Story of a Girl – Sara Zarr

storyofagirlSara Zarr’s debut novel Story of a Girl kept me turning the pages far past my bedtime – a sure indicator of its quality. I read before bed and most nights I’m lucky if I manage a couple dozen pages, but last night I settled in early and once I started, I couldn’t stop.

Story of a Girl begins with sixteen-year-old Deanna Lambert’s admission that she “was thirteen when my dad caught me with Tommy Webber in the back of Tommy’s Buick, parked next to the old Chart House down in Montara at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night. Tommy was seventeen and the supposed friend of my brother, Darren. I didn’t love him. I’m not even sure I liked him.”

Deanna had been parking with Tommy for a year before she’s finally caught, but her dad’s discovery of her in a compromising position casts the reality of her life in a harsh light. Now her dad can barely look at her. And when the novel opens, at the end of sophomore year (that’s grade ten here in Canada), it’s clear that the story of her tryst with Tommy is still the topic du jour in her small hometown of Pacifica, a sea-side suburb of San Francisco. At least pretty much everyone at Deanna’s high school knows about it – or some version of it. The only people who don’t care are her two best friends: Jason, a boy she’s known forever and Lee, a girl who moved to Pacifica after the incident.

Story of a Girl takes place during the summer between sophomore and junior year. Deanna’s strained relationship with her dad causes her to daydream about leaving home and living with her older brother Darren, his girlfriend, Stacy and their infant daughter, April. Currently they live in the basement. Stacy and Deanna’s dad don’t get along. In fact, Deanna’s household is pretty dysfunctional and so Deanna quickly finds work at a local pizza dive…where, it turns out, Tommy also works.

What I loved about this book was how realistic it seemed. Everyone judges Deanna for a decision she made when she was thirteen, but it isn’t until she comes into contact with Tommy again that she figures out why she always went off with him. And forgiving him – and herself – also allows her to empathize with her father.

…I imagined us through his eyes – his family, sitting in a pink kitchen: his tired wife, who never complained; his son who looked exactly like him; his daughter, who used to be the baby, his baby girl; and now April, his grand-daughter, who had a whole life in front of her, with no real mistakes in it yet. Could he look at us someday, I wondered, maybe today, and not be disappointed? Could he see us, and himself, for who we really were?

Story of a Girl is a beautiful book because, although it is Deanna’s story, no one’s life is lived in isolation. This is a book about family – the family given to us by  biology and the family we choose. The path to adulthood is thorny and it’s good to have some people who are on your side.  There are no villains in this book. Even Tommy, douche that he is, is probably trying to fill in the gaps in his own life. The thing is, we carry our mistakes with us and as Deanna’s boss at the pizza place, Michael, tells her: “…don’t mistake a new place for a new you.”

Big love for this book.

With apologies to Adrian and Jon

If my younger self had gotten her act together, I might have found a place in the publishing business. Nothing gives me more pleasure than reading and anyone who knows me, knows that I am really critical about what I read – just ask me what I think of Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. Or visit my Book Graveyard

By day, I am a high school English teacher and I really and truly feel that the most important part of my job is to put students on a path towards a lifetime of reading. During the 2012-13 academic year I had an astounding grade ten class. These kids were amazing – smart and funny and hard-working – and a true joy to spend time with. They also, for the most part, loved to read. So we did read, a lot.

I have a pretty good-sized classroom library…and it’s getting bigger. I have already asked our Mill & Cab teacher if he could get his students to build me a bigger and better bookshelf in my room in the fall because I am outgrowing all the bookcases I’ve purchased and scavanged over the past few years. I love having all those books in my room because it shows students I am a serious reader. It also allows me to have real conversations about books and gives me the ability to put a book into a kid’s hands and say “Read this.”

So, when a student turns the tables and puts a book in my hands, I feel obliged to read that book. In this case, the book was called John Dies @ the End  by David Wong.

ea_johndiescover And I tried, guys; I really did. I got to page 142 and I just couldn’t go on.  In a nutshell, John Dies @ the End is a crazy hybrid of horror and comedy about two friends, Dave and John, who appear to be some sort of supernatural investigators (think Sam and Dean from Supernatural) who come into contact with this mind-altering drug called ‘soy sauce’. Wackiness ensues.

