…and learn that it is possible to enjoy reading again and yet to still be able to have thoughts about books. It’s neat. It’s really difficult, being on that thin line between total crit mode and complete pleasure reading land. I know it’s fine to sometimes be in one and sometimes be in the other, but I think the best people are somewhere in between. Book reviewers are, at least. And I review books here? Kind of? I think thoughts about them and try to write them, and I also try to avoid plot because you should be able to learn that for yourself. Also, because that’s me in crit mode, where I am really not interested in giving you a recap. Anyway. Reviewers actually are different, at least in traditional review places, because they don’t really talk about the experience of reading the particular book. I’m trying to reconcile experience with objective quality with subjective quality with concepts and themes explored in the book.
No, I guess that is a review. Or an essay. Are those different? It is definitely a thing of some sort. It is a way of writing things about books. A thoughts and compliments and criticisms and analysis and a bit of squee. A thing. I don’t know.
So, with all that in mind, by which I mean you can ignore all of the nothing I just said, here are some thoughts about books I have read lately.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
First: I know, right? About time. But I had shit to do all of 2013! Sorry. But anyway, when I finally had some days that I could dedicate to non-Morris Award reading, I gave myself the gift of this book (the kids finally stopped checking it out for five seconds, so I got it – and then at ALA last weekend, I got my own copy!).
The experience: I was worried this was going to be like the experience of reading The Fault in Our Stars, which I found solidly written but kind of obnoxious because of the ridiculosity of the plot. The author and Amsterdam part, not the cancer part. Also, it didn’t really give me the feels. I am evidently not a person who gets feels easily anyway, because I am dead inside (I’m pretty sure people who know me would agree, and also, Happy Curmudgeons Day!), but at any rate, when I finally read it after 3257203597 years of hype, it was just a book to me. And while conceits about intellectualism and adventures pertaining to that sometimes really speak to me, they just as easily don’t, and it didn’t. I just felt like everyone was so unbelievably unreal.
I can talk a lot of shit about this and should stop, because I hate on John Green a lot when I should really be hating on the thing that is around John Greenliness, because the man himself seems mostly great, if a little unable to understand privilege, and he really is a good writer, if obsessed with MPDGs and Man Pain. But he is rather connected to Eleanor & Park, since he reviewed it, and also, Eleanor & Park is the 2013 TFIOS, so I had that same apprehension about a book having too much hype for me to like it, both because I just don’t like most things anymore (see: grad school ruined me) and because excessive hype somewhat makes me want to not like things because there are parts of me that can only be a hipster. Like, if I were the person who had the time or energy to reread things, I would reread TFIOS and The Scorpio Races, because obviously I am in the extreme, extreme minority when I say I didn’t really have a great time reading them. Head space accounts for a lot when reading stuff, as does your opinion about the book before you read it. Reader response. Fish. Ya know.
WOW digressions. Anyway. Instead of reading this book like a chore or like I knew I was going to hate it, I had a weekend where reading was more important than other things like watching television, and I sat on my couch in a quiet room and just enjoyed myself. And I didn’t want to stop reading. It was because it was a compelling story and because the writing was lovely and neither self indulgent and purple nor plot-driven and artless. So I just read. And whenever I wasn’t lost in the story, I kept thinking how I was immersing myself in the act of reading in a way I haven’t for a very long time. I thought about how reading is supposed to be a thing where you are lost in another world, and I was there! And I think – maybe – you guys have to tell me, because I’m not sure if I can determine it for myself – I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this before – I think maybe – I think I had the feels. I think I almost cried, except that nothing makes me cry except anytime I see a friend I haven’t seen in forever, anytime my sister huwts my feewings, and everything in Shonda Rhimes’ world. I THINK I HAD A FEELS!
The verdict: I don’t really need to review this one because I’m the last person who speaks English to read it, but it’s totally true. It’s fantastic and worth the hype. Rowell deserves all the accolades. Also, I met her on Monday at ALA and was the Most Awkward Ever in the History of My Awkwardness, and she actually did the thing you do in the movies where you’re like, “Yeah…I’m going to go over there now” (literally. verbatim.), and it was all because I was awful and awkward, and I’m sorry, Rainbow. I fail.
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando
First: I was really excited about this one, even though I’ve never read either of these authors before. My eagerness was based mostly on the fact that any YA post-college is okay with me these days, and I’m interested in studying all of it.
The experience: I was very pleased at the beginning, with the alternating fonts and all, because I love dual-author books, and also because this book is basically a 21st century update of P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail No More, and I would call shenanigans on both of these author ladies if they denied it. But they seem cool, so I bet they wouldn’t, and I bet they have read those books, because they were the best things. But I was soon disillusioned and realized that I wouldn’t be able to read this book for joy anymore, though it does make for an interesting study in two of my favorite areas of crit: feminism/lady problems and race.
First the simpler one. All I could think while reading more and more of this book was “Wow, these kids are square!” Like, they are so square. They are afraid of alcohol and sex and had lots and lots of moralizing conversations with themselves about whether or not they were ready for sex, and while I support everyone having sex when they are ready, I really don’t support policing of girls’ bodies and sexuality in books most of the time, because it’s never about having sex because it’s fun and nobody is ever allowed to Just Know that they are ready without sitting and analyzing shit forever, but that’s actually a real thing that could happen. The way most books do it, the Am I Ready conversation isn’t really about graduating to a more adult body and self that has sexual desires and empowering yourself to decide what, how much, and when you do stuff. It’s about proving to the reader that the character have all of the right qualities to be allowed to have The Sex, and none of the things on that checklist actually have anything to do with wanting to have sex. The things on that checklist are: being a middle class white girl who has thus far only had chaste relationships with her zero to two previous boyfriends and who is currently forging a relationship with the Right Boy, who is Right because of some emotional journey the two are accidentally undertaking together. So that got me sad. Especially after reading some really fantastic sex-positive stuff this year, like The Summer Prince and Starglass.
