D.C. incident, which is interspersed in flashbacks. All in all, I really have nothing but good things to say about Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: Cameron is a hell of a writer; the story is engaging and moving; the characters are funny, ridiculous, clueless, and sad. It’s a perfect slice of a teenager’s life, and James Sveck is a character that I think about often—indeed, he feels so real to me that I can imagine more and more books that follow him as he gets older. Probably (at least a little bit) because . . .

personal disclosure

. . . It is truly uncanny how much the landscape of James’ mind resembles my own at certain moments in this book: “I see,” James’ therapist says. “I hate when people say ‘I see.’ It doesn’t mean anything and I think it’s hostile. Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see’ I think they’re really saying ‘Fuck you'” (87). I almost feel that by recommending it I’m saying, here, read about me!, which seems super self-involved. Mostly, though, I was just really delighted to read a character whose thought processes and obsessions kind of a little bit seemed familiar, if at times neurotic. I don’t remember what made me pick the book up. I had read a few other of Cameron’s novels, but didn’t remember that at the moment. Probably I just liked the title, and I was doing this summer program in Ithaca and I didn’t know anyone yet, so obviously I was hanging out at the library and Barnes and Noble.

I went back to the room I was subletting, which had no air conditioning and was right off both the kitchen and the laundry nook (translation: the fires of hell could not burn hotter), and started reading, and I did not put the book down until I had laughed and cried my way through the whole thing. My room also had a door opening into the bathroom, so whenever one of the other people who shared the house came down to use the bathroom I would muffle my laughter/tears so they couldn’t hear me. This is a major reason that I live alone. Anyhoosier, that was the same summer that I read The Hunger Games, and James Sveck absolutely held his own alongside Katniss in my memory.

readalikes

When You Don't See Me James Timothy Beck

When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck (2007). The writing team of Timothy James Beck (2 Timothys, a James, and—you guessed it—a Becky) have a series called Manhattan, which comprises a loosely-connected set of characters, and this is the fourth in the series, but it can totally be read as a stand-alone. 19-year-old Nick Dunhill left his parents and twin bro in the Midwest to come live with his uncle in NYC, where he struggles to get by and get over being a little traumatized in the wake of a 9/11-related subway incident. When You Don’t See Me tracks Nick through multiple jobs and friendships, as he learns what (and who) he wants, and figures a boatload of stuff out in the process.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (2010). The Freak Observer is more brutal than Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, but Loa, like James, is a merciless observer and truth-teller about the people she meets and the things she experiences. A totally gorgeous book with a truly unique protag + bonus points for best cover ever. Read Tessa’s review here.

Leave Myself Behind Bart Yates

Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). Noah and his mom start to renovate a dilapidated house after Noah’s father dies suddenly, and Noah falls in love with the boy next door while his mother slowly loses it in the background. Noah is smart and snarky, and I feel like if he and James met in real life they would either fall in love instantly or decide that they hated each other before falling in love later. You can read my full review here.

procured from: bought in Ithaca

The Art of Figuring Things Out: With Or Without You

A Review of With Or Without You by Brian Farrey

Simon Pulse, 2011

By REBECCA, May 28, 2012

WIth or Without You Brian Farrey

characters

Evan: Sweet, talented Evan wants to paint, be a good friend, and a good boyfriend—but all that doesn’t leave much time to figure himself out

Davis: Evan’s best friend, he is so used to being bullied or ignored that he jumps at the chance for attention and empowerment, no matter what the cost

Erik: Evan’s boyfriend, Erik is a sculptor, a nursing student, and a total mensch

Sable: He arrives on the scene and begins preaching a rather extreme brand of gay empowerment . . . but it turns out that’s not all he’s preaching

Shan: Evan’s sister and sometimes ally

hook

Evan and Davis are bullied, beaten-up for being gay, and have crappy parents. But senior year is finally over and all they have to do is get through the summer before they can move to Chicago and leave it all behind like they’ve planned for so long. But Evan has a wonderful boyfriend that he can’t tell anyone about and Davis has fallen in with Sable, a mysterious and charismatic alpha dog, and Evan feels like he doesn’t even know him anymore. Suddenly, the future seems very, very uncertain.

worldview

With or Without You is an amazing, character-driven novel with a totally unique story. Brian Farrey’s prose is beautiful and manages to skip from love to fear to exhilaration without a false note. It’s definitely one of the best YA novels I’ve read, and an important book, too, I think.