Sadly, the wackiness just wasn’t interesting to me.

According to Cracked.com (where David Wong, a pseudonym for Jason Pargin, was an editor), John and Dave “find out the world is being attacked by a Lovecraftian god named Korrok,  whose godhood has not saved him from being totally retarded. Dave must overcome  Korrok’s dark and invisible army, while overcoming his own personal demons. His  primary demon is the fact that he just doesn’t give a shit.”

John Dies @ the End had an interesting introduction to the world.  The novel “has been published in no less than four formats: as an online serial, then  through the print-on-demand service at CafePress, then via indie horror  publisher Permuted Press, and now by  huge megapublisher St. Martin’s.” It has also been made into a movie.

I can certainly see why the book would appeal to the two young men who recommended it to me. It’s over-the-top and ridiculous and, I suppose, creepy in parts. It’s like a cult film: Hobo With a Gun, say. Maybe if I had discovered this book 30 years ago, I would have enjoyed it more. But I doubt it.

So, this made me think about book recommendations. Something The Guardian also pondered in its article When book recommendations go wrong. I know how I feel when I fall in love with a book and want to share it and other readers aren’t quite as enamoured. It cuts like a knife, people.

Book Riot (an absolutely fabulous book-related site) had a great article about What To Do When Friends Give You a Book You Don’t Want to Read. I really felt obligated to read John Dies @ the End because how can I expect my students to accept my recommendations if I won’t accept theirs? The truth of the matter is that I have my own criteria for deciding whether or not I should keep on trucking through a book that doesn’t immediately grab me.

I considered what makes me give up on a book in 2012 in my post Books are like a relationship, sometimes you have to end it

At the end of the day – with so many books on my tbr shelf – I just had to break up with John Dies @ the End. I hope Adrian and Jon can forgive me.

What makes you give up on a book?

Never Fall Down – Patricia McCormick

neverfalldown Arn Chorn-Pond, the young narrator of Patricia McCormick’s novel Never Fall Down, finally escapes Cambodia and  makes it to the safety of Thailand sometime in the spring of 1979.  At the very same time, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I knew nothing of the Khmer Rouge and their violence – or if I did, I don’t remember. Reading Arn’s story has reminded me again of the priviledged life I’ve lead and of the absolute power of literature to crack open the insulated world in which we often live.

Arn is just eleven when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, and an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army, sweeps through Cambodia displacing people and separating families. Arn has lived a relatively happy life up until then. He says, “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere. Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.”

When the army blows through town, it’s exciting. Arn says, “…I think this is the most exciting thing to happen here. Real Americans coming. Real airplane.” But that excitement doesn’t last. Soon Arn, his aunt and his siblings (four sisters and one brother) are marching out of town with everyone else. And then the real horror begins.

And this book is horrific.

McCormick spent two years interviewing Arn and then  made the choice to tell his story as a novel because “like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can only tell in vague generalities.”  It’s no wonder his mind has decided to compartmentalize; the atrocities he’s witnessed are almost unbearable.

But Arn does bear them. He survives the separation from his family, the endless work in the rice fields, the starvation, illness, walking miles and miles through the heat. He makes himself indespensible by learning to play an instrument, but even that doesn’t save him from witnessing the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities against men, women and children.

And then, even more horrible, Arn suddenly finds himself with a gun in his hand, fighting with the very people who have held him captive for more than three years. Never Fall Down is a survival story because Arn surely does that.

McCormick makes the decision to tell this story in Arn’s distinctive sing-song voice and it’s a wise choice. We see everything though his eyes and he is a truthful and unflinching narrator.

One night the girl next to me at dinner, she dies. She dies just sitting there. No sound. Just no breathing anymore. All of us, we eat so fast, no one even see this girl. Very quick, I take her bowl of rice and keep eating.

