Sunday, September 30, 2012

Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern

Teenager Anna Bloom has just arrived at a mental hospital, where she immediately starts writing letters to her best friend Tracy in pencil as a way to make sense of her situation (“I don’t like pencils, I told them. They smudge. I once kept a journal all in pencil, and when I went back to read all of the depressing stuff that I wrote, it was gone. Smudged away”). She’s been checked in by her parents and left for an unexplained amount of time, to, presumably, “get better.” Her depression stems from her high school experience, her time at home with her family, and her day-to-day life, or, as Anna more succinctly explains, “Life sucks. I’m fat. Nothing interesting ever happens to me. I don’t want to deal with that shit anymore.”

She soon learns the ropes at the mental hospital, slowly figuring out what the days look like as the reader experiences them with her. She meets Matt O., who has been in there for six months; Justin, the guy that she crushes on; Luther, who believes he’s Satan; and her roommate Sandy, who takes care of a plastic baby doll. She is introduced to new daytime events, including the Sunday night movie, Appreciations, Community, and Relaxation. After she’s there long enough, Anna notes, “My teachers at real school finally sent my homework, and – oh joy! – I get to read The Crucible. How sad that someone could write a play about witchcraft and make it so boring.”

Anna’s letters to Tracy reflect on what life looked like before her entrance into the mental hospital. Her anxiety, panic attacks, and depression are traced backwards, to connect the reasons why she is where she is. But Anna finds that the longer she’s at the hospital, the more normal, and better, she feels. She stops crying. She starts losing weight. She makes friends. Her panic attacks stop. And she starts dreading the day she has to leave.

One thing that makes the mental hospital bearable is Justin, a boy Anna’s age who wears beat-up Converse shoes just like she does. There is a no touching rule at the hospital, and, at the beginning, Anna and Justin rely on talking at mealtimes and in the Day Room, and Anna crushes on him and hopes he likes her back. She starts thinking about what could happen if they went out together outside of the hospital, her anxiety coming back in a hilarious way:

Oh god. I cannot imagine ever ever ever being naked with another human being in my whole life. Is it ever going to happen? Do I want it to happen? Will I know what to do if it does? Maybe I should keep an eye on Callie and Troy for some pointers. Would that make me a Phil-level perv? Hey – I know! I’ll get a boyfriend who can show me how to do everything! Yeah! That sounds so easy, why didn’t I think of it sooner? Oh wait – I did. Like, every single second of my life. I am getting very desperate here.

Author Julie Halpern makes her characters so believable, that they never once lose their sense of teenagerness, even when removed from the typical environments – school and home – that usually define teenage experience. She makes Anna a character trying to come to terms with her depression and anxiety, while retaining a light, humorous personality that hints at her potential once she makes it back out into the world again. Anna’s growth in the hospital is only hindered by her fear that she will return to who she was before once she leaves it. Halpern mixes Anna’s depression with humor, which come together in carefully written paragraphs like these:

Who the hell is running this freak stand? Today our afternoon movie was the “classic” ‘80s flick The Boy Who Could Fly. Do you know this movie? You should, since they rerun it on UPN just about every Sunday. If not, here’s a refresher: A mentally challenged boy (played by some guy named Jay Underwood, but whom I prefer to call Jay Underwear) lives next door to this boring girl. The boring girl has a brother and a mother, but no father because he killed himself when he found out he had cancer. The mentally challenged boy next door is always on the roof pretending he can fly. He actually believes he can, but no one else does. Until one day he and the boring girl are forced to jump off of a roof together and wheeeeee! They can fly! And, eeew, there was this totally gross kiss at the end between the boring girl and the mentally challenged flying boy. This movie was, like, directly out of the handbook on what not to show at a mental hospital. First of all, way to go, Dad! Not only did you just give up, but you killed yourself! And mentally challenged flying boy? What kind of lesson is this supposed to teach us exactly? I hardly think it wise to put the idea of flying into the heads of impressionable teenagers who are already battling the challenges of lunacy.

I have only recently discovered Julie Halpern, but I wanted to highlight the title since Banned Books Week starts today and Get Well Soon routinely makes the list. But now that I’ve read this book, I’m excited to look for other titles by Halpern with characters as real and believable as Anna Bloom. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Twenty-four-year-old Audrey Flowers hasn’t been home in a couple of years. She’s been on her “great safe adventure” leading her from Newfoundland to Oregon, where she lives in an apartment with Cliff, their walls covered in grips and holds for easy climbing. Winnifred, a tortoise that “comes with” the apartment, lives with Audrey, and narrates half of this return-home narrative when Audrey leaves her behind. Audrey’s scientist father is in a coma, and she believes that if she can get back to Newfoundland in time to say the right words in the right way, he will wake up.