Edvard Munch The ScreamEvan paints to escape—he studies the techniques of his favorite painters obsessively, until he can mimic it. Using windows as his canvas, Evan paints ordinary objects in these famous styles, rendering his everyday world through other artists’ eyes. This is how he meets Erik, the best boyfriend ever, who is also an artist—he sculpts with found objects, transforming them into beautiful creations.

But although Erik has been the best boyfriend ever for almost a year, Evan is paralyzed at the idea of telling anyone about him—even Davis. What Evan doesn’t tell anyone is that in that year, he has been remade as surely as the objects in Erik’s sculptures or the objects in his own paintings: for the first time he values himself—physically, mentally, and emotionally. This year of Evan and Erik’s relationship unfolds gradually, in flashbacks. Meanwhile, in the present, With or Without You opens with Evan and Davis getting gay-bashed. In his anger, Davis brings Evan to the first meeting of a group called Chasers, led by Sable, who invites the group to “learn what it means to be gay! Stop being a doormat!”

As Davis gets in deeper with Sable and the Chasers he seems to be constantly in danger and Evan seems to be living two different lives: one in which he is a scared kid, trying to keep Davis safe from the danger he suspects the Chasers of; and another in which he is in a mature, loving relationship that helps him grow and learn about himself. It’s this tension that makes With or Without You so beautiful, though. Evan is slowly outgrowing his old self and it’s an uncomfortable, scary, and joyous process:

“Crying will give him all the wrong messages. Crying will say, Don’t you understand? I’ve been laughed at my entire life and when you express this much confidence in me, it chokes me and I’d run but there’s nowhere to go because you’re the only place I’ve come to know.

I don’t cry. I will later.

It’s an odd sensation to get what you want and still feel terrified. Inside, aspiration accelerates, blurring everything I know. Outside, my face slackens, resolve masquerades as rejection. Erik sees the battle behind my eyes, the uncertainty in my posture. I watch as his shoulders slowly deflate” (88).

what were this book’s intentions? does it live up to them?

Georgia O'Keeffe Ram's HeadThis is a really important book. It is an exploration of relationships, of the terror and thrill of first love, the bittersweetness of outpacing a friendship, and the emotional aftermath of bullying and physical violence. All of this is, of course, enough to make it an important entry into contemporary YA fiction. But it’s the storyline about the Chasers that makes With or Without You really extraordinary.

Without giving too much away, in case folks don’t know what Chasers are, Sable preys on the insecurity, fear, and anger of Davis and the other Chasers, using it to convince them that their problem is that they don’t know what it really means to be proud gay men. To learn to identify with gay history, Sable says, they must learn the phases it went through: revolution, liberation, identification. To learn about revolution, they orchestrate a fight, which Evan participates in to protect Davis.

“‘Now you know how they felt during Stonewall,’ Sable says, propping himself up on his elbows. I follow suit. ‘You know what it feels like to say, “Fuck this shit. I’m sick of it!” You know what it feels like to totally stick it to the people who’ve been sticking it to you forever. And it feels great!’

He shouts the last word and it echoes off the concrete courtyard in front of the observatory. It did feel great. So how can I feel great and still feel like shit?” (193).

Stonewall Inn 1969 Mattachine SocietyIn his quest to teach his followers about what it meant to be gay in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Sable also calls their attention to the ways that gay assimilation is, in his view, the opposite of queer power. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” Sable asks Evan. “No, let me guess: House. Yard. Wearing some stud’s ‘commitment ring.’ Going out for cocktails with your coupled gay friends, talking about how great it is to be monogamous and happy and shit” (195). When Evan asks what would be wrong with that, Sable replies that “you have been bullshitted by society into thinking that’s what you should want. You see Mommy and Daddy all happy . . . with their house and their kids and they’re a loving couple and you think, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So that’s what I want too'” (195).

I think it is a bit unfortunate that the revolutionary ideas in the book are only in the mouth of Sable. In this way, ideas about non-monogamy, alternative family structures, and radical empowerment that are rarely found in YA fiction are aligned with an extremist villain who uses them in the service of harm. Still, it’s a really smart look at how (for the most part) it isn’t politics or desires that are good or bad, but to what ends they are deployed. In this vein, running parallel to Sable’s “education” about gay life and history, Evan learns about the AIDS epidemic from one of Erik’s patients who is the last of his group of friends still alive, and this education increases his desire to work towards a world safe for love and sex.

personal disclosure

I just really think people will love With or Without You! Great characters, a lovely romance, friend dynamics, a creepy and vaguely cult-y leader, beautiful writing, personal discovery and growth, and a super interesting plot.

readalikes

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.

procured from: the library, but then I bought it because I knew I’d want to re-read it.

