13 Reasons Why

Image result for 13 reasons why bookI’ve just finished reading the YA novel, 13 Reasons Why. I’d heard about it before the much talked about Netflix series – in fact I’d bought a copy last summer, on recommendation from an American teenager who’d attended my summer school creative writing course.

I really liked the title. The premise seemed a bit gimmicky – I girl commits suicide, but leaves cassette tapes for the thirteen people she sees as responsible – but I was curious. There’s something about suicide as subject matter which is darkly compelling.

Overall, I really didn’t like the book. It was a page-turner, a sort of Girl on the Train for teenage girls. I read it all the way to the end, despite not liking it much, because there was something gripping about it. I suppose it was the idea of finding out who was going to be on the next tape – the cliffhangers – the unravelling ‘chain of events’ that reminded me of the death of Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. It was a pacy read. A thriller. But no, I didn’t really like it.

The characters were flat and uninteresting, often relying on stereotypes – the fatuous popular girl, the sensitive guy, the teenage boy sexual predator. All of these concepts of characters could have been potentially interesting, but there was no depth or exploration. These stock characters were just positioned for plot purposes, like chess pieces. I was all too aware of the writer’s structuring of the plot, and rarely felt immersed.

Hannah Baker, the protagonist who commits suicide, didn’t feel real – and this was the main problem I had with this book. It felt so unlikely that anyone would kill themselves in such a measured, planned way. The narration switches between Clay, her one-time love interest, and the voice of Hannah on the tapes. While the idea of a voice speaking beyond death is appealing as an idea, this didn’t feel real. Hannah sounded too rational, too measured. Nobody on the brink of suicide could explain their feelings in such detail, surely? I’ve never had depression, and I’m not an expert on mental heath, so I’m not speaking from a point of experience of specialist knowledge here: all I know is, as a reader, I didn’t believe in this character’s breakdown. The series of events built and built, but I found myself feeling ever more distanced from them. I simply didn’t believe in the voice I was reading. Hannah Baker sounded like a literary construct.

I’ve just listened to the Woman’s Hour podcast about the Netflix series, and there were many differing opinions on whether this glossy American series is glamorising suicide, or actually getting young people talking about mental health in a useful way. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the TV series, but I thought Jane Garvey’s point was interesting: the way Hannah is still central to the story, and still speaking, is a worrying portrayal of suicide. The tragedy of someone taking their own life is that it is final. Their story stops. Central to the concept of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah keeps on speaking. She dies, and yet keeps her voice. She gets to have her revenge, and that just doesn’t feel authentic.

13 Reasons Why portrays a suicidal state of mind as hopeless. Hannah essentially makes a list of all the people in her life that could have helped her, and didn’t. What sort of message is this? Don’t bother seeking help – it’s pointless. Well, that’s bleak. And dangerous, too.

All in all, I definitely won’t be recommending this book to the students I teach. I love the YA genre, the Holden Caulfield characters struggling to find their place in a strange, alienating world, but I prefer the optimism of writers like John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is about children with cancer, and while it’s sad and devastating, there’s a joy about life and an optimism that’s great for teenage readers. I expected a similar balance of emotions in 13 Reasons Why, but I was disappointed. It’s a page-turning thriller, and an unconvincing one at that.

‘Animal’ by Sara Pascoe

I read this book back in the spring after hearing it mentioned on all my favourite podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Book podcasts, feminist podcasts… This book crossed into both. Sara Pascoe seemed instantly likeable and I liked the idea of a feminist polemic with a scientific angle, whilst still being readable and entertaining.Not That Kind of Girl - Cover.jpg

I’ve read a few of these sorts of books – autobiographical in nature whilst still trying to tell us something wider about what it means to be female in the modern whirlwind of changing sexual identities, gender fluidity, everyday sexism and all manner of feminist campaigns and hashtags. Lena Dunham’s books, Not That Kind Of Girl, is brilliant. It’s raw and beautifully written. I’m a big fan of Girls and Dunham’s book offers more of that special quirky energy, weirdness and arresting honesty. I love that Dunham is brave enough to be so openly weird. We all pretty strange individuals with our own neuroses, health quirks and awkward sexual histories, but Lena just puts it all out there. And she’s such a good writer. Her voice is a compelling read.

Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman Cover.jpgThen there’s Caitlin Moran. When I read How to be a Woman when it was first published in 2011; five years ago, it felt so fresh and new. People weren’t calling themselves feminists then – at least not in my everyday internet wanderings and conversations with friends. Fourth wave feminism existed, but I wasn’t aware of it. How to be a Woman was an approachable read, a funny read, one that widened the consciousness of why feminism is important. I did a women’s life writing course at university, and yet I don’t think I’d ever read about periods, breasts and abortion before. I was 25 at the time, and as Caitlin Moran was ten years older than me, it felt like getting advice from a very honest, very funny big sister. I loved it. It genuinely changed the way I thought. It was when I started thinking of myself as a feminist.

So I read Animal by Sara Pascoe with these two great books in mind. Two books I loved. If I’d read Animal first, when I was about fifteen, I think I would have loved it a whole lot more than I did as a married thirty year old who already read a lot about this subject matter. Not that this is a bad book: it definitely isn’t. I just wasn’t sure I was the intended audience.

Reading it, I definitely learned interesting things about new discoveries in science regarding gender and sexuality: Pascoe has definitely done her research, and in that respect, this book possibly had more weight than Moran’s. I learned that a lot of preconceptions about female sexuality are Victorian constructs; evolutionary principles were established by male scientists in a very conservative age, and thus their theories on women and even female animals were shaped by  deeply embedded societal views. Women are delicate, nurturing and not as sexual as men, for instance. These Victorian ideas are still floating around right now in the media, in films, in the books we read. And yet there’s so much evidence that these ‘gender norms’ are a load of rubbish. But we knew that, right? Even if I didn’t know all the science, I still felt like I already knew the principles of this book. Having said that, the science of hormones was really interesting, and something I felt I should have found out about earlier.

Maybe I’ll pass the book to my teenage niece. Maybe this is what this book is about… passing the torch. She’s a typical sixteen year old, interested stalking minor celebrities on Twitter, pouting for Instagram selfies and collecting Mac lipsticks. Just as I felt at her age, her peer group is everything. She might well be very happy in performing this particular internet-age brand of femininity, but what if she’s not? She’s just left school, she’s going to college and thinking about university. This is a crucial age for deciding your own identity, and experimenting with it. Perhaps this book would be a helpful voice in helping her understand her own hormones, her first relationships. Sara Pascoe writes so honestly about her own difficult teenage years: an eating disorder, an abortion at 16. It’s not sensationalist or extreme, because everything feels pretty extreme when you’re 16. Yes, I wish I’d read this book earlier. I would have learned a lot.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I’ve been dipping in and out of various non-fiction titles and short stories over the summer. I suppose I’ve been a bit of a butterfly, swooping from flower to flower, not settling for long to read one thing. That was until I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skoot.

I bought it in a second-hand bookshop for a £1 on a whim, the title being vaguely familiar from listening to a Radio Four podcast. I’m so glad I did. This is a truly extraordinary book that I urge you to read. As many have said, it’s as gripping as any novel I’ve ever read, perhaps more so because of the shocking truths within it. I’m not a scientist – I scraped through Single Science at school and am sometimes embarrassed by how much I don’t know – so reading a book like this was an education for me. I knew nothing about the questionable ethics and extraordinary weirdness of the early days of cell culture research, and I certainly didn’t know the name Henrietta Lacks.

She was a black woman, born in Virginia in 1920. She was born into tobacco farming, and lived in an old cabin that once housed slaves. She lived through the worst poverty and deep discrimination of America in the first half of the 20th century, and died of ovarian cancer at the age of 31. Her doctor took a sample of her cancer cells – most probably without her consent – and these cells were the first to continue to live and grow outside the human body for any considerable length of time. They still live and grow now, in laboratories all over the world. Her cells have led to a string of vitally important scientific discoveries, and made a huge impact in cancer research. Henrietta’s cells are bought and sold by biomedical companies, and for a long time her surviving family had no idea.

Perhaps the best thing about this very special book is how sensitively Rebecca Skoot portrays the Lacks family. She took a lot of time to get to know them and earn their trust. She clearly felt a sincere affection for Henrietta’s surviving daughter, Deborah, whose warmth and eccentricity drives the narrative forward in the second half of the book. This book isn’t just about science – it’s about a family who have been treated very unfairly. Deborah carries the mental and physical scars of this, haunted by the trauma of the medical profession’s mistreatment of her family, though still fiercely proud of the contribution her mother’s cells have made to the world. Rebecca Skoot transcribes word for word what she is told by Deborah and other members of the Lacks family, so that their story is enriched by their own lively dialect. I love the image of Deborah – an uneducated woman who craves knowledge – clinging to her dictionary, falling asleep at her computer as she learns to Google information about her mother. Deborah’s spirit is extraordinary.

