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50 Years of YA, Part 1

Hey, guys!  I haven’t posted in a while.  I’ve been working on a post about my reading of Beartown by Fredrik Backman (it’s brilliant, I must say.  Everyone should read it).  However, I’m not quite ready to post about it yet.  My review has been giving me a bit of writer’s block, so I’m holding off on it for now.

Some of  you may know that 2017 is considered the 50th anniversary of the YA novel (based off of the publication date of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton).  To celebrate the year, Booklist has compiled a list they call “Booklist’s 50 Best YA Books of All Time.”  It starts with Hinton and ends with our more contemporary literature.  While they openly admit to this not being a full-proof list, they have a number of interesting titles on it.

I love YA, like many readers, and I thought it would be fun to see how many of these books I have read and could read over the summer.  I don’t think I’m going to read all of them, but I’m going to make an effort to get through as many as I can.   As I go through this YA journey, I figured it would be the perfect sort of review to share with you.

I had read several books on the list before it was published, and I have since found lots at my local library, so I have a small list to share with you today.  More are on hold or sitting on my TBR shelf, so this will certainly be a post that will have a “Part 2” and maybe a “Part 3.”  It’s also going to be much more informal than other posts I’ve made, but I’m good with that if you are, too!

So, without further ado, here’s what I have So Far:

 

#3: The Pigman, Paul Zindel

John and Lorraine have created a game out of prank calling people, which is how they first encounter Mr. Pignati, or The Pigman, whose grief over the loss of his wife leaves him desperate for companionship.  Their adventures with and without him will have you laughing and then regretting alongside them.

This book reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, which makes sense, considering they were published around the same time.  The story is told as though John and Lorraine are typing up their account of the events, and their voices (particularly Lorraine’s) greatly resemble Holden’s.  Moreover, they’re apparent disregard for consequences easily reminds the reader of a certain high school student wandering the streets of New York and contemplating ducks…

I liked this book, but there wasn’t necessarily anything spectacular about it for me.  I think because I was part of a generation whose authors were unafraid to touch on the tough subjects surrounding growing up, I find this particular book’s approach to grief and suffering to be commonplace.  Booklist says that, when it was released, it was one of the first books of its kind to address “teen life in all its darkness and complexity.”  For a first introduction to its themes and ideas, I would say it was probably shocking.  Zindel also does a great job of not writing down to his audience; even though the teens are telling this story, they don’t offer some cookie-cutter “moral” to the story in the end, which is always a “plus” in the world of YA.

Overall, I liked it a lot more than The Catcher in the Rye, and I can see why it was included on the list.

 

#6:  I Know What You Did Last Summer, Lois Duncan

[Do you guys remember that first book you read that freaked you the heck out?  For a lot of people, it was probably that “Scary Stories” series.  For me, it was Duncan’s masterpiece.  Goosebumps for days!]

Something happened last summer involving four teens.  They thought no one knew about it.  That is, until a stranger contacted one of them, saying he knew what had happened.  What follows is a dangerous series of events that ends in a “surprising” twist that “no one” can see coming!

I’ll be honest, though–I re-read this after I saw it on the list, and I now realize that 10-year-old me had a very simplistic idea of what “scary” is.

I can certainly understand its inclusion on this list.  This was also one of my first introductions to the processing of “guilt” as a teen (or, in my case, tween), and Duncan certainly hopes to achieve an intimate understanding of what someone might go through when faced like a situation like this.  All lame-movie-making aside, the inspiration behind the threat in this book is both personified and very real fear.

It was great to return to one of my childhood favorites.  Lois Duncan’s books are all sufficiently creepy and spooky, and it’s pretty cool to see one of them featured on this list!

 

#9: Gentlehands, M. E. Kerr

This book comes with a really interesting concept–a young guy develops a relationship with his grandfather, only to find out that the same man is a wanted Nazi officer.  Unfortunately, in this particular telling, I think the actual heart of this story was overshadowed by a rather lame love story.

Buddy comes from the rough side of the tracks, and Skye is the daughter of a wealthy family who visits for summer vacation.  Their connection feels rather inauthentic, and the added drama of the hatred and distrust from Buddy’s parents toward those with “money” detracted from the overall purpose of the story (in my opinion).  Also, I always find it so difficult, and therefore weird, to tell a summer fling story from the perspective of the guy.

I liked the idea of this book a lot, and it makes me wonder if accounts like it are out there.  But I don’t think I would recommend it as anything more than a romance.

 

#11: Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden

I think Booklist’s write-up of this one says it best:

“Garden’s novel, centered on Annie and Liza’s romance, revealed gradually through Liza’s memories, has all the iconic markers of teen romance, but it was truly groundbreaking: this teenage lesbian love story was the first of it’s kind to have a happy ending.”

