The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys won Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize. (He also won for The nickelUnderground Railway in 2017.) And now I pause because I am afraid of this review.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I generally don’t have any trouble sharing my feelings about books, but I am nervous about this one. Why? Is it because it won the Pulitzer. No. I had no trouble talking about Olive Kitteridge or The Goldfinch. Or is it because it speaks very specifically about an experience that I can never truly understand as a white, middle-aged woman living in Canada? Um, no. I have no personal experience with the horrors of concentration camps (Lilac Girls) or  dealing with the supernatural (any Stephen King book ever).

I started reading, and I kept thinking, what if I don’t love it, what if I just think it’s okay, will people accuse me of being racist? But here’s the thing that my very smart newly adult children have taught me: I probably am racist in all sorts of little ways that I don’t even realize, ways that come from being born into the white middle class. Sure, as a woman, I have my own row to hoe, but my experiences as I’ve gone through this life have been mostly positive. Now comes the question of how those experiences inform my reading of Whitehead’s novel.

The Nickel Boys  is inspired by a real place, the Dozier School for Boys located in Marianna, Florida. The reform  school operated from 1900 until 2011, despite being investigated for allegations of abuse many times during its 111-year history. There are many excellent articles about the school online, including this one  published in The Washington Post in 2019.

In Whitehead’s fictionalized account, Elwood Curtis, a bright, scholarly young man ends up at the Nickel Academy because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elwood is an idealist. He believes in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose words are sprinkled throughout the novel.) Elwood is going to change the world and the first step is getting an education. His life is upended when he is sent to Nickel and at first he is optimistic.

He got a look at the school and thought maybe Franklin was right – Nickel wasn’t that bad. He expected tall stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two – and three-story buildings of red brick. The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest looking property Elwood had ever seen – a real school, a good one, not the forbidding reformatory he’d conjured the last few weeks.

Of course, Elwood’s optimism is misplaced. Nickel is a horror-show and it doesn’t take long for Elwood to find himself the target of abuse. It would be almost impossible for any reader not to read this book without a knot of dread in their stomach. And I did care about Elwood, but I also found that there was an element of didacticism in this novel which prevented me from wholly investing in Elwood’s awful journey.

I need the lesson. I need ALL the lessons because of my privileged position. I am becoming more and more aware of my blind spots and I think literature is a wonderful way for me to have experiences which are far removed from my own. I think of Angie Thomas’s YA novel The Hate U Give which made me think all sorts of thinky thoughts and also moved me to tears. I was wholly invested in Starr’s journey because it forced me to look at myself and also gave me a window into a life which is very much not my own.

I want to be a more thoughtful person, a more woke individual. It’s my duty as an educator and as a human being. I look to stories to help me on my journey, to help me see around those blind corners I know I have. I am not saying The Nickel Boys  will not have a part to play. Three times as many black boys died at Dozier compared to white boys (Smithsonian Magazine) and you only need to look at what’s happening in the world to know that people of colour are mistreated in ways that are, frankly, shocking. We need to do better. If Whitehead’s novel helps push us forward because we read it and  start to understand the inequity that exists, then that’s a win.

But as a piece of ‘fiction’ I guess it was just okay for me. It seemed as though the book was more interested in telling the story rather than Elwood’s  story and maybe that was a deliberate choice. As a reader, though, I needed an emotional centre and although there is a little twist that I didn’t see coming, I finished the book feeling rather underwhelmed.

 

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

shoppingbuzz1I don’t know how much readers actually care about the awards books win, but Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer in 2009 and the book has been languishing on my tbr shelf since about then. It was June’s #bookspin choice on Litsy and I just managed to get it finished. Well, I shouldn’t say “managed” – that sounds like it was a book I had to force myself to read and it most certainly was not.

Truthfully, though, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the titular character or the novel’s structure when I first started reading. The novel is written as a collection of short stories in which Olive Kitteridge often figures only peripherally. In the first story “Pharmacy” we meet her husband, Henry, a kind and patient man who owns the pharmacy of the title. He seems quite capable of managing Olive’s prickly personality.  When he suggests they invite his new employee Denise to dinner Olive responds that she is “Not keen on it.”

