Book Review: The Memory of Things

the memory of things cover

Polisner, Gae. The Memory of Things. Wednesday Books, 2016.

Everyone has their own September 11th narrative. Here’s mine.

I was a sophomore in high school, enjoying the final minutes of my first period History class. An announcement came over the intercom: all teachers were instructed to turn on their television sets and stay abreast of the news. After seeing the images of fire and smoke and terror, I can remember a feeling of helplessness and an acute awareness of the world that I hadn’t felt before. That evening, my parents began repainting my bedroom a cheery yellow color which clashed strongly with the mourning that permeated the rest of the world.

After attending BookCon in New York City this summer, my husband and I visited the September 11th memorial. As we viewed the etched names of the lost in the drizzling rain, the enormity of the event struck me once again. I thought, too, of my students, many of whom were born after 2001. Would they ever understand how that day—how those losses—changed everything?

When I received an e-mail from Macmillan with a description of Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things—a YA novel recounting one teenager’s September 11th experience—I jumped at the chance to read and review it. I hoped that this might be a tool in assisting my students’ understanding.

On September 11th, 2001, Kyle Donohue watches the collapse of the first Twin Tower from his nearby high school. He and his classmates evacuate and scramble toward their homes, a journey that takes Kyle across the Brooklyn Bridge. As he moves with other New Yorkers—all frightened and shocked, most covered in ash and debris—he spots a girl sporting costume wings, poised as though prepared to jump from the bridge. Kyle pulls this stranger back before taking her hand and, for reasons even he doesn’t understand, leading her to his apartment. He asks her name; the girl, frozen in fear, says she doesn’t remember.

Kyle’s father works as part of the Terrorism Task Force in NYC; Kyle’s panicked mother is awaiting a flight out of California. Therefore, Kyle is solely responsible for this winged stranger and the care of his paralyzed uncle, Matt. As Kyle struggles to piece together what is happening in New York City and around the country, he is also attempting to uncover information about the winged girl and the source of her amnesia. Where did she come from? Is anyone looking for her? Were both her parents killed in the towers?

The Memory of Things brought back many painful but accurate facets of the September 11th terror attacks—the barrage of constant news coverage, the various rumors and snippets of false information, the immediate kindness and unity of the entire country. It is interesting, too, that the narration shifts between Kyle and the winged stranger. Her point-of-view is written in free verse, a fitting style that speaks to her spotty memory. One thing that particularly stood out to me is Kyle’s desire to seek out information about international tragedies in the wake of the terror attacks. Kyle’s friend Marcus, for example, is a survivor of the Ugandan Bush War, and his sudden understanding of his friend’s hardships was both poignant and important.

The novel is divided into sections with headings, and these mostly confused me as I read. The sections are not accompanied by page breaks, so I at first thought the headings were part of the text. The headings, too, seemed largely unimportant and sometimes even gave away what was going to occur in the pages to come. I found myself wishing that the headings and sections would be removed altogether, and the book could stand as is.

Although the selfish English teacher in me would love to recommend this novel for language arts classes only, The Memory of Things is the type of book that reaches across the curriculum. History teachers who are trying to capture the feelings and trepidation after September 11th would be wise to check out Polisner’s novel. Those who teach psychology classes or units on mental health issues might also find it pertinent—there’s a great deal in the book about memory and the processes of the brain. Overall, any educator struggling with the lack of understanding—and sometimes lack of empathy—that can emerge when talking about September 11th will find it a touching and useful text.

Book Review: Everything All at Once (August Uppercase Box)

everything all at once cover

Leno, Katrina. Everything All At Once. New York, Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers, 2017.

I’ve accepted the fact that my attachment to fictional worlds and fictional characters is extreme. I’ll finish a compelling YA series and refuse to read anything for weeks, missing the characters as though they are dear friends who moved far away. I’ll see a fantastic movie and talk about it for days, whereas everyone else has already grown bored with discussing it. I’ll read fan theories and browse fan art while most people my age are firmly planted in reality.

I felt somewhat understood when I began reading Katrina Leno’s novel Everything All At Once. As the protagonist’s deceased aunt was a celebrated children’s author—her fame on level with that of JK Rowling—it was interesting to see how she was mourned by not only her family but by the entire world.

