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.

 

 

 

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Monster-calls_shadow“Are you crying, Mom?”

My daughter was settled in at the foot of my bed playing on her iPhone and I was  reading the last few pages of Patrick Ness’s remarkable novel, A Monster Calls.

And, yeah, I was crying. Hard by the end of it.

Damn you, Patrick Ness.

Siobhan Dowd is credited for the idea for A Monster Calls, but sadly Ms. Dowd died  – at the age of 47 – before she ever had the chance to see her idea through to the end. As Ness acknowledges in his Author’s Note, “the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas. Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.”

A Monster Calls is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives with his mom in a little house in a little town in England. His parents are divorced and his dad now lives in the States with his new wife and a baby daughter. Conor rarely sees him.

Conor’s mom is ill. Readers will figure out early on that she has cancer and that Conor is doing his level best to cope, with varying degrees of success.  Then the monster shows up “just after midnight. As they do.”

Conor isn’t particularly afraid of this monster. Despite its “great and terrible face”, Conor tells the monster he’s “seen worse.” And even though he claims not to be frightened of the monster, the monster replies that he will be “before the end.”

The monster continues to visit at night with stories that make no sense to Conor. The monster also claims that there will come a time for the fourth tale – that is Conor’s story. Conor knows what the monster is talking about: a recurring nightmare which terrifies him and which he insists he will not be sharing. In the meantime, his mother grows weaker, his grandmother steps in to help out (much to Conor’s dismay) and his father visits from America – a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

The monster drives Conor to action, but also to irrefutable truths. The monster says,” Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

Conor’s truth is one that he is unwilling to face, but which comes barrelling towards him anyway. And as a reader, I have to say, I was unprepared for its impact.

A Monster Calls reminded me a little bit of John Connolly’s brilliant novel The Book of Lost Things. Connolly’s story is also about a boy on a journey from innocence to experience. You should definitely check it out.

As for A Monster Calls – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

 

 

In the Woods – Tana French

in the woodsWhen Tana French’s first novel In the Woods was published in 2007, critics and mystery lovers went wild. The book was an Edgar Award winner (no small feat for a debut novelist) and for a while everyone was talking about it. It’s been on my TBR list for ages…and I finally picked up a copy at the library book sale this year.

In the Woods is Rob Ryan’s story. Ryan is a Murder detective in Dublin, Ireland. He and his partner, the spunky Cassie Maddox, have been given the task of determining who killed twelve-year-old Katy Devlin and left her body in Knocknaree Woods. As with all good police procedurals, In the Woods offers readers plenty of red herrings and plot twists – all of it anchored by the relationship between Ryan and Maddox.

But there’s more.

In 1984, three other children went missing in Knocknaree. Two of the children were never found. Ryan was the third.

When I was found I was wearing blue denim shorts, a white cotton T-shirt, white cotton socks and white lace-up running shoes. The shoes were heavily bloodstained, the socks less heavily. Later analysis of the staining pattern showed that the blood had soaked through the shoes from the inside outwards; it had soaked through the socks, in lesser concentrations,  from the outside in. The implication was that the shoes had been removed and blood had spilled into them; some time later, when it had begun to coagulate, the shoes had been replaced on my feet, thus transferring blood to the socks. The T-shirt showed four parallel tears, between three and five inches in length, running diagonally across the back from the mid-left shoulder blade to the right back ribs.

Ryan doesn’t remember a thing. Nothing from the moment he left the house with the friends to go into the woods – where they had played all the time – until he was found and being examined in the hospital.

So when he has to return to Knocknaree, it opens the proverbial can of worms. Are there any parallels between the Devlin case and his own? Will he finally remember what happened all those years ago?

The Devlin case is interesting and as Maddox and Ryan knock on doors, ask questions and try to piece together who would have killed Katy, Ryan also wrestles with his own complicated past. All of it makes for page-turning goodness.

And the icing on the cake: Tana French can write. I mean, a great mystery doesn’t really depend on stellar writing to be entertaining and fun to read, but French gives you more bang for the buck: a compelling mystery times two, characters who are complicated and human, and writing which forces you to slow down.

As you know, I am a huge fan of Thomas H. Cook – a mystery writer who cares about the writing, too. I’d definitely stick French in that category and I look forward to reading more of her work.

What I Saw and How I Lied – Judy Blundell

liedJudy Blundell’s YA novel What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award and was named a best book by both the School Library Journal and the ALA (American Library Association). The accolades are well-deserved. This novel offers a glimpse into another time and another world and makes a nice change from reading all the dystopian and fantasy novels crowding the shelves these days.

Fifteen-year-old Evie lives with her beautiful mother, Bev, and her step-father Joe, a  veteran of World War 2,  and Joe’s mother Grandma Glad in Queens, New York. It is 1947. Things have been different since Joe returned from the war. Evie remembers a man who “made walking look like dancing…had a special greeting for everyone on the block.”  The post war Joe was different.

It was the war. You couldn’t ask him about it. You didn’t want to remind him. What every wife and daughter could give was a happy home. That was our job.

One night, out of the blue, Joe announces that he is taking Bev and Evie on vacation to Palm Beach, Florida. he makes the holiday sound so glamorous, but when they arrive it is to discover that Palm Beach is practically a ghost town, “the rest of the hotels didn’t even open until December. All of the stores on Worth Avenue, Palm Beach’s main drag, were closed. The Paramount Theatre was closed.”

Into this strangely other-worldly cotton-candy coloured world walks Peter Coleridge.

