Whatever, punk rock: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada Imogen Binnie

Nevada

Imogen Binnie

Topside Press, 2013

review by Tessa, with comments from Rebecca

characters

in NYC

Maria Griffiths- still wants to write the ultimate zine that explains what it means to be a trans woman, but hasn’t yet. feels a little trapped in her union job at a bookstore. feels a little trapped in her head.

Steph – Maria’s increasingly distanced girlfriend

Kieran – a fellow bookstore worker and catalyst for life changes in Maria and Steph’s relationship

Piranha – an agoraphobic, pill-savvy and wise friend to Maria.

in Nevada

James – a boy stuck in the worst city ever and maybe stuck in a male body

Nicole – thinking her way out of Star City’s claustrophobic social norms, and an increasingly frustrated girlfriend to James

hook

Maria Griffiths is a little tired of everything—her job, her girlfriend, thinking about being trans. She is starting to think that her new life philosophy should be about irresponsibility.

nevada2

worldview

The first time the reader meets Maria, she’s being unsatisfactorily choked during sex by her girlfriend. Then she fakes an orgasm. To say she has intimacy issues would be an understatement. It’s like Maria wants to find intimacy but someone gave her a map that omitted it entirely, so how is she ever going to find it without some serious luck?

It’s not like Maria hasn’t done relatively well for herself. She’s union at her job, she’s really good at riding her bike, and she successfully figured out that she was transgender and transitioned. But life isn’t a series of radio boxes ready to be clicked, leading to fulfillment, and something’s missing for Maria.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be saying something to a wider audience or be left alone to make bad decisions.

Luckily or unluckily, her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to tell a little lie about cheating, which makes Maria start thinking about where her life is, and where her life used to be when she was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, getting high on heroin and passing out in crash-pad houses – knowing there was more out there — “There was a Borders and hour away and sometimes somebody would manage to get a zine onto their magazine rack, so she knew that there was more going on than classic rock radio and getting fucked up.” (27) – but not being able to escape yet.  She’s not making those bad decisions now, but she’s really not making any decisions—until some bad things naturally start happening, because the scale of Maria’s life tips just over into uncertainty, and she embraces it.

did this book achieve its intentions?

Have you ever, like me, wished you could have a real-time transcription of your thoughts?  Imogen Binnie’s narrative style is as close to that as I’ve found, except it’s not in first person. It’s like Binnie read Maria’s thoughts and wrote a journal of Maria in third person, and I find it is a very fun and effective way to get to know Maria.

Here is Maria thinking about what she wishes people knew about trans women

(and please note all quotes are from the ARC and could be changed when the final copy comes out NEXT WEEK woot!):

“It’s worth pointing out that trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there—although, of course, Maria may be biased.

She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men- at least, until they save up they money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point we become just like every other woman? Or something. But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.

This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in Manhattan.” (10-11.)

This quote showcases Binnie’s lovely (not kidding) use of colloquialisms like “Dude” and her slipping in and out of “I” to “she”, and it showcases the way that being trans isn’t what the book is about. To me, that’s the hallmark of a good read – Nevada is a portrait of Maria at a crux in her life. Maria is trans and it informs the past and current course of her life, and she thinks about it a lot, so it’s not like it’s not in there. It’s just that the “issue” is in service of the character and not the other way around. So it’s not an “issue”, it’s a part of a person, just as cancer functioned in The Fault in Our Stars and class functioned in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and being a lesbian was part of Starting From Here, and how the encroachment of meth failed to function in A Plague Year.

Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie, photographed by Julie Blair/Topside Press

One of Rebecca’s favorite things about Nevada, and I’m inclined to agree, is how Binnie “evokes a really particular (and very self-conscious) demographic (microdemographic?). these are characters who are really familiar to me but I’ve really never read about them in another book. And I’m so glad there is now a book about them.”

One of the ways that I see this happening is how engaged Maria and the other characters are in literature, theory, and philosophy. They think about it so much it becomes part of their in jokes, as in this part of Kieran and Maria’s friendship:

“Kieran heard that Maria liked Kathy Acker so he started doing shitty Kathy Acker impressions at her and normally she responds with shitty impressions of James Joyce, who Kieran is really into. She’s supposed to say, Yes I say Maybe Whatever Yes Sure Fine Yes Whatever Sure, but right now it’s not like she even wants to talk to him. It’s stupid, anyway-he is supposed to be this End of Gender gender tough genderqueer radical, but was James Joyce working to undermine patriarchy. Kieran will talk about all the reasons that yes, Joyce was working to undermine patriarchy, but the actual answer was no, James Joyce was a patriarchal fuck and dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy. But fuck that conversation right now.” (31).

Much of Nevada is in Maria’s head. There are glimpses of other narrative voices, but hers is the main one.  (Binnie’s style also makes it a little more work than ussual to differentiate the nuance in each voice as well, which may be a drawback to some, but I enjoyed it so much I noted it and moved on). Reading Maria’s paragraph-long musings is bracing, funny, and hypnotic. At times in the book it’s like she and I were simultaneously looking up from her thoughts to realize that there was an entire world out there, with fresh air and ways to forget her obsessions, even though her obsessions are an interesting space in which to spend time.

nyc bookstore cart - by flickr user markhurst

nyc bookstore cart – by flickr user markhurst

Rebecca notes, sagely, regarding characterization, that “Binnie is ruthless in regard to her characters, which I love. We’ll read about maria’s thoughts about how she thinks Steph is oblivious of something and then twenty pages later, Binnie will show us a glimpse of Steph and it’s clear that Steph is actually totally aware. No character is safe from Binnie’s narrative’s edge and it’s a joy to see how incisively she understands her characters’ perspectives, and also how totally capable she is of seeing their weaknesses.”

Although Nevada is a novel about adults worrying about adult things, like possibly being fired and how they’re going to pay rent if they break up with someone they’ve been in a relationship for four years with, and how that also will affect their personality, it also contains themes that run through many YA novels. In some ways, Maria feels like she never had her adolescence because she was trying so hard to protect herself by suppressing herself, so her journey in Nevada is the journey of trying to make herself open up to adolescent experiences.

The plot is divided up into two parts—her crumbling but triumphant escape from New York City and a snapshot of her travels, presumably cross country travels.  It’s in this second part that Binnie shows Maria as she’s seen by another person—a probably transgender Wal-Mart clerk named James.

