The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

Turtleback Books, 2003, 244 pages

Turtleback Books, 2003, 244 pages

After many, many weeks hiatus, another girly review to show the world I’m still alive and kicking (though unfortunately not reading all that much). I read this book a while ago, wrote a review, then promptly forgot to post it. Oh well, that goes to show how important it is for you dear readers to subscribe, doesn’t it?

It should surprise no one that I chose this book solely on the title. Still, it’s worth noting that this hilarious novel is also a Printz Award winner. Thankfully it lived up to my high expectations! It was every bit the girly, smart, and funny book I wanted it to be.

Virginia Shreves is our fifteen-year-old narrator, sadly characterized mostly by her weight. Virginia lives by her own “Fat Girl Code of Conduct”, which basically dictates how she interacts with the opposite sex (i.e. poorly). I felt sorry for Virginia in the first half of the book. It seems like everything in her life is working against her self-esteem: her best friend has moved away, her exercise-obsessed mom is unsupportive and undercutting, and her siblings are absent. Self-hatred saturates the first part of this book, and in such a real, believable way. The fact that it is the true inner voice of so many girls out there today is what made parts of this book really quite disturbing. There’s my warning.

The flip side of that, however, was Mackler’s ability to add wit and irreverent humour to every aspect of the story. While it touches on really serious subjects, it does so in the best way possible. It’s truthful, but it isn’t brutal.

Virginia’s real coming of age takes place through a shocking family event that rocks her world. Rather than watching it ruin her, the reader gets to see a journey toward self-actualization that is truly beautiful. I can’t say I was on the same page as Virginia the whole time – along with finding her voice and being able to stand up for herself she adopts somewhat of a silver tongue, for example – but I think that contributes to the realness of the novel. Teenagers are like that, and even the “nice girl” can’t always be super gracious.  The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is a genuine portrait of teenaged girl-dom, and I really really liked it.

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The Spectacular Now, Tim Tharp

Directed by James Ponsoldt.

This book has got a lot of hype thanks to the movie version, which came out on DVD last week. Before saying anything about the film, however, I’m going to first tackle the novel.

I enjoyed reading The Spectacular Now. Party boy Sutter Keely offers some of the most interesting and believable narration I’ve read from a first-person teen novel in a while. The book starts with Sutter’s girlfriend, Cassidy, breaking up with him, to which his response is a new goal to win her back. Somewhere along the way, however, he crosses paths with Aimee, a sweet but naive and (let’s admit it) somewhat dorky classmate. Pretty soon it’s as if they’re dating, and after a while it’s official. 

Before I go further into plot, I need to explain a thing or two about Sutter. He drinks – a lot. And then he goes driving. Often he drinks while driving. He’s also clearly hung up on Cassidy for a good half of the book, a crush that overlaps well into his relationship with Aimee. While it can’t be said that Sutter treats her badly, his opinion of Aimee is rarely romantic. He leads her on quite a bit, and for a time it seems as though he’s only dating her out of pity.

Yet here’s the thing: on top of all this, Sutter comes out likeable. I would never want my [nonexistent] daughter to hang out with him, but yeah, the boy’s got charisma. That said, a lot of people will disagree with me. My friend Annie wrote the following:

This is like the modern Catcher in the Rye, which, from me, is not a compliment. Sutter and Holden share the same unlikeableness, arrogance, and ultimate stagnancy that was pretty horrifying to read.

The arc of this book was frustrating. For a book of this caliber (not top) and because of the hype and the forthcoming movie adaptation, I was assuming…that there would be closure of some sort at the end. There wasn’t. I was frustrated. I only kept reading because I thought some comeuppance was coming to Sutter, but it didn’t (not really, not satisfactorily).

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008, 294 (hardcover)

Strangely, it seems the very things some people don’t like about The Spectacular Now are what I loved about it.  While it’s easy to think him an idiot for driving drunk most of the book, it’s also easy to feel worried for him. Sutter is neither hero nor villain, because he rides the line between them. The end of the book is frustrating, but I thought it ended the most likely way it could have. And realism is what the movie is currently being praised for. Everything from the script, to the actors’ performances, to the quality of their adolescent skin is beautifully and shockingly real. Slight changes were made to the end of the story, which might placate those who were angered by the book. Not only does the movie allude to a more satisfying end, it also shows the definite beginning of Sutter’s self-improvement.

While this novel lots of mature content, it’s a great exploration of an everyday, middle-class, non-future-dystopian-society teen, with problems that are relevant to every teen of that description. I recognized every character as someone I myself went to high school with, and I think there’s something special about that. Like The Catcher in the Rye, I believe The Spectacular Now has the sort of timeless quality of a novel that will still be pertinent fifty years from now.

I am Number Four, Pittacus Lore

HarperCollins, 2010, 440 pages

Recently I picked up another YA novel on a whim. I didn’t know anything about I Am Number Four, except that it had been turned into a movie starring Alex “Prettyface” Pettyfer. A good enough reason to start a book? Surprisingly not.