The other thing is way problematic and I’m still figuring out my thoughts about it, because I’m trying to be nice but also critical, and also because I feel very WTF but am trying to put myself in the shoes of well-meaning white people so that I can understand their minds. I am going to be working out my thoughts as I write this post, and then I’m not really going to edit, because I think this is going to be a process.
There are approximately 23859723857 mentions of the characters being uncomfortable about the fact that they are white and have no friends who are not white, or how they are now hanging out with a person of color and they wonder what that person thinks of them, or how they want to know if the person their future roommate is talking about is black, but they don’t know how to ask, because shouldn’t they not need to ask such a thing because colorblindness? It made me insanely uncomfortable, and it was also just super awkward.
My first thought was that one about how fucking square these kids are, and then I was like, this is what happens when well-meaning authors read blogs about how diversity is needed in literature, so they write a totally white story and then try to make one person nonwhite and go out of their way to point that out (points for no food epithets that I can recall).
Then I thought, I actually have no earthly idea what it’s like to be white in an all-white world and then have that be interrupted and want to deal with it in a friendly, liberal fashion. I have a lot of experience in thinking that I’m default and then being reminded that in fact I’m different and just have a lot of privilege, and I have experience being a lot whiter than other nonwhite people, but I actually have no experience being white. And when you’re white and really trying to be understanding and enlightened about race, I can imagine that that is difficult. (That’s actually good; it should be difficult and I don’t actually feel sorry for you, but for an exercise in empathy, I will try to think that it’s awfully confusing and scary to try and be true to your own white experience but to be nice about race.) So maybe this is actually a very real thing that white people who are more enlightened than other white people (when it comes to privilege and stuff) have inner dialogues with themselves about how they’re noticing race and trying to be anti-racist about it. That’s actually very interesting, and if this book is an accurate, authentic representation of what it’s like to have your white world all of a sudden have color in it, I have ZERO ability to tell you otherwise, because that is completely and utterly out of my own experience and always will be. And in all seriousness, I ask you, white readers: if you grew up in a mostly white world, do you actually encounter situations when you are like, “I am noticing race and not knowing how to notice it in a respectful way, because I’m honestly curious about the race of this person and because I’m worried that my white world will react to this nonwhite person because we’re all so white, and I don’t know what to do, so I’m just going to talk about how I’m white and how I don’t really know anyone who’s not but I would like to assume that if I did, I would be nice about it?” This is a real question. Just trying to understand.
I’m going to leave that there, because I honestly have no idea what to do with it. It was jarring. I wonder if it was jarring to other people. I have questions.
The verdict: A perfectly fine, serviceable, fun story, but it just didn’t have the voice I was expecting, so I was just meh. I would be comfortable recommending it to many people, and I think it will be enjoyed by many people. But it’s rather forgettable.
Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith
First: I had this book for ages because it was mistakenly sent for Morris consideration, and I’m very glad I kept it. For some reason, I kept thinking it would be Wild Thornberrysesque, and it is not in any way, shape, or form, so I think there is another book that came out this year that I mixed it up with? Like, another book that came out and I saw but didn’t read? Or maybe just the orange and the word “wild.”
The experience: This book is a trip. It is exhausting and not for everyone. I knew when I was reading it that I was totally into it, loving it, feeling it, identifying with it, and wishing it had been around when I was in high school. And that same thing made me think how much it was not going to be liked by many people. But that’s cool. It’s how it goes. I really liked the intensity of it, and it was convenient that I read it on a day that I had the time and the schedule to read it all in a day, because you probably need to do it that way. That way, you won’t drag out what is rather an exhausting read, and you can also be totally immersed in it, which is the point. But I also love that this is not a sappy romance and instead is about passion and lust and in being in love with the feels and in love with lust, not in love with a pretty, unrealistic boy.
I was totally confused for ages until I realized there is a place called Canada and English speakers with somewhat American customs and lifestyles live there.
This is a book that, like Eleanor & Park, really took me back to what it feels like to be a teen. At least for me. Probably the only thing I don’t mind remembering from adolescence is intense feelings linked either to a few really good nights with friends when we felt infinite or, more often, to my insane anger and depression due to, well, adolescence, and also to undiagnosed bipolar disorder. That leads me to
The verdict: Really well done. Really not for just anyone. Recommended if you’ve suffered from mental health issues or if you like experiencing the same feelings as the characters, instead of feeling for the characters, like you would in TFIOS or Eleanor & Park.
The experience: This book is totally The History Boys with girls and in a different place where you speak the Queen’s English. I love The History Boys, for real reasons and for problematic ones. And for Dominic Cooper. It’s also a little bit The Secret History and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I now realize is a strange thing to say, because the things those books most literally have in common really only appear at the very beginning of The Golden Day. But the quality of groupness and passion for a passionate teacher permeates the whole of the story, even if it’s not actually the plot. I have felt very alone since graduating and moving and being a grown up without a built-in community, so I have missed being a part of a group, and this book let me be in one for a bit.
The verdict: It’s all about the writing, which is lovely and literary and quieter than the general YA book these days, so it was refreshing and exactly what I needed.
Books are neat, friends. They make you feel things and have thoughts, and they are good for you.