Saturday, August 18, 2012

Books That Are Easy to Fall into (and books that aren't)

I wish I knew what it is exactly about a book that makes it an effortless read. I suspect it has something to do with voice. Some authorial voices seem so, um, authorial. From page one, maybe from sentence one, you know that you're in the hands of an expert. This writer knows what she's doing, where the story's going, who these characters are. A few pages in and you're under the spell. She can take you anywhere, and you'll go.

Meeting an author like this is rare for me. Usually I have to work a little to meet her halfway. (And even more often, sadly, I question taking the journey at all. A recovering Catholic-slash-English teacher, I still struggle with the guilt involved in quitting on a book I don't like. What is that quote by Dorothy Parker about bad books? Okay, I just looked it up: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.")

But I don't want to talk about bad books. Or my sometimes violent feelings toward them. I want to talk about good ones. Specifically two really good books I read in the past week, one that I fell into immediately and one that took a tad more effort. Both, very much worth the trip.

Every Day by David Levithan will be out the end of this month and I urge you to make a note of it and buy it for the intelligent, thoughtful teen in your life (or for you!)

The premise is cool. A boy wakes every day in the body of a different 16 year old. Every day he has to figure out who and where "he" is. (Sometimes he is a she.) He's been living like this for as long as he can remember so he's come to terms with the bizarre, nomadic lifestyle, trying to do the best he can to treat his guest body with respect--follow his host's schedule, do his homework, avoid risky behavior. And he never, ever gets too attached to anyone. Because why bother? He won't be here tomorrow.

There are lots of thought-provoking, philosophical questions raised here and Levithan doesn't shy away from any of them. How do you live a life when you only have the day ahead of you? What makes a person who he or she is? What is important when you literally can't take anything with you? And what happens when you fall in love?

The results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. The whole time I was reading, I was absorbed and totally caught up in the world. Anxious, too. Not just about this sweet, very real character and the love of his messed-up life, but also because the niggling part of me that is a writer and never quite turns that off was wondering if Levithan would be able to pull off the brilliant plot he'd set in motion. How can there be a satisfying ending to a book that doesn't seem to be leading toward a happy one?

I won't give the answer away (because I really really think you should read this book!) but believe me when I say that the ending is perfect. I actually started crying when it hit me about two seconds before I came to it. If you still need a push toward your local bookstore on August 28, I leave you with this: my teen daughter snatched my copy away when I was finished, and now it's marked up and highlighted with her favorite passages. PS. I am sorry, David Levithan, that I let a free, advanced copy slip out of my hands! I promise I will buy the book too when it comes out, give it as gifts, etc. Though I suspect it will have much success without any help from me.

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler is already on the shelves and winning awards, but in case you haven't heard of it, here is its clever premise: A girl named Min, still reeling from her traumatic break up with popular Ed, boxes up all of the mementos of that relationship and dumps them off on Ed's doorstep with an explanatory note--which is this book. Oh, and there are cool illustrations by Maira Kalman of all of the items Min is returning to Ed. Stuff like bottle caps and ticket stubs and stolen sugar containers.

The story is hilarious (which shouldn't be too surprising. Daniel Handler also goes by the name of Lemony Snicket, author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books.) But what may be surprising to Lemony Snicket fans is how heartbreaking and raw and honest Handler can be. Min's break up story is everyone's break up story. (There are some funny quotes about first break-ups on the back flap from authors like Sara Zarr and M.T Anderson and, coincidentally, David Levithan, who writes: "The boy I loved didn't know I existed. Then again, he was obsessed with Camus, so he didn't know if any of us existed.")

I'm not sure why Why We Broke Up took longer to reel me in. But again, I think it may have something to do with voice. In this case Min's voice is so outraged and breathless and rant-y and specific, it can sometimes be hard to follow. There are paragraphs that go on for pages and sentences that go on for paragraphs. But somewhere along the way it all came together for me, and I was in Min's quirky head. Okay, maybe she isn't exactly "everyone." She's "arty" as Ed likes to say; different. She marches to the beat of her own drummer, which is probably what drew Ed to her in the first place. But could a guy like him ever really get and appreciate a girl like Min?

No. And good riddance, Ed. You don't deserve her.

This book had me alternately laughing out loud and reliving the angsty pain of my own sad teen break ups. Get your hands on a copy, STAT, and give it a chance to hook you too. The ending, like the one in Every Day, is both unpredictable and perfect.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, your descriptions make me want to read these right away. Thanks for sharing.