Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds

long-way-down_1_origIt’s hard to wrap my head around gun violence as it exists in the U.S. My dad had a couple hunting rifles when I was a kid, but I don’t recall ever seeing them. No one I know has a gun in their bedside drawer…just in case. When I wrote a review for This Is Where It Ends a few months back, I tracked down some  stats about school shootings in Canada versus the U.S. and the disparity between our two countries is staggering.

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds addresses the issue of gun violence in his novel Long Way Down. Written in verse, the novel follows the aftermath of a shooting in which the narrator, 15-year-old Will, struggles to come to terms with the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn.

“The Sadness/is just so hard/to explain,” Will tells us. “Imagine waking up/ and someone,/ a stranger,/ got you strapped down,/ got pliers shoved/ into your mouth,/ gripping a tooth/…and rips it out./ But the worst part,/ the absolute worst part,/ is the constant slipping/ of your tongue/ into the new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.”

Will has clearly grown up in a neighbourhood where gun violence is a way of life. When they hear a gun everyone “Did what we’ve all/ been trained to do.”  And after the shooting, there are yet more rules to follow: 1. No crying. 2. No snitching. 3. Get revenge.

That’s what Will is after and he knows where Shawn keeps his gun. He thinks he knows who shot his brother, too, and he is headed there when something astonishing happens.

“…I’m telling you,/ this story is true./ It happened to me./ Really.”

Will gets onto the elevator in his apartment building, and the elevator stops at every floor on the way down. At each stop,  Will is joined by a ghost, someone connected to him, someone whose life was also ended by a bullet. As the elevator descends, each spirit shares their story, compelling stories of lives cut short, accidental deaths, and the horrific consequences of choices made.

Just because I have no experience with guns, doesn’t mean I am not affected by gun violence. I am about as anti-gun as a person can be, but Reynolds’ novel goes far beyond that. It’s a philosophical book about the deep roots of violence, the tentacles (sorry, I am mixing my metaphors here) of which reach out into the community in ways that are probably impossible for a white middle-aged mom in Canada to understand.  All I know is that when I finished reading Long Way Down  I felt hollowed out.

Complacency is not an option. Reynolds’ novel should be required reading for everyone.

The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani

nannyLeila Slimani’s novel The Perfect Nanny was one of The New York Times  Top 10 books of 2018. Hmmm. It was also the winner of the Goncourt Prize. (Yeah, I’d never heard of that one, either, but apparently it’s “a prize in French literature, given by the académie Goncourt to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. Wikipedia) To me, I thought it was going to be a quick little thriller with a pedigree that was perhaps a cut above. Because go into any bookstore these days and there are about a zillion thrillers out there. How are you supposed to know what’s good?

I’ll save you the trouble: not The Perfect Nanny.

Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, and Paul, her husband who is a music producer,  need someone to look after their two small children, Mila and Adam. They live in a small apartment in Paris and Myriam has recently decided to go back to work. They interview a few potential nannies, and then they meet Louise.

She must have magical powers to have transformed this stifling, cramped apartment into a calm, light-filled place. Louise has pushed back the walls. She has made the cupboards deeper, the drawers wider. She has let the sun in.

To Myriam, Louise is “a miracle worker.” Not only does she transform their living space, she “sews buttons back on to jackets…hems skirts…washes curtains…changes sheets…she is like Mary Poppins.”

She works her magic with the children, too and “When Myriam gets back from work in the evenings, she finds dinner ready. The children are calm and clean, not a hair out of place.”

But of course, not all is as perfect as it seems and we know that from The Perfect Nanny‘s opening line “The baby is dead.”

Slimani weaves Louise’s backstory throughout the novel, snippets of information about her dead husband, the horrible Jacques, her MIA daughter, Stephanie, other homes and families she has worked with. Simmering just below the surface, Louise is fragile. It seems she has buried all her own needs in service to others. She lives in a shithole; she has no friends; she has no money. Without someone else to look over, Louise is a non-person.

The Perfect Nanny has been compared to  Gone Girl  but I don’t think it’s an apt comparison. This book is a slow-moving, naval-gazing look at motherhood and surrogacy. It’s about how we treat people in subservient positions, about privilege. Yes, that opening line might make you think you’re about to read a thriller, but there’s never any question of whodunit and so all that remains is the why. At the end of the day, I didn’t care about any of these characters, so the why hardly mattered.

 

 

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour’s award-winning YA novel We Are Okay, is a lyrical and moving look at the weareoknature of grief. This is a quiet novel, and so I would caution readers not to expect histrionics or very much action. Instead, LaCour focuses on the protagonist’s interior life, which has been altered by loss.

Eighteen-year-old Marin is attending school on the East Coast, far away from her hometown, San Francisco. It’s Christmas, and everyone has left the dorm except Marin, who has no place to go. Her roommate, Hannah, is clearly worried about her and Marin knows

why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway to weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in – a stunned and feral stranger – and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Marin is anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Mabel.  She knows “Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not.” The idea fills Marin with a sort of dread, even though she knows she should be happy.  She hasn’t communicated with Mabel in months though, and has, in fact, ignored all of Mabel’s attempts to make contact. She thinks she can fool Mabel into thinking that everything is okay but

Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them.

