Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Holding Up the Universe book coverNiven’s other YA book, All the Bright Places, is probably going to remain one of my favorite YA novels of all time. So Holding Up the Universe had a lot to live up to, for me.

The premise is definitely interesting. It’s about two kids with major and out-of-the-ordinary challenges in their lives. Libby Strout is extremely overweight and Jack Masselin has a severe case of face blindness.

Libby is returning to school after being homeschooled for many years—initially because she was housebound due to being so overweight that she couldn’t leave her bedroom, so overweight that they had to break a hole in the wall to get her out of the house. She got fat after her mom died several years earlier and she tried to eat her way through the grief. She’s lost a bunch of weight and is looking forward to returning to school even though she was bullied during her time there as a younger kid. She has great hopes for her return and is shot down pretty quickly. Still, she manages to make a handful of friends and plans to audition for the school’s dance team if a spot opens up. She may be a target, but she’s not a withering flower. Not at all.

Jack’s an interesting case. His face blindness makes all social interactions difficult for him and several times he’s humiliated himself mixing people up. Niven does a fantastic job of keeping us constantly aware of his challenges. Jack recognizes people based on unreliable clues and context. It’s easiest at home, since everyone is a different age or gender, but even there it’s dicey. For instance, he’s in his bedroom one morning before school and thinking about his brother, Marcus. “When a tall boy with shaggy hair comes into my room and starts yelling at me, I figure it’s him.” Then “a woman appears at the door and wants to know what in the Great Fanny Adams is going on.” Jack coughs, “which makes her point to the door and tell the tall/shaggy boy to get the hell downstairs.” Then he looks out the window at everyone leaving, including his little brother, Dusty, and summarizes it like this:

The woman climbs into one car with this little kid, and a man with thick dark hair gets in another car with the tall/shaggy boy.

It’s funny, sure, but it also perfectly conveys how nightmarish everything is.

Libby and Jack first encounter each other when he basically assaults her as part of a cruel prank, stuffing an apologetic note in her backpack at the same time. She retaliates by punching him, so they both have to go to this after-school group counseling session and eventually get to know each other and find out they have more in common with each other than they could have imagined. They get closer and help each other through some rough patches.

If you enjoyed the emotional depth of All the Bright Places—or just like books full of raw and at times intense emotions—you will enjoy Holding Up the Universe. It’s also just interesting to get a flavor of true face blindness.

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give book coverThis is a remarkable book that lives up to the hype surrounding it. Most of you will probably already know of this book, so you’ll know it’s about a black girl whose unarmed, black male friend gets shot by a white cop in front of her. Obviously a topical subject, but the book really delivers a great fiction experience all while introducing readers to a world they probably don’t know at all, as well as an inside perspective on what black people regularly face. I love reading books set in places or cultures I have little to no exposure to, even though it’s uncomfortable at times, and that was all true for this book.

Starr Carter’s a great character, complex and just flawed enough to be deeply interesting. She’s a pretty normal sixteen-year-old girl, except that she attends a private school named Williamson while living in a neighborhood plagued with violence and drugs. Gang life is all around her, except when she’s at school or tucked safely in her home. Her mom is a nurse and her dad runs the local grocery store, making them a little different from many of their neighbors, even though her dad does have a history with the local gang. Not surprisingly, Starr thinks of the school Starr as distinct from the home Starr. Navigating those two identities is complicated. As she says:

Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do.

And when her boyfriend is visiting her family so her worlds are colliding:

I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.”

This is typical of that frustrating pattern where people of a power-compromised group are held to a different standard (and it’s not just minorities—women face that in the corporate world, too).

At school, her best friends are a white girl named Hailey and an (east) Asian girl named Maya. And her boyfriend is white, too. They bond over basketball, which they all play (with skill).

Starr manages her two lives pretty well, even though there are cracks in her relationships already showing at the beginning. Hailey unfollowed her on Instagram, which Starr knows is because of posts she’s put up related to mistreatment of blacks over the decades. And although we don’t know what it is for a little while, something happened with her boyfriend that pissed her off (before the book starts).

Starr’s family is also complicated, but her relationships with both her parents are solid. It’s also a source of some of the humor in the book. An exchange between Starr and her mom:

[Her mom:] “What is Tumblr anyway? Is it like Facebook?”

“No, and you’re forbidden to get one. No parents allowed. You guys already took over Facebook.”

“You haven’t responded to my friend request yet.”

“I know.”

