Review: The After-Life, by Daniel Ehrenhaft

The After-Life, Daniel Ehrenhaft

In short: A pretty good road-trip novel. It didn’t leave much of an impression, to be honest (I’m writing this review about six weeks after reading it, because…well, I forgot I’d read it). But I do remember enjoying it. The premise is that a messed-up alcoholic drop-out nineteen-year-old starts attending the private school where the half-siblings he’s never met (his dad ran out when he was a baby, and he hasn’t seen him since) also go to school. Upon matriculating, Will meets the half-siblings—twins Kyle and Liz—and, shortly thereafter, his long-absent father. Daddy then dies, sending the three kiddos on a road trip up the East Coast. They chat, they do drugs, they…well, mack a little bit. But it’s all good. And the first chapter—Will’s entrance essay for Kyle and Liz’s posh private school—is insanely funny. I liked it, and I suspect most of the teens who pick it up will, too—regardless of gender, for once.

Read it if you like: The Au-pairs, but don’t want to lose any more brain cells; debauchery; sexier updates of older YA road-trip novels, like my favorite, Joan Bauer’s Rules of the Road

Review: The Education of Robert Nifkin, by Daniel Pinkwater

The Education of Robert Nifkin, Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater can always be relied upon for slightly surreal, totally brilliant fiction, and The Education of Robert Nifkin is no exception. It’s written in first-person as the longest college admissions essay ever, and like any good personal statement, it grabs you right from the first line: “My father is a son-of-a-bitch from Eastern Europe.”

The novel/personal statement that follows is a brief, colorful trip through 1950s Chicago. At Robert’s public high school, his teachers spend substantially more time warning students of the perils of communism, homosexuality, and Judaism than they do teaching (their preferred method is to write a paragraph on the blackboard and have the students spend the period copying it down). It later turns out that the only communist around is the ROTC sergeant.

Since he’s not learning he stops attending, and instead spends most of his time wandering the city and waxing poetic about its architecture, culture, and residents. Obviously I was biased in my enjoyment of those sections, but they hold a lot of the appeal that Nick and Norah’s did: they’re such unpretentious, genuine reactions to the excitement of a big city (something Pinkwater has a knack for capturing—see Lizard Music, as well).

The first chapters of this book are riotously funny, and its depictions of lousy public school teachers are accurate enough to be cutting. After Robert transfers to the hippie-beatnik-non-school, the humor is tempered a little, allowing Robert to develop into a likeable, interesting character in his own right, rather than just a vehicle for Pinkwater’s hilariousness. And in the end, this book has a few messages that all educators could stand to hear again. Chief among them: learning does not occur in a vacuum, students are people too.

The real problem with this book, and I find it’s a problem with a lot of his work for YAs, is that it appeals to only a small subset of teenagers. All the adults I know love it, but it requires teens to have to have a degree of self-awareness (and a sense of humor about themselves) that’s pretty rare. In our library, this book also takes a hit for being historical fiction, which our kids avoid as much as possible.

With that caveat, though, this is a terrific book—one of Pinkwater’s best, I think, and worth reading for the first few chapters alone. I found myself reading aloud passages to my friends, and then not being able to stop—“Oh wait,” I’d say, “The next line is really funny too.” Until twenty minutes later, they hung up the phone. And then checked this book out from the library.

In short: A smart, funny, quick read for adults and older teenagers.

Read it if you like: Pinkwater’s other works, spitting on Joe McCarthy’s grave*

* Look, I say that not to be a jerk (though if anyone deserves it…), but because I grew up a couple of miles from his grave, and this was a not-unusual pastime.

Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart

This is what I always want to give girls who ask me to put Twilight on hold for them. I want to tell them: Look, there are options for you! You can read about young women who are smart, resourceful, engaging, funny, and independent! Sometimes these young women get into lousy relationships, but unlike Bella, they get out of them instead of getting married! There are female protagonists who have convictions! And also brains! There are young men who aren’t controlling, abusive jerks!

But of course, none of that is going to sell this book to anyone. So let’s try again. Our heroine, Frankie Landau-Banks, is a sophomore at the exclusive boarding school from which her father and sister also graduated. Frankie’s dad was a member of a secret society at Alabaster, and Frankie’s hot new senior boyfriend is part of the same all-male club. Frankie wants in and can’t get in, due to her lack of a y-chromosome, so she decides to stage a not-so-hostile takeover. Awesomeness, wordplay, and some of the greatest school pranks ever ensue, and the straightforward, deadpan third-person narration only makes the already-funny situations funnier.

In short: Clever, hilarious “stealth feminism” with a highly enjoyable protagonist. 

Read it if you like: Prep schools, feminism, fabulousness

Review: Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Nevin

Elsewhere, Gabrielle Nevin

Elsewhere is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl named Liz, told from her death on backwards. After Liz is hit by a car, she finds herself in Elsewhere—Nevin’s afterlife, where you regress in age until, at seven days old, you’re sent back to Earth to be reincarnated. It’s a cool premise, particularly as far as books about dead teenagers go. Then again, this book stands so far above everything else in that subcategory that I’m loathe to make any comparisons.

Liz is a wonderful protagonist, who is, like all fifteen-year-olds, by turns a typical teenager and a mature young woman. Watching her grow physically younger as her life and maturity progress is heartbreaking—in particular, her relationship with Owen, who died in his mid-twenties but is about 17 when Liz arrives in Elsewhere, is devastating to read. And Elsewhere is a wonderfully constructed vision of the afterlife, partly because it is so mundane: people have jobs, make friends, get married, go fishing. Watching Liz navigate this new world is a pleasure.

Liz’s contact with the world of the living is limited, as it is against the laws of Elsewhere to attempt to communicate with Earth (though we see several attempts over the course of the novel). She does, however, spend a good chunk of the beginning of the novel watching her friends and family through binoculars that are available to all of Elsewhere’s residents. Among those she watches is the man responsible for her death, which is among the more interesting of the book’s subplots.

But anyway, here’s the truth and the bottom line: I cried through almost the entire book. It’s not that it was sad, though clearly parts of it are: I was, in complete seriousness, overwhelmed by its loveliness. The sadness that permeates this book is, after all, not very different from that which we experience here: the only difference, as one character points out, is that in Elsewhere, you know when the end is coming. And that imbues every single scene in this book with a sense of significance, joy, and, above all, gratitude. (So, you know, a refreshing change from most YA lit.)

In short: This book is a lovely, well-written meditation on forgiveness, love, and the importance of living well and fully. Read it, it’s good.

Read if you like: Reading

Review: The Au-Pairs, by Melissa de la Cruz

The Au-Pairs, Melissa de la Cruz

In short: I am embarrassed to have read this book. I am even more embarrassed that I enjoyed it. With that said, enjoy it I did. This is an immensely dopey novel about three immensely dopey girls: Eliza, the debutante-turned-Buffalo-apartment-dweller; Mara, the small-town hottie; and Jacqui, the super-sexy Brazilian in search of sugar daddies. They are all summer au-pairs for a family of crazy rich jerks in the Hamptons. Underage drinking, clubbing, fashion-designer namedropping, and sexiness ensue. This book is objectively terrible, but if you’re going to read something stupid, this might as well be it. (The second book in the series, Skinny-dipping, is even more stupid and terrible, and lacks the novelty of its predecessor, so I recommend skipping it, no matter how desperate you are to find out what happens with Mara and Ryan.)

Read it if you like: the scintillating cover, Gossip Girl

Author Encounters: John Green

So, several days ago on John Green’s blog, we noticed that he would be taking part in The Interview Show at The Hideout, one of my fave Chicago bars – and that he was offering to buy any librarian who showed up a drink.

Well, I like free drinks, and I like The Hideout, and my boyfriend had a passing interest in hearing what Tom Geoghegan (one of the guys running for Rahm Emmanuel’s seat, and another Bazer interviewee) had to say. So we figured we would trek down there (The Hideout is the most mysteriously located bar ever) and see what was up.