Through her interactions with James, Maria tries out the guise of mentor and the task of audibly explaining her experiences to an outsider to her world. And while the ending thankfully shies away from identity-road-trip conventions, it doesn’t eschew the connection that both Maria and James are looking for. I was left with the feeling that both of their lives were opening up a little more, that they were accepting other potentialities for their life, even if getting there would be uncomfortable or painful. I’d be happy to go along with them and find out what happens, but unfortunately, the book ends.

readalikes

I’m pulling these from books I’ve read, but please check out the great lists that are available on Goodreads on the subject of trans memoirs and fiction!

girl_original

Girl by Blake Nelson – for the evocation of a strong character through voice (and: girl in a state of life transition).

hard-love1

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – While Wittlinger has other books specifically with trans characters, Hard Love’s theme of figuring out how to separate linked feelings is apropos for many of the relationships in Nevada.

a-e-4ever-Ilike-Merey

a + e 4ever by ilike merey – intimacy issues + exploring sexuality and gender performance + close friendship + the intensity of being a teenager = a messy, real graphic novel

Girls-Visions-and-Everything

Girls, Visions, and Everything by Sarah Schulman – Lila spends a summer purposefully wandering without purpose around New York, bearing witness to the way she and her friends live before it becomes unaffordable, getting into adventures and finding ways of loving people.

And Imogen Binnie has a blog, which can also be read.

I received this book from Topside Press with no expectations or remuneration on either side

Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

madnessunderneath

The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa

Characters

Rory Deveaux, transplanted private schooler, ghost-interacter-and-destroyer

Stephen Dene, head of the secret ghost division of the London Police

Callum & Boo, the other two members of the secret police squad

Jazza, Jeremy & Charlotte – school friend, boyfriend, and frenemy

Jane – a mysterious and almost supernaturally calming therapist who provides her services for free

Hook

The Ripper-emulating ghost re-terrorizing London has been destroyed, but not without weird consequences.

Worldview

In The Name of the Star, Rory learns that the world is a little different than the normal world we all live in. It’s still normal, but some people can see and interact with ghosts–as long as you have the natural inclination and add a near-death experience into the equation.

Rory’s a fish out of water, being a ghost-seer, and a fish out of water, being a Louisiana native trying to hack it in a London boarding school for her senior year. Her snarky sense of humor helps her deal with all the weirdness being thrown her way, as well as her natural curiosity. Occasional drama-free makeout sessions don’t hurt, either.

nameofthestar

However, the situation of figuring out the ghost-mystery-murders almost seems easier than the situation of picking herself up in the aftermath of the murders. Rory is failing school after spending time with a therapist and her parents in Bristol. She’s now a human terminus – her touch destroys ghosts – and the police want to use her as a clean-up tool for London’s ghostly lurkers, since the original diamonds used for the purpose went kaput. But she doesn’t know how she feels about being the post-Grim Reaper Reaper. Worst of all, she can’t confide in her friends, her boyfriend, or her parents about what’s really going on in her life.

On top of it all, the ghosts around London, especially around Rory’s school, are upping the ante on being angry and causing bloodshed. Rory thinks it might have something to do with what the area used to house, who was buried there, and maybe the crack that opened up in the earth when the faux-Ripper got terminated.

Then she’s fortuitously led to a laid-back, rich woman named Jane who’s been helping stuck-up Charlotte deal with her own Ripper trauma. Jane practices for free, always has brownies to offer Rory, and finally Rory can almost relax. Or should she?

Does this book live up to its intentions?

Johnson writes delicious hook-y adventures and her sense of humor is one that I enjoy. The Madness Underneath has all of these qualities and some shivery moments, too.  I admired Rory’s feistiness in the face of depression and loved getting back to the foggy, twisty streets of her neighborhood.  Johnson is very good at writing place – enough detail but not too much – and I could effortlessly picture where Rory was going (even if I can’t stop picturing Rory as Alexis Bledel).

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

The Madness Underneath definitely a second novel in a series of more than two books. Rory’s in transition and trying desperately to ignore that she might be in free fall. She tries to be normal but her life is breaking into some pretty clear paths. She has to decide what she wants and why, from boyfriends to future career plans. But there doesn’t seem to be space to think.

If anything, the book moves too fast, and, like The Name of the Star, drops off at a really crucial moment. The mystery that starts the book gets solved pretty quickly by Rory and the ghost squad, and then just as quickly is subsumed in a new, bigger mystery with sinister implications – really intriguing, culty, conspiratorial ones.

Then Johnson jabs us with two big knocks of the Plot Fist and closes the book. It happens so fast I don’t even know what I think of those developments yet.

Maybe I should’ve waited another year or so to read 2 & 3 in succession.

Readalikes

Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

For the same traveling-in-a-new-place-and-discovering-otherworldy-things feel, try these:

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey

peregrineriggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

greatandterriblebeauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

If a Skippy Dies in a Doughnut House, does he make ripples in the multiverse?

Ohskippydies

review by Tessa

Skippy Dies
Paul Murray
Faber & Faber 2010

Warning: this review contains so many quotes. Here’s the first one as an epigraph.:

“You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg — that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentists, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’.” (25)

Characters

Students
Daniel “Skippy” Juster – Sure, he dies, but there’s so much more to him.
Ruprecht “Blowjob” Van Doren – Skippy’s roommate and string theory obsessor.
Lori Wakeham (Frisbee Girl, Lollipop Lips) – trying to figure out what she wants in life and how to get it while also being the object of two boys’ fantasies.
Carl Cullen – I believe if you saw Carl he would have what is known as a flat affect – also cut up arms, a serious obsession with Lori Wakeham, and not enough EQ to know what to do with that obsession even if it were returned.
Geoff, Mario, Niall & Dennis – the main core of Skippy’s friends.

Teachers
Howard “the Coward” Fallon – haunted by his past, and sort of stuck there, too – he’s teaching history at the school he attended
Farley – friend of Howard, a sometime instigator and sometime voice of reason
Aurelie McIntyre- businesswoman turned substitute geography teacher, incidentally she’s pretty good-looking, just kidding, that’s not really incidental
Greg “the Automator” Costigan – really wants to bring the modern money into the school, and really wants the school’s current Director to quietly die and let him take over.
Father Green (Pére Vert) – archetypal scary priest

Pagan Influence
The White Goddess – something different to everyone, but relevant to all.

Hook

If a Skippy dies in Ed’s Doughnut House, does he make a sound (in the sense of being remembered by his friends, family and loved ones)?

an irish door from flickr user infomatique - it's in the town of Black Rock.

an irish door from flickr user infomatique – it’s in the town of Black Rock.

Worldview

Farley says:

“‘This is Biology. These kids are fourteen. Biology courses through their veins. Biology and marketing. …They want to hear it from an adult. …They want to hear it confirmed officially that for all our talk, the adult world and their subterranean sex-obsessed porno-world are basically the same, and no matter what else we try to teach them about kings or molecules or trade models or whatever, civilization ultimately boils down to the same frenzied attempt to hump people. That the world, in short, is teenaged.’” (63).

I say: This in-depth look at the lead-up to and fallout from the titular event, centered around an Irish Catholic school is concerned with how the world is for teenagers, and how it looks to adults working with teenagers, and how it is the same and different for both sets of people. And the nature of time and memory and how that makes history, and if human lives are unimportant or important within that gigantic concept.

by flickr user Cindy Funk

by flickr user Cindy Funk

What is this book’s intention? Is it achieved?

I’m going to answer the second question first: yes.