There will be no way to fool her.

Nothing much happens in We Are Okay, but that’s just plot, anyway. The story toggles between Marin’s reunion with Mabel and the story of their friendship back in California. We also learn that Marin has been raised by her grandfather, a fierce but tender man, who has a few secrets of his own. Her grandfather’s death clearly accounts for some of Marin’s sadness, but flashback’s reveal that Mabel is also central to Marin’s story.

There is a lovely, melancholy cadence in LaCour’s book. It’s poetic without being showy and the nature of Marin’s grief is unspooled in a way that will keep readers turning the pages. I guess that’s what prevents We Are Okay from being all doom and gloom. Yes, Marin is sad, but she’s trying to come to terms with her derailed life. She finds small ways to tether herself to the world, a pair of pottery bowls, the “perfect shade of yellow” for instance.

This is a thoughtful, lovely and moving novel and I highly recommend it.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood & Renee Nault

I probably shouldn’t admit this, being both a Canadian and an English teacher, but I have handmaidbestnever read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I haven’t watched the series, either. I know, I know. I figured that I could rectify that by reading Renee Nault’s stunning graphic novel of Atwood’s book.

First published in 1985, Atwood’s novel explores a dystopian America. Atwood imagines a totalitarian state where women are commodities without their own names or lives. Some women are sexual servants, that is if they are of the age to bear children. Their names reflect the men they serve, so the book’s narrator is Offred or “of Fred”. In another life, Offred was married, had a daughter, but the family was separated when they tried to escape to Canada. The novel won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Booker.

In many ways, Atwood’s novel was prescient. Flash forward almost 35 years and reflect on what is currently happening in the States (and around the world) and The Handmaid’s Tale  should make your skin crawl.

Nault’s beautiful drawings highlight the horrific lives lived by these handmaids.

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They dress in red “the colour of blood, which defines us.” Their hats prevent “keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.”Offred reveals her defiance to her situation early on claiming that “I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour.” Friendships are discouraged between the handmaids. Their only job is to be an incubator.

It’s easy to see why Atwood’s novel was ground-breaking when it was first published. It’s difficult to read it even now. Nault’s adaptation should introduce a whole new generation of readers to Atwood’s acclaimed novel. I might just go read the original now.

They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

theybothdieIn a not-too-distant future universe- or I don’t know, maybe it’s way in the distance – Mateo Torrez gets the call everyone dreads:

…I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. And while there isn’t anything we can do to suspend that, you still have a chance to live.

Mateo is only seventeen and he certainly doesn’t want to die.

Neither does eighteen-year-old Rufus Emeterio. He gets the call as he’s beating the snot out of Peck, his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

Death-Cast makes the call, but they can’t tell you anything more than sometime in the next twenty-four hours your number is up. That’s the premise of Adam Silvera’s philosophically astute and heart-breaking YA novel, They Both Die at the End.

Mateo and Rufus came from vastly different worlds. Mateo is introverted and lives his life from the safety of his apartment. His father in in the hospital in a coma; his best friend, Lidia and her infant daughter, Penny, are his closest friends. Rufus lives in a group home. His family had received the Death-Cast call and perished. He has a new family, now, a rag-tag group of foster kids and the foster parents who love them. Despite the fact that he was beating someone up when we meet him, he is a sweet and thoughtful kid.

Mateo and Rufus meet via the Last Friend App, an app “designed for lonely Deckers and for any good soul who wants to keep a Decker company in their final hours.” (Decker meaning those on deck to die). Although the boys come from vastly different worlds, their one night together opens them up to life’s possibilities in ways neither could have imagined.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Mot people exist, that’s all.” Oscar Wilde

That’s the quote that opens this much-lauded novel. It’s so true, isn’t it? We hide behind our phones, we curate our lives for social media (just look at pictures of people at concerts; everyone is holding up a phone to video the performance rather than enjoying it in the moment.) We collect stuff, not memories. We don’t really talk to each other anymore. With the specter of the end hanging over their heads, Mateo and Rufus spend the day criss-crossing NYC, having meaningful moments with their loved ones and moments of introspection with themselves.

Thornton Wilder warned audiences back in the 1930s that life was “too wonderful for anybody to realize.” In his play, Our Town, Emily asks the Stage Manager if “any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute.” I think Mateo and Rufus would have appreciated Wilder’s sentiment.

I truly fell in love with these characters, and I kept thinking “surely they’re not going to die” but the book’s title is not misleading. Silvera’s novel is outstanding and I highly recommend it.

Skim – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

I am surrounded by teenagers every day and their world seems difficult to me, more200px-skim_bookcover difficult than I remember my adolescence. There was no social media back then. We hung out, gathering at someone’s house on Friday night to play Trivial Pursuits and drink Pop Shoppe soda. We had dances where you’d just pray not to be asked to slow dance with some geeky guy, especially for the last dance, which was always “Stairway to Heaven” – longest song on the planet. My locker was covered with pictures of Robby Benson. The drama happened in the girls’ bathroom and the bullying happened in person. We talked for hours on the phone…which was in the kitchen, so your end of the conversation could be heard by pesky brothers and eavesdropping moms.