I guess we can never really know what we’re capable of until we are put in the situation where our limits might be tested. Arn was a remarkable boy and he has turned into a remarkable man, a champion for humanitarian causes around the world and the winner of many international prizes. Never Fall Down is a must read book.

This video explains  what happened during that period.

I also highly recommend the movie, The Killing Fields.

Paper Covers Rock – Jenny Hubbard

paper-covers-rockJenny Hubbard, the author of Paper Covers Rock, was a high school and college English teacher for seventeen years and I am guessing she was a good one. Her debut novel is filled with  references to poetry and literature and how they make us have “the feels” and allow us to connect with the world etc.

Sixteen-year-old Alex Stromm attends Birch Academy, a boarding school in North Carolina. He is, by his own admission, a good solid kid. When the story opens, Alex is writing in a journal his father had given him to write his impressions in when he’d started at Birch two years previously. Although the book has remained blank, now has something to write about: his friend Thomas is dead. He writes:

What I carry in my backpack down to the river, I carry not knowing that in less than an hour Thomas Broughton will be dead. That is not a knowledge I carry yet, but I will carry it soon – the knowledge of my darkest self – and I will carry it forever.

The reader learns about what happened that fateful day when Alex, Thomas, Clay and Glenn were at the rock by the river in fits and starts. Alex’s feelings of grief and guilt are only part of what compels him to scribble in his journal. He is also in love with his English teacher, Miss Dovecott, a recent Princeton graduate who is only a few years older than the boys she teaches. When she takes an interest in Alex’s writing he becomes even more conflicted about what happened that day on the rock.

Sounds sinister, eh? It’s not really, but I have to say that I did keep turning the pages and read the book in one sitting. Alex’s feelings for Miss Dovecott are complicated by his feelings of loyalty for Glenn. (Clay has taken the blame and left school; I’ll leave you to discover the reason why on your own.) Turns out that just after Thomas drowned, drawn by the screams, Miss Dovecott arrived on the scene and Glenn is convinced that she knows more than she is letting on. Oh what a tangled web.

And I have to say, the writing is stellar. The poetry Alex writes is lovely and it’s easy to see why Miss Dovecott takes an interest in him. Ms. Hubbard captures the male voices beautifully (not as crass as they might be now because, after all, the story is set in 1982) and also manages to make Alex both sympathetic and self-serving on his journey to manhood.

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Jesse Andrews

earlThis book contains precisely zero Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts About Love, or sappy tear-jerking Moments When We Knew We Had Left Our Childhood Behind For Good, or whatever. And, unlike most books in which a girl gets cancer, there are definitely no sugary paradoxical single-sentence paragraphs that you’re supposed to think are deep because they’re in italics.

Meet Greg Gaines. He’s the seventeen-year-old narrator of Jesse Andrews’ debut novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  He lives with his parents, and two younger sisters in a Pittsburgh suburb. He’s a trash-talking, cynical, slacker who is just trying to make it through his final year of high school.

…you have to to start from the premise that high school sucks. Do you accept that premise? Of course you do. It is a universally acknowledged truth that high school sucks.

Greg goes through the days in a weird state of disconnect because he feels as though the only way to survive school is to stay on the periphery of all the various groups, rather than belonging to any one of them.  He says, “I didn’t join any group outright, you understand. But I got access to all of them.” Of course, that makes having real relationships slightly problematic.

Greg’s only friend is Earl; well, as Greg puts it, they are more like co-workers.   They’ve known each other since they were in kindergarten and discovered a shared love of movies. Since then they have made several films together.

So Greg goes through his days doing as little as possible, using his sense of humour to cover up the fact, I think, that he is insecure about his weight and his looks and his life (all totally relateable to anyone who has ever survived a difficult – or any –  high school  experience.) And then Rachel Kushner is re-introduced to his life.