I really enjoyed reading through this romance.  The story moves from friendship, to general acceptance of their identities, to discoveries considering how the world perceives them (incorrectly, I might add) and who they can turn to for help.  I like the parallel that appears between them and a couple of the other characters in the story.  And, for once, the flashback really seems to balance out the storytelling elements.  This one is definitely worth the read!

 

#14: Howl’s Moving Castle, Diane Wynne Jones

That’s right, folks–the very famous Miyazaki film was first and foremost a YA novel.  The same lovable Sophie appears to help the Wizard Howl in his escapades, just as the film portrays.

I’ll be honest–I found this book incredibly boring.  I don’t think it carried the plot well, and there were several parts of the book that I simply skimmed (without losing any part of the plot).  It is, perhaps, a perfect introduction to other fantasy novels (i.e. Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan), which I also struggle to get through.  Thus, for those who more greatly enjoy this genre, it may be a brilliant execution.  I, for one, will stick with watching the film.

 

#18: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Chris Crutcher

This book was actually a required reading title I read way back in high school, almost a decade ago.  Chris Crutcher, the author, actually came to our school to talk about his books (we could pick from a list of them, and I chose this one).  The actual plot of this story has faded for me, but I didn’t feel the need to re-read it, like IKWYDLS.

The one thing I know for sure is that Crutcher attempts to address the Tough Stuff in everything he writes.  This book alone deals with abuse, body image issues, high school drama, and so much more.  The characters are very relatable.  You feel for their experiences and recognize similarities in your own life, even if they don’t reach this extreme.

I think it’s great the Crutcher’s books are being used in the classroom (as many of these are, or might be).  One of the hardest lessons most people learn in high school is that there are no easy answers to most of Life, and authors who are unafraid to point that out in their work should be included in the curriculum.

At the same time, this was a school read, so I don’t know how fun it would be to read on your own time!  Jus’ sayin’.

 

Whew.  I need a break!

More to come in the future.  In the meantime, happy reading everyone!  If you’re looking for something fun to read over the summer, I suggest YA.

 

 

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Echo

EchoThis week, I listened to the audiobook Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  This book had a profound impact on me for so many reasons, and the greatest treasure of this story is that it’s written for children but has the power to speak to anyone.

Echo is four stories wound into one, one of which is almost a folktale, and three of which are about three different children–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–and their lives during the tumultuous time of World War II.  Each story is staggered and feeds into the next one, for one epic finale that I will try hard not to spoil here.  All I will say is that the one thing holding them together is a harmonica, which mysteriously appears in each of the stories.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this book engaged me from the first page.  In a way, the stories were timeless even as they were attached to a time period.  Munoz Ryan follows her characters closely enough that important references to significant events like the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor serve as landmarks more than important plot points.  I also think this particular novel, in using a historical setting, still has a profound message to offer to contemporary American culture.  As I was listening to the stories, some of the conversations and experiences felt by central and exterior characters gave me goosebumps, because what was said in the 1930’s and ’40’s sounds disturbingly like some of what is rising in our political climate today.  It was almost scary, as an adult reading a children’s book about people who lived during Hitler’s reign, to think about there being any parallels between that time and ours, but Munoz Ryan subtly points them out–whether intentionally or unintentionally–in the most profound ways.  Even as a historical fiction book, this story is timeless.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book in consideration of its main genre (juvenile/young readers), is the fact that each story ends at first with a cliffhanger.  All four characters come to a time when it seems that hope is lost, and their story pauses until the very end.  And, really, the end does not directly address what happened to immediately resolve whatever situation the characters were left in.  It is set, instead, several years into the future when all three of the children are grown and reflecting back on their experiences.  I am proud of Munoz Ryan for including this in a book meant for young readers.  I think, too often, we are quick to protect children from the reality that life offers no easy answers.  This is particularly true in literature.  Books have quick resolutions–both because of the shorter texts for easier reading and because the Happy Ending seems so very important.  Munoz Ryan forgets both of these things, and writes a lengthy text full of despair and angst.  The Happy Ending is still (relatively) present, but readers have to commit to the story to get there, which makes it that much more beautiful.

The children in this book experience serious hardships in life; however, despite some of the extremes experienced by them contributed by the time period and the story itself, the messages are still relatable.  Friedrich is bullied for most of his life due to his birthmark.  While children today (hopefully) do not have to fear that they will be sterilized or sent to a concentration camp for not meeting a particular higher standard of “human,” bullying is an issue that culture is still trying to resolve.  Moreover, body image issues are a very real and present problem with people of all ages, even those who are very young.  Friedrich’s experiences are still relevant today, and I’m sure many young people have felt comforted and connected to him for what he went through.