Olive’s relationship with her son, Christopher, is also strained.  She loves him, but she is not, it seems, a mother given to the warm fuzzies. When adult Christopher, a podiatrist, marries Suzanne, Olive fights “the sensation of moving underwater – a panicky, dismal feeling…”. When she overhears Suzanne making unkind remarks about her, she exacts a small revenge.

…there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can’t occasionally take a little of this, a little of that – just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give her a little burst. Because Christopher doesn’t need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything.

Olive comes across as rigid and unsympathetic. As a former school teacher she was feared. One of her former students, whom we meet in the story “Incoming Tide”  says that “He’d been scared of her, even while liking her.” It turns out, though, that our initial assessment of Mrs. Kitteridge couldn’t be further from the truth. The humanity bursts out of her in ways that are, quite frankly, breathtaking.

In “Starving” a chance encounter with a young girl suffering from anorexia shows us one of the first cracks in Olive’s steely exterior.

Olive Kitteridge was crying. If there was anyone in town Harmon believed he would never see cry, Olive was that person. But there she sat, large and big-wristed, her mouth quivering, tears coming from her eyes. She shook her head slightly, as though the girl needn’t apologize.

[…]

Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina, and said quietly, “I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.”

This is just one instance of Olive demonstrating a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy. There are many more in this novel, and the cumulative effect of all these elliptical moments in a life is stunning. Each story is perfection and each character is fully realized. There are moments of tragedy and hope, of humour and despair; that is, there all the moments that make up a life.

Although I am sorry that I waited so long to read this novel, I am also thrilled that I got to discover it for the first time. I loved it and highly recommend it.

And We Stay – Jenny Hubbard

Sixteen-year-old Emily Beam, the protagonist in Jenny Hubbard’s YA novel And We Stay,  has been whisked away from her home town to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. It’s midway through Emily’s junior year, an odd time for a student to be starting at The Amherst School for Girls.  Emily just wants to be left alone, though, and she keeps her head down and her cards close to her chest.  It’s clear that she’s suffered some sort of trauma and her parents have decided she will not be returning to her old school to “deal with the whispers and stares and, of course, the memories.”

andwestay

Emily settles into life at Amherst as best she can. Her roommate, K.T. is friendly and not too nosey and that’s good because Emily isn’t willing to talk about her life. The most she is willing to divulge is that she’s come from Boston – which isn’t exactly true.

Although she doesn’t want to talk about why she’s started school half way through the year, her story is revealed to the reader in short order: her boyfriend, Paul, has died. The details of his death are revealed through flashbacks and the poetry Emily begins to write, in part, inspired by Emily Dickinson. As it turns out, Dickinson had been a student at Amherst one hundred years before.

Hubbard is clearly a poet. Poetry figured in her first YA novel, Paper Covers Rock, a book I really loved, too. In And We Stay, Emily uses her poetry as a way to try and make sense of the senseless. In her poem “Ashes” she writes:

The same sky that once

held her dreams has stolen

her story. And the stars

will know just

how to tell it:

night after night

over and over.

Slowly, Emily opens herself up to the possibility of recovery and healing, but the journey is not without its difficulties. Hubbard negotiates Emily’s journey with a keen sense of the teenage heart.  Perhaps one might view Emily Dickinson as a plot device, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Poetry is the art of heightened emotion, of making the unknowable knowable and Emily is trying to do just that: make a horrific act something that she can survive – because she can. Because she must.

And We Stay is all the things I want my YA books to be: beautifully written, smart and engaging, emotionally intelligent and a page-turner. The book won several awards and is, in my opinion, deserving of them all.

Highly recommended.

Everything I Never Told You -Celeste Ng

everythingLydia is dead.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a book.  I read the bulk of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, on my snow day (a gift for a teacher, even if it’s only because we get to catch up on  marking/yearbook/planning – and, yeah, reading). I don’t think I will ever  be able to adequately explain how I feel about this book or these characters.