And as for intention, it’s better rendered in questions. So, Skippy dies. Why does he die? Is there a reason? How does it make his friends feel? How is it seen by the adults who came into contact with him? How did he see it?  Etc. The book serves to explore these questions and more (see previous paragraph).

I don’t really want to describe the mechanics of the plot because they will sound falsely mundane.

On the flap copy, I’m guessing much to the author’s chagrin, Skippy Dies is compared to Harry Potter AND Infinite Jest. That’s a bit much for any book, but I will say that it does have similarities to the latter. There are many characters in the book, and the book discovers their quirks as a friends discover the weird parts of each other’s personalities, which is to say it lets them emerge over time. They are described because they exist but they’re not presented to the reader on a Platter of Quirk. I felt the same way about Infinite Jest, except Infinite Jest had a much bigger scope and often was hyperreal.

What Paul Murray does so, so well, so amazingly well, with the narrative is accordion it in and out so that somehow it is simultaneously big (Irish mythology and folklore, string theory) and small (jokes about lucky condoms, usage of zombie voices) while also making loud pleasing sounds and not making the reader dizzy. And much like an accordion it has structures inside of it that make everything work and hold everything together (in my metaphor these are the big themes of the book: death, depression, history, the point of life).

Here’s a great example of the first thing. Ruprecht is talking to Skippy at the Halloween dance. He’s talking as usual about scientific theories, relating to the world through them – and Murray describes the scene in deadpan, hilarious detail. Small moments.

“‘Fascinating,’ Ruprecht muses to Skippy. ‘The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they’re just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive ‘rock and roll’ beats take the place of velocity.’

“Skippy has gone to replenish his punch. Ruprecht sighs quietly, and looks at his watch.

“Patrick ‘Da Knowledge’ Noonan and Eoin ‘MC Sexecutioner’ Flynn pimp-roll by, plastic Uzis tucked under their arms, the faint frisson of tension still detectable between them, the aftermath of a heated debate earlier today over who was going to come as Tupac, which debate Patrick won, meaning Eoin is now waddling along in a fat suit, dressed as Biggie Smalls. The squalling riff from Cream’s ‘Layla’ blasts from the speaker; in the DJ booth, Wallace Willis nods to himself: oh yes. ‘Flubber’ Cooke, who has come in his supermarket shelf-stacking uniform, explains to a sexy nun that while it’s part of his costume, the trolley is actually company property, so although he’d like to let her ride in it, he can’t.” (171-172).

by flickr user mryantaylor

by flickr user mryantaylor

Meanwhile, he opens many sections with spot-on descriptions of what it’s like to exist in Autumn. The descent. The universal Autumnal experience (I realize this is not universal to people who live nearer to the equator, sorry). Big things.

“Autumn deepens. A fresh chaos of yellow leaves covers the lane up to the school each morning, as if it’s been visited overnight by woodland poltergeists; after school, you make the return journey through a strange, season-specific gloaming, a pale darkness, spooked and paradoxical, which makes your classmates up ahead seem to fade in and out of existence. The hobgoblin shadow of Hallowe-en, meanwhile, is everywhere. The shopping malls bristle with pumpkins and skeletons; houses lie swathed in cotton-wool cobwebs; the sky cracks and fizzes with firework-tests of increasing rigour. Even teachers fall under the spell. Classes take odd detours, routines slowly vaporize, until by the late stages of the week, the rigid precepts of everyday termtime seem no more real, or even slightly less real, than the fluorescent ghosts glowing from the windows of Ed’s Doughnuts next door…” (157)

Turnip Jack O'Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

Turnip Jack O’Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

And sometimes big and small are in the same passage, as here, when the friends are giving Skippy advice on what to put in his text message to Lori:

“‘How about, instead of “if you want to meet up again”, you say “if you want me to sex you hard”,’ Mario says.

“It’s the end of the school day; they are walking down the laneway to the Doughnut House. In the dusk the world appears pale and exhausted, like a vampire’s been drinking from its veins: the thin pink filament of the just-come-on doughnut sign, the white streetlights like dowdy cotton bolls against the grey clouds, the soft hand-like leaves of the trees with the colours leeched away to match the asphalt.

“‘What have you got so far?’ Geoff asks.

“Skippy presses a button. ‘“Hi,”’ he says.

“‘It’s the only thing everyone agrees on.’

“Geoff frowns. ‘Actually, I’m not all that crazy about “Hi”.’” (264).

In an equally structured but subtle way, themes of the book recur as thoughts from different characters, framed in different ways, so as to fully exploit their themeyness.  Theme-itude.  One of the big themes is history and memory, because how are we humans to achieve immortality if not by being remembered, however inevitably inaccurate memory is.

Which is what Howard Fallon is trying to get at when he takes his history class on an unsanctioned field trip to a neglected monument for the Irish fallen of WWI:

“‘We tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.’” (556)

And what the Automator is also getting at, from a different perspective, when he chews Fallon out for doing this:

“‘Maybe you’re right,’ the Automator continues, ‘maybe the [school]book does leave a chunk of stuff out. And maybe in the future someone will dig it up, and make a TV documentary, and there’ll be exhibitions and pull-out newspaper supplements and people all over the country will be talking about it. But when they’re finished talking, Howard, then they’ll go back to their kitchens or their golfing holidays or whatever they were doing before. The “truth” as you put it, won’t change a goddamn thing.” (564)

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

And what the developer is trying to get out of agreeing to when he has to explain on TV why he still wants to put up condos over an ancient archaeological finding near Fallon’s house:

“‘So you’re saying it should be bulldozed,’ the reporter says.

“‘I’m saying we need to ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Because what we are trying to build here isn’t just a Science Park. It’s the economic future of our country. It’s jobs and security for our children and our children’s children. Do we really want to put a ruin from three thousand years ago ahead of your children’s future?’

“‘And what about those who say that this “ruin” gives us a unique insight into the origins of our culture?’

“‘Well, let me turn that question around. If the position was reversed, do you think the people of three thousand years ago would have stopped building their fortress so they could preserve the ruin of our Science Park? Of course not. They wanted to move forward. The whole reason we have the civilization we have today — the only reason you and I are standing here — is that people kept moving forward instead of looking backward. Everybody in the past wanted  to be a part of the future.” (574)

And the value of memory in history is what Fallon is trying to call upon as he inexpertly lends the depressed Ruprecht an ear and some advice:

“‘The book [a history of his dead son’s regiment in WWI] took [Kipling] five and a half years to complete. He found it extremely difficult. But afterwards he said it was his greatest work. He’d had a chance to commemorate the bravery of these men, and to keep the memory of his son alive. A man called Brodsky once said, “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” Kipling couldn’t bring John back. But he could remember him. And in that way his son lived on.’

“This parable doesn’t produce quite the effect he intended; in fact, he is not sure that Ruprecht, tracing Sprite-spirals on the table with a straw, is even listening. The youth behind the counter looks at his watch and begins to dismantle the coffee machine; an electric fan whirrs, like the smooth sound of time passing inexorably from underneath them. And the, not looking up, Ruprecht mumbles, ‘What if you can’t remember?’” (582)

All in only 20ish pages, tying together plot threads and characters with the poignant string of a well-wrought theme.  Don’t read my stupid metaphors. Read this book.