The interview was great – of all the folks on the show, Green was the funniest and at least appeared to be the least uncomfortable. If you’d like to watch the interview, it’ll be posted on YouTube in the near future.

edit: Here it is! Part One and Part Two

After the show, N and I met up with one of my co-workers and her boyfriend, and (after asking John what the deal was) we promptly cashed in on our free drinks. We then decided that we really needed a picture with him, so we did that, and then lapsed into conversation. He shared a great anecdote about Looking for Alaska that probably isn’t appropriate for this blog, but if you’re curious I’m happy to fill you in. As my co-worker said, anyone who would buy drinks for librarians has to be a good person. There’s also a lot to be said for an author who’ll have a candid, random chat with you at a bar, and who can talk about his books without sounding either awkward or pretentious. I was very impressed by John Green.

We also met his wife*, who is really beautiful and very friendly, and who said something interesting – my co-worker mentioned to her that she was glad John was a nice guy, because it’s sad to like a book and dislike the author. (True. Mark Danielewski seemed like kind of a pretentious jerk, for example, and while it wasn’t unexpected, it made me think differently about his work.) John’s wife laughed and said she’d had the opposite experience: she was dating him while he was working on Looking for Alaska, and she was worried when he gave it to her that she wouldn’t like it (she did) – because how awkward a conversation would that be? It’s not something I’d ever thought about, seeing as how I’ve very intentionally never dated a writer, but that would be terrible: “I really like you, but this book you’ve been working on is terrible.”

So, to conclude, we had a lovely time, and now I feel even better about handing his books out to teenagers. (And adults, for that matter.)

Us with John Green, author of the fabulous and wildly popular Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns

Us with John Green, author of the fabulous and wildly popular Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns

* I found out later that one of my sisters is actually friends with John’s wife from college, which adds a whole other level of weird to this story.

Review: No Missing Parts, by Anne Laurel Carter

No Missing Parts, And Other Stories about Real Princesses, Anne Laurel Carter

In short: I picked this book off the shelf at random, which is unusual for me: the vast majority of books I read have been recommended to me (sometimes unknowingly, as when a kid puts an intriguing-sounding book on hold and I immediately put it on hold for myself as well). The idea (as you can probably guess from the title) is that Carter got messed up by princess stories as a little girl, and wanted to instead present us with stories about strong, independent women. I guess she succeeds in doing that, but to be honest, only the first story really lives up to the “real princess” title. Plus, some of the characters (particularly the protagonist of the last story) aren’t notably strong or independent. So the book is, I think, inaptly named, and I sort of resented that – I was actually looking forward to reading some empowering “real princess” stories. But it’s really just a collection of short stories with female protagonists who live in Canada. Right, I forgot to mention that. They’re mostly set in Canada, which I guess is where Carter hails from. Sometimes this is a plot point, sometimes it’s not. These stories are really underwhelming, though. This is a meandering review because I don’t have all that much to say. Some of the stories are cute. Some are stupid. None are noteworthy. And a few of the endings reminded me, extremely painfully, of Eve Merriam’s unbelievably hideous volume of young adult “poetry”, If Only I Could Tell You: Poems for Young Lovers and Dreamers. And that’s never good.

Read it if you like: Little House on the Prairie, Canada

Review: How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff

This is a strange little book. It’s spare and surreal and, in a lot of places, troubling. Just to be clear, the book begins with a fifteen-year-old girl having lots of sex with her fourteen-year-old first cousin, and goes from there. So if that’s going to freak you out, you should not read this. (On that note, there are way too many people on Amazon.com complaining about the incest. IT’S A BOOK ABOUT INCEST. That’s like complaining that Twilight has vampires in it.) But if you can get past that, there is a lot to love about this book.

Daisy, our fifteen-year-old incestuous protagonist, moves to England to escape her nasty stepmother and new stepsister. Not long after she settles in with her aunt and cousins, England is occupied by the enemy, who seem to be some kind of terrorists/guerrilla types, though it’s never entirely clear, which is actually one of the things I liked about this book. We receive very few details about the logistics of the war, mostly because they don’t particularly concern Daisy. What she cares about is protecting her new family, especially once the aunt heads off to work on conflict resolution in Norway. And the cousins – who are pseudo-telepathic, otherworldly types – do pretty well, for a while. Their existence is idyllic, really, a teenager’s dream of a life without parental supervision: long days spend sunbathing and fishing, nights spent reading and talking and having illicit sex with your cousin. But eventually, inevitably, they get split up, which is when things get messy. Up to that point, the war is just background, a set-up to allow these kids to live like adults, but How I Live Now quickly turns into a dark, post-apocalyptic war story.

