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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

June Reads

Elizabeth Acevedo, Clap When You Land

Ivan Coyote, Rebent Sinner

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Seth Rogen, Yearbook

Elizabeth Acevedo, Clap When You Land

This is a very sweet YA novel, written entirely in verse and narrated by two sisters who don’t know about each other.

I’m not sure what the advantage is of using verse instead of prose. My literature degree tells me that poetry can be sharper, more precise, and more selective in its focus than prose. I don’t know. I read it like a novel and I think that’s what you’re supposed to do. If you work in a school or library, though, and sometimes you hear this question from a student: “I’m looking for a book that’s really short. Also, I’ve never finished a book,” Clap Where You Land might be a good direction to send them in. And if you think that question is nonsense, you are right. Imagine going into a restaurant and saying, “I want some food that I can eat really fast? Also, I’ve never finished a meal and I hate eating? Do you have something I might like?”

But I digress.

Yahaira lives in New York City with her mom Zoila and dad Papi, while Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her single mom. Papi, father to both girls, spends a few weeks each year visiting his home and daughter in the D.R. Thanks to Papi, Camino is able to live comfortably, but she dreams of moving to America to go to medical school after graduation. When Papi dies suddenly (en route to visit her?), her vision of this future is in danger of evaporating. Worried about her private school tuition and the menace of a local gangster trailing her, Camino does some research into her father and discovers his other family in NYC.

Meanwhile, Yahaira is locked in an argument with her mother Zoila, who refuses to go back to the Dominican Republic, or explain why she won’t go to Papi’s funeral. Frustrated by what she perceives as an illogical situation, Yahaira books a flight to the funeral without her mother’s permission.

The voices of each narrator are distinct and compelling, their relationships thoughtfully crafted. The grief felt by Papi’s two families is rendered with compassion and authenticity. Camino‘s seemingly inevitable life of poverty and servitude to organized crime in the D.R. is only staved off by her father’s regular financial support. As an American teenager, her sister is entirely ignorant of the lack of opportunity and comfort available to her father’s extended family. He “made it” only by leaving the country, and his daughter hopes to do the same. Clearly it is Acevedo’s point to invite us to see how an accident of geography (or paternity) can define a person’s life.

I just finished reading Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt (more to come on this one later) and I’m struck by similarities between the two books, despite the fact that Of Women and Salt is partially set in Cuba and concerns Cuban-Americans. Both books offer a striking indictment of racist American immigration laws. Through fictional characters, both authors provide a clear picture of how difficult life is for women who lack education, wealth and access to legal employment. It’s a harrowing message that is hard to ignore.

While it is a great story, Clap When You Land also offers thoughtfully rendered characters and impactful, but never heavy handed social commentary. It’s a great choice for all readers, even picky ones.

Ivan Coyote, Rebent Sinner

I love the shit out of Ivan Coyote. I think of Ivan as Canada’s Tig Notaro, perhaps slightly less dark, but no less cutting and smart in their observations about the world. Rebent Sinner is a collection of short essays, many of them personal, about Ivan’s life as a non-binary performer and writer. The title comes from a sign they once saw while on the job as a production assistant to a t.v. show in Vancouver. It was supposed to be a command: “repent” sinner, but the dyslexia of the sign’s writer got in the way. Ivan liked that idea, of being a rebent sinner, and claimed it for this collection.

Such absurdity signals the overall tone of this book. Much of what Ivan has to say is not good, on account of the rampant homo- and transphobia they encounter here in our home country of Canada, but even the hardest stories are told with a spirit of levity and poignancy.

One piece is addressed to the elderly uncle who continues to deadname Ivan despite many years of correcting him. In another, Ivan shares a facebook post that they wrote after witnessing a situation all women will recognize. A man approached a woman waiting for the bus, gave her what he felt was a compliment and then became angry when she refused to appreciate the compliment or respond to his overtures. Ivan’s piece is widely shared, and while they appreciate this, they also acknowledge that “Men get listened to by default...I was perceived by most to be a man speaking to other men...The whole experience rattled the ghost of the little girl I once was.” The paradox is sharply illuminated: as a trans man, Ivan is able to recognize victimization of women based on observation and experience. As a person who presents to the world as male, they are offered a platform and privilege that many women do not have access to. For an equally powerful exploration of gender and privilege, please also see Vivek Shraya’s incredible I’m Afraid of Men.

