“Sloppy Firsts” or When Ennui Becomes the Hilarious First Step to Adulthood

Cover of "Sloppy Firsts: A Jessica Darlin...

Cover of Sloppy Firsts: A Jessica Darling Novel

Hope,

I guess your move wasn’t a sign of the Y2K teen angst apocalypse after all…

Jessica Darling has lost Hope, both literally and figuratively. The new year finds Jessica alone, depressed, and feeling less than optimistic about her current sophomore year. Her best friend, Hope Weaver, has just moved away from the New Jersey suburb the Darlings call home. Her remaining group of “friends” are busy with their boy drama and clothes fanaticism when they aren’t making a point to exclude her. Her mother is living vicariously through her bratty big sister’s wedding and her father only has one topic of conversation: track team. Jessica spends her days salivating over elusive Paul Parlipiano, bearing her soul in her journal, and trying to make sense of Marcus Flutie who provides a welcome distraction from all the dreckitude that surrounds her.

It seems like a large chunk of the YA genre these days is made up of sixteen year-olds in extraordinary circumstances. I get it–I too want to be transported to a postapocalyptic world where the triumph of the human spirit will end up demolishing evil. There is something to say, however, about identifying so completely with a protagonist that you feel a little less like a freak during those awkward years. After all, not all of us will face the problem of overthrowing a totalitarian government. But most of us will, at some point, feel the emotional earthquake of seeing a confidant go away. You might be wondering, “Ok, yes, we’ve all been there but how is this entertaining?”  Trust me when I say it is if the existential crisis is voiced by a bright and funny girl who happens to have a way with words. Fine, don’t listen to me but pay attention to other YA aficionados whenever this book is mentioned. For years, I have heard squeals of glee every time the name “Jessica Darling” is uttered. I want to kick myself for having taken so long to pick up Megan McCafferty’s witty portrayal of the anguish-filled boredom that permeates most adolescents’s lives.

And anguish-filled boredom is what is being narrated, in large part, in this novel. There’s a plot–sort of–but for the most part we witness Jessica’s brutal first year without Hope. She makes and loses friends along the way. She fixates on one guy only to end up transfixed by Marcus Flutie, who can only be described as the guy that every girl has liked at one point in high school. She copes with the death of her best friend’s brother. She keeps her grades up, practices track, and is an all-around ideal kid though none of these things maker her happy. “I could probably talk my way out of a bizillion sticky situations–if I only got myself into them,” she thinks, at one point. Jessica however is stuck in a status quo that is making her miserable. She fantasizes over sex while lamenting her virginity. She rants against the Mean Girls hypocrisy she sees at school as she talks behind other people’s backs. She runs in the mornings wishing that an accident would make her stop.

My history teacher in high school used to say that she would never go back to being a teenager again. “You suffer over everything,” she would lecture us, while we rolled our eyes. “You feel bad if you have a boyfriend, you feel bad if you don’t. You feel bad if you have too many friends, you feel bad if you don’t. You feel bad if you’re wearing a skirt, you feel bad if you’re not.”

She had a point. Sloppy Firsts is all about exploring, expanding and bringing that point wide open.

Amidst what might seem like one trivial matter over another though, the underlying theme that pops up again and again is that of loss. Not only does Jessica have to deal with the immediate loss of Hope but she’s also mourning the Jessica that defined herself through Hope. As she picks up the pieces of her shattered identity, we see the character leaving behind the parts of her that no longer fit and taking on new ones that are more problematic but also more real. And isn’t that what we all do, when we grow up? We lose things to find ourselves again.

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“The Book Thief” or Why There Is Nothing Banal About Words

Cover of "The Book Thief"

Cover of The Book Thief

Though it may appear that I’ve been spending every waking hour glued to the tube, I haven’t. I swear! Between the laugh tracks, the bitch slaps, and the many screams of the New Jersey Housewives, I’ve been reading. A lot. I’m finally finishing up some books to review (Question to self: Wasn’t that my initial intention?), and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is the first of the long list of titles that will appear shortly on this blog.

