Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Here we have another intriguing novel by John Green, who seems to really get young adults at their very core.  He introduces Aza, a teenage girl with crippling OCD, still mourning the death of her father years prior, who learns that the father of her camp crush from years ago has gone missing.  Why is her best friend, Daisy obsessed with this?  Because there is a huge $$ reward and they are both trying to save for college.  So as they set out together to dig in for clues, they find more than they bargain for in the deal.

There is a lot to unpack about this book.  First of all, Green gives us a window into the mind of someone with true OCD and it is scary and debilitating.  Poor Aza cannot even kiss her young, hapless boyfriend because she is overwhelmed by fears of what germs she might contract by the exposure.  Her “invasive” thoughts bombard her brain and throw her into downward spirals of obsessions that last for hours, and she has no control over this.  She questions whether she is even her own self or whether she is just a product of the organisms that are inside of her and of the forces that act upon her rather than her own agency.  Aza is also called out by her best friend for her self absorption, for which she hates herself.  Again, she feels she cannot control this because she cannot control her thoughts – she feels they control her.  Through Aza, Green succeeds in giving the reader insight into how this lack of control actually feels.

It is interesting how Aza’s psychiatrist is depicted, which for most of the story, is fairly useless.  Although Aza is not exactly forthcoming with answers to the psychiatrist’s questions, she does answer truthfully for the most part and yet the psychiatrist does not give much in the way of concrete advice.  I would imagine that there are distraction techniques (she does use some breathing) that are incorporated into treatment that might have been used.  The point is likely that treatment is often difficult and feels futile.

Even the parts involving Aza’s new boyfriend are sweet and endearing, even as painful as many of the scenes are.  And the story line about the missing father keeps a mysterious thread running through the story to tie it together, giving it a purpose.

I actually think this is a beautiful, extremely readable, somewhat depressing but realistic novel that would appeal to adults every bit as much as teens.  I also think it’s extremely important for all to read as much as possible to increase our awareness and understanding of all types of mental illness, including OCD.

 

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Faithful by Alice Hoffman

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After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life.  People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.

This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic.  But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it.  Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.

The writing here is remarkable as well.  It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying.  (I can’t even say why that is so.)  However, in this case, I actually think it works.  But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story.  There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue.  It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others.  There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.

This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written.  Another winner by Alice Hoffman!

 

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

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This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that is told with a clinical detachment that is utterly unfortunate.

Nicole, who begins her life as Wyatt, an identical twin to brother Jonas, feels from day one that she is a girl.  Already identifying with female characters in movies they’d watch, she, before even turning 3 years old, told her father that she “hated her penis.”  She consistently yearned to wear girls’ clothing and to play with girls’ toys and fortunately for her, her mother, Kelly, was sensitive to her yearnings and did what she could to support her.  Wayne, her father, had a much harder time accepting this side of her and while he loved her, he took many years to mourn the loss of the second son he thought he had.  Finally, though, he did come around and rallied to her support and both parents fought for her legal right to use the girls’ bathroom in her school (although it did not save her from being horribly bullied by a boy in her school throughout middle school, egged on by his nasty grandfather).   Nicole and her family bravely fought to set legal precedents to protect future trans children from prejudicial and ridiculous harassment because of gender identity, at least in certain states.  Hopefully, they will lead others to continue the fight for equality for these people who only want the freedom to be who they are inside.

The only benefit of the “clinical” aspect of the writing is that there are segments of the book devoted to the scientific evidence for brain differences in transgender individuals.  I think that in addition to being extremely interesting from a clinical point of view, it also fuels the argument that these people are not going through “phases,” nor are they “seeking attention” as they are often erroneously accused of doing.  It gives more objective data for those who cannot just support people for who they believe they are – rather it gives medical justification for those who require this.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the writing could not be as beautiful and as engaging as the story itself was.  There was certainly the material there to work with.  The characters were certainly heroic and beautiful, the setting was pure Americana, and the story was definitely dramatic, culminating with a huge and wonderful courtroom win.  The only tragedy was that the telling of this young woman’s triumph was so terribly dry.

I hope that Nicole and her family know how much we all admire their bravery and hope that she and they do not have to fight any further for her to be accepted for who she is.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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This is a sad but sweet, young adult novel that was recommended to me by my daughter.  It is the tale of Marin, named after the county in California from which she came, who is stranded, alone, in a dorm room in NY, during Christmas break.  As she anxiously awaits a visit from her friend, Mabel, the memories of her recent, tragic life events come back to her in waves, and she is forced to reconcile what she thought were the circumstances of her life with what was real.

This is a story in which sensuality is very striking.  The cold, stark setting really creates a mood for the whole book.  Descriptions of the freezing snow create a palpably silent backdrop for the awkwardness between the two old friends.  The cold blowing onto their faces as they trek through the snow freezes any attempt at conversation between them.  And when they finally break through, they start to feel the heat come back on – and warmth starts to emanate from one character to the other.  They are in a shop in which Mabel picks up bells, and the reader can almost hear the tinkling of those bells as if we are in that store with them.  Light is used also, contrasted with darkness, such as the stark darkness on a beach on a moonless night, when one’s eyes cannot adjust to the darkness and one has to give up trying to see.  It’s a beautiful way to pull the reader in to each scene.