Lottie Reaves is reeling following the death of her Aunt Helen, a famous author whose Alvin Hatter series is the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Her grief is amplified by her own anxiety. Lottie has always been terrified of death, and watching her aunt succumb quickly to breast cancer has left her frightened and on-edge. Most nights, Lottie lays awake while her mind cycles through all the various ways she and her remaining family could die.

At the reading of her Aunt Helen’s will, Lottie is bequeathed her aunt’s jewelry collection, some old journals, and a stack of twenty-four letters written in her aunt’s neat script. According to the lawyer’s instructions, she is to open only one letter at a time. The first letter instructs Lottie to throw a party in her aunt’s honor, with plenty of food and dancing. At the party, Lottie meets Sam, one of her aunt’s former students from her stint teaching at a local university. With the help of Sam, her brother Abe, and best friend Em, Lottie sets out to fulfill her aunt’s final wishes. Why did Aunt Helen leave Lottie such detailed letters? Why did she want her to have her old journals? Is Sam really a former student, or did he play a larger role in her late aunt’s life?

The characterization of Lottie and Helen Reaves make this a spectacular read. Lottie is vulnerable, and her anxiety about her future and her imminent demise will be relatable to many readers. Through her letters, Helen confesses her own insecurities and regrets. Her letters are so vivid that she became my favorite character despite never appearing in the novel. The book also provides intermittent excerpts from the Alvin Hatter series, which provided fantastic depth in a way that reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but I wasn’t a fan of Sam’s revelation at the book’s end. Without giving too much away, it certainly lessened the contemporary feel of the novel and made Lottie and Helen a little less relatable.

Everything All At Once would be a great recommendation for a student struggling with anxiety or the loss of a loved one. There’s also a great deal of discussion in the book about the meaning versus meaningless of life. It would be interesting to read the book as a class, discuss the many themes, and then have students create their own life mottos and maxims.

Book Review: If You Feel Too Much

if you feel too much cover

Tworkowski, Jamie. If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For.    New York: TarcherPerigee, 2015. Print.

As I am writing this, I am merely weeks away from a brand new school year. The days to come will be filled with lots of work—setting up my classroom, writing and printing my syllabus, deciding what to cover in those important first days and weeks and months. Amid the back-to-school mania, I must pause and remember that my goal should be to provide a safe, caring space for my students, to tell them that they are valuable and loved and that they can live their best possible life.

That is why I am glad to have recently read Jamie Tworkowski’s If You Feel Too Much.

At last month’s VidCon, I spotted a booth from the suicide prevention organization To Write Love on Her Arms. Like all educators, I know students who have struggled with self-harming behaviors and attempted suicide. I am always looking for resources to place in my classroom that might be of some help to a struggling student, so I eagerly purchased a book at the booth written by Tworkowski, the organization’s founder.

If You Feel Too Much is a collection of short prose and blog posts that Tworkowski has written throughout his journey with TWLOHA. The collection spans nearly ten years and follows Tworkoski from his early years selling surfing equipment to his heavy responsibilities spearheading an important charity. Tworkowski doesn’t hide from tough topics—he discusses his growing distance from his father, his own battle with depression, his messy break-ups, and his fights with close friends and business partners. He talks of his grief after losing friends to suicide and cancer, and his uncertainty that he will ever find love or fulfillment. By the book’s end, Tworkowski urges the reader to examine their own story and find the strength not to give up. As he says in the collection’s last piece, “We will see you tomorrow.”

For those familiar with To Write Love on Her Arms, the book will reaffirm all of the positive work Tworkowski has done bringing awareness to mental health issues. His honesty is both refreshing and impactful. Some self-help books can be preachy, but since Tworkowski’s advice is dispensed from his own struggles, it is more relatable and easier to swallow. The pieces are also beautifully and lyrically written. Some could easily double as poems or songs.

My biggest struggle with If You Feel Too Much is that the pieces are presented without context; therefore, some parts of the book made me feel a little lost. Jason Russell is my Friend, for example, talked about the very public meltdown of Jason Russell, the founder of an organization called Invisible Children. I had to research Jason Russell and Invisible Children before I could continue reading, which certainly lessened the impact of the piece.

Overall, this book is a valuable resource that every classroom teacher should consider purchasing for their bookshelves. I’m planning to photo copy and display Towrkowski’s piece “There Is Still Some Time” in my classroom, a reminder to my students to seek help and comfort in moments of hopelessness.