Winter in Paris: French Milk

Saturday was Free Comic Day! In celebration, here is a review of French Milk, a graphic novel by Lucy Knisley

Simon & Schuster, 2007

By REBECCA, May 7, 2012

French Milk Lucy Knisley

characters

Lucy is really the only character that we get to know. She’s a bit melancholy and extremely invested in food, drink, art, and feelings.

the hook

When you’re a graphic artist and you spend a month in Paris, what do you do? You keep a graphic journal and publish it when you’re done, of course!

worldview

Lucy and her mom have rented an apartment in Paris for the month of January, 2007, to celebrate her mom’s 50th birthday and Lucy’s 22nd. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, and wandering around Paris looking at stuff. Since this is a journal, it takes us through the trip day by day, so it mainly focuses on the details of what they ate and drank, where they went, and what they saw. This makes for a sensory smorgasbord of meats, cheeses, pickles, cakes, spirits, cigarettes, rain, and music. If, like me, you enjoy reading about such things, or about Paris in general, you will be delighted by the feeling of immediacy that Knisley’s scenes evoke. (Note: better eat before reading or you’ll be sadly disappointed at the non-Parisian state of your refrigerator when you become hungry halfway through.)

French Milk Lucy Knisley

My favorite thing about French Milk is that although Lucy is in Paris for a month eating and drinking delicious things (god, I’m so hungry now), she still gets in funks, misses her boyfriend, gets annoyed with her mom, has cramps, and generally feels out of place in the world. And, while in moments she could come off as an asshole to those of us not in Paris, it mostly adds texture to what might otherwise be a pretty superficial trip. She has that feeling of being privileged to do something that she’s not fully appreciating: that feeling of “I’m in Paris on vacation so I should be happy but my stupid brain is intruding with my real personality and preventing the word vacation from being synonymous with bliss.” You know that feeling, right?

French Milk Lucy Knisley

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Oscar Wilde's grave

Oscar Wilde’s grave avec kisses!

To celebrate Lucy’s birthday, her father comes to Paris to visit and she and her parents go to Père Lachaise cemetery so Lucy can pay homage to Oscar Wilde, who’s buried there. Lucy talks a lot about Wilde—he’s an apt interlocutor for her journal, which is so invested in physical pleasures, art, and aesthetics. But, while French Milk is mostly delightful drawings of food and wanderings around Paris, the funks that Lucy gets in from time to time begin, by the middle of the book, to touch on real depression: fears of her impending college graduation, anxiety that she won’t be able to find a job, insecurity about her self-worth as an artist. So, woven throughout this story of a Parisian adventure are the real world concerns of a woman in her early twenties trying to find where she belongs.

The strength of French Milk’s journal format is the specificity of Lucy and her mother’s experiences—that cheese, this painting, that bridge, these buildings. That immediacy drew me in and made me feel like I, too, was in Paris for a time, along with all my senses. That format was French Milk’s biggest weakness, too, I think. Because the book was stuck in the realism of what things happened when, it never quite opened up into being more than one woman’s experience with things in a highly unusual setting. Whereas sometimes travel shines a light on the feelings of alienation or belonging that a writer always feels but cannot quite capture when in familiar territory, in French Milk those feelings become so specific as to seem a bit solipsistic.

Paris in the winter

Image: design serendipity

The frontispiece of the book says that French Milk “deals with the valuable and significant influence that we take from our mothers, as well as my own struggle toward adulthood at an age when we so desperately cling to our adolescence.” This is true, in moments, but the journal format doesn’t leave Knisley any room to shape those themes into more affecting art, instead leaving them where they lie. That makes French Milk, for me, an escape piece—more travel writing (drawing) than creative nonfiction. And that isn’t a bad thing; far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed my trek through the streets and foods of Paris—even though I don’t care for milk.

personal disclosure

The one moment that French Milk lost me was this page when Lucy and her mom learn of Saddam Hussein’s execution but then find “humanity redeemed” when they eat good cookies (66):

French Milk Lucy Knisley

I think this is actually a very realistic reaction. So much of the book upholds a Wildean aestheticism (a celebration of taste food, drink, sensuality), though, that the use of taste in this instance—to redeem acts of cruelty and violence—made the rest of the book feel a bit more . . . superficial?

readalikes

Carnet de Voyage Craig Thompson

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson (2004). Also a graphic travel journal, in Carnet de Voyage Thompson finds himself lonely and lovesick during his travels.