Lydia is just sixteen when she is found at the bottom of the lake across the street from her home in small-town Ohio. It’s the 1970s, the decade in which I, too, was coming-of-age. On the morning she is discovered missing (and it is this “innocuous” fact that sets the story in motion) we see the Lee family dynamic.

As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.

Hannah, Lydia’s younger sister is “hunched[ed] moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one.” Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is sitting on the stairs trying to wake up. James, their father, has already left for his job as a professor at the local college.

Lydia is never late. She is never anything but compliant. She is a “yes” girl, the favoured daughter. It is only after her body is found that her story, and that of her family, begins to unravel. And yes, you will want to know what happened to Lydia, but trust me, it’s just one of the many things that will break your heart in this magnificent novel.

While every family has their own secrets and burdens, the Lee family is further set apart because Marilyn is white and James is Chinese. Their story is integral to Lydia’s story. Marilyn herself was a gifted student, earning a scholarship to Radcliff, and there – while she heads towards a degree in medicine – she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. She is ‘other’ because she is a woman studying in a field that is dominated by men; he is ‘other’ because he’s Chinese. All Marilyn knows is that “she wanted this man in her life. Something inside her said, He understands. What it’s like to be different.”

Marilyn’s career plans are pre-empted when she gets pregnant. She and James marry and move to Ohio.  Of course, their union wouldn’t be quite so problematic now (I’d like to think, but there are always some people….), but it’s the late 50s when they marry. Another world, another time. And life, fraught as it is, moves on. But why is it fraught? Because James grew up attending private school for free because his mother worked there as the cook and his father the janitor? Because he never fit in anywhere?  Because Marilyn didn’t want the life her mother had? Because of dreams deferred? And what happens when our parents’ lives are complicated and damaged by their own childhoods? Ah, we all know the answer to that question, right? It all trickles down.

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book. The horrible longing we feel to crack ourselves open, the desire for true communication and intimacy, is another part. There wasn’t a single character in this novel I didn’t want to hug – I loved them all. That they were so fabulously human and fragile is a testament to Ng’s talent.

Highly (times a billion) recommended.

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

between-shades-of-grayWe all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but until I decided to read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine class I knew nothing (shamefully) about what happened in Lithuania during the same time period. During that time Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They rounded up doctors, teachers, musicians, artists and government officials and their families – anyone whom they considered a threat – and shipped them off to work camps. Sepetys’ father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. He and his family managed to escape to a German refugee camp (the irony is not lost on me). It is the author’s personal connection to this devastating blot on human history that inspired her to tackle telling the story. And what a story it is!

Lina is just fifteen when the NKVD (Russian Secret Police) burst into her home and demand that she, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and their mother, pack a suitcase and come with them. It is June 14, 1941 and the world Lina has known – one of art and intellect, of safety and family – is forever shattered. Their father is not home.

The first question I asked my students when we started the book was what they would take if they only had twenty minutes to decide. Lina was getting ready for bed and she remarks “They took me in my nightgown.” What is important when you have no time to think?

I put on my sandals and grabbed two books, hair ribbons and my hairbrush. Where was my sketchbook? I took the writing tablet, the case of pens and pencils and the bundle of rubles off my desk and placed them amongst the heap of items we had thrown into my case.

From the minute Between Shades of Gray starts until the final pages, the reader is living in a world that is almost impossible to comprehend. My students have no frame of reference. Even those who do not live privileged lives have never had to face this kind of terror. As I read the book out loud to my rapt students, I often found myself on the verge of tears imagining the fear, pain and plight of these people who were forced from their homes for no reason. What would I be capable of if I had to protect my family?

Lina’s mother, Elena, is a remarkable character. She is an educated woman who speaks Russian, a handy skill in these circumstances. She does whatever she has to do in an effort to keep her family together, trading items she has sewn into her coat in advance (foreshadowing  the events to come) for food, favour and, in one particularly poignant trade, for the life of her son. Her strength of character, her resiliency (which is mirrored in her children) sustains them all through the long, hard days ahead.