Friedrich and Mike are also missing parents.  Mike is an orphan who feels very responsible for his little brother, and Friedrich’s mom died shortly after he was born.  In a time when broken families and single parents are a perfect example of the norm, young people must feel connected to these boys who are raised and adopted by single individuals (Mr. Howard, of course, serves as a good example of the “stepfather,” or the newer adult addition to a family).  Each of these boys experience their struggles around specific contexts, but the timelessness of belonging and love lead their stories to speak to people today as well.

Ivy’s family is transient, and she is constantly experiencing what it is like to be the New Kid.  Her story is unique due to the nature of her dad’s job (in connection with the Japanese internment camps) and her special school, but the anxiety she experiences over making new friends and going to a new school are extremely relevant.  Moreover, she has a family member in the armed forces and for the first time her life must learn how to live normally without her brother with her.  These emotions she goes through can mirror what children and young readers still experience and provide them comfort that they are not alone in what they are going through.

These struggles, while told through a child’s perspective, can also speak profoundly to any reader.  I was rooting for each of the characters to find success, to be safe.  Each segment held my attention to the end, and I desperately wanted to reach the point in the story where I would know that everything would be okay.  Each experience spoke to me in my past and present, and in so many ways brought me comfort that I didn’t even know I needed.

Your FateMunoz Ryan’s storytelling talent goes beyond just captivating characters; it shines brightly through the plot that twists and winds in several directions until, quite unexpectedly, even the mysterious folktale becomes linked to everyone else.  The coincidences are a stretch, but not unbelievable.  Everyone is brought together at the right place and right time because of powerful circumstances, and not convenience.  In every chapter and on every page, Munoz Ryan builds toward a crescendo that resounds with hope and community, reminding us that these characters endured and flourished and that they found a place they belonged.  There are many great storytellers out there who manage to make small connections between the beginning and end of their tales, and Munoz Ryan should be included among them.

One way in which the audiobook was made even better than the physical one, in my opinion, is that the music associated with each person and on each instrument was played and sung in the backgrounds of the chapters!  Harmonicas haunted the openings and closings of each Part.  Pianos and singers hummed out familiar tunes in context with the stories.  It definitely pulled you into the story more, and as a music lover I appreciated the aesthetic results.  It makes me wonder how you could enjoy this book in print without also looking up music and songs to accompany when they are mentioned in the story!

I cannot say enough that, regardless of your age, your preferred genres, your experiences, or your perspectives, you should read this book.  The message is more than timeless; it’s relevant.  The stories reflect on an important time in our country’s history (a time that has a certain amount of significance today), and yet it is coupled with just the right about of fantasy to make it magical.  Echo left a big impression on me that will resound for many books to come.

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Listen Up!

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks.  Most of my time in February and March has been set aside for working on my final master’s project, which isn’t a thesis but might as well be based on all the time and energy I have put into it… Anyway, having such a large project to complete by April takes up a lot of my would-be pleasure reading time, and when I’m not working on my paper and try to read I feel guilty for not working.  Thus, the only way I can feed my reading habit and stay on top of my project is to listen to audiobooks at points where writing and editing aren’t an option–say, in the car or at work.

I know audiobooks aren’t always the most popular book format in the reading world.  For instance, whenever I tell people I listened to Harry Potter (read by the fantastic Jim Dale, who is phenomenal in all things but in particular his renditions of children’s books), I’ve had some people tell me that I haven’t actually read the series.  On the other hand, I have had many of my fellow audiobook lovers share some of their favorite aspects of audiobook listening.  I fall firmly on the side of pro-audiobook, particularly as it relates to reading.  I’m a very slow reader, and I don’t like to read really long books (and, as previously stated, no reading time).  However, when I listen to audiobooks, the story continues on even though my eyes would have given up, and I can stand to “sit through” very long and important texts.  I listened to Watership Down in January and liked it a lot, although I know myself well enough to be confident that I would never have actually sat down and read the story in print.  Thus, I love audiobooks because they broaden my reading focus and allow me to experience certain books and series I would have otherwise continued to ignore.

For me, there are certain types of books that lend themselves to audio format.  First and foremost is any book read by the actual author.  These can be fictional stories, although they are most often memoirs, which are the second best kind of audiobook to listen to.  The third best type of audiobook to listen to, in my humble opinion, are children’s books and YA.  If you have a YA memoir read by the author, you’ve hit the jackpot! (We Should Hang Out Sometime was great!).  After these typically spectacular and wonderful audios come those which are read by talented storytellers, like Jim Dale.  Will Patton is another of my favorite readers; he’s done many Stephen King books and adds the perfect gritty texture to the already creepy stories!  Unfortunately, unless you follow a voice actor through his or her entire repertoire and listen to books marked as read by them, this is the hardest type of book to find.  It is still very worth it, though, when you do come across those gems.

9780399546563I tend to go back and forth with what I listen to a lot of time, and so my previous “reads” are all over the place.  For instance, last week I finished the audiobook for Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland.  This book is the perfect example of a reading by a great storyteller.  Robbie Daymond has been voice acting for (literally) decades onscreen and on tape, and his talent shows through in this book.  From the first few sentences of the story–which were very well-written, I might add–Robbie had me hooked to the content.  However, I unfortunately lost touch with the characters and the plot, and didn’t enjoy the ending at all.  For a YA, the characters behaved more like adults.  It wasn’t just that they were experiencing Adult Things, as does happen when people grow up; it was more like the story became unrelatable to most teenagers in the emotional responses and behaviors of the protagonists.  I have a full review of this book on my Goodreads if you would like to hear more about my opinions.  They aren’t as important here as the fact that this book represents what I love about audiobooks: fun, lively reads brought to life by talented voices.

9780718080341I really do love listening to YA, but I have to say that my favorite type of audiobook is the memoir that is read by its author.  After Our Chemical Hearts, I jumped into With My Eyes Wide Open: Miracles & Mistakes on My Way Back to KoRn, written (co-written) and read by Brian “Head” Welch.  This book, his second, chronicles his life after he found Christ and
*converted* to Christianity.  He also talks extensively about his daughter and their relationship through some pretty serious stuff.  I love rock and metal music, Christian-based and otherwise, and so Brian’s story has been one I’ve followed since it began.    Listening to this audiobook, I was brought to tears multiple times by Brian’s stories, his daughter’s struggles, and his faith.  The power of his words, being read by him, was unreal.  I was also so pleased to hear him speaking to the need to diversify contemporary Christianity.  He addresses it from the music perspective, hoping that people will become more accepting of different genres in this particular niche.  Brian’s words expressed an honest, straight-forward understanding of the gospel.  Listening to his audiobook was an intimate experience for me, the perfect expression of why I love audiobooks and what they can do to and for reading.

artworks-000125465633-ny5fwc-t500x500Following With My Eyes Wide Open, I listened to Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, written and read by Jenny Lawson.  This memoir couldn’t have been more different from Welch’s, other than the fact that both of them address mental illness in their stories.  While Brian had me crying, Jenny had me laughing hysterically! (Seriously.  I listen to my audiobooks in my car, and I got some pretty weird looks from fellow drivers, who were obviously wondering, “What is wrong with that weird girl alone in her car?  Why is she cackling like mad for no reason?”)  Jenny’s entire persona comes through her work anyway, so listening to her read her book made it feel like I was watching her speak live, or talking to her one-on-one.  Her stories were so delightful, even though their subject matter was very heavy.  She left me wanting more.  An audiobook should entertain you and challenge you to think about the world in different ways.  Lawson’s stories do just that.

These are just three of my most recent audiobooks, but I wanted to share them with you.  There’s something really special about listening to someone’s creation.  Plus, I love being able to “read” even when I don’t have time to follow words on a page.

If you’ve never tried audiobooks, let me challenge you to pick one up. I recommend Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for those who are Hogwarts fans.  Otherwise, find a book by an author you love and go for it.  You won’t regret it.

 

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Read. Learn. Repeat.

This weekend, I finished listening to John Elder Robison’s Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.  This is the second book I’ve read by Robison, the first of which was Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

Switched On recounts Robison’s experience in a study that looked at his brain’s reaction to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  As someone with a disorder listed on the Autism Spectrum, he had always struggled with understanding and expressing emotions.  This treatment was designed to get him “in touch with his emotional side,” so to speak.  He had a positive, though not “cured,” reaction to this treatment, which is perhaps evidenced best by the fact that he reads his own audiobook with a certain level of inflection and intonation you would not expect from someone with Asperger’s.

This book was a stretch for me, which is why I chose to listen to it on audiobook.  The language was extremely technical, as Robison himself is most comfortable in the world of machines and electronics.  He compared his brain experience to his work in the music industry, which was interesting although impossible for me to understand.  Some of the technical jargon and scientific language was also difficult to follow.  While at times I worried this would detract from my understanding of what the memoir was trying to say, however, in the end I felt like I connected to Robison at the point where his voice took us.  The overarching message and story was very engaging and emotionally charged, as Robison expresses for the first time what it feels like to “feel” like other people do.

I personally take as many opportunities as I can to learn more about people on the Autism Spectrum.  The way they perceive the world is fascinating to me, and I want to know more about what struggles and obstacles they may be facing.  I think that we should all take advantage of opportunities to learn about people who are different.  We may never be able to understand everyone in every situation, but we can take small steps toward discovering the way the world looks to others.  For me, that sometimes means trudging through rather scientific memoirs on topics I don’t understand.  At the end of his story, Robison made me appreciate what he has gained from science’s assistance in his life; I can also understand his optimism toward future discoveries.  These are developments I don’t need for myself, but that I can rally behind and support for other people.