(One interesting thing, which is a side note because the book treats it as one: Daisy is anorexic. I love what this gives us: in a time of famine and destruction, there’s a girl who is intentionally starving herself. There’s something cool there. It also means she gets to play at self-sacrifice without, you know, actually having to sacrifice, which I liked, especially in contrast with Life As We Knew It.)

The main complaint I’ve seen (aside from the dopes who complain about the presence of incest in a book about incest) is that the ending is too abrupt, and there’s some truth to that. Then again, the idea is that it’s 21-year-old Daisy recording her experiences from six years prior, so it makes sense that the end would feel sort of tacked-on: a coda, really. But it’s such a lovely coda that I’m not at all inclined to complain. The years between the events and her writing of them swept past her, and it’s easy to understand why. The brevity of the ending reflects that nicely.

Rosoff’s descriptions of a modern-day England under occupation are really stunning. She contrasts Austen-esque pastoral scenes with lines of soldiers carrying machine guns, which leads to a series of startling images: dead bodies spread out across a farm, soldiers sleeping in haylofts, goats and cows becoming collateral damage and starving to death, and Daisy and Piper traipsing across a bombed-out, dying countryside in search of their family. I finished this book a couple of days after Christmas, and now looking back I’m left with a lot of images from this book, which is always a good sign. I can very vividly picture any number of scenes and locations, which is a testament to Rosoff’s writing. It’s good, you guys. And this book is good.

In short: Fantastic writing and an unusual, intriguing premise make this one of the best books I read in 2008.

Read it if you like: Life As We Knew It, Francesca Lia Block’s Wasteland

Review: Saving Juliet, by Suzanne Selfors

Saving Juliet, Suzanne Selfors

In short: A cute book that may actually encourage adolescent girls to read Shakespeare, or at least to watch the Claire Danes Romeo + Juliet. I’ll take it. Mimi Wallingford is a teenaged stage actress, and the granddaughter of a famed Broadway actress and producer, who really wants to quit her day job and become a doctor. Her mother won’t hear of it, though, and has gotten an admissions officer from a prestigious acting school to come and see Mimi play Juliet in her family’s production of that most famous of Shakespeare’s plays. Mimi has a panic attack before she sets foot on stage, though, and ends up getting transported back in time (along with her co-star, a Zac Efron type) to Romeo and Juliet’s Verona. She helps the star-crossed couple – and herself – achieve a happy ending, with plenty of humorous mishaps along the way, and all is right with the world. This book is dorky, and I’m not convinced that Selfors has read the actual play since high school, but it was a lot of fun, so I won’t be critical. If you’ve read this summary and are still considering reading the book, you’ll probably like it: if you can take that much on faith, it’s a good read.

Read it if you like: I don’t know, really. If you like Shakespeare but didn’t freak about about the aforementioned Claire Danes movie, you might like this. Or if you’re thirteen. Probably you’ll like it if you’re thirteen.

Review: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

You asked, and now you shall receive:

Why I Hate Twilight

The haters of Twilight have all kinds of valid reasons for hating it. For example, a lot of people point out that the writing is bad, and this is true. You know how when you repeat a word too many times it loses its meaning? That happened to me with the word “dazzling” while reading this. Dazzling. Seriously. The writing is terrible pretty much across the board – the dialogue is ridiculous, the descriptions are far from evocative, the pacing is bad (seriously, why would she wait until the last 100 pages for any plot to happen at all?), and the characters are not believable. But you know, that’s kind of a stupid thing to complain about, when it comes to it. I read a lot of novels that are badly written, and while there are times when I object, I don’t really ask that much of a teen vampire romance novel, as far as quality of writing goes.

A lot of people also object to Bella Swan’s being a weak character, and they are also wrong. Bella is a boring character, but that’s different. She’s kind of cute, really, and while annoyingly morose and self-sacrificing, there are times when I really like her. Would I like it if she were a little more assertive and a little less freaky about Edward? Sure. But Bella is not the problem.