Audrey is a “leapling,” born on the leap year, which means that although she is twenty-four, she has only had six birthdays.  She notes, “I unwind my arms and roll over to face the window. It is the solstice. Today or tomorrow. If you are born on a leap day, you can always tell. It is like a superpower. Not a very exciting one, but there you have it. You can recognize a solstice by the end-of-tether equality of the light” (236). Her father, a scientist interested in aging, passes on his passion for time and aging to his daughter. Audrey mentions near the beginning of the book that she remembers, “A man at Cambridge University has made a frog remember how to be a tadpole” (50). Grant concentrates on this theme to make Audrey appear both a grown woman and a young girl, and her return home to Newfoundland reverts her to her childhood self, where she is overcome by the memories of her dad, her Uncle Thoby, her imposing British Grandmother, and Toph, the man who once accompanied her on a visit to Newfoundland from England. All become wrapped up in a book that flashes back to Audrey’s childhood and stays there, as she creates a safe space of memory to hide out in throughout the aftermath of her father’s coma.

Jessica Grant is careful to weave the intricacies of Audrey’s “leapling” age into her personality, her reactions, and her understanding of the world. When she finds out about her father’s death, Audrey sends an email saying, “My dad is in a comma and waiting for me to open his eyes” (6), and these varieties of spelling, grammar, and even comprehension remain throughout the novel. Audrey’s almost movie-magic belief that her father will wake from his coma if she says the right words at his bedside is supported by other beliefs that become intertwined as a structure of her character. “Safe as Quantas” is her catchphrase, alluding to the fact that the Australian airline has been free of crashes, and she holds tight to that belief as she tries to protect those who are closest to her. It is a family-born idiom, “Herein lies the formula of my childhood: My dad plus Uncle Thoby equals Quantas. Which in our family means safe. Be Quantas. Be safe” (35). She phones Chuck and Linda, the couple she has left Winnifred with back in Oregon, late at night to check on Winnifred’s safety, asking, “I was just wondering if you have a fire alarm. And what kind of heaters. And where the castle is in relation to those heaters” (47). Audrey constructed Winnifred’s papier mache castle (sensitive to heaters and flame), and it is perhaps a reflection of her own inbetweenness as she retreats towards an arts and crafts mentality while also caring for something outside of herself and forming a close and important relationship. 

Audrey’s physical and mental age is conflated by her IQ-challenged state. When she phones her father and Uncle Thoby to report on her IQ results, which have been forwarded to her Oregon address in a manila envelope with other sundry affects from her grade school career, she is met with a different response than she expected, when her father says, “Listen to me, Audrey. You know what those tests measure. They measure how similar your brain is to the brain that made up the test” (71). Audrey, following his line of though, realizes what he means: “And then it dawned on me. Slowly. That what I had assumed was a high score was not a high score. It just sounded like a high score. It sounded like a not-bad grade, the kind of grade I never got in school” (71). But what is even more interesting than Audrey’s age, mental and physical, and the conversations that give way to her characterization, is her own train of thought that Grant follows through on. On the phone with her dad and Thoby, she determines that you can pronounce IQ as an acronym, “Ick” (71). This throwaway line is developed further, as she angrily says her father, “You knew…You knew my Ick was low and you didn’t tell me” (71). There is this timeless complexity to Audrey that lies in between language and thought process, as the reader follows her thought progression while it zigzags and crisscrosses and creates new meaning in intersections.

Come, Thou Tortoise becomes a nuanced mystery novel, similar in ways to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time, but to the tune of Audrey’s favorite board game, Clue. Her time at home reveals her trouble with interpretation, as her childhood is undone, unraveled by the passing of her father and the connections that she follows through to the end of the novel: her Uncle Thoby, the imposing Toph, her British grandmother, and the quality of time and extending life that has followed her, scientific-like, since her childhood. It is also a break up story and a love story, a message from a man named Judd, a Christmas light salesman, “Thought you might like to know that someone is recalling you fondly. Also that someone is tracking your flight online. Hey, you’re over Ireland” (354), and the story of the relationship between the tortoise named Winnifred who is too used to being left behind: “My shoulders sagged. Would this be another Dubai. Would I be left behind for the next tenant. Would I be left” (314). Audrey is essentially home again and finding home, after living away throughout the majority of her postadolescence. It welcomes her back and allows her to stay, grown up without having to leave her childhood completely behind.