“I need Candy Crush lives.”

“That’s why I’ll never respond.”

It’s not the only funny thing in the book by far.

Hailey is an interesting, if unlikeable, character. Starr’s been friends with her for many years. The two bonded when Starr first started at the private school because they both had just been through the trauma of losing someone (Hailey’s mom had died and Starr had just witnessed one of her good friends murdered in a drive-by shooting while they were playing outside). Still, Hailey’s very much a White Girl. I first heard that as a capital-letter-term in reference to someone I know, and I knew what it meant—she’s very entitled and all her problems are very much first-world problems. Hailey, like so many white kids now, thinks of herself as enlightened and probably post-racial. But the problem is, she is still looking at things through her very privileged eyes. Eventually that causes some big problems with Starr.

As I mentioned, this book will introduce many readers to a setting they probably have little experience with. The neighborhood is very real. And we see it through Starr’s eyes—both through school Starr’s perspective and home Starr’s perspective. School Starr finds it embarrassing, but home Starr gets it. She doesn’t like everything about it, but she understands how it works, how to navigate that world, and how she has to deal with the important players. The dialogue in the book is natural and flowing, as well as very up-to-date and realistic (I’m assuming—there were quite a few slang words whose meaning I didn’t know, and which I would certainly never use even if I “learned” the meaning).

One of my favorite lines in the book, probably because it perfectly sums everything up, comes just after Starr has been through the initial interview with the detectives investigating the shooting she witnessed. It’s clear the detectives have an agenda and it isn’t the right one. She says:

This is gonna be some bullshit.

Anyway, I’m glad they’re making a movie out of it and I look forward to more books from Thomas.

Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be Mine book coverIf You Could Be Mine is set in modern-day Iran, which is definitely a setting I’m not very familiar with, so I was excited to read it. It’s narrated by Sahar, a seventeen-year-old lesbian, which is not okay in Iran. In fact, it’s illegal and the penalty can be as dramatic as death. The immediate problem for Sahar is that she has been in love with her friend Nasrin for as long as she can remember, and Nasrin loves her back. Of course, they spend a lot of time alone and this allows them to make out uninterrupted, so everything is fine.

Sahar’s mother is dead and her father is detached, so he has no idea. Nasrin’s parents, her mother in particular, are a little more observant. Consequently, they come up with a dramatic solution to save Nasrin from herself and the dire consequences if the girls are caught—they accept the proposal of a man who confesses love for Nasrin.

Sahar doesn’t take to this kindly, of course. She hates him, despite the fact that he’s a successful doctor and seemingly kind and even conventionally handsome. She’s desperate to stop the wedding even though Nasrin herself seems a little resigned. She seems to think they can continue in secret even after she’s married. Sahar doesn’t think that, and she instead comes up with her own dramatic solution. Because while homosexuality is illegal, transsexuality is not and the government will even pay for sex reassignment surgery. It seems perfect—she’ll become a man and she and Nasrin can simply get married.

But of course it’s not that easy. Sahar learns more about the surgery itself and thinks more about the consequences. Does she really want to be a man? What would things really be like if she and Nasrin married as man and woman? Also, is Nasrin truly worth that?

Sahar is a great character, increasingly self-aware as the book develops. She’s a little funny, too. For me, Nasrin didn’t come off so well. She was very believable, but a little selfish and silly for my taste. But there’s more going on in the book than the relationship between Sahar and Nasrin—Sahar’s father has some growing to do, himself. We also see Sahar risking her entire future with her fixation on the sex change, so we’re not sure how things are going to turn out. The book itself is a quick read, and I’d recommend it to anyone vaguely curious about homosexuality in Iran.

Diversity in YA

At the RT Book Convention, I attended a session with a rather lengthy title—Staying in Your Lane or Getting Out of It: How to Navigate Writing About People Who Aren’t Like You. As you can gather, it was all about the official It topic in YA—diversity and who is allowed—and obligated—to see that it is improved.

Everyone pretty much agreed that there isn’t enough diversity in YA literature and that something should be done about it. But it’s just not clear what that should be exactly. Most writers of YA are white, straight, middle class, etc. Should these writers start writing outside their experience? That isn’t seen as a good solution because it’s hard for them to make those other voices authentic, which does a disservice to the people who are not being represented accurately as well all the other readers who aren’t seeing an accurate experience of The Other.