Though not written explicitly for adolescents, I thought many times while reading this book that it would be amazing to use in a high school English class. Or parts of it, at least. Schools tend to teach very few texts that concern the reality of gender non-binary folks, even as numbers of gender non-conforming students rise.

Read this book. Then read Tomboy Survival Guide, also by Ivan Coyote. And then read their new book Care Of: Letters, Connections and Cures. Honestly, you’ll laugh and you’ll also cry, and you’ll be a better, smarter person when you’re done. While I’m at it, I’ll also recommend Tig Notaro’s series called One Mississippi, currently streaming on evil giant Amazon’s channel, Prime. It’s gorgeous, smart, funny and tragic, like Rebent Sinner.

You will know John Green because he is a prolific writer of teen fiction, publishing the following books in quick succession: Looking For Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns and (the big one) The Fault In Our Stars. Movies were made. Every teenager in the world wrote a reflective response to at least one of those books for their English classes.

Usually I’m suspicious of wildly popular books, but the thing is, Green is a good writer. His characters are clever and funny. They read a lot, and they know the difference between “literally” and “figuratively”. They pretend to smoke cigarettes while dying of cancer. They use math formulas to try to understand love. Green also hosts a podcast with his brother Hank, and from listening, it’s easy to get the sense that he is generally a deep and reflective person with a solid sense of humour.

The Anthropocene Reviewed, not a YA novel but a collection of essays, is also clever and funny. In it Green addresses a seemingly random set of topics and ranks them on a scale of one to five relative to their overall contribution to human existence. Kentucky Bluegrass (the actual grass, not the music) for example, is given 2 stars. He spends several pages on an old timey photograph called “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance” which is reproduced in the book, and whose provenance is indeed compelling. It gets 4 and a half stars. Diet Dr. Pepper, his favourite beverage, also gets 4 and a half stars. And yes, I think it’s reasonable to wonder who on earth could possibly love Diet Dr. Pepper this much.

Green’s characters are fond of quoting literary figures, and as it turns out, so is he. I’ll be honest, at times it felt a bit cheap, how he’d match a personal experience with a suitable and pithy quote by Mark Twain or Helen Keller. Why this bothered me at all is likely one of those questions worth exploring on my own time. In any case, it’s a minor criticism that should in no way stop you from reading this book. The Anthropocene Reviewed is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through some of humankind’s most surprising, unusual, banal, and yes, influential accomplishments.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is a fascinating memoir that is also an exploration of what therapists do. Gottlieb is a therapist, but started her career as a writer for television. Then she went to med school. And then she decided to become a therapist. You’d be forgiven for thinking she’s at least 100 years old with that level and variety of professional training, but no, she’s five years older than me.

She opens the book with a description of her own devastating break-up, an event that leads her to seek out a therapist. Through the rest of the story, she alternates between chapters that explore her own emotional work and those that tell the stories of her clients. What we get is an honest and rare overview of what it takes to change an unhealthy or destructive way of thinking about your life.

The first client we meet is a wealthy television producer named “John”. All clients are real people, but they have been anonymized, provided written permission to Gottlieb to use their stories and, in some cases, have been conflated with other clients, to ensure their identities remain private. Despite this, I was very committed to trying to figure out who John is in real life. I had no luck, but let me know if you can nail it down.

John believes he is surrounded by idiots, at home, at work, and everywhere in the world. He struggles to connect with Gottlieb at first, arriving late for appointments, taking phone calls in the middle of sessions, and criticizing her approach. He’s a bit of a Tony Soprano, in that he genuinely doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with him, but others, including his wife, have recommended therapy. Gottlieb is fascinated and frustrated by John, but tolerates his disrespectful behaviour so she can find out what is at the core of his dysfunction. She also explores the stories of Julie, a newlywed recently diagnosed with terminal cancer; Charlotte,a young woman with an alcohol problem; and Rita an older woman who is so depressed that she intends to commit suicide on her next birthday. As their stories are revealed through Gottlieb’s work with them, she also uncovers her own issues by reporting on her meetings with Wendell, her own therapist.