I’m in no way insinuating that I’m good at this all of the time, either.  In fact, I’m hardly good at it some of the time.  I really like reading books where the protagonist is just like me.  I want it to be easy to relate, and to feel like not only do I understand “her” (it’s usually a her), but also that we understand each other.

Still, reading is a wonderful opportunity to explore how others live.  That’s what we praise it for–we want to go to other lives in other worlds.  Stories like John Elder Robison’s offer people like me the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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The Week of the Two Memoirs

I love memoirs.  There’s something about reading about the human existence from a first-person perspective that can change the way you see the world.  I like reading essays written by people I’ve heard of, but I also like reading creative nonfiction on topics I want to know more about.

Thus, this week I listened to the audiobook version of Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging by Dick Van Dyke (read by the Man Himself), and I finished reading Boy Erased by Garrard Conley.

 

Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging

41yympjv-wl-_sx326_bo1204203200_It’s easy to bash on celebrity memoirs, because they are often full of phrases like, “I did this,” or “I remember when so-and-so recognized me as such-and-such.”  They also tend to be laced with lower level writing quality and riddled with hidden underwriters.  However, I don’t think it’s right to fault someone for how he/she got his/her book deal until we’ve tried out the content.  In all honesty, I prefer poor writing over underwriting, because I find it to be more authentic.  Thus, as long as a book appears to have been written by the actual celebrity in question, and I have an appreciation for said celebrity, I’ll usually try reading the memoir.

So, of course, as a lifetime “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” fan, I wanted to see what Mr. Van Dyke had to say!

The best part of this book was having Van Dyke read it to me.  There’s an additional layer of authenticity added to a writer’s work when you have the opportunity to hear his own choice of inflection on each word, and that is certainly true of this one.  Each chapter in the book has a smattering of stories (reminiscent of the storytelling habits of most of our 80- to 90-year-old grandfathers), and having Van Dyke make the connections between those tales with his words and intonation made the story that much more enjoyable.  His humor was easier to spot (or hear), and you could glimpse his sincerity in the rare moments where he got serious to discuss Truth as he saw it.

This book, as may be evidenced by the title and the age of its author (91!) is mostly about old age and growing older.  While I, at 24, couldn’t really relate to the struggles of failing health, lost spouses, and children and grandchildren, I could appreciate the wisdom Van Dyke has gleaned over nearly a century of living.  He has many nuggets of knowledge tucked between his stories that shed significant light on life today.  While he never dove deep into philosophy, he often addressed the presence of the “Big Questions” of human existence.

I think my favorite part in the memoir was the chapter about What Really Matters, based on Van Dyke’s experience.  He discusses such topics as how unproductive and unhealthy “hate” is, and how much easier and better it is to “help.”  My favorite quote from the entire book is:

I read constantly, mostly theologians and philosophers.  Among those whose book I have turned to repeatedly are Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tournier….The thing these writers have in common is that they mostly ask questions, either of themselves or others, but especially of those who claim to know all the answers.  Doubt shines through all of their writing, an unrelenting, resilient doubt that I relate to intellectually.  As I have grown older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve come to see that there are no sure answers, only better questions–questions that get us closer to the truth about whatever it is we want or need to know.  Just knowing you don’t have the answers, in fact, is a recipe for humility, openness, acceptance, forgiveness, and an eagerness to learn–and these are all good things.

As a person of faith, this brief revelation speaks to me on a spiritual and intellectual level.  While I feel convictions about what I believe, I am most comfortable in environments that allow me to doubt and ask questions.  As someone who finds natural comfort in analysis, I prefer spaces in which nothing is known, so that I might posit my own ideas.  I am grateful to Van Dyke for sharing his own thoughts on this, and so boldly, as an important and significant reminder in this world’s current climate that none of us can surely know, and we can find comfort and understanding from that foundation.

Long story short, this is still just a celebrity memoir, but it is written and about a very significant member of American culture.  Van Dyke is a figurehead of many, if not most, of our childhoods, and his words deserve the reverence he has earned through the life that he is writing about.

 

Boy Erased

41za0h4lgql-_sy346_My experience with Conley’s story was entirely different than my experience with Van Dyke.  I had never heard of Garrard before I read about this book on Buzzfeed, and I actually selected this memoir to learn about its topic: conversion therapy.