Readalikes:

If the awkwardness and reality of Freaks and Geeks met the bravado and partying of Skins (UK).

freaksandgeeks    +    skins

If the boarding school scenes in Infinite Jest met the faculty life of Lucky Jim

 infinitejest   +    luckyjim

Then you’d have Skippy Dies.

Oh and in case you’re interested in other books set in the closed school environment aka boarding school, we have 2 lists for you:

1. Boarding School Books

2. Boarding School Books Redux

Links of interest:

Neil Jordan is going to direct the movie adaptation?? I’m interested.

An interview with the author at Bookslut.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow: “Put your characters through the wringer!”

Today at Crunchings & Munchings we’re proud to welcome Lisa Jenn Bigelow, author of Starting From Here. It’s a new contemporary fiction title that we co-reviewed/discussed on Wednesday (click through to find out what it’s all about).  She joins us today to talk about how coming out is still hard to do, diversity in YA fiction, the dreaded “dead dog book”, and where to eat in Pittsburgh.  Yay!

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

C&M: I really liked that this was a story about the way kids’ lives can be really hard when they don’t have money. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to portray characters that had material concerns as well as social concerns?

LJB: I grew up in a working class neighborhood. Both my parents had higher education, but they were in the minority. And while we always had enough money, we were careful, and I grew up hyperaware of how much things cost. When I got to middle and high school, several affluent neighborhoods joined the mix, and social tiers became obviously tied to economics. The popular kids, the preps, the student council, many of the athletes—they were from the rich (by my hometown’s standards, anyway) neighborhoods. You couldn’t not notice that.

I think well-off kids are the norm in YA books, and when money’s an issue, often it comes out as abject poverty. I wanted to represent the kids around the corner from me, the kids on the line between being “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s an underrepresented segment of the American population. Especially in today’s economic climate, I think those kids are the majority.

lisa jenn bigelow and carly

Photo by David Sutton

C&M: There have been more and more queer characters in YA books being published in the last few years. Have you noticed any trends (or types, or stereotypes) that have begun to emerge within these books? Did you find yourself trying to embrace/resist/complicate any of these with your own characters?

LJB: On the whole, I think we’re moving away from stereotypes and toward greater diversity. We’re seeing more queer girls and trans characters. We’re seeing more characters of color and different cultures. We’re seeing more stories that move beyond the “coming out” sub-genre. We’re seeing more genre fiction—fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction—starring queer characters.

One of my favorite trends is the growing recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. Characters aren’t so quick to label themselves. They’re more comfortable following their hearts without taking a hard line on whether a particular attraction makes them gay or bi or what-have-you. That’s something I really liked about Very LeFreak, by Rachel Cohn, which stars a girl who might best be described as pansexual—if she were one to care about labels.

very lefreak rachel cohen

In Starting from Here, Colby identifies strongly as gay, but the two girls she’s involved with don’t want—or aren’t ready—to label themselves that way. I want teens to know that it’s totally okay not to. I think it’s more important to simply feel what you feel at any given moment and to accept those feelings without judging yourself or worrying about “what it makes you.”

C&M: What do you think of the cover? I’m super into it – no generic photograph of a person staring off into the middle distance — and it reminds me of the iconic David Levithan covers. I especially like how the truck is pink and the heart is yellow. Did you have any input on it?  Were you hoping for a certain vibe from the cover?

LJB: The cover’s awesome—no thanks to me. My nightmare was actually that the cover would be a stock photo of an empty country road with one of those yellow diamond-shaped road signs with the title printed on it. So I was thrilled with what the designer came up with. I think it’s very appealing and distinctive from the slew of stock-photo-girl covers out there. I do love that it evokes David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and also the hardcover edition of Lauren Myracle’s Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks—two great books by two of my favorite authors.

peace love and baby ducks lauren myracle  boy meets boy david levithan

C&M: Starting From Here is set in rural-y Michigan. What’s your connection with the area and why did you decide to set it there?

LJB: I grew up in the Kalamazoo area—technically in Portage, which is a smallish city just south of Kalamazoo proper. It has one huge, commercial road running through the center of town, but drive a mile or two to either side, and you basically end up in the country. Cornfields, trailer parks, lakes and nature preserves. My own neighborhood was right near the commercial center, but over the course of eighteen years, I got a feel for just about the whole town. It’s all remained very vivid to me, plus I get a refresher course every time I visit my parents.

The culture of the area is just as important. When Starting from Here was on submission, there were actually editors who expressed confusion as to why Colby had qualms about coming out to her father. I think that’s cosmopolitan New York talking. Anyone who follows the news should know that in most of America (including New York), coming out can still be a dangerous thing. Coming out can mean being harassed, ostracized, disowned, assaulted, or even killed. Kalamazoo County may have gone Blue in the 2012 presidential election, but Southwest Michigan is, overall, a pretty conservative area. Things have changed for the better there since I was a teen, but I wanted to reflect the reality that things are still far from perfect.

kalamazoo michigan

Kalamazoo by Dave Sizer on flickr (creative commons)

C&M: Mo the dog is a huge part of the story, and in some ways the heart of the story (please forgive me for that cheesy phrasing). Rebecca and I, as devoted cat owners and animal lovers, were both very touched by Mo’s inclusion. So we wanted to thank you for showing the responsibility and love that pet ownership entails! Although, thankfully, this is not a dead dog story, those types of stories are notoriously divisive. Where do you come down on the Old Yeller issue? Do you have a dog?

LJB: Funny you should bring up Old Yeller. The very first chapter of the very first draft of Starting from Here had Colby talking about how she’d read that book over and over again, until she didn’t have any tears left. That’s how I feel about “dead dog books” at this point in my life. I read Where the Red Fern Grows, as well as various other tearjerkers, so many times when I was a kid, but I got to a point where I was tired of crying. Maybe because real life seemed hard enough.

this dog will lighten the mood. by RollanB on Flickr

Now whenever I pick up a dog book, I flip to the last page—something I normally don’t do—to see if the dog makes it to the end alive. If it doesn’t, forget it. I’ve had to say goodbye to three dogs in my life, and it’s terrible. I still tear up when I think about my dog Carly, who died a year and a half ago–she’s the German shepherd mix in my official author photo. She was more neurotic than the average dog, but I loved her to pieces.

I adopted another dog last fall—another shepherd mix, incidentally. Her name is Saffy, and while she’s middle-aged, she’s very energetic and loves fetch and going in Lake Michigan. She’s also a total cuddle. Now I’m searching for a second rescue to make us more of a pack.

Anyway, that was actually the initial inspiration for Starting from Here: I wanted to write an “anti-dead dog book.” A book that kicks off with an awfully close call but doesn’t end in tears. A book that shows how a dog can save someone’s life simply through love, no fatal acts of heroism required.