Eventually Lina and her family find themselves at a labour camp in Siberia. I can remember joking about Siberian labour camps as a kid. I didn’t know anything about them; I would have just made a throwaway comment about sending someone to Siberia. Sheer ignorance on my part because the conditions are unimaginable.

It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but polar tundra and the Laptev Sea. The wind whipped. Sand blew into my mouth and stung my eyes.

Worse – they have nowhere to live. The only two buildings are for the Soviets. It’s cold and soon it will be dark 24 hours a day.

I can say this about the book: my students loved it. Although I had promised to read it out loud to them, many read on their own, racing to finish. That’s high praise, especially since many of students would identify themselves as reluctant readers. I had several boys finish way before we did.

Sepetys talks about her novel here and it’s worth watching the video before you read the book. Sepetys talked to survivors and some of their stories find their way into this novel. I wish that the ending hadn’t seemed quite so rushed, but that’s a small niggle and may have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to say good bye to these remarkable characters. Overall, Between Shades of Gray is a miracle of a book, a life-affirming novel of resiliency and love and a sober reminder of the terrible things we do to each other.

Highly recommended.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

goldfinchMy son, Connor, purchased The Goldfinch in hardcover with his own money when it first came out. He read it avidly, misplaced it for a while, and took to reading it, a little at a time, whenever we visited Indigo. Eventually it turned up (but by then it was out in paperback and he’d purchased another copy)  and he finished it and talked about it for days.

The Goldfinch is not my first kick at the Donna Tartt can. Like Connor, I have read her two previous novels: her 1992 debut, The Secret History, a compelling literary page-turner which has stayed with me for years and which I recommend to everyone and The Little Friend, a slow-moving southern gothic. When my friend Karen chose The Goldfinch as her Facebook summer book club read, I knew I had to participate. For one thing, the novel is huge – 771 pages – and I knew I’d need uninterrupted time to finish it. Also, I flaked out on last summer’s epic, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and I needed to redeem myself.

Despite its accolades (The Goldfinch was the 2104 Pulitzer Prize winner and was (almost) universally praised by critics and authors) the novel isn’t without its detractors. Some critics wonder whether it’s deserving of being called Dickensian. In her 2014 Vanity Fair article, “It’s Tartt – But is it Art?” Evgenia Peretz  quotes novelist and critic Francine Prose’s assessment that “for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language.” It’s hard to tell whether the vitriol for the author and the book (often in equal measure) is merely sour grapes. Perestz is correct, though, when she concedes that  “No novel gets uniformly enthusiastic reviews, but the polarized responses to The Goldfinch lead to the long-debated questions: What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?”

Well, that would be you. And me. And Connor. And while this review – any of my reviews, really – won’t be on par with reviews found in well-respected magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review I do believe that, like any other reader on the planet, my assessment (as subjective as it might be) is valid. Consider that my disclaimer.

gfTheo Decker is just thirteen when he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to see an exhibition of the Dutch masters, including The Goldfinch, a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which Mrs. Decker claims is “the first painting I ever really loved.”

The day is remarkable and horrific for Theo because after his mother wanders off to the gift shop there is an explosion which kills her and which also precipitates an act of thievery which informs Theo’s life for the next fourteen years.

The Goldfinch has been described as a bildungsroman – a word which was unfamiliar to me and therefore had to look up. It means “a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.”

The bulk (and I use that word without irony) of the book is spent watching Theo implode – first while living with the Barbours, wealthy parents of his childhood friend, Andy. When his deadbeat father turns up, Theo goes off to Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend Xandra. There he meets Boris, another disenfranchised youth. The two spend their days cuffing school and getting high. Eventually, Theo makes his way back to New York City where he moves in with Hobie, an antique furniture restorer. The one constant in Theo’s life (besides his predilection for self-destruction via alcohol and drugs) is the painting of the goldfinch, which is his only real remaining connection to his mother.