It’s always interesting to read about young people because even though I feel so far removed from those years (my 40th high school reunion happens this summer!), their lives are fascinating to me. A really good YA novel can capture the essence of what it is to be young and send me spinning back to my own fraught teenage years.

Skim, the award-winning graphic novel by the cousin team of Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator), unspools the life of sixteen-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron aka Skim as she navigates friendships, crushes, school, suicide and depression. Like with their graphic novel This One Summer, the Tamakis zero in on what it is to be young and to cope with all the shit life often throws at you.

Skim’s parents are divorced. She’s interested in wicca and tarot cards and her English and drama teacher, Mrs. Archer, who is “always saying weird stuff like – I’m telling you girls. You might think different, but chocolate is better than sex.” Skim relates to Mrs. Archer because she considers herself a bit of a freak, too.

The simple black and white illustrations capture the essence of high school life; the constant navigating and negotiating that comes with being a young person. Skim is thoughtful and fragile, but there is a toughness to her that allows the reader to believe that she will survive.

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You couldn’t pay me money to be a teenager. All those hormones. All that heartache. Still, there is something about this period in your life that is pretty amazing. All that potential. All those feelings so close to the surface. Skim manages to capture that beautifully and Skim’s story will resonate with anyone…well, anyone. Because we were all young once and if you are young now – then at least part of Skim’s story is your story, too.

My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent

Gabriel Tallent’s debut (DEBUT!) novel, My Absolute Darling, is going to be difficult tomyabsolutedarling write about – not only because the subject matter is contentious, but because I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to express just how truly astounding this novel is. (I guess he gets the extra ‘l’ in his last name because when they were handing out talent, he got more than his share. Seriously.)

Julia (though everyone calls her Turtle) Alveston is fourteen. She lives with her father, Martin, in Northern California. Her mother is dead. Although her father sometimes works as a carpenter, the two of them are isolated and live pretty much off-the-grid. The only other adult in her life is her grandfather, Martin’s dad, who lives in a trailer on their property. Turtle goes to school, but she is friendless; she is more comfortable roaming the woods and shooting guns, than she is talking to kids her own age.

Turtle’s relationship with Martin is complicated. Martin is an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. But he is also a seriously damaged man and it won’t take long for readers to see that the relationship between father and daughter is, among other things, abusive. But then, even that doesn’t adequately explain things.

After a meeting at school, where Turtle’s teacher expresses concern with her progress, Martin says “Is this the sum of your ambition? To be an illiterate little slit?”

His meaning comes to her all at once like something lodged up in a can glopping free. She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself.

There is always simmering violence in Turtle’s home, a house tellingly “overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.” There are guns and knives inside, both of which Turtle knows how to use with startling proficiency.  Martin is a survivalist who fervently believes that “Humanity is killing itself – slowly, ruinously, collectively shitting in its bathwater….”

Turtle has learned to read her father, to anticipate what’s coming. It’s hard – very hard – to watch her negotiate with herself, or justify Martin’s abuse, particularly the sexual abuse. Tallent wisely chooses a limited third person point of view to tell Turtle’s story; I don’t know how readers could bear it otherwise.

She thinks, do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curving bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says, “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

When Turtle meets Jacob and Brett, her world starts to crack open a little bit, but it’s not until Martin arrives home, after a protracted absence, with ten-year-old Cayenne in tow, that Turtle starts to reconsider her life. She knows she has to “really goddamn look at it without lying….”

Tallent said in a 2017 interview for Mashable that ” “…good books ask us to be courageous readers.” I think he’s right, of course, but I don’t think everyone will be able to stomach the violence in My Absolute Darling. That said,  this book is worth the effort.

First of all, Tallent’s a gifted writer. His descriptions of the natural world – almost a character in and of itself – are masterful. This is Turtle’s domain and it’s important. She can survive in the wild, and those survival instincts serve her well. Secondly, Turtle is a character you will not soon – if ever –  forget. She is tough because she has to be, but there is a tenderness about her, too. Her friendship with Jacob is unexpected and impossible, but also essential because it gives Turtle a glimpse into a normal world that has been denied to her. Finally, Martin is not a one-note villain. Although my feelings about him didn’t really waver, I still found some sympathy in my heart for him. That’s a tribute to Tallent because, mostly, Martin is a narcissistic monster. I believe Martin loves Turtle, but in a twisted, possessive, controlling way.

I highly recommend this book, although I understand that it won’t be palatable for many readers. It was on my short list as a potential selection for my book club, but I knew – even before I read it – that most of the women in my group would have a very difficult time with its subject matter. After reading it, I can say with certainty that I was right: they would have hated it. But I would argue that it’s compelling, intelligent and  worthy of the copious praise it has received.

Highly recommended.