Friday, January 24, 2014

One big reason why NOT

I recently finished a book that reminded me of a television movie I saw as a teenager.  Actually, I think I only saw the second half, and I don't even remember the name but it was about a teenage boy who commits suicide.  The part I saw was very emotional and emphasized the impact it had on those left behind - family, friends, even acquaintances.  But aside from the emotional punch, I think I remember it for two reasons.  First, the next day at school I found a printed script for the whole movie - which I read - and which, apparently, had been distributed ahead of time to schools.  And second, I saw an article in the newspaper criticizing the movie - not because it didn't have good intentions, but (if I recall correctly) because studies had shown that such good intentions more often backfire.

The book that brought back these memories is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.  It's the fictional story of Hannah Baker who took her own life, but as told by her to a number of her classmates in recordings she left behind.  We hear her story as Clay, a boy who had a crush on her, listens to the tapes where she identifies the people she feels are responsible for her decision.  After each person has listened, they are to mail the tapes to the next person, otherwise a second set of tapes will be made public.  Some of the reasons were boys whose lies resulted in her having a "reputation" at school, friends who betrayed her, girls who pretended to be her friend in order to use her, and worse - much worse!  But it's not the issues that pull you in, it's the characters, which are very well-developed.  And Clay listens to the tapes, wondering what he did that got him included in this awful list.

Naturally, it's a sad and depressing book that left a hopeless and frustrated feeling in me, and yet it's an important topic that too often gets ignored because it's uncomfortable and painful to discuss.  It's also a very popular book right now.  But what concerns me ties back to that earlier experience.  The newspaper article about the television movie pointed out that such stories usually illustrate in very vivid terms the sense of loss felt by those family, friends, and even acquaintances after the fact.  Unfortunately, this is often perceived by teenagers suffering from depression as the attention and compassion they desperately need and aren't receiving, and supposedly studies show that suicides actually increase after such well-intentioned efforts.  

So, how does this book do?  Early on I thought it was falling face first into that mold.  Hannah is a sympathetic character - even if each incident isn't the end of the world, she's been wronged by others, and as the insults mount, Clay is practically writhing in agony over her death (okay, he was maybe a bit overwrought at times).  It isn't until late in the book that we see Hannah as "not fully reaching out for help" and only hinting at her problems to those who might have been able to help.  But Jay Asher does a very good job writing for teens and portraying their world where so much is seen in black and white terms, and given the subject material there's some grittiness here (I don't remember a lot of profanity, but there's some sexual content - although it's not portrayed in a flattering way).

And I was impressed with the format of the book - where Hannah's words are in italics and Clay's thoughts (and conversation with other characters) are in regular type, and they intertwine into a narrative which doesn't always align perfectly, but creates a kind of tension.  (I imagine it would be interesting to listen to the audio version.)  Using the symbols for play, pause, and stop was rather clever, and he used the old medium of cassette tapes rather well - although it's dated, it fits into the more modern story easily.  

But the real question: Would I recommend this book?  It's a dark story that sticks in your thinking for a while and not something I'd want an already depressed teenager to read, and it certainly won't be for a lot of people.  But if it encourages teens to be more aware of the struggles of others, and maybe reach out more... I guess that would be the best possible result.  I might lean more toward recommending it to adults than teens.  So, I guess my answer would be a definite... maybe.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Talking to ghosts

Have you ever known anyone who claimed to have seen or spoken with spirits of those who've passed on?  My family sometimes likes to watch those 'ghost hunter' shows (which I think is a lot of nonsense) but a couple of times I've heard unusual stories from people who I think are pretty level-headed.  They're not the kind who are given to spouting wild stories, and whenever they've shared these stories with me it's always been with a shrug and a sheepishness that I can relate to.  After all, there have been a few... um, unusual happenings... I can't easily explain.  I don't doubt that spirits are around us, but I'm not sure why someone might actually be able to see or talk with them.

In Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur (which I received from Amazon Vine), Sienna's parents have moved the family from Brooklyn to Maine with the hope it'll help their children; Lucca abruptly stopped speaking about a year earlier, and Sienna has an unusual obsession with abandoned things. Her parents don't know it, but she also has visions of the past. Such "weirdness" makes things uncomfortable for her and even cost her some friends in Brooklyn.  But the story takes a twist at the new house (a house which Sienna saw repeatedly in her dreams before they moved there) when she finds an old pen and it starts writing its own story - the story of Sarah and Joshua - and Sienna wonders if her story and theirs might be connected.

Despite the 'historical visions' Sienna has, this isn't historical fiction, and the drama plays out more around the human relationships. She's a sympathetic character with her unusual "gift," and she's reluctant making new friends in the new town.  I thought the relationship with her parents was depicted in an interesting way.  Most interesting, perhaps, is her relationship with her little brother.  No one knows why he stopped speaking, but Sarah secretly blames herself.  But there's also the 'ghost whisperer' aspect of the story.  Her ability to see visions and people, places, and events from the past creates an interesting plot thread that runs through the story.  Some online reviewers were a little troubled with the "possession" element in the story - and I was a little bothered that the book actually uses that word at one point - and felt it was treating a serious and potentially dangerous thing too lightly.  Personally, I wasn't so alarmed with it and suspect most won't be either, but I guess it's something some parents and readers might want to know.  Nonetheless, I thought it was an interesting story, and quite well-written, too.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Small words with long shadows

There was one book I left off my "top ten list for 2013" which would have been right near the top.  The problem is that I am quite at a loss as to how to review The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley.  It is impossible to tell anything of the story without giving away the resolution to the ending of the previous book in the series, which left me with my jaw hanging open and my wife somewhat concerned about my mental state.  Besides, those who've been reading this excellent series don't need me to summarize what happened in this book – it's already on their TBR list and they've probably marked January 14th, 2014 on their calendar, the day it hits bookstore shelves.  (And it's doubtless a good thing you didn't see the happy dance I did when I managed to score an advance copy of this from Amazon Vine!  I even told puzzled strangers in the parking lot of my exceedingly good luck.)  Suffice it to say that it all begins with a murder on the little-used railway platform of Bishops Lacey.

Although it wasn't entirely clear (or maybe I just didn't want to believe it) this seems to be the final installment of the most charming series I've read in a while.  Alan Bradley has such a clever way with words that I frequently found myself moved to laughter and sometimes tears by what I read, but mostly I just found myself moved to keep reading!  I know I've probably said this about each of the other books in the series but it's the kind of writing that I'd like to read slowly and savor each word, but alas!, is nearly impossible when I can't put the book down.  And it's what Carl Sagan was talking about when he said "A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."  I'll be honest, for quite a few chapters this wasn't my favorite in the series (unfortunately, I can't tell you why) and it took me a while to get into it.  But having finished now I would be a most ungrateful reader if I did not say: Thank you, Mr. Bradley!