Monday, April 21, 2014

"Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Though I've mostly given up YA novels, Eleanor & Park made "best of" lists so often that I gave in. And, truthfully, I'm not sure whether I should have, because although Eleanor & Park is sweet and touching with genuine teenage emotions, it is also so heartbreaking and bittersweet that I'm still wiping away tears.

On the outside, Eleanor & Park is your typical misfit-meet-misfit romance. Park is half-Asian, and though he's not actively bullied, he mostly tries to stay under the radar. Eleanor is big with loud clothes and hair and a terrible family situation--living in poverty with her four siblings and mother under an abusive step-father. Park and Eleanor bond reluctantly over shared bus rides and comic books, but their relationship soon blossoms with an intensity neither 16-year-old has felt before.

It can be difficult to capture the intensity of first teenage love without making the romance come across as hokey, insincere, or cliche. But Rowell successfully navigates not only the strong emotions, but also the insecurities and doubts that everyone remembers. And she's especially adept as capturing just how magnified every moment, word, and touch is at that age. How electrifying it is when you first touch another person--and are touched back--even if such touch is not sexual. Heck, I still vividly remember seeing a movie on a date at 16 and being so distracted by the fact that my elbow was grazing his on the armrest that I couldn't pay attention to the film's plot.

Rowell's novel also reflects the difficult dichotomy of any relationship. On the one hand, it's an intensely personal and private bond between two people. On the other hand, any relationship that lasts has to exist in the wider world--the world of families, friends, and outside obligations. We like to believe that if our personal bond is strong enough, nothing else matters, but that's simply not the case.

I'll give that Park may be a little too perfect--a bit too much of a fantasy realized for a real 16-year-old boy--but Eleanor is so perfectly messy that her characterization makes up for it. The book may cross certain adults' lines in terms of its language (even though it's nothing that teenagers haven't heard already), but I think its authenticity and belief in goodness will win most over.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh

Like most people, I discovered Brosh through her immensely popular--despite being mostly dormant for the last few years--blog. Her combination of crudely done graphic art with personal stories of childhood and adult failures rang true for me and many others. Brosh disappeared for a long period, disabled by depression, but her book recently emerged and includes a number of references to that time.

First of all, not all the material in Hyperbole and a Half is new. A number of stories are reprints from the blog. They're still funny the second time around, but it's something, I think, to be aware of before shelling out money for purchase.

Then there's the new material, which is a little inconsistent. Some of it is absolutely fabulous. I laughed so hard at "Warning Signs," where Brosh addresses younger versions of her self, that my husband demanded I hand over the book so he could be "in" on the joke. And Brosh is usually spot-on with her stories about her childhood and troubles with her idiot and uncontrollable dogs. These stories typically reflect Brosh's inflated sense of ability ("Yes, I can go to my friend's birthday party after heavy dental sedation"; "Yes, I can be the one to 'fix' this terrible dog"), which also comes across as admirable--though wayward--determination.

The personal stories about her struggles with depression and sense of identity are somewhat less effective. One the one hand, "Depression Part One" is a moving and understated approach to what depression feels like to the person suffering. It also effectively shows how misplaced most attempts to help are. On the other hand, later chapters about her sense of identity seem repetitive and overblown. Similar points are hammered over and over, and Brosh's insistence on her failures (like imagining herself as a better person than she really is--something I think we all can relate to) eventually come across as inflated and less sincere.

If you enjoy Brosh's work on her blog, the book is definitely worth a read--after all, I haven't laughed out loud so hard at a book in a long time--but be aware that not all of it is equally strong.

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

I resisted reading Billy Lynn for a long time because I just couldn't see myself interested in a "war" book, despite the many accolades Fountain's novel was achieving. Of course, Billy Lynn's a "war book" in the same way that Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are (though without the absurdism and dark humor). Instead, like its predecessors, it works to expose the fractured and paradoxical mindset of a person who has experienced war, with Fountain's novel also covering the similar mindset of those back home who passionately "defend our troops."

The book's protagonist is Billy Lynn, a young solider home for brief leave with other members of his Bravo squad after video of one of their fights in Iraq makes them famous heroes. Billy and his fellow squad members are lauded and praised wherever they go, but at the same time they have to live the reality that they're returning to Iraq in days to finish their tour.

Most of the novel is Billy's inner monologue as he struggles presenting the facade the American public expects while being bombarded by the basic insincerity of those gushing around him. And it isn't that his "fans" are purposefully insincere, but rather that they're ultimately ignorant, with a simplistic view of what it means for our country to be at war.

Billy Lynn highlights many other truths of war: the incredible youth of many of our soldiers; the camaraderie formed in such circumstances; the fact that parades and award ceremonies aren't always the best way to support the troops.

Highly recommended even if, like me, this type of story normally isn't your "thing."