This book is meticulously structured and the twists and turns of this real-life epic story are very affecting. This book is a real master class for writers in choosing the perfect moment to make the next revelation. I wonder if so many extraordinary twists would test the credulity of the reader if this was fiction – for there are so many moments that are emotionally arresting and surprising. I think the reader is carried by a narrative if they care about the characters, though, and you will care about Skoot’s ‘characters’ – Henrietta herself, her children, her grandchildren. You will care about her legacy. Skoot has clearly carefully considered the order of her chapters, her timeline – and by the end you have felt the decades of this extraordinary story.

The Green Effect

faultinourstarsI know I’m a little late to the party, but I am working my way through the complete works of the current king of YA fiction, John Green. I was amazed at how many of my students read The Fault In Our Stars and loved it. One Y7 could recite entire passages of it. I had to see what all the fuss was about!

From the blurb, I don’t think I would’ve chosen to read The Fault In Our Stars. I don’t like sob stories, and on a superficial level, this novel sounded too close to mis lit for me. I’m really glad I picked up a copy, though, because I could tell this was beautifully written from the very first page. The voice of Hazel Grace Lancaster in quite arresting: sardonic, cutting to the quick, sparkling with intelligence. I work with sixteen-year-olds, and I have met very few as erudite and well-read as Hazel – but the secret is the bookish kids (like the smart-arse, pretentious teenage me) want to be like her. And it’s the bookish ones that fall in love with this book. The bookish ones fall in love with Augustus Waters, too. They learn passages by heart and make beautiful memes of quotations, because this book is also eminently quotable. John Green has practically trademarked the word ‘okay’. And why not fall in love with it? I applaud any kind of literature that inspires passionate readers.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is extraordinary because she’s been cut off from normal teenage life, having not attended school because of her illness. Her only company are her parents, and the characters from books. This, in my view, is sufficient justification for her wisdom beyond her years, and the erudite register of some of her narration is nicely contrasted with more ‘normal’ teenage life – horror movies, computer games and choosing outfits. I read that John Green wanted to convey a terminal cancer patient as human, as normal – not someone to put up on a pedestal as angelic, as an almost superhuman ‘fighter’ against invisible demons. Equally, he wanted to show us that we needn’t be frightened of cancer patients. Someone doesn’t stop being human after diagnosis. The medical drama of the book was compelling reading, though at times brutal and distressing… yet Hazel and Gus didn’t become any less themselves.

This novel was a winner for me without the cancer story, because it was a success in characterisation, pacey dialogue and portraying the minutiae of contemporary teenage life: the cornerstones of the Green style, I can tell, after reading Paper Towns, and my current read, his debut novel, Looking For Alaska. Alaska is another broken teenage girl, though her fragility stems from psychological trauma. I’m enjoying Green’s portrayal of boarding school friendships, and the ingenuity of the pranks played on so-called ‘Weekday Warriors’, the wealthy elite of Culver Creek School.

I haven’t found it as gripping as Paper Towns, though, which has all the depth of characterisation of TFIOS, with a whole load of suspense thrown in. The mystery of Margo Roth Spiegelman will have you hooked. Green describes it as a book about the dangers of idolising another person, because nobody is nearly as perfect as they seem through the rose-tinted glasses of a teenage crush. The imperfect version of Margo Roth Spiegelman is far more fascinating, anyway. Gifted with the super intelligence Green seems to bless all of his characters with, she likes to disappear, leaving clues for her loved ones that are so obscure and clever that it seems she might never be found. Quentin Jacobsen, or ‘Q’, as she calls him, is the only one who never gives up. I particularly enjoyed the friendships that developed through the search for Margo – Ben is hilarious, and popular girl Lacey has hidden depths. The road trip scenes already read very cinematically, so I can’t wait to see the film (there will be one following TFIOS, surely?).

The Green Effect, which I’m deciding to call this particular literary phenomenon, has my full support. It’s easy to be cynical about crazes in YA books – I’ve heard people dub TFIOS ‘that moany teenage book’ – but this is genuinely good writing that shouldn’t be dismissed. Like the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Pottermania, you can throw in the old adage about it ‘getting kids reading’, though I suspect the kids who are reading it would want to read anyway. At least they’re reading something of genuine quality, though. I’m already reading the effect of this in my Y11 students’ creative writing. The girls who have read the books write with ambition. They wax philosophical. They’re creative with their subtle imagery. They’re proud of their bookishness, too – and this, just maybe, is because of Hazel Grace Lancaster. She’s an inspiration to them. Like Hermione Granger before her, Hazel makes being clever cool.