C&M: Colby’s trust issues get worse and worse and she eventually reaches a breaking point. I thought it was a really truthful portrayal of a character with a lot of love to give and a fear of being hurt. It’s a fine line when you have one of your characters do hurtful things to the people around them and to themselves, but Colby is never unlikeable. Did you ever feel bad about putting her through that process?

LJB: Will I sound callous if I say “not really”? That’s how the novel-writing game is played: put your characters through the wringer! I guess the hardest thing was making Colby convincingly self-absorbed. She feels like the world is out to get her, when it was obvious to me (as it will be to readers) that isn’t true. If I knew her in real life, I’d want to give her a good shake. But we’ve all been there, and I hope readers can make that connection.

The most emotional scenes for me to write were, unsurprisingly, when Colby hits bottom. But they were also some of the most satisfying. I figured that if I could make myself cry—me, the puppetmaster, the one person who should be immune to emotional manipulation—then those scenes would touch readers, too.

C&M: Does your work as a youth librarian influence your writing, and if so, how so?
LJB: As a youth librarian, I’m immersed daily in books for young people. I read reviews of them, purchase them, read them, review them, discuss them, suggest them. All these activities have given me a strong awareness of what’s being published (which is far beyond what you are likely to see on the shelves of a big box store), what kids like to read, and what reviewers and award committees are looking at. On the one hand, it makes me read–and therefore write–more critically; on the other, I’ve become more generous in my definition of what makes a “good book,” because as a librarian you have to accept that it’s different for everyone. Above all, being a librarian gives me perspective. There are so many very good books out there that don’t get starred reviews, don’t win awards, don’t make the bestseller list, and go out of print within just a few years. A lot of that is luck; it’s just how the business is. So you just have to hope your book will find its readers and touch their lives before it fades away. And libraries, which treasure books as long as they have the shelf space, play an instrumental role in that.

BONUS QUESTION:

Tessa: Tell me about your favorite place(s) to go in Pittsburgh!

LJB: You’re making me nostalgic. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, which doesn’t have a particularly nice campus but is a great home base for what Pittsburgh has to offer. For ice cream, I have to go with Dave & Andy’s. For pizza, the Church Brew Works. My friends and I loved Sree’s Foods for Indian. Sree himself ran a food cart next to campus and was a kind and generous man. He died last year, unfortunately.

one of the buildings at CMU, taken by Flickr user jiuguangw

I could go on all day about food—have I mentioned Bloomfield Bridge Tavern makes tasty pierogi?—but onward. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a beautiful old building, and I checked out many a YA book from it while I was in college. Bonus, the art museum is right next door. I also love Pittsburgh’s wooded parks, especially Schenley and Frick. The best part of Frick Park is Hot Dog Dam, a swimming hole for dogs. So cute!

Tessa: Those are indeed all wonderful Pittsburgh places.  Thank you for visiting, Lisa, and giving us thoughtful answers and a great book to read and recommend.

“Pink Is Not Pink”! Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

A Joint Review of Starting From Here, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Amazon Children’s Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books), 2012

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

by TESSA and REBECCA, November 28, 2012 (Happy Birthday to Rebecca’s dad!)

It is our total delight to announce that Lisa Jenn Bigelow will be joining us on Friday for an interview about her debut novel, Starting From Here! Be sure to check back for a chat about Michigan, dogs, and love!

Sixteen-year-old Colby Bingham’s heart has been broken too many times. Her mother has been dead for almost two years, her truck driver father is always away, her almost girlfriend just dumped her for a guy, and now she’s failing chemistry. When a stray dog lands literally at her feet, bleeding and broken on a busy road, it seems like the Universe has it in for Colby. But the incident also knocks a chink in the walls she’s built around her heart. Against her better judgment, she decides to care for the dog. But new connections mean new opportunities for heartbreak. Terrified of another loss, Colby bolts at the first sign of trouble, managing to alienate her best friend, her father, the cute girl pursing her, and even her dog’s vet, who’s taken Colby under her wing. Colby can’t start over, but can she learn how to move on?”

After both reading Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s debut novel, which she was lovely enough to send us, we decided that we wanted to have a little Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia book club about Starting From Here, so the following joint review is brought to you via g-chat. Woo-hoo, technology.

Tessa: Hello

Rebecca: Hi!

[long period of talking about weird things, including cookies, toilets, and Scotland]

R: Anyhoo, wanna talk about Starting From Here?

T: Yes. Let’s start out by talking about the basic plot.

R: Sure. I really liked that it started with a breakup as opposed to a crush; it had romance and relationships in it, but the structure was totally not the structure of a romance, and the main relationship is with the dog!

Michigan!T: Yeah! Colby starts out being broken up with by the girl she’s obsessed with [Rachel], and she’s really bummed. So the book kind of fakes you out at the beginning, because I thought it was going to be a pining-after/getting-over book. And it is, but it’s much deeper than that. Colby works through more issues that are brought up by the breakup—family issues, self-esteem issues. But I feel like it’s a fast, almost light read nonetheless, because it has love and hopefulness. I read it in a day. Would you agree?

R: Yeah, it’s interesting that you call it light—to me, it was really quiet. Definitely fast. I, too, read it in a day and it flowed really well, so I read it quite quickly. There’s nothing out of place, no sticking point that tripped me up or made me put the book down. I think that for me, the emotional core of the book (whether I think of it as Colby’s relationship with the dog, or her dad, or her girlfriends) was about Colby’s depression, and, like depression, I felt like I just slid right down into the book and had to read until I came out the other side.

T: Oooh, good description. Yeah, Colby has a relatively good support system, except her dad isn’t around. But her friends can’t save her from herself.

R: Totally. I thought it was a really brilliant description of depression (whether or not we mean that clinically or not) because it built slowly, thing piled on thing, until Colby just couldn’t bring herself to move or change or pull herself out. But Bigelow never says, like “Oh, Colby’s depressed”; it’s just part of her psychic landscape. It felt very real to me, and very relatable.

T: Yes, and so when she hits rock bottom it’s so heartbreaking. And so frustrating that she can’t talk to her dad—I feel like a lot of teenagers (including myself) feel like this around their parents, but with Colby it’s amplified because she knows how important her dad’s job is and she feels like she can’t protest how much time he spends doing it. Plus she can’t find the words or the space to come out to him:

“Even when we spent the day under the same roof, I felt like we were sealed in a crystal bubble. It looked so easy to reach out and touch each other, but there was only so close we’d get before—crack!—knocking each other back.” (187)

This is also mirrored way earlier in a school dance scene—Colby feels so alone!

“I was aware of a girl standing solo across the room trying to catch my eye. . . . I didn’t want to dance with them, bump shoulders with them, feel them soft and vulnerable through their shirts, hoping the negative space in our hearts would somehow add up to a positive.” (84)

R: Yeah, her relationship with her dad was my favorite part (besides the puppy). My favorite part of it is when she tries to get him to buy the pink big rig.