Book Review: Immaculate

immaculate

Detweiler, Katelyn. Immaculate. New York: Viking for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

I love a good allusion. Just ask my students.

Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to read Immaculate. I first saw the book’s cover on the Penguin Teen Facebook Page—an artistic photograph of a young girl lying down, her arms wrapped around her midsection. The description mentioned a seventeen-year-old pregnant virgin protagonist, an allusion to the Virgin Mary. It was obvious click bait, but it worked on me. Within minutes, I downloaded the book to my Kindle app.

Seventeen-year-old Mina (aka Menius) is an academic, ambitious, and relatively innocent high school student. The course of her life is altered during a late night waitressing shift at the local pizzeria. A mysterious elderly customer tells Mina:

“It’s time. We’ve decided that you’re ready, that everyone’s ready. The longer we      wait, the more trouble we’ll see, and I think that the world has seen enough trouble, don’t you?”

Understandably freaked out, Mina makes a quick exit. Months later, she begins to feel ill: extreme fatigue, nausea, and aches and pains. The positive pregnancy test comes as a surprise since Mina has never had sex. After a doctor confirms the diagnosis, she must tell her parents, friends, and boyfriend and deal with their varying levels of disbelief and anger.

Mina’s pregnancy and claims of virginity make her the target of mean-spirited jokes at school. The creation of a gossipy website chronicling her ordeal—appropriately named The Virgin Mina—allows news of the alleged miracle to trickle throughout the country and world, resulting in Mina receiving mail from as far away as Indonesia. As Mina’s story continues to spread, two specific camps begin to emerge. One group vehemently believes that Mina’s claims are blasphemous; another sees her as a saintly figure who can cure diseases with her touch and personal belongings. Both groups cause Mina to fear for her safety and that of her unborn child. As her due date looms closer, Mina realizes she must make some tough decisions.

Perhaps it is the English teacher in me, but the parts of the novel I found especially poignant occurred when Mina was alluding to the most famous pregnant virgin. Some examples: the pizzeria where Mina works is decorated in statues of the Virgin Mary. Teasing classmates sing “We Three Kings” to Mina in the cafeteria. And, in a particularly moving scene, Mina breaks down while viewing a life size, handmade nativity in a Sunday school class. The connection is pretty blatant, but not enough to make the reader roll their eyes.

I did feel as though the narration was bogged down with unnecessary details. I lost track of the number of times Mina mentioned her blue eyes or that her father and sister had blue eyes, too. The nickname “Meen”, which appears several times in dialogue, always made me wince. And many supporting characters felt flat to me: Mina’s best friends Izzy and Hannah; Arielle, the creator of The Virgin Mina website; even Mina’s eventual love interest, Jesse. Spacey and sometimes humorously naive, a bit of Jesse’s back story would have really strengthened the book.

That being said, would I recommend Immaculate to my students? Yes, with some reservations. It’s a bit far-fetched but still makes some interesting commentary on societal cynicism. The book raises questions worth debating: When did we stop believing in miracles? Why do we demand proof before we’ll believe anything that goes against our knowledge of science and reason? Overall, I felt Immaculate had an intriguing premise, and the thematic ideas of ostracism and bullying are relatable to teens and adults alike.

What is this thing, anyway?

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”—Shirley Jackson

I’ve never been a fan of reality.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always sought an escape from day-to-day drudgeries, whether it be through movies, television shows, or—most notably—through books. Reading has been a huge component of my life, buoying me through good times and bad.

In college, I went through a brief period of what I like to call “book snobbery.” If it wasn’t a classical, acclaimed book, I didn’t want to read it.

I know, I know. Looking back, I want to punch myself in the face.

Then, I landed a job as an English teacher at a large high school, and I realized that to cultivate a love of reading in my students, I had to read what they read.

I realized something else, too: I actually liked it. I liked it a lot.

Through this blog, I hope to share my reviews of the young adult fiction I read, whether it is a popular title, a student recommendation, or just a selection with an interesting cover. I am aiming to provide extra insight as both an adult reader and a teacher, and I’d like to explore ways that young adult books can be used in the classroom.

And, in case you’re curious, here are my top five favorite YA reads (as of today!):

  1. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  2. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  4. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
  5. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell