The Rest of Us Just Live Here–Patrick Ness

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Mikey’s mom is a state senator (you don’t need to say state, she tells everyone).  His younger sister, Mel, developed an eating disorder during their mom’s last campaign thanks to a heartless campaign manager’s comment about her weight.  They protect their youngest sister, Meredith, from their mother’s career and their father’s alcoholism.

Mikey suffers from anxiety and OCD.  He becomes stuck in loops of hand washing, door locking, etc.  And he worries about everyone’s safety, which is legitimate because, in addition to his family issues, his town is plagued by a supernatural something killing indie kids in his high school.

His best friend, Jared, is gay (and half divine) and, although they’ve “done stuff” together, Mikey is pretty sure he is not gay.  He has a crush on their friend, Henna, who is available, but he still can’t summon the nerve to tell her and graduation is looming.  Then she invites the new guy, Nathan, to their group prom date, and crisis approaches.

Ness has written a novel about sexuality, mental illness, and the fear of growing up set against the backdrop of vampires, blue-lit zombies, and supernatural powers. But a gentle, start-of-the-chapter, backdrop.  A quick, easy read.

Finished 2/22/17

 

 

 

 

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A Long Way From Verona–Jane Gardam

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A librarian recommended this book as part of a column for NPR–books you missed in x year.  The cover is lovely and modern and the story is lovely and historical.  WWII England, actually, with whiffs of the wardrobe and C.S Lewis’s Narnia in the distant background as children leave London for the “countryside” to be safe, only to have their school blown up by an English pilot trying to land and discharging his payload with poor aim.

WWII England is the setting, but this story is really about a young writer, Jessica Vye, whose father was a schoolmaster and then a parson who writes political columns in his study for the New Statesman and, she discovers, is somewhat famous for them.

Jessica feels different from everyone–peers, family, neighbors.  She is not, she notes, popular, but does have one good friend, Florence and some other friends who hang around because of Florence.  She rubs her teachers the wrong way.  She is bright and writes what she knows is a wonderful essay–spends all weekend on it–and eagerly awaits the praise she knows it deserves, only to be berated in front of the class for having spent too much time on it and for not burning it when she thought it was good because anything you think is good is rubbish and should be burned.  Cheery.

An author visits Jessica’s school and she slips him a bit of her writing and asks him to tell her if it is any good, but to say nothing if it is not.  Just before her family moves, she receives a letter telling her she is a writer.  Later she reads a terrible book given to her by a librarian and her heart sinks when she realizes it was written by the visiting author.

She survives a bombing raid in Dunedin Street and realizes the cool handsome boy with whom she was falling in love is still a child.  After days of sleeping following the experience, she writes a poem in one sitting that needs no revision and, again, gives it to a teacher and asks her to decide if it is any good and to submit it to a national poetry contest if it is and to say nothing if it is not.  When she wins, she is stunned, certain it is a mistake and the teacher and the contest judges were rubbish.

Jessica not only feels herself different and separate.  In a few instances, she sees herself floating above her body; she watches herself as an observer.

She finds her mother ridiculous, her little brother too infantile for his age, her father brilliant but too distant and distracted.

Jessica is a fascinating character around whom interesting events happen and in whom interesting interior monologues occur. The prose is haunting.  Jessica’s isolation may resonate with many of us–whether as adults or reflecting back on our adolescence.

Finished 2/19/17

The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family–Roger Cohen

I did not purposely begin this book at the time that the Trump administration began, but the early events of that administration made reading this book particularly challenging.  In the West, we like to believe that we have moved beyond the ethnic hatred and the moral lassitude that fueled the Holocaust.  Other people now enact genocides.  We know better.

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Cohen is not a historian.  He is a journalist who dives into his family history to better understand his mother’s mental illness, which he and his sister discover as young adults.  His journey takes him to Lithuania, from which his grandparents escaped to South Africa in time to avoid the extermination that met so many of their neighbors.  Cohen’s mother’s mental illness, he finds, runs through her family.  Whether its roots are genetic or environmental, or a combination of both as DNA strained to cope with the trauma of leaving one’s homeland and then survivor guilt and the cognitive dissonance of accepting South African racism in order to avoid being subjected to the type of racism you had fled in the first place, is unclear.

Cohen’s ancestors left Lithuania in the nineteenth century.  Cohen traces their story as well as the stories of those who stayed.  Ongoing trauma haunts Cohen’s memoir–the trauma of ostracism, the trauma of exile, the trauma of survivor’s guilt, the trauma of sacrificing others to save yourselves, and so on.

While the United States was struggling to respond to an immigrant ban that seemed to be crafted to target Muslims without expressly banning Muslims, I struggled to read about the ways in which Lithuanians, Soviets, and Nazis slowly (or not so slowly) defined Jews as others and found avenues to excuse their extermination.  I also struggled to understand what made those who protected Cohen’s ancestors stand up when those around them stood down or helped commit evil.  I struggled further to understand why those brave individuals were rewarded with imprisonment and death.  Where is the “good guy wins in the end?”

There is no win in this tale.  Cohen’s grandparents and many other Jews escaped Lithuania for South Africa only to become complicit in the oppression of those native to South Africa.  When apartheid became official policy, many Jews left, including Cohen’s parents.  His mother, raised in privilege and sunshine, found England a difficult adjustment and the mental illness that plagued her family caught up with her there.  She was institutionalized and received electroshock therapy when Cohen was just three and missed his birthday.  She was institutionalized again following the birth of his sister, with what we might now call post-partum depression.

Cohen traces his family history to trace the losses and explain the suppressed trauma that may have emerged through mental illness. He traces the illness through his family tree, up to his cousins living in Israel and trying to cope with the need for a Jewish state while seeing the hypocrisy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Cohen also traces his branch of the family’s decision to reject Jewish religious practice, as well as their inability to avoid the consequences of being labeled Jewish, the quiet anti-Semitism of the British that seemed welcome after the violent anti-Semitism of the Continent, and his own relief at finding himself in company with those who don’t quite belong upon moving to New York.  Cohen explores the ways in which his family’s story moved him to pursue journalism and the stories of others who no longer fit in.

Cohen’s experiences have left him with a pessimistic view, a belief that, at the end of the day, most of us will choose our tribe over what is right.  He tries to end on a note of hope, an idea that someday we will find a way to live together peacefully, but the it is an optimism not supported by his narrative.

The Girl from Human Street will stay on my shelf.  Many of its most poignant lines are already posted on my Facebook wall and written on my memory.  I highly recommend Cohen’s memoir, but I do not promise it will be an easy journey.

Finished 2/13/17