Léna's Lit.Life

Léna (me): Lit, as in literature, Lit, as in light, Lit, as in a little kooky: Life.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Not Just For YA Book Club

Oh so many books, so little time! But us lovers of language must make time, yes? So when asked to moderate a book club comprised of accomplished Westchester librarians and teachers by the incomparable Z of Yonkers Riverfront Library, I didn't hesitate in the affirmative, even if it meant doing nothing else in my limited free time for the past few weeks other than reading, because I had to read not just one book, but FIVE - the YA books that were honored by the 2015 Printz Committee. .

But now the book discussion is tomorrow night, (tonight?) and I have to collect my thoughts! (Yes I read those five books, but intermingled in my mind is also two other books I have recently devoured: Ishiguro's The Buried Giant and a stunning book that I MUST reread by Ali Smith called How To Be Both.)

On the Printz List were: (the winner) I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, and my personal favorite, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith.

I read Jandy Nelson's gem of a book first, a beautiful story told in intertwining narratives between two twins, Noah and Jude. We begin with Noah when he is thirteen and discovering his attraction to other boys, his uniqueness in his art, his gorgeous relationship with his mother, and the competitive but loving relationship with his sister Jude. They are both artists - Noah paints his world and Jude communicates with the ghost of her grandmother, while making life size female sand sculptures on the beach. When Jude picks up the narrative, it is three years later - they are both sixteen and the family has blown apart - their mother has died. How did it happen? Nelson keeps us on our toes by time shifting back between Noah and Jude, keeping us guessing to the end.


(We will have to discuss this line of Nelson's: “What is bad for the heart is good for art. The terrible irony of our lives as artists.”)

I felt more of a personal connection to Foley's The Carnival at Bray. It takes place in the early 90's in both Chicago and just outside of Dublin, Ireland, on the coast. I have never been to Ireland, but I was coming of age in the early 90's and spent some time in Italy. I loved the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, as does the main character, Maggie. (I am sure most of us will have a kinship to this era.) I also loved that every character in this book was some kind of an outsider, from Maggie herself, to her mother Laura (who has never "found" herself or come of age), to Dan Sean, the almost 100 year old man Maggie befriends (I could so see myself doing that!) and of course Uncle Kevin, an addict, foreshadowing the death of Kurt Cobain with his own. I love the way Foley handles mental illness and addiction - so lovingly and non-judgmentally.

I also enjoyed reading Hubbard's And We Stay - an homage to the writing and reading of poetry as therapy (Yay Emily Dickinson!) and This One Summer by Tamaki - which was the second graphic novel I have ever read.

But for some reason, Grasshopper Jungle was my personal favorite. "Good books are always about everything," Austin tells us repeatedly in his narrative. On the surface, GJ is a tour de force where giant genetically engineered bugs cause the end of the world. The bugs brilliantly represent teenage hormones and the drive to fight, fornicate and feed. Austin is obsessed with history, so he has set out to record everything in his journal, and as he does so he reminds us of the interconnectedness of EVERYTHING. I read some reviews where folks said that they found that distracting, but it just helped me to fall in love with Austin. Yes, he is terribly flawed - he is in love with his best friend Robbie and his girlfriend Shann, and he isn't fair to either of them, but he believes in EVERYTHING. (Personally, I am Team Robbie, and I think Smith may be too, because Robbie's character was much more fleshed out than Shann's.) I was distracted at first by the intentional use of repetition - Austin is constantly saying "shit" and talking about his horniness, but a third of the way through the novel I understood the artifice - history repeating itself and perhaps Austin is himself on the high end of the autism spectrum. But maybe this is just the male teenage brain? We're all on some kind of a spectrum!

The characters in all of these books use art or writing in some kind of way to manage their internal chaos. Austin writes his own history, Emily writes and reads poetry, Maggie listens to music and finds truth in song lyrics, and Noah and Jude paint and sculpt respectively. What would we as humans do without a creative, rich, inner life? How would we "come of age?" (I don't think we would.)

Has anyone else read these books? I am looking forward to a rich discussion tomorrow night with some awesome librarian folk!

xoxox