Obviously we need more writers who aren’t privileged white people. An interesting question came up: should those of us who do fit that mold stand aside to make “more room” for diverse writers? I feel like this misses the point a little—I don’t believe it’s a zero sum game. It’s not like there is a specific and finite number of possible readers. More teens would read for fun if they saw themselves represented in the literature. It’s really on the publishing industry to give diversity more than lip service. A great suggestion was also made as one of the best ways that all us privileged writers can help: we should help to promote all diverse books. Seek them out, recommend them, review them, blurb them, and so on. Everyone should do this.

Another suggestion is simply to make the world of a book more diverse by putting some characters of color/different sexuality/etc. in there. Like the barista at the coffee shop, or the guy driving by in the Toyota, or classmates. The point was that it should be specifically called out. I think a lot of white authors are afraid to make background and secondary characters specifically one race or another, but the point was that it’s better than just picturing it in your head and letting readers miss it.

I also want to address the idea that someone like me shouldn’t try to write about someone not like me. I think this is silly. If we really believed that an author can only write what they know, we wouldn’t have the majority of modern literature. No historical. No fantasy, no sci-fi, no paranormal. Why are the expectations so different for contemporary? One of the important traits of a writer is definitely creativity, but another is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it’s really, truly like. Because all good literature is about the emotional experiences of the characters, and that requires knowing them deeply.

I think too much emphasis is put on presupposed group experience. As if a handful of shared categories guarantees a single shared experience. For instance, I truly believe that I have more in common with a black middle-class girl from the south-central US who attended a state college and has dealt on and off with mental health challenges than a white girl born and bred in New York who attended Brown and is an eternal optimist. Of course our experiences would not have been the same, but in this scenario I really believe race is less important than the sum of the other characteristics. I also think I could do a decent job of writing a lesbian growing up in the middle of the country, because although I’m straight, in Oklahoma people (very) frequently think I’m a man and when they figure out I’m not, many assume I’m a lesbian. So I have some clue how they’re treated.

I’m not saying that white, straight people don’t have privilege—we absolutely do. But we are also individuals with different experiences and have the capability of listening to and learning from others. One of the examples that came up at the panel was that a lot of books about fat girls have been written—and many of those books don’t ring true for us actual fat girls, because they were written by skinny women.

But I don’t think that’s why—I think it’s because they were written by uninformed skinny women. I have been really fat all my life and suffered for it, but I don’t think that it’s impossible for someone who hasn’t experienced it to understand what it’s like. Similarly, people who have never suffered from depression often don’t get it. But again, it’s not impossible. In both cases, it just takes some effort and a real commitment to understanding. Normal people don’t bother with this—but good writers do.

So I don’t think it’s true that a white woman can never write a major character of color authentically. She can’t do it alone, though. A good mix of beta readers, friends who’ve had similar experiences to the character, and loads of research is necessary.

A couple of interesting sites related to this topic that came up in the panel:

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post book cover

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a pretty unusual book for contemporary YA. First, it’s pretty long. It reads more like a memoir than a novel. I would classify it as literary fiction. I think maybe it’s a little short on clear traditional plot.

But none of those things means it’s not great.

The novel starts with a 12-year-old Cameron, who has her first kiss—with a girl—in the first few pages. Soon her world is shaken by the death of her parents, bringing in her aunt as her caretaker. We don’t see much of her life before her aunt, so it’s hard to know exactly how truly different things end up being, but we do know that her aunt is much more religious than her parents. This high religiosity—and the relatively conservatism of the Montana city they live in—means Cameron tries not to really think about what she knows about herself and how different she is from everyone around her. Eventually, she gets found out about halfway through the book and her aunt sends her off to a radical school.

It sort of ends up like two books, because the only thing that’s not different about the second half is Cameron herself. The setting, the characters, the goals—everything else is new. The two halves read a little differently, too, with the second half faster-paced despite the fact that it focuses on a shorter period of time.

Regardless, I did read the book very slowly, but it was more to savor it the experience than because it didn’t hold my interest. It seemed to demand a slow read, in fact—I needed to digest it piece by piece. I should also mention that while it may be a novel about growing up a lesbian girl, but it didn’t necessarily feel like a coming-out book. It’s more about accepting and embracing who you really are. Personally, I found it really easy to relate to Cameron’s “differentness.” It didn’t hurt that she was born just two years later than I was, so her pop culture references were very familiar, but it was more about the fact that she just didn’t identify with the standard expression of femininity.

Buy The Miseducation of Cameron Post on Amazon US