The problem, folks, is Edward. And when it comes to Edward, I take this book very, very personally.

On more than a dozen occasions, Edward says to Bella – says to her face – that she is being irrational, that she needs to “be rational”, and other variants of the same command. I can’t even tell you how offensive I find that.

Let me try, though.

I have, over the years, seen too many cases of emotional abuse among friends and family members. Among the most common insults is that one, the same thing we’re supposed to find charming in Edward. When couples argue, the man tells the woman to act rationally. Any time she’s upset about something, he informs her that she is being irrational. There was a pattern that was easy for me to see, even as a little girl: the woman expresses an opinion, and the man informs her that her opinion is not rational. The woman says something, the man tells her not that what she thinks is wrong, but that it’s irrational and therefore unworthy of his intellectual engagement.

I want to be clear about this: accusing someone of being irrational or hysterical is sexist*. “Irrational”, particularly when it’s used to describe someone who is not being irrational at all (see: Bella, most of the time), is one of the special ways that men denigrate women. Because, see, we’re irrational creatures. It’s their way of telling us that they will not engage with our concerns, because they (being men, and therefore entirely rational creatures) don’t know how to engage with the “irrational”, which can mean in these situations anything, from “too emotional” to “a totally rational concern that I don’t feel like dealing with right now”.

And so when Edward repeatedly tells Bella that she is not rational, and completely ignores her opinions and anxieties pretty much all of the time, I have to be offended. I won’t even go into the fact that he’s controlling, extremely jealous, and possessive, because a million other bloggers have done that for me, but seriously, guys, does this sound like an appealing male lead? Except for the masochistic among us, most women don’t actively seek out controlling, jealous, possessive, condescending jerks to date. And usually when those qualities come to light, those dudes get dumped.

And actually, that’s what I really don’t understand. Teenaged girls like this because – I hate to say it, but it’s true – they don’t really know any better. A really handsome guy hits on you and has a dark mysterious past, and also thinks you should wait to have sex? Sweet. At least, that’s definitely what I would’ve thought when I was thirteen.

What really mystifies me are the adult women who love these books. There’s apparently this huge contingent of middle-aged women who love Twilight, and that makes me really depressed for them. I hear a lot about how the book does a great job of describing what it’s like to fall in love for the first time (uh, really? I hope not, for everyone’s sake) and about how they provide a great escape. Now, most novels provide an escape, and that’s why we love them. But people talk about the escape provided by Twilight as a warm fuzzy one, akin to the joy I get from reading, say, The Princess Diaries. And it makes me incredibly sad to know that a lot of middle-aged women are so desperately unhappy in their own relationships that they turn to an abusive, uninteresting dude like Edward for comfort.

But whatever. People find solace in all kinds of strange and uncomfortable places, and far be it from me to take that from anybody. The real problem I have is that this book is aimed at pre-teen and teenaged girls, who in most cases haven’t learned the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

When, as a kid, I watched plenty of men pull the same crap as Edward, I knew that these relationships were not ones I wanted to emulate. I knew that these people weren’t happy. I knew that they wanted out. And so I grew up knowing that this particular brand of condescension was a thing to avoid in men and relationships, but only because I knew these couples didn’t work. Bella and Edward are happy, in their way, and that sets an absolutely terrible example for young people, who – believe me, I was one – are pliable creatures all.

As a feminist and a person who works with children, I cannot abide a book that teaches young women that it is acceptable for men to treat them as their inferiors. I loathe any book that validates a male character who constantly reinforces his supposed intellectual superiority over his girlfriend. I wouldn’t encourage my daughters to read this book until they did, in fact, know better, and when parents ask me about the appropriateness of this book, I flip through the pages and show them a few examples of the lessons it teaches. If I sound angry, it’s because I am.

So that’s my ideological beef with Twilight.

* As a side note, you may find it interesting to investigate the etymology of “hysteria”.

Addendum: In the interest of full disclosure, I actually got a kick out of the movie version of Twilight, because most of what was troubling about the book was toned down a lot in the movie, and it’s not like the plot is so stupid as to be unenjoyable.