All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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This is another good young adult novel, so I’m happy. Except that I was mostly crying while I was reading it.

The main characters of the story are both outsiders, struggling with all kinds of traumas and difficulties. Violet, despite being popular in high school, turns completely inward after a family tragedy, and she stops caring about being a cheerleader, having a relationship with the coolest kid in the school, or keeping up her old friendships with the girls with whom – now it seems – she never had anything common in the first place.

Then there’s Theodore Finch, an unpredictable goth-like guy, who’s considered to be a total weirdo, and who’s constantly thinking about death even though he loves being alive.

Violet and Theodore meet accidentally, fall in love with, and – as it’s supposed to be in real love – they both show the other how the world can be different, or that even if it cannot be different, you can at least look at it in a different way.

Luckily, Jennifer Niven is a realist, so she doesn’t pretend that love has a magic power. For instance, love is not enough to cure mental illnesses, and love is not enough to make one forget about their tragic losses, and even though it’s awesome to have someone to love, being neglected at home or bullied in school will still hurt.

And yes – I like young adult novels that can be taken seriously, that deal not only with sunny topics, and that don’t promise easy solutions.
And perhaps I’ll look up Niven’s adult books one day, too. I was surprised to learn that this was her first foray into the young adult genre.

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Youth in Revolt by C. D. Payne

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I have a theory explaining why extremely intelligent, precocious teenagers in possession of an intimidatingly rich vocabulary are so over-represented in coming-of-age novels. The reason, perhaps, is that the authors of such novels – in most cases not teenagers themselves – probably have no idea how teenagers talk in real life. However, by claiming that their characters are extremely intelligent (and so on), they provide an explanation for the strange phenomenon that the supposedly teenage characters use such complicated sentence structures and employ such exotic vocabulary that would put high-ranking members of the English aristocracy to shame.

And perhaps just as importantly: this can be a rich source of humor – using extremely sophisticated language is rather comic when the teenagers in question only ever discuss and describe a single, very mundane topic: sex.

Nick Twisp here doesn’t care about anything else, either – his main goal is to get to fourth base with the fantastic teenage goddess, Sheeni, but it would be a mistake to think that reading 500 pages about how a pimply, sex-crazed 14-year-old wants to finally lose his virginity is a boring ride. It’s anything but – C. D. Payne is a writer with incredible comic talents, and he takes all the possible miseries of a teenager’s life (the overactive hormones, mostly, but also the problems of a completely screwed up family, school difficulties, and so on) and goes on to write about them in a wonderfully absurd, morbid, insanely funny way.

Youth in Revolt is definitely not a melancholic coming-of-age novel, tackling the hard questions and doubts around human existence. And of course, why would anyone ever need to feel sad or hopeless? According to Nick, there’s certainly no reason to feel that way, ever. As he puts it: “Consider, if you will, the morning boner. What a metaphor of hope and renewal! How can anyone give way to despair when one’s groin greets each new day with such a gala spectacle of physiological optimism?”

By the way, if I stopped to think about all the horrors presented in this novel (various cases of sexual abuse and harassment; parents completely devoid of parenting abilities; deviant behavior patterns; leaving a horde of teens to their own devices; and so on), I’d probably consider slitting my wrists. Fortunately, this is not a novel where you have to seriously think about all this, or where you have to lament over the possible fate of hopeless and deviant modern youth. The youth depicted here manages just fine, and I’m having an awful lot of fun.

(The quote on the cover claims that this is the funniest book you’ll read this year. It’s certainly the funniest I’ve read so far, and I can’t imagine that anything will surpass it in the remaining few weeks of the year.)

It by Stephen King

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It’s a mystery how we ever manage to grow up (and I don’t know whether we actually do manage to). While reading this novel, I thought and remembered a lot of things about growing up (my own growing up, things I thought I’d forgotten, but now they came back, but I’ll forget them again), about being a loser, and about all the shit even the most average kid (who doesn’t live in a horror novel) goes through before becoming an adult – and I was truly amazed how we can ever live long enough to become adults.

