Turtles All the Way Down

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Look, I love John Green. As far as I can tell, he’s a great human and a decent writer. Plus, disclaimer: I’ve taught Looking for Alaska in sophomore honors English for almost 10 years.

And Turtles All the Way Down is a fine book in some regards. The portrayal of mental illness is top flight, right up there with Schusterman’s Challenger Deep. It puts readers who do not live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the mind and heart of someone who does. It’s real and terrifying. For that alone, Green deserves praise.

Plus, the relationships are both realistic and aspirational. The romance between Aza and Davis is handled sensitively and features consent. The best friend conflict is a little undercooked and over too quickly, but as a result, it’s actually one of the more realistic elements of the story–and one that ties directly to the portrayal of mental illness. Daisy interrogates Aza’s privilege to the point that she’s suggesting OCD is a luxury item. It’s not, and I appreciate that Green raises the spectre of that question, too often posed to those living with mental illness1.

However, the dialogue™ and the characters™ are a little too polished, like holding a handful of tumbled rocks.

The perfected form of a teenager.

And those perfected teenagers are far too familiar from his other work: they share the extensive philosophical concerns they always do, the relational tone of Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, and the rewriting-disease narrative of The Fault in Our Stars.

But does any of that matter? It was nice to be in Green’s universe again, where this one truth always prevails: We are the stories we tell about ourselves.

1 Another grace note worth mentioning is the short, quasi-elegaic flash forward at the end of the novel. Many readers–myself included–will wonder: is that Green or Aza? The book is dedicated to Green’s children, Henry and Alice, and it closes with a sort of apology to Aza’s (?) future children and an expression of gratitude to lifelong friends.

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I Crawl Through It

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I Crawl Through it tackles education, rape culture, family trauma, and friendship with King’s matter-of-fact surrealism.

Stanzi’s parents leave her the same note every night, “Went to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure to turn out the lights.”

Stanzi’s best fried, China, swallowed herself and is a walking stomach or anus on any given day.

Stanzi knows her friend Lansdale is a chronic liar with Pinocchio hair and four stepmothers.

Stanzi’s love, Gustav, is building an invisible helicopter. She can only see it on Tuesdays.

The bush man is a nudist and a sculptor of letters. He has all the answers.

Except he doesn’t. No one does. And the people who think they do live in an invisible place with no departures. Their answers don’t do anyone any good. Gustav and Stanzi run away to them, but escape with the bush man’s love, Patricia, in tow.

Meanwhile, China runs away to New York, and Lansdale tries to escape in a newscaster’s hotel room.

All of them return to their home town–and each other– to confront reality and find healing. But it’s not like their hometown is perfect. The adults at home are disengaged with their kids’ lives in every meaningful way. Stanzi and her friends go to a school where there is a bomb threat every day.  No one knows who is sending the threats, no one seems particularly fussed about it. School is one long series of interruptions. In fact, this book suggests school AS interruption to finding the answers, to living the answers.

Still.  [spoilers ahead] Home is where the healing begins. Lansdale cuts her hair and her lies, Gustav gets his Physics teacher to give him credit for building the invisible helicopter, Stanzi confronts her parents about the car accident that killed her baby sister, and China tells her mom what happened.

That scene–when China explains that her ex-boyfriend raped her and then posted pictures of it all over the internet–is one of the most utopian confession scenes ever written. In sum: King handled it tenderly but in a chapter titled “That Little Shit.” She puts China 100% in charge of telling her own story and then she evokes China’s mother’s emotions without muting China’s story. [Wow. Just wow.]

Another revelatory scene happens near the end of the novel when the principal suggests that they’ve found the man making the bomb threats and put him on public display on the football field. When Stanzi goes to investigate, she finds the dangerous bush man circled by her peers and teachers. Everyone is throwing things at him–all their trauma and anger and wrong answers. When she asks why, someone answers “Because he can take it.”

The bush man is a Girard-ian scapegoat if ever there was one. But even that doesn’t work. The only way out of any of this for any of them is to crawl through it.

As a post-script, I particularly enjoyed EW’s review, which you can find here.

 

Late to the party

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TL;DR

I’m calling these my “late to the party” books. When they were ragingly popular, I checked them out from the library and couldn’t get into them. I gave up.

But then came audible. And now these are the most recent five-star books on my list.

The Longer Version

This spring, I listened to My Brilliant Friend on my way to and from work each day. It took forever–both the story and the length of the book are epic–but it was so worth it. I loved the book and wrote about it on Goodreads (as did Rick Riordan in a post that made me even more of a fan girl than I already was):

Elena Ferrante gives us the gift of exquisite (sometimes excruciating) close ups, full of richly textured detail, alongside a ruthlessness about Elena’s inner life. She also makes the squabbles and foibles of a neighborhood I’ll never know become epic stand-ins for all of human life. I’ve never read a book like this.