In this book, Garrard Conley recounts his experience growing up gay in the South, and as a member of a devoutly Christian family.  He retells his story of coming out, sexual assault, and ultimately his exposure to Love in Action, an ex-gay therapy organization.  He recounts his experiences there, before, and afterward, and how these moments have impacted his life and his relationship with his family.

This book holds a special significance to me because, again, I am a person of faith.  I identify as Christian, although I hesitate to attach “Evangelical” to that anymore due to the way in which many people have warped the definition of that term to fit their political agendas in recent history.  I chose to read about someone who had taken part in conversion therapy because I wanted to understand what people of my faith have done–the damage to individuals and to the mission of Christ.  Despite my general association with the evangelical Christian establishment, I do not see homosexuality as an abomination or a choice.  Moreover, I see conversion therapy as a direct threat to the Gospel, and I think treating members of the LGBTQ community as sinners and outsiders is in direct contradiction to the cause of Jesus Christ.  However, most of my education on topics related to homosexuality and the Church have been one-sided, i.e. from the pulpit.  Thus, I have sought opportunities–like reading this book–to begin to understand the other side of this important issue.

That being said, Conley’s memoir resonated with me on a surreal level due to our similar backgrounds.  I have read reviews of his work that identified the text as too religious and riddled with biblical references that many didn’t understand or appreciate.  For me, however, these elements in Conley’s work gave me a connection to him I might not have had otherwise.  Each passage of Scripture he quotes, each reference he makes to a sermon or a statement by a church member, each prayer he prays, are phrases and statements I have heard and said in my own life.  In this way, his struggle was made more real to me.  I had little to fear in my upbringing as I heard these Scriptures and prayed these prayers; other than being a woman, I belonged in every way.  Conley, on the other hand, had everything to fear, and his references to Evangelical Christianity made that fear more palpable in my eyes.

I regret to say that, as much as I appreciated Conley’s story and ached for him in his struggles, I found his writing to be too elevated, and I felt like some of his accounts lacked real emotion.  I can understand why his writing may be in the style it is; he admires and respects excellent writers from throughout history, and his prose reflects that.  However, in a creative nonfiction way, he never reached a point where he tore into raw emotion.  He remained fairly reserved.  Again, I can understand why; this topic is so sensitive, so exposing, and as you see in the end the publishing of the book most likely ruined his father’s career.  In many ways it’s enough that he wrote the book.  However, the stories left me wishing I could sit down with him and have him tell them, like Van Dyke had, with his chosen inflections and enunciation.

That being said, the end of this book broke my heart.  Even in his reserved way of writing, Conley is revealing to his readers the reality of his situation now, after going through Love in Action.  In barest truth, he says:

I will open the LIA handbook, read a few sentences, and feel the old shame wash over me until I can no longer focus.  Once again, Smid’s voice will swallow my own before I have a chance to say anything.  I’ll face doubt, distrust my memories, spend hours trying to reconstruct scenes so charged with emotion they’ll seem impossible to pin down.  I’ll call my mother to ask for details, sit with her at a table and record her words, and nearly every time one of us will end up in tears.  My mother will apologize again and again.  I will try to comfort her, but I’ll fail, because all of it truly was as horrible as we remember it, and because it will never really go away, we will never be completely okay.  Our family will never be what it otherwise might have been.

And God.  I will not call on God at any point during this decade-long struggle.  Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there.  What happened to me has made it impossible to speak with God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing. My ex-gay therapists took him away from me, and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest.  I will feel the pang of a deep love now absent from my life.  I will continue to experiment with different denominations, different religions.  I will continue to search.  And even if I no longer believe in Hell, I will continue to struggle with the fear of it.  Perhaps one day I will hear His voice again.  Perhaps not.  It’s a sadness I deal with on a daily basis.

This is what leaves me angry.  Not with Garrard–heavens, not with Garrard.  With the people who claim to share my faith.  In an attempt to make someone look like our ideal model of a Christian, we have caused someone to lose his faith completely.

For all of those hurting like Garrard, I am sorry.  For everyone who has experienced pain at the hands of people who claim to preach love and forgiveness, I am sorry.  I am so sorry.

As I reached the end of this book, I realized this is a story we all should hear.  I knew from the beginning it was one I would benefit from learning, but now I recognize its even greater significance and purpose.  I don’t necessarily think everyone should try to read Conley’s book–after all, the writing is weighty at times, and I’m sure some people would have too hard of a time dealing with the graphic content at different points.  However, each person should seek out a story like his, and hear it firsthand or in writing.  Humanity as a whole needs to show more solidarity, and people who claim to have faith need to learn acceptance.  I feel blessed and broken to have experienced this memoir, and I’m proud to sing its praises in this setting.

 

As you can see, my memoir-reading spans the gamut.  This week’s exploration was particularly diverse, although each author landed on similar themes: Don’t hate, and demonstrate love.