“If dad bought his own rig, he was in this for good. Instead of getting a short-haul job, he’d keep working extralong weeks driving from one end of the country to the other. I’d come home each day with no one to talk to, no one to hug me, no one to just sit on the couch with who remembered and missed Mom the way I did. . . .

‘Tell you what, Bee,’ Dad said, looking up at me, ‘Why don’t you pick one out. What color do you think I should get?’

‘Pink,’ I spat out. . . . Get pink.’

‘I can’t get pink. I’d be laughed off the road. I don’t even know if I could find one. Even lady drivers—’

‘You said I could pick.’ I stared him down, by arms folded across my chest. ‘Promise you’ll get pink, to remember me when you’re on the road. That’s the least you can do.’

For a moment Dad looked—ashamed? Guilty? Both, I hoped. . . .

Dad shook his head, but he said, ‘All right, Colby. I promise.’” (127-8)

It’s such a perfect moment because you can imagine everything that might be going on in his head—trying to please his daughter; being willing to sacrifice for her; knowing something’s wrong but not knowing what; not knowing what to do to make her happy; dreading having to drive a pink truck, etc. And then he actually finds one, and tells her that pink is pink because he doesn’t know the exact shade, she’s like “pink is not pink” (198) and tells him to do whatever he wants since he always does. Broke my fucking heart.

T: Yes, all those things—subtle awkwardness and love between a parent and a kid. I was so happy to read adult characters who were fully fleshed out. Even the vet’s husband wasn’t a two-dimensional character. He could so easily have been “laid off angry dude,” but he had more behind him, and he wasn’t even in very many scenes!

R: Totally. I think that’s one of the things that made it a quiet book for me: each character is really fully fleshed out, but it’s done in such a beautifully economical manner that the book is really bare bones. I feel like every thing I learn about someone is one more pebble in the bowl of them, but there’s nothing that doesn’t do a lot of work. Also, I know it sounds simplistic and superficial, but I love that Colby was a total tough guy whose favorite color was baby pink.

T: Good point.

R: What did you think about Colby’s friends and girlfriends?

T: I felt like as a reader I was seeing more of how Colby saw Rachel than how Rachel actually was. So she remained on a pedestal or tucked away as a painful ideal. I liked how Van was like a brother to Colby, or even a cool aunt. And Amelia . . . I don’t see their relationship lasting after high school, but I liked seeing their appreciation for one another unfold. You?

R: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly about Rachel—we never got to know what the big deal was about her (which seemed very realistic to me); we just knew she broke Colby’s heart. Van did seem super brother/aunt-ish, which I liked because Bigelow didn’t work too hard to portray their relationship; it just was, and it clearly had been for a long time. As for Amelia, I don’t know: I couldn’t tell if Colby’s feelings were about Amelia or about Colby being lonely. I could believe either, and both seem right. Or maybe it was a combination of both.

T: Maybe it was just about feeling good about being with someone who felt good to be with you. I can get behind that.

R: Me too!

T: Let’s talk about Mo. Were you a dog person before this book?

R: I feel about dogs the way I feel about other lives I could have lived: I don’t see one ever just existing in my life as it is now, but I think if I’d ever taken a slightly different path then maybe one could. I think dogs are beautiful and cute and I love how loyal they are, but I’ve never really been a dog person, per se. I think part of it is that I’m afraid of the commitment; partly that I think they smell bad unless you bathe them constantly (which I’m too lazy to do); and partly that I may not think I’m worthy of the kind of unconditional love they give you. What about you?

T: I feel similarly. Only recently have I become more dog-positive. I used to just like them but not want to really hang around them, but I’ve met several very cool dogs, and now I like hanging around them (and petting their soft bellies, if they are Pitbulls). But I still can’t see myself owning one, mostly because I feel like I’m too lazy. And because it’s hard to tell if you’ll get a dog that has a dog smell, or one that likes to lick your hands too much. But this book definitely made me more of a dog person. It also helps that I own a cat and could identify with that kind of quasi-maternal love and responsibility

R: Yes. I think I might like a dog if ever I find myself living with a lumberjack in a cabin in the woods and the dog can mostly live outside and like, I dunno, chase sticks and stuff, and only come inside to lie in front of the fire. Dogs seem happiest when they have a purpose, so I think that would be a nice way to have a dog. As I mentioned to you earlier, when I was reading about Mo needing surgery at the vet’s, Dorian [my lovely cat] was sitting on my lap, and I was straight-up sobbing and clutching at her fur, so I definitely felt the pet relationship hard.

INTERLUDE: Tessa’s cat, Turkey, and Rebecca’s cat, Dorian Gray, are totally adorable!
Turkey! Dorian Gray

T: I also liked that it showed all the facets of having a pet. I’m used to seeing dogs as quest-companions in YA books. They’re supernaturally loyal, already trained, and basically understand English. You don’t see the work that goes into getting a dog to adapt to a habit.

R: Absolutely! (Another reason I don’t know if I could have one.)

lumberjackT: (I can see you living the lumberjack life, btw)

R: Yeah? I think I could learn to love it. After all, freshly-cut wood is totes one of my love potion smells, à la Harry Potter!

T: ha ha!

R: I loved the end of the book—I won’t say any more because of spoilers, but I really liked it.

[chat devolves into spoilery personal discussion about our feelings about the end of the book, families, and Scotland.]

T: Anyway, I’m glad we’re in agreement about the fact that people should read this book!

R: Yes! I can’t wait for your interview with Lisa on Friday!

T: It’s going to be great—she’s so nice!

R: ta

T: bye!

R: ❤

You have just enough time to gobble down Starting From Here before you join us right here on Friday for an interview with Lisa Jenn Bigelow!

We received these books from the author (thank you!), with no compensation on either side. Starting From Here is available now.

People are just people, they shouldn’t make you nervous: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Ned Vizzini
Miramax Books/Hyperion, 2006

review by Tessa

Characters
Outside of the Hospital
Craig Gilner, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t talk, can try to smoke pot to self-medicate since he took himself off of his real medication, Zoloft
Dr. Minerva, an understanding psychologist
Aaron, Craig’s bestie, but doesn’t know about Craig’s problems but does tell Craig in explicit detail about his sexual exploits with…
Nia, girl of Craig’s dreams, dating Aaron
Sarah Craig’s younger sister

Inside of the Hospital
Smitty – day manager
Bobby & Johnny – biggest meth addicts in New York (in the 90s)
Jimmy – It’ll come to ya
Noelle – cute note-leaver with self-inflicted facial cuts
Humble– bald, suspicious of yuppies and yuppie-like behavior
Muqtada – Craig’s roommate. Mostly sleeps and wishes there were some Egyptian music he could hear.
Armelio – “The President”, announces when meals occur.
Solomon – keep it down, he’s trying to rest
Ebony – wears velvet pants
The Professor – convinced her home is full of insecticide (and it may well be)

Hook
Craig Gilner works hard to achieve his one goal of teenagedom: getting into an elite prep school. Then he gets so anxious and depressed he wants to kill himself. What then?