Then, while driving cross-country with my family this summer, I tuned into A Man Called Ove at the recommendation of my brother-in-law. I was immediately captured by Backman’s use of free indirect style to create an unforgettable voice. I fell in love with Ove with all his curmudgeon ways, as lots of others had managed to do before me. Over on Goodreads, I wrote this in mid-book:

As for the story, the voice makes it astonishingly funny with an undercurrent of grief. Can’t wait to keep listening.

And this when I finished:

Great use of free indirect style & metaphor to create a character so real he can’t die.

So even though I was late to the party on both of these titles, I’m so glad I finally arrived.

Me & Marvin Gardens by A.S. King

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Me and Me and Marvin Gardens

Oddly enough, the last time I had enough get-up-and-go to write a review, it was for another of A.S. King’s books. Perhaps that is praise enough.

King has woven many of the themes from her YA work into this weird, charming middle grade, and I loved that–I found it compelling to see toxic masculinity and environmental degradation through the eyes of a younger, more vulnerable kid.

The kid himself–Obe–is sweet, sensitive, and smart, but not precious. I think there are a LOT of boys like him in the world, but not very many books about those boys. As a mom to one, I was grateful to see him being a protagonist. He’s an uncertain, tentative protagonist, sure, but he’s also a protagonist with a real spine (a spine he puts to formidable use in standing up for his friend Annie in one of the most moving sequences in the novel).

And my own kids were wide eyed at there being a  book about a family who lived on the last wild patch by the creek in a development of “new spacious homes!”–since that’s essentially where we live.

My main critique of the book is that it comes across as a little too didactic, and I think in a large part that’s because of the “told” style King chose. Every chapter starts with “There were/was…” and it’s clear by the end that the novel is positioned like To Kill A Mockingbird: an older narrator re-inhabiting a childhood space.

That said, I think the didactic component might work quite well for a younger middle grade audience. For example, the “Earth Facts” on the announcements at Obe’s school–and his responses to them–will feel very urgent, important, and realistic to lots of kids who read them. My 8yo, for one!

As for the surreal element (Marvin Gardens himself), I’m not sure it worked as well as surrealism typically does in King’s novels because ultimately Marvin functioned more like a plot device than anything.

Still, I am glad I read it and plan to recommend it to several readers I know.

Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King

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A feminist, surrealist YA title in shades of Vonnegut. Ostensibly the story of a 16yo girl calling out her family on its toxicity and lies, TORNADO is really a bold invitation for young women to welcome, love, and nurture of all their different selves.

An invitation to tell themselves and those around them the truth.

An invitation do the work they love even when others undermine it–or them.

In the present, Sarah is avoiding school and art, following a homeless man in her neighborhood, and frequently bumping into her 10yo, 23yo, and 40yo selves. She hasn’t seen her brother Bruce since the family took a trip to Mexico when she was 10. Interspersed with modern day chapters are short monologues from her mother’s point of view as well as chapters for each of the days of the Mexico trip.

But what makes this book go beyond an issue book is King’s mastery of motif. For example, on the Mexico trip, the ocean is so churned up that it’s not clear or blue but dull brown and full of churned up seaweed, like a toilet bowl full of diarrhea, according to Sarah.

Later, as she learns the truth of her family, she talks about living in a toxic stew of lies and ruin…but the images of the ocean in Mexico so well established that it creates echoes seamlessly.

The book has hundreds of layers like that, overlapping images and phrases and ideas that come back again & again to create new light, new energy, new meaning.

TORNADO is an impressive feat from a leading literary writer.

Disclaimer: I moved this book up on my TBR after King told me and my students recently on a Skype visit that this book “hit too close to home” because she’d stayed in an abusive marriage herself.
As a result, I find myself keenly aware that this book is also a story of domestic violence–even though that violence happens only on the edges of Sarah’s awareness. But to say it’s a massive influence on everything in the story is an understatement, so it probably deserves a heads up.

Political Action Training

Yesterday, I offered a political action training class for any interested adults at my church.

So many folks asked for my handouts from the event that I’m posting it here as a single PDF: Political Action Training. Feel free to share the PDF with others.

NOTE: To be fair, these are strategies that can be helpful no matter which side of the politics you’re on, and they’re mostly a combination of what I’ve learned about teaching students to read non-fiction and reading resources myself, most notably the Indivisible Guide (linked here), which I cannot recommend enough!

Credit to Maureen Hill (2017) for the Purposes of Nonfiction slides and to EasyBib for the how-to-read-news infographic.

 

The Inquisitor’s Tale

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…Won a Newbery honor while I was reading it!

I loved the story of three unlikely friends going on a quest to save copies of the Talmud, and I loved the way the author imagined what the “rest of the world” really thought in a time of religious persecution.

The method of telling–sort of a middle grade Canterbury Tales– was enchanting, as were the historical notes at the end and all the “meta” moments about storytelling in between.

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