If you’re one of the thousands and thousands of people who have already read this beautiful book, please feel free to rave in the comments below. If you’re not, then I can only say that you’re missing out. Big time. I know, do you really need another tear-jerker about  World War II? Yes, yes you do. Because though the topic might be overcrowding the world of fiction, Zusak’s book manages to soar above the exhausted angles of the Holocaust. It’s predictable in the sense that you’ll end up bawling your eyes out in the end. It does hold within its pages certain tropes–the courageous everyday man, the sadistic Nazi, the little girl who can see past the official hatred. There is, of course, a hidden refugee. There is death.

Death is, in fact, the main narrator. Busier than ever, disgusted by what human beings do to one another, he guides us through the story of Liesel. It is one of the instances in which The Book Thief dodges the same-old, same-old checklist of World War II stories, though not the only one. I’m used to being told the stories of the victims, usually through the eyes of them. In this case, Liesel is not Jewish, yet she has had her share of pain under the Führer. Dumped by her mother in the Hubberman household, she’s already lost her communist father, and her younger brother to the Nazis, however indirectly. Yet, Liesel, her foster family, and the majority of her neighbors and friends are faring far better than many of those who were sent to the camps. They are definitely faring far better than Max Vandeburg, the young Jewish man hiding in the Hubberman’s basement. And that is as far as I’ll go in terms of plot. The book is 550 pages long. It would be hard to summarize the intricacies of narrative but more importantly, each word in this book is a discovery made best by oneself.

I can say this, though: a large part of The Book Thief is about words, and their power, a power that can be both terrible and magical. Sometimes both. As Max points out in the story he leaves Liesel, “The Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. ‘I will never fire a gun,’ he devised. ‘I will not have to.” This is a character that can see that the hatred spewed by Hitler is scary because it’s contagious. Even worse, these bullets of destruction, packaged in rhetoric, are accepted with very little thought.

Zusak is quite sympathetic to this often ignored side of the German populace of the time: the regular folk who were just trying to survive. Take his description of Alex Steiner’s (father of Rudy, Liesel’s best friend) political views:

Point One: He was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter. Point Two: Secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse–gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business–propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers. Point Three: But did that mean they should be driven out completely? Point four: His family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party. Point five: Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

We all like to think we’d be like Liesel’s Papa and Mama, brave enough to harbor the “enemy” in our house; or like Rudy Steiner (swoon-worthy) who isn’t afraid to shout out his love for Jesse Owens. Deep down inside, though, in that area of our heart Alex Steiner is afraid to scratch, we realize our reaction would probably be as ambivalent as his.

Liesel, of course, through her friendship with Max learns about the poison that can be found in ink, the disease that can be transmitted through speech. It’s why she begins to steal books-in a very real sense, they are power. They’re powerful enough to fight back the horror, to save in a very literal way. As she later says, “When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something but everything.” Stories construct our reality. The Book Thief, an homage to that power, asks us to tell them carefully.

And I’ll leave it at that.

Friday Fiesta: ‘Amigos’ by Enanitos Verdes

You know who rocks? Friends. Especially, old friends. New friends rock pretty hard too.They’re like a pair of great shoes you magically find your way to after hours and hours of unsuccessful shopping: they’re bright, fun, a little uncomfortable in some places (but it’s really just a matter of time before you mold yourself to their shape and vice versa) and you can’t wait to go out with them. Old friend though are like that comfy pair of Converse sneakers you don’t ever want to get rid of, even if they’ve gone out of style, even if they’ve started to look a bit frail, even if you wear them out by going over and over to the same spots. They’re there when you don’t want to put in any effort to look good, or when you don’t have any particularly exciting plan in mind. They’re perfectly content to just lie forgotten until you remember the good ol’ days and decide to give them another go.

I’ve been thinking about old friends a lot. I recently moved to a new city, a city I’ve grown to love more and more. I’m lucky to have my husband (who I consider a friend, but I also want to make out with him, so it’s not exactly the same…) and my puppy to keep me company, but it’s not enough. Friends are important. So while I wait for my new BFFs to show up and transform from strappy heels to battered sneakers, I’ve been thankful for the old friends that have let me know I’m still in their thoughts. Those who have called, those who have visited me during this transition, those who have let me crash on their couch when I need to visit them- I salute you. With the cheesiest friendship song I could think of. This one comes courtesy of the Argentinian group Enanitos Verdes. They specialize in the kind of hits that eventually become campfire sing-along mainstays (preferably belted out while tipsy). Grab your poison of choice and enjoy.

Happy weekend everyone! Make sure to spend it with a buddy.