Worldview

Craig Gilner lives in the real world. And in the real world you find the best path to being successful and follow it. For him, that’s getting into the Executive Pre-Professional High School, in Manhattan. Getting in there guarantees a wealthy, healthy life. So Craig studies his ass off and gets in. And then the Tentacles start wrapping around him…

Tentacles is my term–the Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life.  Like, for example, my American History class last week, which necessitated me writing a paper on the weapons of the Revolutionary War, which necessitated me traveling to the Metropolitan Museum to check out some of the old guns, which necessitated me getting in the subway, which necessitated me being away from my cell phone and e-mail for 45 minutes, which meant that I didn’t get to respond to a mass e-mail sent out by my teacher asking who needed extra credit, which meant other kids snapped up the extra credit, which meant I wasn’t going to get a 98 in the class, which mean I wasn’t anywhere close to a 98.6 average (body temperature, that’s what you needed to get), which meant I wasn’t going to get into a Good College, which meant I wasn’t going to have a Good Job, which meant I wasn’t going to have health insurance, which meant I’d have to pay tremendous amounts of money for the shrinks and drugs my brain needed, which meant I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for a Good Lifestyle, which meant I’d feel ashamed, which meant I’d get depressed, and that was the big one because I knew what that did to me: it made it so I wouldn’t get out of bed, which led to the ultimate thing–homelessness. If you can’t get out of bed for long enough, people come and take your bed away.” (14-15).

photo by flickr user kevin dooley

Craig is so anxious and depressed and swallowed up by the chain of events that hypothetically ensure that he ends up homeless that he can’t eat. He can’t usually talk.  He can smoke weed, but sometimes he doesn’t, to see if it improves things.

He can also watch jealously as his best friend hooks up with the seemingly perfect Nia, a girl with shiny hair and impeccable outfits along with a love of sex, and then tells Craig aaaall the gory details.

It’s too much. Craig decides he’s already failed at life and should kill himself.

But instead of doing that he checks himself into the hospital.

What is the book’s intention & is it achieved?

If this book’s intention is to give its readers an accurate view of depression and to show that normal people have it and struggle with it, and how that struggle can go and be a slog but still be hopeful, then it is certainly achieved.

“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint–it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out.  They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed -ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.” (3)

Craig’s a great voice, and if you want to get granular, he’s also a great teenage boy voice.  He’s got facets.  The book opens with him at his worst. When the book opens, he’s at his lowest point. By the reactions of his friends and family it’s easy to tell that he looks blank to them. But because we’re in his head, we hear the self-flagellation of a depressed person. The anguish and the self-deprecation, and all the things Craig would like to say if he could make himself.  The loneliness of not being able to say things.  The hopelessness of feeling like each decision is a bad one. The frustration of not being able to do something so simple as feed yourself.  But couched in black humor–Craig’s funny and he has a loving, supportive, dry-witted family.

That’s the first part of the book.  Then Craig checks himself into an adult mental ward (the youth wing is being renovated) at the hospital a few blocks down from his apartment in Brooklyn.  And finally meets people who admit that they’re struggling with similar things.

“I look at Bobby’s deep-sunk eyes. I get the feeling–I don’t know how I know the rules of mental-ward etiquette; maybe I was born with them; maybe I knew I’d end up here–but I get the feeling that one big no-no in this place is asking people how they got here. It’d be a little like walking up to somebody in prison and going ‘So? So? What’s up huh? Didja kill somebody? Didja?’’

But I also get the impression that you can volunteer the reasons you got here at any time and no one will judge; no one will think you’re too crazy or not crazy enough, and that’s how you make friends. After all, what else is there to talk about? So I tell bobby: ‘I’m here because I suffer from serious depression.’

‘Me too.’ He nods. ‘Since I was fifteen.’ And his eyes shine with blackness and horror. We shake hands.” (198-9).

That’s where things begin to change for Craig. By putting himself somewhere with simplified choices, he frees himself up to experience a little happiness again. Some spontaneity.  He re-learns that there are other options in life, and he discovers how to be creative again.  (See Rebecca’s People Creating Things list for other books with this plot point.)  All this, even though the people in the ward can be a little weird and unpredictable, and the whole thing is scary.  He still manages to find a cute girl to have 15 minute dates with.

creative representations of thought! this is apropos, just trust me. photo by flickr user foolish gold.

And that’s why It’s Kind of a Funny Story is such a wonderful book. It has balance.  In the first part the extremely realistic knowledge of severe depression is balanced by the natural humor of Craig’s voice. At the hospital the hardness of mental illness isn’t shied away from. Craig’s roommate Muqtada never showers and can barely get out of bed. Craig’s friends find out he’s in the hospital and tell him so in an extremely unsympathetic phone call. Jimmy, a man who was admitted with Craig, is so messed up he only repeats certain phrases, until he debuts some new ones that reveal how terrible his life must have been.

But Craig doesn’t get a terrible plot arc that ends up with him relapsing once he leaves the hospital, or staying on the ward for months and months–we see it in other characters, so it’s in there, but this isn’t YA Problem-Fest. Jimmy’s problems don’t become the maudlin emotional climax of the book. Instead, it’s built like a really great pop song.  In fact, in its denouement the rhythm and bittersweetness of the prose reminded me very much of certain Regina Spektor lyrics. Compare:

“I haven’t cured anything but something seismic is happening in me. I feel my body wrapped up and slapped on top of my spine. I feel the heart that beat early in the morning on Saturday and told me I didn’t want to die. I feel the lungs that have been doing their work quietly inside the hospital. I feel the hands that can make art and touch girls–think of all the tools you have. I feel the feet that can let me run anywhere I want, into the park and out of it and down to my bike to go all over Brooklyn and Manhattan too, once I convince my mom.  I feel my stomach and liver and all that mushy stuff that’s in there handling food, happy to be back in use. But most of all I feel my brain, up there taking in blood and looking out on the world and noticing humor and light and smells and dogs and every other thing in the world–everything in my life all in my brain, really, so it would be natural that when my brain was screwed up, everything in my life would be.” (442-3).

“No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again” – On the Radio, Regina Spektor

 

Readalikes

Honestly? Will Grayson, Will Grayson. And not just because we just discussed it.

Otherwise I’m drawing a blank. Anyone have any good suggestions?

 

Disclosure/Digression

This is what Craig’s dog looks like: 

I don’t intend on seeing the movie adaptation of this. Normally I don’t care if the movie and the book are different, but nothing about any of the characters reminded me of Zach Galifianakis. As much as I love his other stuff. I don’t want him invading this book with his personality.

