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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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Written by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy

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At LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES, Eden Kennedy and I share our hard-won wisdom and tell you exactly what to think and feel and do, whether you're about to have a baby or already did and don't know what to do with it.

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Monday
Apr142014

May I Gently Suggest: Teen Angst Edition

These are two very different books about teenaginess. Teenagedom. TEEN LIFE. 

God, I remember how much I hated being called a teen. I remember taking a resort vacation with my family and my older siblings were like, “Don’t you want to check out the teen activities?” Then they snickered while I stormed off with my copy of Dubliners and my full array of head gear. 

Anyway! Now that I’m well past that point in my life, it turns out I can read books about teenageness without feeling any empathy or even a twinge of discomfort. Except that that is a filthy lie. After reading these, I am awash in adolescent memories, and I think I’m breaking out again. Or maybe that’s perimenopause. I hear that’s a thing. At least now I don’t have the headgear? (I think I need a retainer, frankly, but on the other hand fuck that. Being an adult means you can curse all you like. Someone bring me a fucking cocktail.) 

So the books I am gently suggesting to you, they are very different and I think their weaknesses and strengths complement each other delightfully. Let us discuss!  

 

First, there’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. You may have heard of this one. It’s all the rage. The movie is coming out soon. So many people recommended it to me that I ended up avoiding it, because I am just that contrary. But finally I gave in to peer pressure, and I’m glad I did. (Kids: your friends are not always wrong!) TFIOS (as the insiders call it) is funny, compelling, and wrenchingly sad. I can’t emphasize that last part enough. I knew going in that it would be sad. I was like, yeah, sure, teens with cancer. Bet it’ll have some dark humor. What I didn’t expect was that I would wake up the day after finishing it sore from crying so much. TFIOS is its own workout. If your eyes aren’t normally puffy enough, read this book. Problem solved. 

Reading it as a grownup renders the reading experience extra-hard, I think, because you feel not only for the teenagers but also for their parents. Without spoiling too much, you can probably guess that the families here get put through the wringer. I’m not saying that teenagers wouldn’t feel sad for all involved parties, but I can’t imagine Teen Me would have related quite as strongly to the adults. So: read TFIOS, but be prepared. Be prepared for your spouse to come to bed only to find you weeping violently and then he’ll get angry at the author for making you cry like that and you’ll yell at him to leave you alone because you still have a chapter left. Buy extra tissues. 

For me, the weakness of TFIOS was that I didn’t quite believe these teenagers were… teenagers. They recite poetry to each other. They think things through. They are far more sophisticated and witty than I ever was. I mean, maybe I was kind of a dope. I can fully get behind this idea. But you know how even the wittiest, smartest teenagers are super-duper lacking in good judgment and will do things so profoundly stupid you can’t believe it’s the same person? That kind of thing never happens, here. On the other hand these are teens with cancer and maybe they’ve had to grow up fast. That’s a possibility. I just think that the version of teenagers John Green shows here is…aspirational, shall we say. Maybe teenagers need that. “Look how witty I could be,” they might say. “Time to memorize some poetry.”

On to the next book! 

Jo Ann Beard’s IN ZANESVILLE is a great contrast to TFIOS. I was crazy about Jo Ann Beard’s collection of essays Boys of My Youth (check out that title essay—talk about wrenching) and I was recommending it to a student when I accidentally discovered that she had since written this novel. It’s a crime that more people don’t know about this book. It's a crime that I didn't know about this book. 

IZ (yeah, I'm abbreviating it) is about two best friends trying to find their way into adulthood, getting into trouble, falling out of friendship and back in, and it reads like maybe the author read my diary. I loved, loved, loved it. The deep affection I felt for the angsty teens here was something I missed in TFIOS. These are the kinds of girls I remember being. Well-meaning. Flailing. Anxious. Thoughtless. Dopey.  

Here’s the first paragraph, which may be my favorite first paragraph ever: 

“We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we’re supposed to be in charge here, so there’s a sense of somebody not doing their job.”

Is that not brilliant? Can't you immediately picture these two goofy fourteen-year-olds, making an utter mess of things, trying to abdicate responsibility for the fire while it is occurring? And it only gets better. The entire book is a harrowing and hilarious in just that way. I believed that these kids existed. I worried about them. 

I do have one problem with IZ, but it’s kind of a book spoiler. I’ll just say I didn’t think the book quite realized its potential. I think you can have a literary work that also has an exciting plot, and this novel frustrated me a little in that way. IZ is wonderfully evocative in a way that TFIOS isn’t, but on the other hand, The Fault in our Stars goes, shall we say, all the way. In Zanesville is something of a tease. 

 

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Reader Comments (14)

I heard a review of In Zanesville when it came out and was intrigued and then forgot about it. Thank you for the reminder and the push to go find it!

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKorinthia

I definitely get the John Green aspirational teenagers critique, but having spent time at his high school alma mater during my internship, JG's writing and outlook is well formed by that experience and it shows when he writes about teenagers.

There is an article from last year about one of the students from his alma mater (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/03/21/students-seek-to-repeal-alabama-law-forcing-teachers-to-say-homosexuality-is-criminal/) that is a small sample of the culture of aspiration and intelligence found there - this kids are truly some of the most engaged human beings I've met.

Finally, if you're interested in reading another JG book that's also REALLY good and somewhat autobiographical, hie thee to a copy of Looking for Alaska (his novels with a personal connection are much better, e.g. TFIOS and LfA).

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

I'll have to check those out!

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShaunacey

if you aren't too teened outtry Eleanor & Park. it's got all of the great nervous, quirky stuff plus young love & a bit of a mystery.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteremily ruth

Beth: that's great to know!

Emily Ruth: I read E & P and loved the crap out of it. How did I fail to recommend it here?

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

i read TFIOS a year or so ago, and filed it away as a book to foist onto the child...later. because it's wonderful - but she's only 10. i was somewhat discombobulated when she came home from the school book fair last month with a copy of it - she'd seen the movie trailer and thought she should read the book. her verdict: "best book ever". and she wept. and she started it all over again as soon as she'd finished it. i'm sure some of it went right over her little head, and i know she was looking for the romance piece of things, but still - i'm glad she had the impulse to pick it up at the book fair.

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermagpie

Thanks for the recs! I have read TFIOS and can't wait to check out the new author you mentioned.

Also, I just finished People Who Eat Darkness -- thank you for the rec. I whipped right through it. It wasn't your typical true crime novel and left me really, really thinking about how different cultures handle tragedy differently. Also, it was fascinating to see the differences in how Japanese view sex and women.

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKelli Oliver George

LOVED "In Zanesville"!

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDevon

I love most of John Green's novels. I recommend both Looking for Alaska (great plot twist), and An Abundance of Katherines.

Will look into Jo Ann Beard!

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCora

This makes me interested

April 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy

I have three teens and two of them read and loved TFIOS. They have begged me to read it, but I can't handle the sad right now. I just can't. I mean living with three IRL teens is quite exhausting as it is, I don't know that I'm ready to throw in any extra sobbing. But I don't know, my sinuses need some clearing so maybe when I'm at the library tomorrow I'll think about it.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterannmarie

I don't know, annmarie, right after I read it I came down with a sinus infection. I know correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation but I STRONGLY SUSPECT that John Green somehow infected my head-holes. Proceed with caution, is what I'm saying.

April 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteralice

Need to check those out. Read couple of pages of TFIOS but put it down.

April 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterW Amber

Read TFIOS, need to check out other one.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

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