What initially appears as a simply melancholic book ultimately reveals itself to be a complicated and intimate tale that leaves one thinking about it for days after closing its covers.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Knowing she’d rather have stayed home watching reruns of Fresh Prince on her laptop, Starr isn’t even sure why she’s agreed to accompany Kenya to the party at which she’s found herself.  But while she is wandering around (Kenya of course has dumped her), she finds Khalil, her old best friend, whom she has not seen in months.  They slip into old comfortable conversation when suddenly gunshots ring out.  She and Khalil run for what she believes will be safety – not knowing that this moment will affect the rest of her life.

This story is a young adult novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, about the murder of a black boy by a white police officer.  The story invites the reader to step into the life of this friend of the victim, Starr, whose life is already complicated as she is grappling with having to straddle two different communities – the poor neighborhood in which she lives and the affluent school she attends.  Her two worlds require two different personae and this is a lot to juggle for a young woman of 16 years.

As the events unfold, it becomes clearer that Starr is the only witness to the murder that has occurred and it is up to her to come forward and testify.  And here is the difficulty: history has taught us that this is hard – and we’ve seen this again and again particularly in the past few years.  While police have incredibly difficult jobs to do and we owe them a debt of gratitude for what they do every day, there are always a few that take their power too far or have too low a threshold for fear of “other” and assume that the “other” is going to do something harmful to them first.  This is the case in this story, and this is often the narrative in these cases where there is a wrongful death.  There is a presumption of guilt based on race and circumstances when that is an unfair presumption.

There is a lot of humanity to this story.   There is circumstance and perspective on the drug dealing issue and how and why some people get involved – which some might feel is obvious but others might not appreciate.  There is also the recurrent theme of a person’s right to presumption of innocence, and right to life and liberty and so on even if he might be a drug dealer.  This is a serious point.  On the other hand, I do think that dehumanizing the cop that shot the victim by referring to him by only his badge number almost throughout does not serve a purpose.  I think that creates its own bias and one sided perspective and I think presenting the other side would have only made the story stronger.

In any case, I do think this is an important book for most people to read, but especially young readers.  Definitely a must read!

 

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

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One evening in the summer of 1989, Lindy Simpson, was raped on her own street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Her story is told from the voice of her neighbor, friend, and devoted admirer, our narrator who lives across the street from her.  As he tells her story and the story of each of the suspects (himself included), he also reveals his own fascination with her and how their history unfolds.

Much teenage angst and struggle pours out in the telling of this story in a very authentic delivery.  There are apt descriptions of very awkward scenes that kids inevitably encounter and the mention of certain moments in history, such as the explosion of the Challenger and the national horror of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, that enable the reader to directly relate to the feelings the characters feel.  What appears to the outside world as a typical, suburban, upper middle class neighborhood is shown to have a diversity of characters, with shaded pursuits and emotional scars – which is likely what is true of most neighborhoods.

An interesting look at love and family and teenage obsession.

 

Lasting Impact by Kostya Kennedy

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So the bottom line, here, is that my friend, Kostya Kennedy must be a good writer to get me to read – and actually enjoy! – a book about football.  While I love some sports, football is not one of them and being a pediatrician experienced in treating concussions, I am really not a fan.  But in this non-fiction account of Kostya’s shadowing the New Rochelle High School football team for their 2014 season, Kostya manages to impress upon even me (a true cynic) why many tolerate the risk for the game.

In the course of the season, Lou DiRienzo, the NRHS football coach takes on the role of coach, teacher, mentor, father-figure, even therapist to many of the boys and he leads them with a kindness and honesty and integrity that earns their trust and respect.  Right from their intensive camp experience at the start of the season, the boys bond and their lives are knitted together as a family.  The team becomes an anchor for those with family issues and a sort of home base for all.  Even at the advent of the Ray Rice scandal, Coach D reiterates that no matter what kind of trouble the boys ever get themselves into, the NRHS football family will always have their back.  And even though the players are injured one after another, there is still an undying devotion to the game.  So even though I am one of those mean mothers who won’t let my son play football, I do see, through the reading of this evenly researched account, its allure.

On the other hand, the negative side is presented quite clearly, too.  The statistics about sudden death from the game, about the potential long- lasting cognitive and emotional deficits, not to mention the broken bones and orthopedic surgeries, are exposed.    This feels to me like a high price to pay for something that another team experience might lend itself to.Still, what is conveyed here is that football, maybe because of its physicality, achieves gains for its players that transcend the immediate physical injuries.

So for all of you football fans, this one’s for you; however, even if you’re just human, you will feel the warmth and compassion of the writer toward the sport and the young people playing it.