I got this book from the library, in ebook AND paper form

We Love! We are uncomfortable and we respect that!: Joint Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson Part 2

Rebecca!I was happy when you mentioned wanting to joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson (by John Green & David Levithan), not only because we are two people and Will Grayson and Will Grayson are two people, but because I remember loving the book so much. (Read R.’s original post here.)

image from the Will Grayson tumblr

 

Of course, the problem is that I tend to read things far too fast, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have any points to bring up about reading the book because it would be far in my foggy past (April of 2010).  The only thing I wrote about it on GoodReads was “John Green and David Levithan are so good at making the world seem full of potential goodness, while staying true to the suckiness of life. Every time I read one of their books my heart grows 3 sizes. It’s gotten to the point where I have a medical condition.”  Ha ha! Good one, me.

Luckily I have library access. So I plucked the book from its shelf and started reading it at lunch today. I KNOW, I know.  But within 14 pages I already had so much stuff to write about. But first I must say: don’t cry into your lemonade! If anything, cry onto your pretzel, because they are both salty.  And here’s a tip: whenever I don’t want to cry, I visualize frogs sitting in my immediate vicinity. Little frogs. Big hulking giant frogs.  It’s 80% effective at distracting me from sobbing, which is good, because once I get started it’s hard to stop.

don't cry, think about this frog from the Open Clip Art Library.

I digress. And so does WG–that’s one of the things that pulled me into the narrative, and I think it’s a key part of the WG2M.  For instance, WG starts off the book by quoting his dad’s aphorism: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose” and then on page 21 we get back to WG’s point of quoting that aphorism in the first place. To be fair, this could also just be foreshadowing.  But the way that WG narrates, it’s like clicking your way through tabs on a browser – you want to explore all the links, but it makes for a wonderfully digressive narrative.

Another thing about the WG2M, what I referred to in my Goodreads review as “staying true to the suckiness of life”, is also something that made, and makes, me uncomfortable about reading WG’s parts of the book.  He’s not that great of a friend.  On the first page he begins expounding on his two themes concerning Tiny Cooper – WG sees Tiny as primarily 1. Large and 2. Gay, and instead of just being accepting of Tiny Cooper, he brings it up all the time so he can reassure his audience that he’s accepting. He’s so accepting he can constantly joke about it!  This is my least favorite type of “friendly” behavior.  WG also mentions that he went so far as to defend Tiny’s right to be gay and play football in the school newspaper, so it’s clear that he’s not all superficially, insecurely okay with the large gayness of Tiny Cooper.  He goes on and on about how inconvenient it is to be friends with someone so tall and large and gay (are you sick of it yet? Imagine how Tiny feels) and how Tiny is not a friend he would choose.

However, if I remember correctly, Tiny calls him out on this behavior later in the book, and that’s another thing that I love about it. AAAAND, as the story progresses further, we see that Tiny is not the greatest friend sometimes, either. He’s very wrapped up in his crushes.  He’s wildly reactionary to every emotion that courses through him.  And a side effect of that is that all social interaction will revolve around Tiny Cooper, making it easier for WG to not seriously pursue any other friendships.

Whether I like their behavior or not, the fact is that within a couple pages, I’m totally involved in these people and they are real to me. It’s real behavior, it’s familiar to anyone who has had friends at any point in their lives, and it’s detailed without telling me all the details. It’s detailed in the right places.  It puts me at the lunch table with Tiny and WG and lets me figure it out, and then gives them senses of humor! WG is fond of these little asides at the end or slipped into the middle of his regular descriptions that crack me up:

“I say, ‘Mom this is a historical event. History doesn’t have a curfew,’ and she says, ‘Back by eleven,’ and I say, ‘Fine. Jesus,’ and then she has to go cut cancer out of someone.” (9).

wg has the talent of being humorously explanatorily exasperated:

“i do not say ‘good-bye.’ I believe hat’s one of the bullshitist words ever invented. it’s not like you’re given the choice to say ‘bad-bye’ or ‘awful-bye’ or ‘couldn’t-care-less-about-you-bye.’ every time you leave, it’s supposed to be a good one. well, i don’t believe in that. i believe against that.” (23).

To illustrate the flow of the book, I’ll give you a perfect Moment, convincingly written, an amalgam of digression and flow (which is why I have to quote all of it.):

photo of Chicago by flickr user anneh632

“Tiny Cooper lives in a mansion with the world’s richest parents. I don’t think either of his parents have jobs, but they are so disgustingly rich that Tiny Cooper doesn’t even live in the mansion; he lies in the mansion’s coach house, all by himself. He has three bedrooms in that motherfucker and a fridge that always has beer in it and his parents never bother him, and so we can sit there all day and play video game football and drink Miller Lite, except in point of fact Tiny hates video games and I hate drinking beer, so mostly all we ever do is play darts (he has a dartboard) and listen to music and talk and study. I’ve just started to say the T  in Tiny when he comes running out of his room, one black leather loafer on and the other in his hand, shouting, ‘Go, Grayson, go go.’

“And everything goes perfectly on the way there. Traffic’s not too bad on Sheridan, and I’m cornering the car like it’s the Indy 500, and we’re listening to my favorite NMH song, ‘Holland, 1945,’ and then onto Lake Shore Drive, the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the boulders by the Drive, the windows cracked to get the car to defrost, the dirty, bracing, cold air rushing in, and I love the way Chicago smells–Chicago is brackish lake water and soot and sweat and grease and I love it, and I love this song, and Tiny’s saying I love this song, and he’s got the visor down so he can muss up his hair a little more expertly.  That gets me to thinking that Neutral Milk Hotel is going to see me just as surely as I’m going to see them, so I give myself a once-over in the rearview.  My face seems too square and my eyes too big, like I’m perpetually surprised, but there’s nothing wrong with me that I can fix.” (9-10)

And I feel like I’ve already written too much (and all of it about WG and not wg) but I will mention that the 3rd element that makes me love the book and make it a 5 star book for me (remember our elements are 1. digression 2. realism about the suckiness of even friends) is the addition of People Creating Things.  There’s nothing more satisfying to read about than teenagers creating things–treehouses, forts, treehouse forts, conceptual art happenings, very detailed oil paintings, novels within novels… I say teenagers because I have less joy in reading about college professors struggling with creating things. That’s a separate genre.  Creation of a project is the crux of many a teen movie, except the person is usually a rag tag sports team and the Thing they are Creating is an Underdog Victory.But here the person is Tiny Cooper, and the thing is a musical.  You could also say that the Will Graysons are creating themselves in this book, coming out from under their wallflower/caustically depressed disguises to be in the world more authentically.  But more literally, it’s about a musical called Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story.

what can I say, I love the Open Clip Art Library.

Fake musicals are great excuses to be as silly as possible… IN RHYME, which is why Forgetting Sarah Marshall is such a great movie (although I’ve heard that the Dracula puppet musical is a real thing that Jason Segel wrote apart from the movie).  It also makes sense that, although the book is not about Tiny Cooper, Tiny Cooper is the glue of the book, and the most outsized example of someone trying to find where they fit in the world, which is a theme of the whole book anyway, so his musical is the plot device that ended up making my heart swell 3 sizes that day when I read the book.

That’s my non-critical, slapdash analysis of why I loved Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I look forward to re-reading it this week.

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