Greg and Rachel had been sort-of friends when they were kids although Greg admits that he hadn’t been all that nice to her. Turns out Rachel has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mom calls in a favour – rally around Rachel.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not a cancer book, though. It is a profane, often funny and honest look at a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who doesn’t get it…and then does. Despite a great family, Greg is sort of closed off to the world. He doesn’t know how to have authentic relationships even though he is clearly capable of them. He spends his time with Rachel making lame jokes, trying to divert the focus away from Rachel’s illness –  not for her benefit, but for his own.

There is no way Greg is going to come away from spending time with “the dying girl” unscathed and he doesn’t. Mature readers won’t either.

I read this book as part of a program that lets teachers read books being considered for classrooms in New Brunswick. I do think this is a worthwhile and well-written book. My one caveat would be that there is a lot of swearing. A lot a lot. That said, as a high school teacher and a mom of teenagers I think we are fooling ourselves if we think kids don’t talk like this (not my kids, of course!). I think we do mature teens a disservice by leaving books like this off the shelf. I think some students will see themselves in Greg and Earl and it would be a shame not to give strong readers the opportunity to share time with them. I don’t believe in censorship anyway, but beyond that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has real merit.

 

 

 

Endangered – Eliot Schrefer

endangeredWhen my 14-year-old son saw that I was reading Eliot Schrefer’s novel Endangered he rolled his eyes and said, “Mom, our teacher tried to read us that book last year and no one liked it – not even her.” Connor is a voracious reader and we have often read and enjoyed the same books so I have to admit that I was skeptical as I started this book.

Fourteen-year-old Sophie is visiting her mother in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Her parents  are divorced and she has been living with her father in Miami since she was eight, but it’s the summer holidays and so she is visiting with her mom at the bonobo sanctuary her mother runs in Kinshasa. Bonobos are a member of the ape family and they are endangered. Bonobos, as it turns out, are our closest relatives, “sharing over 98.7 percent of our DNA.” Adult bonobos are often killed for food; babies are kidnapped and sold on the black market. It is just such an encounter that starts Sophie’s story.

The little ape sat down tiredly in the dirt and lowered his arms, wincing as his sore muscles relaxed. I kneeled and reached out to him. The bonobo glanced at his master before working up the energy to stand and toddle over to me. He leaned against my shin for a moment, then extended his arms to be picked up. I lifted him easily and he hugged himself to me, his fragile arms as light as a necklace.

Sophie’s mother is none-too-happy when her daughter arrives at the sanctuary with the bonobo. Not because Sophie rescued the bonobo, but because she didn’t follow the proper protocol and that could cause more trouble down the road. But Sophie has fallen in love with the little bonobo she names Otto and their relationship sustains them through the difficult times ahead.

In the beginning I found Endangered a little didactic. Admittedly, I knew nothing about bonobos and even less about the scary situation in the DRC, but the way the information was relayed to the reader – via Sophie – just didn’t feel organic. Thankfully, Schrefer didn’t spend a lot of time instructing us.  When the Congo’s president is assassinated and rebels flood into the area Sophie’s peaceful existence at the sanctuary crumbles.  That’s when things get really interesting.

Sophie is a remarkably resilient character. Despite the fact that she has been leading a relatively privileged life in the States for the past six years, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. As she and Otto travel through the jungle and up the Congo river to find her mother (who had left just before the coup to take some bonobos to an island release site), my heart was really racing. I mean, this war (despite being fictional) is based on decades of bloody conflict and although Schrefer stays away from the truly graphic, one only has to use their imagination to imagine the atrocities Sophie and Otto encounter on their way.

And don’t even get me started on the subject of Sophie’s bond with Otto. If even half of what transpires between them is true, bonobos are beyond remarkable; they’re us.

Con, honey, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of this book.

A-Z Book survey compliments of @brokeandbookish

It was the perfect day to think about books from A-Z, with thanks to Jamie who posted her own responses here

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Author you’ve read the most books from

Hmmm. Stephen King. I’ve read 13 novels and many, many short stories and his non-fic book On Writing. Reading King occupied much of my high school reading time, which is probably why the number is so high. I probably haven’t read a King novel in a decade, though. Back in hs I loved horror fiction and I loved the way he wrote. IT is my favourite novel by King and when one of my grade 10 students announced he’d never been scared by a book I handed him IT. He read it, loved it and, yep, was scared, too.