Everything is its own reward: an all over coffee collection paul madonna

Everything Is Its Own Reward: An All Over Coffee Collection by Paul Madonna (2011). “All Over Coffee” began as a column of Paul Madonna’s that first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It pairs Madonna’s stunning ink wash drawings with musings about the places he visits, from San Francisco to Tokyo to Paris. Gorgeous!

Procured from: library

“Nothing Cool About Being Young”: Last Night I Sang To the Monster

A Review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Cinco Puntos Press, 2009

By REBECCA, March 30, 2012

characters

Zach Gonzalez: Smart, sensitive teenager who is afraid to feel, with good reason

Rafael de la Tierra: Zach’s roommate and surrogate father

Sharkey: Zach and Rafael’s roommate; not sold on the therapy process

Adam: Benevolent therapist in rehab

Amit: Zach and Rafael’s roommate after Sharkey

Mr. Garcia: Inspirational English teacher from before rehab

Santiago: Zach’s vicious older brother

hook

When Zach wakes up in rehab he has no idea how he got there . . . or where he was before. How can he figure it out when he doesn’t want to remember?

worldview

“The tree’s name is Zach” (136)

When Last Night I Sang To the Monster begins, Zach has a plan: he’s going to get A’s in school, get a scholarship, and “go to Stanford or Harvard or Princeton or Georgetown or one of those famous schools where all the students were very smart. And very happy. And very alive” (15). But something goes wrong, and Zach ends up in rehab, frozen and dissociated. The novel follows what happens in between. Zach admits that he’s an alcoholic, like his father, but even while he relates pieces of his story to Adam and his therapy group he shies away from the incident that landed him in rehab like a sore tooth. Last Night I Sang To the Monster, then, is a slow excavation of Zach’s story as his sobriety and sense of safety let him see clearly.

image: expressivehearts.com

As you might imagine, this book being set in a rehab facility, Last Night I Sang To the Monster doesn’t present a rosy view of the world. Each character has a difficult story to tell. Still, as you might also imagine, in a novel dedicated to characters trying to improve their lives, hope abounds. More important, though, is that Sáenz’s prose is stunning. So, in the prose, as well as in the story itself, is a sense that art—especially using art to communicate—is still worth something.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Sáenz tried to fold back the layers of Zach and display, finally, the heart of the character. Zach says:

“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser.

I keep seeing a newspaper being tossed around in the wind. And then a strong gust comes along and the newspaper is thrown against a barbed wire fence and it gets ripped to shreds in an instant. That’s how I feel. I think God is the wind. It’s all like a game to him. Him. God. And it’s all pretty much random. He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts. When it came to my turn, he wrote sad. I don’t like God very much. Apparently, he doesn’t like me very much either” (11).

Because Zach narrates the novel, the audience is as in the dark about what brought Zach to rehab as he is. This builds the tension really subtly so that as readers we put the pieces back together with Zach. In this way, it is a kind of mystery that we try and solve along with him, each piece of backstory, dream, and desire providing one more clue. Bit by bit, without the warmth of alcohol, Zach is forced to acknowledge the warm feelings he is developing for others: his therapist, Adam, his roommate, Rafael, and the members of his therapy group.

Unusual for many young adult novels, Zach is the only teenager in Last Night I Sang To the Monster. Because he is in rehab, there are characters of all ages, so the novel doesn’t fall into any of the romantic stereotypes of rehab sometimes found in post-The Bell Jar novels. In fact, realistically, nothing really happens. It’s a true testament to Sáenz’s prose and pacing, then, that Last Night I Sang To the Monster absolutely captivated me from the epigraph—a (misquoted) line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing-Tree”—to the final paragraph.

personal disclosure

I’m kind of a sucker for novels written by poets (which Sáenz is)—the prose is so controlled and intentional. I was reading Last Night I Sang To the Monster on the train coming home and there were passages that made me very glad that I was sitting along and wearing sunglasses, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t, I mean: I cried.

readalikes

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999). Another novel in which teen trauma takes away the protagonist’s ability to communicate; in this case, her ability to speak.

With or Without You by Brian Farrey (2011). Like Last Night I Sang To The Monster, With or Without You is great contemporary realism that features a sensitive male protagonist placed in dangerous situations. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but you can read the full review here!

Under the Wolf, Under the Dog by Adam Rapp (2004). Or, really, any of Adam Rapp’s novels. Steve Nugent is in a “facility” for addicts and suicidals, but he doesn’t really belong in either group. Like Zach, he needs to reconstruct how he ended up here in order to move forward.

Procured from: the library

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