One of my firm beliefs is that one hundred percent of us can benefit from therapy. Even the most well adjusted people have deeply embedded conflicts, and Gottlieb, who appears to be a fully functional and emotionally healthy person, learns through her own process with Wendell that in fact, her recent break up was not so much a random and devastating occurrence as an event that logically fit into the patterns she’d established in her life. That’s not the same as saying she caused her own suffering - rather, her lack of personal insight meant that she failed to see the red flags that were made visible as she got to know herself. And that’s how therapy is helpful - it teaches us to recognize and reflect on damaging patterns that we are (usually subconsciously) committed to maintaining.

The fallibility of being human and our collective desire to avoid facing hard truths about ourselves is at the core of each of the stories Gottlieb shares. That she is so willing to share her own therapy journey is what makes this book so stunning.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

I heard a Yazoo song on the radio and it made me think about the early 80s, when a movie version of this book was created. (Actually, I just looked it up and the movie came out in 1988, which is further proof that aging causes time to warp in a way you will never see coming.) The movie’s pretty good, but it has a totally incongruent soundtrack with a bunch of Yazoo songs on it. Anyway, long story short, the song reminded me of the movie, which made me remember the book and wonder about whether it holds up to 21st century scrutiny. So I re-read it.

First published in 1977, The Chocolate War is set at a Catholic Boys’ School run by competing tyrants: Officially in charge is Brother Leon, a petty and spiteful school administrator who has taken over for the real headmaster, currently on leave. Then there is the clandestine student group the Vigils led by Archie Costello. The Vigils sustain a practice of secret hazing that ensures their power over fellow students. One freshman, for example, is given the task of loosening all of the screws in every piece of furniture of a classroom overnight, so that when the class arrives in the morning, merely brushing up against a desk or chair causes it to shatter. Leon and Archie are classic bullies, insecure and manipulative, usually enlisting others to carry out their sneaky plans.

The story revolves around the school’s annual fundraising sale of chocolate bars. Brother Leon has ordered double the usual number of chocolate bars for students to sell, and has established a competitive system to encourage sales and profit for the school. As a prank, the Vigils make freshman Jerry Renault refuse to sell any for ten days. He is the only student who does this. But then, after the ten-day resistance is over, he carries on with the protest, effectively defying Archie and Brother Leon both.

As a story about a quiet and ordinary young man standing up to injustice through what seems like a minor protest, this is quite a compelling read. But, like so many “classics” of the era, it contains no female characters and is full of weirdly dated language and homophobic slurs. I think it’s safe to leave this one in the curriculum graveyard with Lord of The Flies and The Catcher In the Rye.

Seth Rogen, Yearbook

I’m going to just come out and say it: you should absolutely read this book. It is very very funny.

Unsurprisingly, Rogen is an excellent storyteller. There’s a kind of authenticity to his writing that is reflective of who he really is, and his natural ability to frame an anecdote in a way that maximizes its comedic impact is the foundation of the book.

Rogen, a stand-up comedian before an actor, delivers his very first routine as the culmination of a workshop that his parents signed him up for at the age of 12. He’s been taught that the essence of a good joke is: 1) talk about a thing you don’t like 2) explain why you don’t like it by making a humorous observation and 3) do an impression of the subject / target of the joke. Early jokes are about his Bubby and Zaidy, and they are successful enough that “a guy who worked at another comedy room gave me his card and asked if I would perform there the next week.” It’s an impressive debut, if you ask me. Did I mention he was twelve?

I’ve never thought about how old Rogen was when he acted in the amazing series Freaks and Geeks. As it turns out, he was sixteen, the actual age of the character he played, which I think we can agree is kind of rare in high school based television shows. Having moved to L.A. to film the series, he continued to work on his stand up material. In a particularly cringey chapter, he speaks of being about to perform in a club when the owner tells him he’ll have to wait to go on until after a special guest. This guest is quite an important comedian who just arrived and is working on some new stuff he wants to try out. Rogen’s set will have to wait.

Who is this mysterious guest? Jerry Seinfeld.