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Fredrik Backman

Last weekend, I finished the book Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman—one of my favorite authors of this decade.  This is the third book I’ve read by him, and I’m looking forward to reading his novella, which was released in English in December, and waiting for his next book, set to be available stateside around summertime.

This was the first book I’ve read by Backman that didn’t leave me saying, “Wow!”  Because of this, I feel like reflecting back on my reading experience with him to kind of talk through why I felt this way about Britt-Marie was Here.  I’ve published a version of this post as a review on Goodreads, but I wanted to embellish it for further thought here.

I appreciated A Man Called Ove firstly for its similarities to The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.  Both are great portraits of the elderly, and they read like a conversation you might have with your grandfather, or another aging relative.  Moreover, I enjoyed the quick wit that leapt out of very straightforward language.  Part of me wonders if this shouldn’t be attributed to the translator, but clearly Backman has an appreciation for quick and simple situational humor.  He seems like the kind person who can laugh at everyday occurrences.  Another aspect of Ove I loved was his affection for his wife.  One quote from the book that still sticks with me is, “People said Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was color.  All the color he had.”  In this element, Backman managed to capture that part of our hearts that always breaks at the beginning of Disney Pixar’s “Up.”  It’s a huge component of what makes you invest in the man who is Ove, who might otherwise seem like nothing more than a grumpy old man.  Finally, I love how the opening chapter of this book hangs in the balance until you’ve almost forgotten it, and then, VERY near the end, you read (paraphrased), And that’s why Ove was standing in the store asking about an iPad.  All in all, Backman made you love his characters, watch their development, and get lost in love, laughter, and heartache over their general daily lives.

What I loved about My Grandmother Asked You to Tell You She’s Sorry stemmed from what I had also loved in Ove.  This story took a little longer to get moving, but it finished in perfection.  What I love about this story is how the reader is exposed to the nuances of the situations in ways that escape Elsa’s understanding.  Much like the humor hidden in A Man Called Ove, the harsh reality of life and death are tucked away in the passages of this one.  I also loved how all the lives of everyone around Elsa came together because of what her grandmother had done in life.  Each person served a purpose in the end, and the plot still felt plausible because they were all simply repaying the debt they owe to Granny.  At the same time, the reader really can’t predict everything that happens, so you’re left in this sort of awe over the results, and you can simply dwell in the emotions Elsa feels as well.  Moreover, as someone who is extremely close with her grandmother, I greatly enjoyed reading about another girl’s experience getting to know here mom’s mom.  I even appreciated the fact that this book alluded to the next, with the exodus of Britt-Marie and the promise of her own adventures.

Which brings us to the topic that’s really at hand.

I really, really, really wanted to enjoy this book as much as Backman’s other stories, but I simply couldn’t.  While the potential was there, it all fell flat.

When I first realized that there would be a story dedicated to Britt-Marie, I was pretty excited.  I felt that My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry only scratched the surface of her character.  She was dismissed, pretty much literally, throughout the entire story.  I figured she deserved her time in the spotlight.  In addition, I love when authors address mental illness and social disorders in their books by applying them to their characters.  Britt-Marie has no named disorders, but I would say it’s safe to assume she suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and perhaps some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well.  Moreover, several of her behaviors imitate those who are on the Autism Spectrum.  Regardless of what she is actually supposed to have—or to not have—her character spoke directly to the part of me that seeks to learn more about people who deal with these struggles.  I dove into the text with all the hope and excitement that accompanies getting to know an acquaintance a little bit better.

Unfortunately, as delightful as it was to witness her working through her situations and learning how to adapt, I felt that she still never gained any significance.  Unlike in My Grandmother…, however, she is the one who does a large amount of the dismissing.   The entire premise of the book is that Britt-Marie “was here,” in Borg, and the people will remember that she had been because the town has changed.  To be fair, a lot happens after Britt-Marie arrives in town, and a lot is going to stay different when she heads back out.  However, I felt that everything that happened probably would have still happened even if Britt-Marie had, in fact, not been there.  Unlike Ove and Granny, who drastically affected the lives of those around them (somewhat intentionally, mostly on accident), Britt-Marie remains a fairly passive character and does not strike me as a catalyst in the situations around her.  Despite her presence in the middle of the story (and the town), a lot of her encounters reveal her to still be the “fly on the wall.”  She doesn’t even manage to serve as the coach to the soccer team in the end because she has no license, so, while she supports them and takes the register, she has little influence over their actual experience.  Moreover, even in the moments where her actions do change the future, she doesn’t seem to take anything away from them.  While she has several opportunities to grow and change, she takes none of them, and is left pretty much where she started, except with a blue door on her white car—and she’s not even happy about it.