I have other authors I read voraciously: Thomas H. Cook, Helen Dunmore, Carolyn Slaughter, Helen Humphreys, Peter Straub are all authors I have read widely.

Best sequel ever

I loved The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness’s follow-up to The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Currently reading

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Drink of choice while reading

Tea. Or nothing. Depends on where I am reading.

E-reader or physical book

Physical books all the way, baby. eReaders do not appeal to me in the least.

Fictional character you probably would have actually dated in high school

Oh dear.  Joe Fontaine from Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.

Gale from The Hunger Games

I loved Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars

Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Need I go on?

Glad you gave this book a chance

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. It took me a bit to settle into the book, but once the fire caught there was no turning back and it ended up being one of my favourite books of that reading year. Same with Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Hidden gem book

I don’t think Lauren B Davis’s novel Our Daily Bread got nearly as much priase as it deserved. More people need to read this book.

Important moment in your reading life

Finishing Jane Eyre when I was 11 or 12 changed my life and freed me from Trixie Beldon and The Bobbsey Twins forever. (Not that I needed to be freed from those books; I LOVED those books.)

Just finished

Every Day by David Levithan

Kinds of books you won’t read

I’m not a huge fan of straight-up Sci Fi, although Ender’s Game is on my TBR shelf. The same would be true for other genres like Westerns or historical fic. But, never say never.

Longest book you’ve read

Probably IT – 1104 pages

Major book hangover because of

Hmmm. I’m not sure what this means. I’m going to assume that this means a book that you couldn’t shake, like the dry heaves. Most recently that would be The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire, which ended up in my Book Graveyard

Number of bookcases you own

Not enough.

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100_0366

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One book you have read multiple times

Velocity by Kristin McCloy. Never tire of it…and I’ve read it many times over the past 25 years.

Preferred place to read

In bed.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read

Recently – “Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” from Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls

Reading regret

That I really won’t have enough time to read all the books I want to. ::sigh::

Series you started and need to finish (all books are out)

The Hunger Games. I actually really liked The Hunger Games, I just didn’t read the next two immediately after finishing the first…and I should have.

Three of your all-time favorite books

A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett

Velocity – Kristin McCloy

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

(But to name just three is ridiculous.)

Unapologetic fangirl for

John Green. I have mad love for him. And that’s based on one book and his Crash Course YouTube series.

Very excited for this release more than all the others

I’d be very excited if Carolyn Slaughter released a new book.

Worst bookish habit

Buying more books than I can possible read. (The books on the white shelf with the clock on the top are my TBR books, plus I have a pile beside my bed.)

X Marks the spot: the 27th book of my shelf

A Recipe for Bees – Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Your Latest Book Purchase

The last book I purchased was The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

ZZZ-snatcher book (latest book that kept you up way late)

The last book that really kept me reading way past my bedtime was The Fault in Our Stars

Every Day – David Levithan

16BLEVITHANWhat if every day you woke up in someone else’s body? You are you, but also them; you have access to their memories, but also retain your own. This is A’s predicament in David Levithan’s clever and emotionally resonant YA novel, Every Day.

I don’t know how this works. Or why. I stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago. I’m never going to figure it out, any more than a normal person will figure out his or her own existance. After a while, you have to be at peace with the fact that you simply are. There is no way to know why.

Dispensing with the prickly question of how this works (or doesn’t) early on, Levithan dumps the reader into A’s life on Day 5994. He is 16.  Today he is in Justin’s body.  Justin’s not a particularly likeable guy and A figures that out pretty quickly. He admits: “I know I am not going to like today.”

A’s ability to access information from each person he inhabits allows him to live each day with relative ease, plus he always has an escape hatch because he knows that he will wake up as someone else the next day. Even if he wakes up in the body of an idiot, he knows it’s not forever.  Justin is a bit of an idiot and that wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for Rhiannon. She’s Justin’s girlfriend.