I, for example, wasn’t a conspicuous loser and I wasn’t bullied, but I got a hunch that I was saved from this only because I had pretty developed instincts of self-preservation, so I carefully guarded my vulnerability, and didn’t make it public knowledge when, say, in my early teens I had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio or on the cute guy from the other class. I had a classmate, though, who was naïve and honest enough not to hide her crush on one of the Backstreet Boys guys, and she got picked on by the cool kids quite badly. After a while she was bullied not only because of her Backstreet Boys weakness, but for everything and anything, and this still hurts her. Which is no wonder – being a loser isn’t particularly awesome, especially when you’re a loser on your own.

Not many writers can feel and describe this so well as Stephen King, who deals with losers in a disproportionate amount of his books, losers who must bravely face various horrors, not because they’re so adventurous – just because that’s how life is. The horror can be the simple terribleness of everyday life, and it can also be the crazy bloody gut-slicing gruesome stuff of horror movies, but the distinction doesn’t matter that much because the horror is always brought on and created by someone’s imagination – which, of course, doesn’t mean that it is not real.

There’s certainly a lot of gory stuff here, sure, but my imagination is probably not what it used to be, it’s the pragmatic imagination of an adult, so I can’t really get scared of Things living in the gutters and of cities where Evil lives. On the other hand, I can get extremely scared of the average horrors of average lives – of people not paying attention, withholding their love, not giving a shit, being deliberate assholes, being violent – and King is very good at depicting these kinds of horrors. (I’d say he’s better at it than depicting the gory kind.) And he’s also good at depicting and evoking emotions – this didn’t surprise me; I often feel deep distress and sadness when reading his books, but I think this was the first time he even made me cry. A lot.

My favorite part, by the way, is when one of the characters, Bill, who later becomes a writer, goes off on a rant during one of his university literature classes about why the hell it’s necessary for a story to be deliberately politically, culturally and socially relevant, since a story, if it’s a good one, will be full of political, cultural and social relevance anyway, automatically, and there’s no need to force all that stuff into it. I don’t know if King follows his (character’s) philosophy deliberately, but his books are like this. There’s so much in them, especially in such a long one as this, that I won’t even start discussing it here, but I guess I learned more about contemporary American ways and reality from King than from all my university courses on the subject. So yeah, his books are full of relevance. And still – his books are stories. And I read for stories.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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The carnival:

I have a hard time imagining how carnivals and circuses can continue to function; I know no-one who likes them. Of course, I probably haven’t yet spoken with enough people about carnivals and circuses, but those I’ve spoken with all hate and/or fear them. Me too.

Friendships, especially the big, eternal ones:

The sense that no, they won’t last forever seems to have been coded into them from the very first moment. This is how it is here, too. Right from the opening scene where Will, the eternal American good boy politely replies to the questions of the lightning-rod salesman, while his best friend, Jim, the eternal American trouble-maker and trouble-seeker, a boy instinctively drawn to everything weird, unsettling and dark, keeps quiet.

One of the basic elements of novels about young boys growing up is that there’s a moment, somewhere around the age of 14, when the innocent boy-life is first invaded by adult life, and sure, you can go on pretending for a couple more years that nothing’s happened but the fruit stolen from the neighborhood trees on warm summer nights won’t taste quiet as sweet anymore. Bradbury captures the terrible melancholy of this perfectly.

Death:

I don’t know when the right time to learn about death comes – but whenever the knowledge comes, it always feels way too early. I’m not thinking about a particular death, rather about the realization or acceptance of the fact that death exists. After this moment, it seems we must keep asking ourselves: would I ride the magic carnival ride that can take me back or forward in time? And if I would, in which direction would I ride it?

Still – I was expecting this novel to be darker and more horrible. But Bradbury can always surprise me with his eternal optimism, his ability to see the good everywhere, and his ability to honestly believe that death doesn’t exist. (Why he writes about all this in such an extremely flowery, overcrowded language is a mystery, though.)