Theo is not particularly likable. I don’t think that matters, actually. Boris shouldn’t be likable either, but I did like him. Quite a lot. I loved Hobie the best, for which Connor berates me. “Why does everyone like Hobie so much? He’s boring and spineless.” Maybe it’s the parent thing; he stepped up when he had no reason and he was unwaveringly supportive of Theo, even when he had every reason to kick him to the curb. Despite the novel’s insular first-person perspective, I felt as though I knew all the characters in this book. And if Theo seems just a tad precocious, chalk it up to the fact that he is setting the events down fourteen years after they’ve happened. He’s an adult, much like Scout Finch, looking back.

“Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” he says. But I wonder if that’s true because he also admits that “I’d been in trouble at school for a while.” Either way, the death of Theo’s mother sets him on a rather arduous and painful journey of self-discovery where ultimately he discovers that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Is Tartt’s world view really this grim? It’s hard to say. If we really spent any time thinking about it, even the most optimistic of us would have to admit that Theo might be on to something when he says:

This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order, Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.

And if life is just a slow (but not that slow – which is also disconcerting), painful decline to the grave, what can possible sustain us? What gives life its meaning? In his article “Why Poetry is Necessary” Roger Housden argues that “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving.”

Boris, as reprehensible as he might seem to some readers, seems to at least understand that the world is not black and white and that “Maybe sometimes – the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be?…As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how.”

This is a big ideas book. Some readers might argue that the final twenty or so pages is exposition and something of a cheat. I wondered if we might have gotten there, say, 200 pages sooner, because I liked what Tartt has to say. I liked Boris’s attempt to disabuse Theo of the notion that the world can be boiled down to either pure good or pure bad. He understands that “the world is much stranger than we know or can say.” Theo, comes at least, to recognize that

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

I loved The Goldfinch. And I also think the book is bloated and slow and sometimes the punctuation drove me nuts. It is flawed, no question, but maybe – in some ways – the book mirrors life. Life is big and messy and random; sometimes all the pieces don’t fit; sometimes, unexpectedly, there is the “heat-shock of believing. for only a moment, that you might just have what could never be yours.”

There is also a little of Gatsby in this novel, the notion that we  “we beat on, boats against the current.”

I will carry The Goldfinch with me for a long time.

Paper Towns – John Green (with a shout out to John Hughes)

If you are a person of a certain age, you probably have fond memories of John Hughes’ films. Even though I was already in my early 20’s when he started producing arguably the best teen movies ever – I was still young enough to see myself in the characters he committed to celluloid.

Sixteen Candles is my all-time favourite Hughes film, for reasons which will be apparent to anyone who has ever seen the film. I still watch it occasionally and it still makes me laugh and it breaks my heart a little now that Hughes has died.

Yes, you can argue that Jake Ryan isn’t perfect – he did let an underage, unlicensed driver take his very drunk girlfriend home in his father’s Mercedes, but it was the 80’s and, come on,  Jake Ryan is pretty damn dreamy. Also, who didn’t see some part of themselves in the other characters on the screen: Molly Ringwald’s slightly awkward Samantha Baker, Anthony Michael Hall’s loveable dork. Everyone you ever went to high school with is lovingly represented in this flick and in Hughes’ other teen masterpieces, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club,  and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

I would posit that John Green is this generation’s John Hughes and I hope Mr. Green will consider that a compliment because it is certainly meant as one.

Last year because everyone and their dog was reading The Fault in Our Stars I did, too. That was a reading experience I will never forget – curled in the fetal position on my bed at 2 a.m., laughing then crying, then laughing again. That is the experience I want my students to have.

PaperTowns2009_6AThe only other John Green book I have in my classroom library is Paper Towns and I just finished it yesterday. (Trust me, I’ll be rectifying the lack of Green books post-haste.) Paper Towns received rave reviews and the Edgar Award (a prize awarded by the Mystery Writers of America) and it’s totally deserving of both.

Quentin Jacobsen is just weeks away from graduating from high school when his next door neighbour Margo Roth Spiegelman shows up at his window in the middle of the night. Although Quentin and Margo had been childhood friends, they’d drifted apart as they’d gotten older and now, in Quentin’s eyes at least, Margo is this exotic and beautiful creature, but not necessarily his friend.

Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose six-syllable name was often spoken in its entirety with a kind of quiet reverence. Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose stories of epic adventures would blow through school like a summer storm: an old guy living in a broken-down house in Hot Coffee, Mississippi, taught Margo how to play guitar. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who spent three days traveling with the circus – they thought she had potential on the trapeze.

The stories, when they were shared, inevitably ended with, I mean, can you believe it? We often could not, but they always proved true.

Quentin’s best friend, Ben, describes Margo as “the kind of person who either dies tragically at twenty-seven, like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, or else grows up to win, like, the first-ever Nobel Prize for Awesome.”

Anyway, Margo needs Quentin’s help. She also assures him that this will be the best night of his life. Quentin is a guy who generally plays by the rules, so his decision to help Margo is slightly out of character for him. Nevertheless, he helps Margo carry out a list of tasks, some of them vengeful and some of them contemplative and he is indeed changed by the experience. Which is why when Margo suddenly disappears, he is compelled to follow the breadcrumb trail of clues she’s left behind.

Paper Towns is a clever mystery for sure, but that’s not the only reason to admire the heck out of it. What I love about John Green is the way he writes dialogue. His characters are smart and funny and honest-to-goodness people. In the same way that John Hughes made his characters painfully awkward or awesome or self-deprecating or ironic, Green’s teens are whole and fragile and super smart and laugh-out-loud funny.

And they think thinky-thoughts. The fact that Paper Towns is set in Orlando, Florida (John Green’s hometown) is significant. Margo says “you can see how fake it is…It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart.”

Quentin’s journey to find Margo makes him question not only everything he thought he knew about her, but also everything he believes about himself and Green does a great service to his characters (and the young adults who will be reading this book) by not giving us pat answers.

So – read John Green. Watch John Hughes. Through their eyes you’ll see teenagers at their worst…and their best. And it’s all beautiful.

Blacklands – Belinda Bauer

blacklandsTwelve-year-old Steven Lamb, the protagonist of Belinda Bauer’s debut novel Blacklands, lives with his mother, Lettie, his grandmother and his little brother, Davey,  in a small English village called Shipcott.  Steven spends his time out on the moors digging holes. He’s looking for the body of his mother’s brother, Billy, who had been killed by pedophile and serial killer, Arnold Avery, eighteen years earlier.  Avery had never given up the location of Billy’s body (or that of two of the other children he’d killed) and Steven thinks if he can find the body, it might bring closure for his perpetually grim and unhappy grandmother and his own mother, who has had to live under the weight of the tragedy her whole life.

Everything in Steven’s young life is miserable. Not only is his home life unhappy (even though he loves his family), he only has one friend at school (and it’s a relationship of convenience more than anything) and he’s constantly bullied by the “hoodies,” three lads who make it their mission to pick on him in and out of school. Even the teachers don’t know him. So Steven is a relatively solitary kid whose only goal is to find Uncle Billy so that “everything would change. [His nan] would stop standing at the window waiting for an impossible boy to come home; she would start to notice him and Davey, and not just in a mean, spiteful way, but in ways that a grandmother should notice them – with love, and secrets, and fifty pence for sweets.”

But Blacklands isn’t just Steven’s story; it’s Arnold Avery’s story, too. He’s rotting away in prison and, trust me, time spent with him isn’t so we can know his story and empathize with him. He’s reprehensible –  a cunning deviant with a predilection for sexual torture and murder. He’s been a model prisoner because “model prisoners wanted to be rehabilitated, so Avery had signed up for countless classes, workshops and courses over the years.” It had all paid off, too, because two years earlier he’d been moved from a high-security prison to Longmoor Prison, a low-security facility.

So when he receives Steven Lamb’s first letter, a plea for help in finding Billy’s body, Avery begins to dream of escape.

Blacklands was the 2010 winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for Crime Novel of the Year.  It works on multiple levels – as a story of what grief does to a person and how that legacy trickles down to poison all who come after, as a coming-of-age tale, and finally, as a can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough thrill-ride. Bauer manages the tricky shift between Steven and Avery with finesse and the whole story races, with only a couple minor missteps, towards an inevitable and  thrilling denouement.

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.