Our human-looking protagonist Number Four (who goes by the very original name of John Smith) is fourth in a line of remaining aliens from planet Lorien, camping out on Earth until it’s safe to go back home. The Mogadorians, another alien race, have also planted themselves on our fine planet, and are taking down Loric folks. The Mogadorians, stupid as they are, have used up the resources of their own planet and are now out to get the last few who stand between them and their claiming ownership of Lorien. Their difficulty lies in a charm that means they can only kill the remaining Loric in a certain order.

Now here are some more things you should know about Number Four. (I will call him John because that’s easier and less embarrassing to keep typing.)

  • As a member of the “Garde”, John has the capacity for special powers, AKA “legacies”. One of the big dilemmas he faces in the beginning of the book is how to deal with his hands, which keep lighting up spontaneously.
  • Because he is a Garde, John also gets his own guardian, or “Cêpan”. Enter “Henri”, a middle-aged looking guy with a heavy Loric accent which sounds curiously French. Hence the name Henri.
  • John and Henri have a dog. His name is Bernie Kosar, which is an insult to the real Bernie Kosar.

Okay! So before I get to the hard truth, let’s start with the things I enjoyed about this book:

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins

Woo-hoo! Deborah tackles her first non-fiction read since…since…well, since university I guess. I don’t generally read non-fiction, at least in book form. Newspapers, magazines, and other short dosages of reality are okay, but for some reason I just don’t read as much non-fic as I feel an intelligent person should. Conclusions about my intelligence aside, this is because, in my humble opinion, non-fiction books are categorically boring. Yet, if The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth taught me anything, it’s that our categorizations can sometimes be wrong.

Geeks follows a year in the life of seven social outcasts, highs and lows carefully documented  by journalist Alexandra Robbins. Because they exist on the margins of the high school social scene, Robbins terms these individuals the “cafeteria fringe”. The “fringe” cast of this book include Danielle (The Loner), Whitney (The Popular Bitch), Eli (The Nerd), Joy (The New Girl), “Blue” (The Gamer), Regan (The Weird Girl) and Noah (The Band Geek). At first glance, each of these individuals seems to fit neatly into an arbitrary category, but by following their choices and struggles throughout a school year, we soon learn of all the ways these students are really standouts. In short, Robbins presents seven living examples of “quirk theory”, which posits that those traits that make kids seems like “outsiders” in high school are the very traits that will help them thrive in the “real world”.  What makes many kids “different” in the weirdly homogenous high school landscape is what adults and future employers will value them for: things like creativity, an ability to think outside the box, individuality, and nonconformity. It’s a really heartening, positive message, and one we should be sending our kids.

I enjoyed Geeks mainly because of the addition of the “main characters”. Between each of their chapters, which read like stories, there is an explanation that includes social-psychological research and further real life examples.  Robbins addresses questions about what popularity really is, how cliques are started and maintained, why high school generally sucks, and what we as adults should be doing about all of it. This is psychology that’s entertaining, readable, and most of all, relevant. For everyone who works in a high school, or plans to in the future, it’s essential reading.

Th1rteen R3asons Why, Jay Asher

Film rights have been bought, and an adaptation is currently in development.

There are thirteen reasons why your friend died. You are one of them.

I thought this book would be about someone who felt guilty about their friend’s death and had to work through it somehow. Imagine my surprise when, on the first page, I realize it’s a story about suicide, and the thirteen reasons why a teenage girl decided to end her life. Whoopee! So a pick-me-up inspirational tale this was not, but the premise was still interesting, so I read on. (Here’s to reading the synopsis first, people.)

Hannah Baker died two weeks before a set of tapes arrives at the door of Clay Jensen’s home. Upon listening, he soon discovers the tapes to be Hannah’s last words to thirteen carefully-selected individuals whom she faults, in small and big ways, for pushing her toward suicide. Each tape contains a story directed at one person. The tapes are meant to be sent to each person, in order, at the risk of having them go public – which could reveal a lot of potentially damaging secrets. The story follows Clay’s crazy all-nighter listening to the tapes in succession, trying to get to the bottom of why he’s included on the list, and what happened to drive Hannah to her decision.

I have a few problems with this book. It was well-written and crafted, yes. Asher was pretty sneaky about turning Clay’s desire to get through the tapes as quickly as possible into the reader’s wanting to do the same with the book. But the fact of the matter is, no suicide note is this well thought out, or this long in the making. I hate to invalidate poor Hannah any more than she already was in the book, but her situation and her way of dealing with it didn’t seem feasible to me at times. Still, I don’t pretend to be some sort of expert on this, so maybe I’m all wrong. What I can say is this: get past the unbelievable aspects of the book, get past the vindictiveness in the nature of the tapes, and you have a raw, real and very personal glimpse into the hell that can be high school. Bullying is powerful, whether it be rumours or outright assault. Despite my initial reaction to her, my heart went out to Hannah, and with it, all the girls and boys who have ever felt like her. This book absolutely tore my heart out, exposing all the little things we do – and don’t do – that can snowball, catapulting a life into a totally different course. It was dark, but it ended with the faintest glimmer of hope, and a message that can’t be forgotten: reach out. Reach out! If you need help, ask for it, and be direct. If you see someone hurting or in need, do something. Give someone a reason to live – one little thing could go a long way.

To learn more about the book, its author, and its reactions, see the website here.