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

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I haven’t read such a charming yet completely authentic novel in a while.

Dodie Smith’s novel is a modern take on the marriage above all story-line typical of Jane Austen’s novels, but at the same time it’s a completely self-standing work.

The narrator-protagonist is 17-year-old Cassandra, who lives with her delightfully (really: delightfully! not irritatingly, not hatefully, not unbearably) crazy family in a romantic, half-ruined castle in the English countryside, writes her journal (using a unique, consciously naïve style) by candlelight, imagines herself to be the heroine either of a novel by Jane Austen or by a Brontë sister, and slowly grows up.

Her coming of age really starts when two eligible bachelors move to the neighborhood from the mythical world of the United States. Cassandra and her sister, Rose take an active interest in the newcomers and regard them as the possible means of saving their family from its not at all romantic poverty, so they start out on a quest to get a husband, each sister in her own way – Rose by assuming the role of a passive heroine and frantically batting her eyelashes, and Cassandra by… – well, she doesn’t really do anything at all; instead, she observes the people around her, interprets and analyzes her reactions and emotions, and comes to all kinds of conclusions – and very smart ones at that.

So this is really something like Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility here, to the extent that it caught me by surprise when, for example, Cassandra once wondered around in London in the middle of the night – I was automatically thinking that no proper 19th century lady could ever have done something like this, no matter how impoverished her family was – and then I realized that we’re already in the 20th century here, where it’s possible for a young girl to walk around in London at night.

Dodie Smith, of course, plays with this feeling of timelessness deliberately. Even if you can more or less determine when the story takes place, from such details that there are automobiles, radios and gramophone records here (and I think there’s a single mention of the fact that we’re in the 1930s), still, there’s an ageless atmosphere here (or rather an atmosphere reminiscent of an era at least a hundred years earlier), and it’s hugely intriguing: roaming in this new-old English countryside, and comparing the real Jane Austen-world with this updated Jane Austen-like world, and seeing how they are different.

For me, the most interesting difference is that while in Jane Austen’s world marriage carries an inherent value (sure, it’s great if you accidentally find a suitable partner, however, if you’ve been stupid enough to hook up with a less than suitable person, then, well, tough luck, you still need to get married to that person for appearances’ sake), for Dodie Smith marriage is not inherently valuable, and there’s more than one possible way of life for a woman in her world. (Sure, it’s the 20th century already, with supposedly more opportunities, and so on – still, if I think how easy it still is to automatically follow the default way of life, then it’s really something that Smith writes about more than one possible ways.)

Besides all this, this is a pure feel-good novel. There’s an edge of sadness to the feel-good atmosphere, though, which makes it all the more interesting, but going into details about this would be a spoiler even by my lenient standards so I’ll just stop right here this time.

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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Tropper’s novel started out entertainingly enough (it even made me laugh out loud, twice) but I soon became annoyed and towards the end I kept thinking this novel was just too loud, too action-packed, too forced, too cheap. Just a whole lot of quick and supposedly witty talk, just a whole lot of cruising on the surface without ever getting deep into anything.

As for the story: the patriarch of the Foxman family passes away, so the family get together to sit shiva, the 7-day Jewish mourning period. The family members are none too enthusiastic, and not just because of the death in the family, but because their relations are the best when they are all far away from one another. Anyway, they must honor the last will of the dead father, so the widow and the four grown-up children, together with all the spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and so on resign themselves to the fact that they’ll have to spend a week together and mourn.

This period, naturally, brings all the hurts, fears and desires of the past to the surface, and because the family members possess no self-control whatsoever, their erupting emotions lead to extremely dramatic and spectacular situations. So much so that I got the impression that the book was written explicitly so that it could be turned into a film, even if, supposedly, that wasn’t the case.

