It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (brainchild of Sheila at BookJourney). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.
Last Week’s Review and Miscellany Posts
We’re also inviting everyone to join our Award Winning Books Reading Challenge for 2015 (#AWBRead2015)! It’s that time of the year to set new reading goals for the coming year.
Here is the sign up page and the March-April Linky if you already have reviews up. One randomly-selected participant would receive a copy of A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond, courtesy of Pansing books.
Click here to view my announcement post for more details.
While we have already featured quite a number of elderly people, we still have not covered the ‘young and fleeting’ part of our reading theme that adequately, except for a few titles here and there. And so here is my minor attempt to make up for that somehow by featuring two outstanding contemporary YA fiction titles.
The Sky Is Everywhere
Written by: Jandy Nelson
Published by: Walker Books, 2010
Review Copy provided by Pansing Books. Book photos taken by me.
I fell in love with the book cover (check out the blue-covered lining in the actual pages), which apparently was just released in 2015 designed by Sophie Heywood. And if the post-its are any indication, I was also immensely moved by the story.
Lennie’s older sister, Bailey, has just died. To cope with her grief, Lennie has taken to leaving scraps of poetry around town in whatever available surface she can find: from wooden benches, barks of trees, to coffee cups, candy wrappers, and discarded receipts (see below).
I think it was really this idea of shedding pain in verse that got me. While the narrative is written in prose, the chapters are marked by these lines of free verse scattered around town.
I also liked how the other side of bereavement is captured here in an unflinching manner – how emotions are magnified, sometimes embarassingly so; and how one’s entire world can suddenly be transformed into a startlingly vivid shade in contrast to the grey, dull pain of loss. While before, Lennie was simply content to play second fiddle to her animated older sister and comfortable in playing a mere second chair in clarinet in the school band, her sister’s death shook her out of her staid existence. Lennie describes the change within her in this manner:
As I reach my hands out and press my fingers into the loamy soil, I start wondering what I’d be doing right now, what I’d be feeling right this minute if Bailey were still alive. I realize something that scares me: I’d be happy, but in a mild kind of way, nothing demented about it. I’d be turtling along, like I always turtled, huddled in my shell, safe and sound.
But what if I’m a shell-less turtle now, demented and devastated in equal measure, an unfreakingbelievable mess of a girl, who wants to turn the air into colors with her clarinet, and what if somewhere inside I prefer this? What if as much as I fear having death as a shadow, I’m beginning to like how it quickens the pulse, not only mine, but the pulse of the whole world. (pp. 162-163)
There is also the guilt that comes from simply being alive, such that anything that brings any measure of happiness is met with equal parts remorse:
I don’t believe time heals. I don’t want it to. If I heal, doesn’t that mean I’ve accepted the world without her? (p. 190)
I also like the pivotal role that music plays in this story:
These realizations are wrapped around the usual teenage romance (yes, there is the formulaic love-triangle here, but quite skilfully done, I thought) and inappropriate thoughts intruding into Lennie’s consciousness, despite her best intentions. All this is part of being painfully and beautifully alive. Lennie is flawed here, hurting, and prone to making the wrong choices.
The reader can see her spiraling downwards into a teenage love-tragedy that she would eventually bring upon herself – the question here, really, for the YA-savvy reader is how Lennie would redeem herself – and that is what turned the story around for me. Add the fact that I was absolutely smitten with the gorgeous new boy in town: Joe Fontaine, half-French, immensely talented and everything that a book-guy usually is – perfection personified.
Over and above the handsome boys in this story, I was also particularly taken with Lennie’s grandmother (plus the fact that we also have a grey and golden theme alongside the young and fleeting). Lennie’s hippie, artist Gram raised her and Bailey when their explorer mother upped and left, overtaken by their family’s infamous wandering gene.
Gram is the town of Clover’s Garden Guru. She has the most extraordinary flower garden in Northern California. Her roses burst with more color than a year of sunsets, and their fragrance is so intoxicating that town lore claims breathing in their scent can cause you to fall in love on the spot. (p. 10)
The story also made use of intertextual elements, with the frequent mention of Wuthering Heights. I think it’s about time that I re-read that Bronte classic.
This novel surprised me in its depth and fearless depiction of pain and beauty. While others may find it over-done in some parts, I thought that it was the capacity to welcome both the dark and light with equal abandon that made me gravitate towards the story. This, and poetry.
All The Bright Places
Written by: Jennifer Niven
Published by: Penguin Books, 2015
Book gift from a friend.
The first few pages set the tone for the entire novel. Two young people, both hurting, asking themselves whether today is a good day to die while standing on a narrow ledge six stories above the ground in their high school’s bell tower.
Theodore Finch suffers from episodes of Asleep and Awake – in some moments he is flying high as a kite and at other times, burrowing in his own closet, emptied out of all sensation. His parents have just recently divorced and his father is described to be physically and emotionally abusive while his mother is emotionally absent, too wrapped up in her own disenchantment about life to pay any attention to Finch and his sisters.
Violet Markey hangs out with the popular crowd, has a picture-perfect golden boyfriend, and has caring and involved parents. And like Lennie in the story above, Violet’s older sister Eleanor just died from a car accident leaving her sole passenger, Violet, alive and stricken with survivor’s guilt, unable to derive meaning out of anything since as she pointed out: “It’s all just time filler until we die.” (p. 61)
It was in that ledge that Violet and Finch’s story begins. As a clinician, I became acutely aware of the symptoms that Finch displays: his mania, his seemingly-inexhaustible energy, and the way that he punches through life with total disregard of how people would perceive him, wearing the badge Theodore Freak like a shield; and how spent and hollow he would feel right after – drained of any color and meaning. I turned into a teenager all over again as Finch wooed the reticent Violet, peeled away her pretensions, and pointed out her fears in such a matter-of-fact fashion that Violet has no choice but to deal with them head-on. As Finch noted:
“Everyone around you is going to give you a gentle push now and then, but never hard enough because they don’t want to upset Poor Violet. You need shoving, not pushing. You need to jump back on that camel. Otherwise you’re going to stay up on the ledge you’ve made for yourself.” (p. 126)
Similar to The Sky Is Everywhere, this novel also explores intertextuality with Virginia Woolf prefiguring this time around. Heathcliff was also mentioned, but it was really all the Woolf quotes that got me and the random suicide factoids that Finch seems to have internalized. Finch also adamantly stated that he is in search of the Great Manifesto:
“It means ‘the urge to be, to count for something, and, if death must come, to die valiantly, with acclamation – in short, to remain a memory.'” (p. 139)
The inner teenage girl in me melted into young puddles as quintessential brilliant-but-a-little-bit-disturbed Finch hands Violet a basket of spring in winter, and prepares that star-lit meal that simply unraveled me. Sometimes, a surreal, otherworldly meal prepared across universes is all that can and will remain when the words fade, revealing nothing but echoes of good intentions.
Not since Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe have I cried so much over a book. Even until the very end, I was hoping for a different outcome, even as I knew in my heart where the story had to go. All I know is that I live for these kinds of narratives: gripping, authentic, and unafraid in its raw and breathing vulnerability. I hope that the story of Violet and Finch inspires and finds young people who are in need of hope, faith, and the quest for the Great Manifesto.
Still making slow progress with the following books:
Neil Gaiman’s The Kindly Ones, the 9th book in the Sandman series.
Dan Brown’s Inferno.