The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

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The Art of Being Normal begins in the point of view of David, a closeted transgender teenager and adorable bundle of teen anxiety. If you think this sounds like a literary after-school special, you’re right. It reminded me of a U.K. version of Degrassi, all bright colors and dramatic music playing at the end of chapters. Besides worrying about how to come out to his loving parents and hoping to be able to transition before puberty makes it harder, David hangs out with his two cardboard-cutout friends, gets bullied at school, and lazes about. He is the definition of a normal teenager. Then he meets the mysterious Leo Denton, the new boy at school with a bad boy edge, and things start to change.

I would recommend this mainly for middle schoolers or freshmen in high school. Any older than that and this novel is too wholesome. There’s slight drinking and the mention of sex but the characters still have the wide-eyed wonder of middle grade characters. The plot twist about what Leo Denton’s deal really is was cheap and easily guessed. The value in The Art of Being Normal is that it’s a book about a transgender person with a sunny perspective. Stories like this are important for young people struggling with gender identity. We get a lot of harsh stories about how hard it is to be different. The Art of Being Normal tells young people that there is hope in community.

My only big complaint: I’m not an expert on the subject, but I think this story made physical transition with hormones seem both accessible and affordable for teenagers, and that doesn’t seem true to me.

If you’re just an adult reader looking for an interesting YA novel to read, I’d look elsewhere, unless you really have your heart set on something with a transgender main character and have read everything else. If you’re an English or Health teacher, this is a decent book to consider reading or assigning to your teenage students.

The Art of Being Normal will be in bookstores in the U.S. on May 31, 2016.

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

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In Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny has written a collection of short stories about the inner life of unfaithful women. Check out the quote from Lena Dunham on the cover – I was expecting something similar to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mother’s, Tell Your Daughters, but Heiny doesn’t write about women with the same broadness – Single, Carefree, Mellow is full of stories about a very specific type of woman. The characters suffer mainly from their own boredom. They are mistresses and cheating wives, and they have little remorse, nor does the narrative suggest that they should.

In the title story, the main character, Maya, is a woman waiting for the right time to dump her boyfriend. It’s complicated by the fact that her dog is dying, and she relies on the emotional support. In the end she decides to just stick it out, even if she doesn’t really love him. The two characters show up in later stories, except then the dog is dead and Maya is having an affair with her boss. And she’s still with her boyfriend who bores her. I couldn’t really relate, so maybe that’s my fault for expecting that I was going to.

During her affair, Maya muses about “come facts” – little bits of trivia the men she sleeps with mention to her after sex. Her second story begins with the line: Here is what Maya’s boss said to her after they made love the first time: ‘Did you know that peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite? It’s a unique way to play on the “Men Explain Things to Me” frustration. But as far as any other commentary on the relationship between men and women, this collection offers little else except that it all seems miserable.

The characters in Single, Carefree, Mellow are all frustrated by the men in their lives, and the major failing is that Maya’s musing on how men are always telling her silly facts after sex is the only time any of them seem to kick up any fuss. They instead react to their frustration by being cheaters, and that is aggravating.

A lot of readers will dislike these stories just because of the infidelity, and I get that. I’m a little more forgiving with unlikeable or morally questionable characters, but even I got sick of reading story after story of women having affairs. The characters all blend in together into one relatively attractive and dishonest blob of a woman. Heiny has a good comedic voice, and a little more variety in subject matter would have helped this collection along quite a bit.

Many thanks to Goodreads and Vintage Books for sending me a giveaway copy of this novel for review.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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I spent April reading one of the most hyped literary fiction books of the last year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. At over 800 pages, it wasn’t a quick read, but neither was it as laboring and upsetting as everyone said it was going to be – maybe I have a heart of stone. I had trouble putting it down, which was surprising because based on reviews I was expecting this book to be ROUGH. I can’t remember the last time I read a better, more engaging novel. The review I am about to write is evidence that this novel demands serious thought.

So, what did I NOT like about it? The novel suffers because of it’s own hype. The parts everyone waxed poetic about (the extreme abuse and mental anguish the main character, Jude, goes through) were the parts of the novel that I felt were overdone and vaguely exploitative.

It felt like a betrayal at times, that a novel so expertly written made me feel the exact opposite of what the author was trying to make me feel. If you google A Little Life you will see an outpouring of emotion regarding Jude. You will also see a lot of hints of the horrific abuses he faces, which is why people label this novel “hard to read”. I got the sense with every escalating horror Jude lives through that Yanagihara was trying really, really hard to make Jude into a Christ figure. It felt like too much, mostly because I didn’t believe it. I don’t believe that one person can suffer all that abuse and then become an extremely rich and successful corporate litigator, for one thing. Sadly, I also don’t believe that someone can be as self-destructive as Jude and still hang on to a loving group of friends. I’ve heard Yanagihara say in interviews that she wanted A Little Life to be slightly off-kilter, like a fairy tale, and she’s right. I don’t believe that someone like Jude could have loving friendships and a successful career while also avoiding professional help. That’s a fairy tale, and it aggravated me.

The main feeling I felt towards Jude by the middle of the novel was annoyance at how he was written. There is so much glamorization of mental illness and suicidal people in fiction. What isn’t glamorized is the people who suffer and listen when their friends ask them to get help. This is serious – I am so sick of reading narratives about the beautifully suffering mental ill person who won’t get help. I resented the characterization of Jude, who is a complete martyr to the image of a mentally ill person who is brilliant and lovely in every way except that they keep trying to destroy themselves.

I nearly rolled my eyes out of my skull every time a character had to take a break in their interior narrative in order to think about how wonderful Jude was. When the novel isn’t focusing on Jude , it follows his group of college friends as they become very wealthy and successful in New York City. We are made to believe that these dudes are somehow exceptional, and I hated that.

It seems like I’m really tearing this book apart, but I do so out of love. I highly recommend this book, but I don’t want to join the chorus of people gushing over Jude and his friends. I am side-eyeing the tacky A Little Life tote bags – I just don’t get it. But, certainly, if you’re looking for a long read by someone who can write, and I mean really write – pick up A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara is an immense talent for sure.