Anyway, we soon learn – because Tropper hammers the point home on every fifth page or so – that the Foxman family is famous for being completely dysfunctional, and that it’s a family made up of utterly tactless people who are unable to express their emotions in any way that could be considered halfway normal. This is a very comfortable solution as it provides an excuse (to the writer, I think) why the characters constantly get into fistfights (because the poor little souls have no other methods of communication), and it also provides an excuse for the general shallowness of the novel – after all, if the characters are emotionally illiterate morons, then it cannot be expected that the author characterize them properly.

Wait, actually, it can be expected. But Tropper doesn’t care about characterization and depth, and most of the characters are exaggerated caricatures with approximately one defining feature – there’s the vulgar, bitchy old mother (something like Bridget Jones’ mom); there’s the belligerent sister-in-law whose only desire is to finally get pregnant; there’s the prodigal son who can get into the pants of any woman in about 3 seconds; and so on. After a while it starts to be a pain in the ass to read about such one-dimensional characters (but at least it goes fast).

The only exception is the main character, Judd, who’s in the middle of a messy divorce and in the process of disintegration, and who’s a bit like Rob from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in a slightly less melancholic edition. His constant flow of emotional whining is good, darkly funny, and real – perhaps simply because he at least has some kind of depth, and in his case, we don’t only see that he’s messed up because Tropper says he’s messed up.

Fortunately, Judd is the most important main character, so we can read a whole lot of his whining, and that’s enjoyable, but the novel is still far from being remarkable.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

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This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

Different Seasons by Stephen King

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King claims in his afterword to this book of four novellas that he’s not very good at writing delicate and elegant prose – and I agree with his self-assessment. What he’s good at, though, is writing stories, and whenever I read or re-read one of his books, I tend to enjoy his writing a lot.

The first novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is mainly good because it’s the basis for the film. After re-reading the novella, I quickly watched the film again, too, and I concluded that I liked the film better than King’s text. It seems to me that the film allows sufficient time for things to develop while the novella feels more rushed, and the film is more balanced than King’s prose. The film wouldn’t exist without King’s novella, though, so I don’t complain much.

The second novella, Apt Pupil is the least successful one in the book. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to compare the novellas to each other, as King says in the afterword that the book is made up of stories that have nothing to do with each other and there’s no underlying organizing principle here, so it’s possible to talk about each story on its own. However, seeing that they are actually in the same book, and given the fact that I tend to read stories in a book in the order in which they are presented, it’s hard for me to ignore what comes before and after a particular story. So: both in comparison with the other novellas, and viewed on its own, Apt Pupil isn’t very good.

It’s an extremely long, convoluted, meandering story that deals with a lot of issues but manages to avoid dealing with the essence. The story is about a war criminal, an old Nazi hiding in the United States, and about a high school boy who develops a morbid fascination with the horrors of Nazi death camps. And yes, it’s horrifying: what a sick imagination can do, and it’s painful to see what emptiness and perversion lies behind the everyday, perfectly average, perfectly American nice-boy façade of the main character. However, in this topic I’d rather recommend American Psycho – because that’s much better than this story.

The third novella, The Body is my favorite from this book. It’s an excellent story about young kids on the brink of adulthood, about going on boyish adventures, about growing up, about the loss of innocence. And I mean the innocence of the mind here: that transient state, that last moment, week, summer when we’re all still just kids – fooling around, pretending to be heroes, adventurers, explorers; when it doesn’t matter yet whether our friends are jerks or not; when girls haven’t yet come into the picture; when no-one cares yet what the future will bring.

And the way King depicts this fragile and fleeting period is beautiful, lyrical and perhaps even delicate and elegant at places. In any case, he manages to move me to tears a couple of times (and not with the awfulness of his prose, like in Apt Pupil).

The last novella, The Breathing Method is a paranormal story, not exactly horror, more like an exercise in the uncanny. It’s nicely wrapped up in another, equally mysterious framing story, and while it’s not the most innovative mystery story ever, it’s strangely captivating and magical. I think King can be great when he doesn’t try to be too intellectual and artistic, and he doesn’t do that here – he only tells a story. And he’s really good at telling stories.