My point is, I’m sure there were some kind of hard times in Rogen’s life (like that time he had to go on stage and deliver comedy immediately after Jerry Seinfeld) but overall it really sounds like he got to L.A. and basically built the totally solid career we see him enjoying now. A less skilled writer could make that story sound like nothing more than a series of lucky events happening to a person of privilege. But Rogen is aware of his privilege and knows how to find the funny, as I’ve noted. What could be a bunch of boring anecdotes told by a rich white guy is actually a rollicking tale of improbable situations that end in hilarity.

Rogen and his childhood friend / longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg (or, as he is fond of writing, “me and Evan”) have a meeting with Steven Spielberg, for example, and discover once they arrive that George Lucas will also be joining them. This is initially mind-blowing. Then Lucas reveals himself to be a guy who believes the world will end in 2012 and is keen to convince them that they too should be very concerned about their survival in the face of impending apocalypse. But no, despite the dire situation of Goldberg and Evan, Lucas makes clear that there is no room on his already prepped aircraft for two skeptical stoners.

I could tell you there isn’t a lot of name dropping in this book, but that would be a big lie. Rather than sounding boastful, though, Rogen’s stories about famous people that you’ve heard of and watched in movies are told in the same tone as the stories we all tell at the pub. They just happen to be about people like Kanye West, Tom Cruise, and James Franco.

Added to the narrative are photographs, hand drawn maps, and sketches of characters from the stories that presumably have been created by Rogen himself. He frequently inserts script-style dialogue into the prose, which of course makes you feel like you are in the moment with him. Some might call it, like name dropping, a kind of lazy storytelling device, but honestly, it just works here.

Go on. Read it. There are ten thousand laughs and, as Rogen admits, “way more stories about doing drugs than my mother would like” between the covers of Yearbook.

If you’ve had even one conversation with me about books, there’s a really good chance I took that opportunity to recommend Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I mean, I love Alison Bechdel full stop, but that book is straight up brilliant. She is also the creator of the long running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (RIP) and Are You My Mother? Even when she is not strictly writing a memoir, her writing is incredibly personal, very reflective, and deeply intertextual. The framing and re-framing of a single narrative against an existing author’s work is her super power and it’s no exaggeration for me to say I’d never have read Proust had it not been for Fun Home.

Her most recent book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, is at first glance an exploration of the many fitness trends that Bechdel has undertaken through her life. Never one to tell a story on a single, literal level, she also writes profoundly here about how exercise engages her in a way that few other pursuits do. This book, like her previous ones, is actually about her relationship to her own mortality, her constant desire to exist within a “flow” state, and her focus on external pursuits as a strategy to avoid dealing with the deep and difficult questions she harbours within.

The story is divided into chapters that follow individual decades of Bechdel’s life, exploring how her fitness interests are contextualized by other life events - making a living as a cartoonist, moving to the country, falling in love, her mother’s illness and death, balancing work and relationships. Woven through the chapters are panels describing the outdoorsy pursuits of authors William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and Jack Kerouac. I could particularly relate to her initial rejection of Kerouac as “macho bullshit”, but later on a friend advises her to read The Dharma Bums and she becomes enamoured of his search through mysticism for meaning in life. She writes as well of Margaret Fuller, a 19th transcendentalist struggling for legitimacy in a time of ingrained sexism, and quotes Adrienne Rich’s poetry. It’s more than a story about exercise is what I’m saying.

In college Bechdel takes mushrooms and experiences what she identifies as a true flow state, a oneness with her environment, an absence of ego, that is profoundly affecting. Through the rest of the book she seems to be endlessly seeking this same state of understanding, recognizing it in fleeting glimpses, but never quite capturing it again. Unlike Seth Rogen, she does not go on to take mushrooms another thousand times. But driven by the same life-prolonging impulse that inhabits all of us, she exercises a lot, occasionally cheats on her girlfriends, and drinks too much. This is how we cope with life, she seems to be saying, by trying to capture what cannot be grasped.

It’s not fair to talk about this book without showing its gorgeous artwork. Bechdel worked with her partner Holly Rae Taylor who added colour to the images for this book. The density of the text, combined with its detailed and engaging comic panels mean reading will exhaust you in the most delicious way. Just like, say, a good workout.

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