…there’s something about her – the cities on her shoes, the flash of bravery, the unnecessary sadness – that makes me want to know what the word will be when it stops being a sound. I have spent years meeting people without ever knowing them, and on this morning, in this place, with this girl, I feel the faintest pull of wanting to know. And in a moment of either weakness or bravery on my own part, I decide to follow it. I decide to find out more.

Thus begins A’s relationship with Rhiannon. And as you might imagine, there’s nothing typical about it. There’s nothing typical about Every Day period.

A has spent his entire existence trying to keep himself separate from the person whose body he inhabits. His feelings for Rhiannon complicate his life in ways too numerous to mention; suffice it to say that every day becomes a challenge to see her, but first he somehow has to convince her of the truth of his strange reality.

In one sense, Every Day works as a terrific page-turner: will A and Rhiannon find a way to be together despite their terrific obstacles? After all one day A could be in the body of a hunky football player and the next he could be an overweight teenage girl. Will Rhiannon love him back despite his outward appearance? What is love anyway?

But I think this novel also works hard to be something more and in that way I think it will probably speak to teenagers everywhere. It allows us to inhabit the bodies of confident, beautiful teens and also depressed teens who wish themselves harm. We hang with straight teens and gay teens, teens with parents who smother them and parents who trust them. Each scenario allows Levithan the opportunity to show the reader his tremendous capacity for empathy. And it also allows us to see A  – despite his lack of corpreal form – as the embodiment of what it means to be human.

Blood – Patricia Traxler

BloodNorrie Blume, the protagonist of Patricia Traxler’s debut novel, Blood, is a thirty-five-year-old painter who has taken a leave of absence from her job as a graphic artist to focus on her art. To do that, she has accepted a Larkin fellowship at Radcliffe in Boston and has moved into one of the residences. It is there that she meets two other Larkin fellows, Clara, a journalist from Chile and Devi, a poet from London. Norrie doesn’t make friends easily and she is used to a certain degree of isolation – partly because of her vocation and partly because of her relationship with Michael Sullivan, a best-selling novelist who just happens to be married. It’s not like they can hang out in public. Nevertheless, she likes Devi immediately and sees all Clara’s character flaws just as quickly.

I have mixed feelings about Blood. Generally speaking, I liked it. The writing was decent and the story moved along. My problem had to do with a certain degree of uneveness.

Norrie tells the reader, “Though it’s true there’s a killing in my story, its principal violence is, I think I’d have to say, the violence of love.”

True enough: Norrie and Michael can’t keep their hands off each other and in one respect, Blood is a relatively explicit examination of infidelity. Of course, while  there’s no real honour in adultery, Michael does genuinely seem to love Norrie and wants a future with her. On the other hand, he can’t quite seem to get his shit together enough to leave his wife of 25 years. And why should he when he can have his cake and eat it, too.

Much of Blood is given over to the push/pull of Norrie’s top-secret relationship with Michael (no one, not even her best friend Liz, knows about him even though they’ve been together for two years.) And that might have been quite enough for one novel, but Traxler also delves into the mysterious world of female relationships and that’s where Clara and Devi come in.

Clara is clearly passive-aggressive and Norrie alternates between feeling sorry for and irritated by her. When she meets Devi, however, her feelings are immediately of the warm and fuzzy variety. This strangely dysfunctional threesome makes up the other third of the novel’s narrative. It’s also what, apparently, drives the book’s suspense – not to say that I didn’t turn the pages, but towards the end it did get a little, um, silly.

Not content with all those relationships, Traxler also dips a brush into the whole world of creativity. Traxler herself is an award-winning poet and so she likely knows a thing or two about the creative process, I’m just not sure that as it was written here is added any value to this story.

I guess that’s why when I came to the end of Blood I couldn’t really say I loved the book. I might have liked it a whole lot better if it had been about just Norrie and Michael, or just Norrie and Clara and Devi or even just about Norrie and her struggles to create art. As it was, the canvas was just a little too crowded for me.