I also think that the story was lending itself toward a rather specific outcome in the end, but rather than taking the narrative to that place, Backman tried to fix his plot around a different ending that left me with zero closure.  It is clear through both books in which she is present that Britt-Marie wants nothing more than to be a mother.  And here, in this story, she is presented with three orphans in need of a mother—literally.  Two of them even become wards of the state, in need of adoption.  And the children are crazy about Britt-Marie.  Yet, in response to their need, Britt-Marie goes to Paris.

Um, what?

For the longest time, it seemed that Britt-Marie would leave Kent, get with Sven, and raise Sami, Vega, and Omar with him.  But none of that happens.  Rather, Britt-Marie is overwhelmed by her moral compass (which is mostly dictated by her age, apparently) and decides to return to the life that she has spent the last months running from.  The thought of adopting never crosses her mind, even after Sami has asked her to watch out for Vega and Omar and make sure they have a good home.  Britt-Marie really doesn’t hang out long enough to make sure this happens.  Even Sven “abandons” the children in the end under the assumption that some other set of parents, who already have children (and who, I might add, were not actual characters in this story until they come to Sami’s funeral), will step up and take over.  To me, this doesn’t sound like either of these characters at all, and quite frankly challenges my belief that the story itself should exist.  After all, if the entire plot builds to a point where Britt-Marie makes no choices and just goes on a holiday, why did she need to encounter these people in the first place?  And how dare we then attribute her presence as worthwhile on their lives?

I was also irked by the morality that trumped all behavioral elements in the marriage of Britt-Marie and Kent in the end.  Kent, clearly, has not changed.  Even as he helps Britt-Marie achieve one of her personal goals (i.e. the soccer pitch [Does that even happen, by the way?  It was never very clear, in my opinion.]), it is over and against her autonomy as an employed woman and in preparation for her to come home with him and return to life as normal.  The story tells us honestly that Britt-Marie must choose between the soccer pitch and her job.  Of course, Britt-Marie is the main decision-maker in deciding to have the field developed (again, does this even happen?), but that also points back to the problem.  Not to mention that, at least verbally, Kent is extremely abusive!  He dismisses Britt-Marie, even as she tries to explain to him why she left in the first place.  And his strict understanding of gender roles, while at one time might have satisfied her, have ceased to apply now that she’s lived on her own.

I don’t think the story gives full appreciation to the fact that this is the first time Britt-Marie has really been on her own.  She was self-sufficient when her mother turned ill, but she was not at that time also a single woman in charge of her life.  Her mom dictated her every step, and shortly after Mom’s death, Britt-Marie married Kent.  She has never had a place of her own, and rather than fully appreciating it or grasping its significance, Britt-Marie goes home.

Essentially, despite alluded-to growth, Britt-Marie has barely changed from the person she was when she fled her original home.  We could see all through “My Grandmother…” that Britt-Marie was discontent and underappreciated in that life.  She set out to escape it for some reason, clearly, but at the end of this novel she is headed back in the same direction, albeit through France instead of the most direct route.

I’m not saying that Britt-Marie should have run off with Sven, but I am saying that it should have taken more than a feeling of commitment to Kent and the thought, “You are too old to start over now” to convince her to return to an unhappy marriage.  I appreciate Backman’s moral compass in most of his writing, but here I think it overwhelmed general common sense.

The whole story was not awful.  Backman’s standbys were still present.  The book reads like you are sitting next to an elderly relative on their front porch, listening to them talk about their life.  This is perhaps my favorite element of Backman’s storytelling.  Some books beg you to turn the pages faster and devour the story in one gulp, but Backman’s books can hang out for a time without rushing you.  Many of the characters are lovable, including Somebody, who remains this sort of enigmatic antihero reminiscent of Everyman or Odysseus’ “Nobody.”  The two men in the pizza shop each day are a perfect representation of small-town living.  The town itself sounds beautiful, and the concepts at work are commonplace and comforting.  There are the expected heart-wrenching moments that leave you invested in the individuals who experience them.  When Ben scores the team’s only goal, and when Sami’s car doesn’t come back, I had actual tears in my eyes.  And, of course, small moments make you giggle and even laugh out loud.  His wit is, again, so quick and so simply you could easily miss it.  These elements of his talent were still there, if overshadowed by a storyline that lost its direction—and may have never ended up anywhere.

This review turned more depressing that I was expecting it to, or than I meant for it to be.  In the end, I’m not sad that I read this book, but I am sad that it did not turn out better than it did.  I think, for his own good, Backman should move away from similar character types—older people encountering youths and having their lives changed for the better.  Hopefully his next works will be able to stand on their own.  He certainly hasn’t lost a reader in this experience.  I look forward to taking some time in the next month or so to read through And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.

– Fredrick Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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