…I saw him under the moon. My breath stopped. He was not just handsome, he was movie-star handsome. Dark blond hair, a straight nose. A hunk of heaven

Peter turns Evie`s world upside down and creates a strange friction between her parents that she does not  quite understand. Not that she cares too much. Peter is older and more sophisticated and despite his mixed signals, Evie begins to take those first tentative steps towards adulthood.

As a coming-of-age story, What I Saw and How I Lied works quite well. It is definitely evocative of  another time and place. Once she realizes what is waiting for her on the other side of childhood, Evie is desperate to grow up. But there is a price to pay. This would be a great book for careful readers. It`s not action-packed, but it is well-written and thoughtful. When Evie and her parents finally return from their holiday, Evie`s life has been  altered. The line between innocence and experience has been crossed and for Evie at least, a terrible price has been paid.

Our Town – Thornton Wilder

ourtownI have loved Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town, since I was fourteen or fifteen. I was trying to figure out how I would have come into contact with it, as I certainly didn’t read it while in school. My best guess is that it was because of Robby Benson, who starred in an adaptation of the play which must have aired on television. If you are a regular visitor to this blog, then you know that Robby and I go way (way) back.

I probably purchased my copy of the play around then – it’s an Avon paperback which, according to the cover, cost $1.75. (I know, eh?) It’s dog-eared and highlighted and marked up and the words contained within still, after all these years, move me.

In the Foreward of the HarperPerennial edition of the play Donald Marguiles, an American playwright and professor, calls Wilder “the first American playwright.” Marguiles further posits that Wilder paved the way for many of the playwrights who came after, and are perhaps better known: Albee, Williams, Miller.

First produced for the stage in 1938, Wilder’s play takes place in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. The play is performed on a bare stage. The actors mime their stage business. For theatre goers attending that first production, Wilder’s play must have seemed wildly modern.

“Stripping the stage of fancy artifice, Wilder set himself a formidable challenge,” says Marguiles. “With two ladders, a few pieces of furniture, and a minimum of props, he attempted to “find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.””

Our Town could be any town. That’s the point. The characters on the stage are us. The three act structure of the play mirrors the circle of life: birth, love and marriage, death. One might easily argue that nothing happens. Yet the exact opposite is true: everything happens.

The Stage Manager guides us through the play.  Our Town is a fine example of metadrama; that is a play which draws attention to the fact that it is a play. The Stage Manager acts both as a sort of Greek chorus and bit player. He has the power to alert the audience to events in the future and to allow characters to revisit the past, as he does – famously –  for Emily in Act Three.

The language of the play is simple. Characters speak colloquially. They are just average citizens, concerned with the weather, town gossip, and their children. Even my class of grade ten students were able to see themselves in George and Emily. It is a tribute to the timeless quality of the play that despite the intervening years – from the play’s debut until now –  not much has changed.

DR. GIBBS: Well, George, while I was in my office today I heard a funny sound…and what do you think it was? It was your mother chopping wood. There you see your mother – getting up early; cooking meals all day; washing and ironing  – and still she has to go out in the backyard and chop wood. I suppose she just got tired of asking you. And you eat her meals, and put on the clothes she keeps nice for you., and you run off and play baseball, – like she’s some hired girl we keep around the house but that we don’t like very much.

As a teenager I would have certainly seen myself in that passage. Now, I see my own children.

We are all the same: we are born, we live and we die. The Stage Manager remarks  that even in Babylon “all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, – same as here.”  It underscores one of the play’s motifs: time and its passing. What do we know of those people? “…all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then,” remarks the Stage Manager.

In the Joss Whedon’s landmark television show Angel, the title character says “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” (Epiphany, 2001)

In Our Town‘s final act Emily comes to the same realization, albeit too late. “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” she cries.

The Stage Manager replies: “No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

Perhaps my students aren’t quite ready to acknowledge life’s brevity. I know, for sure, they don’t live “every, every minute.” Why should they? I didn’t. I don’t.

Wilder’s play is a powerful reminder, though, that we should. And that message is as meaningful now in 2013 as it was in 1938.

A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore

I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.

A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England.  Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.

When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.

The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.

A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.

I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going.  The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.

 

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

I didn’t get a chance to write my thoughts about Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, back when I actually finished it – which was in June.  The book deserves a much more thoughtful review than I am likely to give it here.

Narrated by Tony Webster, a divorced father with a grown daughter, The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on youth and the ways in which our memories are often skewed by our desire to remember ourselves differently from how we actually were.

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well,” Tony says. He also tells the reader that he is “not very interested in his schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began…”

It is at school that Tony and his friends meet Adrian Finn, “a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself.” Adrian is bright, clearly smarter than Tony and his friends – or perhaps just more thoughtful, more willing to question the subjects (particularly history) that he is being taught.

History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

At the end of school, the four boys go their separate ways.  Tony  meets a girl, Veronica Ford, and it is this relationship which sets  the story in motion. Things with Veronica end badly and when she ends up dating Adrian, Tony is hurt and angry.

How this threesome plays out makes up the bulk of the story, but it isn’t a traditional love triangle. This is really a story about who we were, who we become and how we alter our memories to accommodate our own version of ourselves.

The Sense of an Ending is one of those books which would certainly benefit from repeat readings – and trust me, it wouldn’t be a hardship. Barnes’ prose is precise and devastating. The book reads like a mystery and in a way it is – we are often mysteries to ourselves and it is only when our memories are challenged that we see the person we have been.