Tag Archives: problem novels

Cuts Like An Impossible Knife

Laurie Halse Anderson has made a name for herself by writing young adult fiction that tackles difficult topics like rape and eating disorders, to name just a few. Her no-punches-pulled explorations of tough issues have prompted various classroom bans and challenges, which–as challenges usually do–have only increased her popularity, not just among her target audience, but among adults who read YA fiction. Both sets of readers will find the same issue-driven, unflinching prose in Anderson’s latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory; what remains to be seen, however, is how her detractors will respond to her theme, which happens to be combat-related PTSD and its effects on not just veterans, but on their families.

Image via USA Today . Click through to read a Q&A with Anderson

Image obtained from USA Today – click through to read a Q&A with Anderson

Since 2001, over 300,000 veterans have been treated for PTSD at an official VA facility. A 2008 Rand report indicates that many more cases go unreported and/or untreated, due to either fear of stigma or access to adequate medical care, with a resulting cost to the U.S. of $6.2 billion. The Impossible Knife of Memory asks the reader to imagine the stories behind the data with one representative portrait of a father and daughter trying to escape their troubled past.

Andy and Hayley Kincain have just moved back to Andy’s hometown after five years of truck driving and homeschooling on the road. This is supposedly to give Hayley some semblance of a normal life, but the bored, bright teenager is not fitting in well with high school and its comparatively restrictive rules. Of course, it’s hard to concentrate in school when you’re constantly worrying about what’s going on at home, and whether you’ll be seeing normal dad, depressed dad, blackout dad, or flashback dad in any given moment. But Hayley’s just fine, thank you, and she doesn’t need teachers, guidance counselors, friends, or cute boys to help her deal. And yet, they keep trying anyway, much to Hayley’s exasperation.

Told mostly from Hayley’s point of view, but interwoven with haunting images from Andy’s trauma, Anderson has given us a well-crafted portrait of what happens when coping mechanisms no longer work, and things fall apart. The story’s greatest strength, however, is in showing how wounded people can become strong again without losing their dignity or compromising their essential selves, a long, slow process that Anderson skillfully spins out over a series of short, intense chapters. As a result, Hayley and Andy are initially hard to like, but worth getting to know, not only for themselves, but for the untold stories they represent.

“Problem novels” aren’t exactly fun to read, but they are important. They shine light on aspects of the human condition some people would rather keep in the dark. Considering the sacrifices so many men and women have made for their country, I’m grateful to Anderson for making this issue the latest focus of her clear-eyed literary spotlight.

–Leigh Anne

with gratitude to all who have served

 

 

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Back to the Books

The other day a co-worker innocently asked me, “So, how’s that movie-watching project coming along?”

Er, yes. That.

The good news is that I’ve really appreciated the exposure to film as an art form, and I can enjoy cinema in a whole new way; I’m even going to the movies more often, which makes my film-loving friends and family happy. The bad news is, watching all those movies is starting to feel more like a homework assignment, or something I’m doing because it’s “good for me,” like eating more brussels sprouts.  And when something in my personal life stops being fun, I quit doing it.  I feel guilty about it, sure, but…I quit.

Luckily, my first love, books, has been right here waiting for me to come back.  Books knew this whole movie thing was just a phase, and welcomed me with open arms.  Books are very forgiving that way, and do not judge. More importantly, books take hold of my heart and my imagination in a way film simply can’t touch.

Bookfession 622 (tumblr)

From the Bookfessions tumblr

I’m sure I will, eventually, get around to watching more of the 1,001 movies, probably at a slower pace; for now, however, I have a huge, sumptuous pile of things to read.  Here are a few of the titles making me supremely happy these days.

The Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller. A mesmerizing novel that asks, “Do we ever really leave high school?”  Iris, a troubled teen trying to make a fresh start, finds herself ensnared in her private prep school’s long, checkered history. Unfortunately, most of the adults who work at Mariana Prep are having the same problem. Iris’s story alternates with that of Lily, a former classmate of the current crop of Mariana “grownups,” and through her eyes we see how the scars you pick up in high school can sting, itch and burn instead of fade.  Iris’s dogged determination to succeed–to say nothing of her hero-worship for Edward R. Murrow–render her scrappy and sympathetic.  A definite to-read for anyone still haunted by their own high school traumas (and isn’t that just about everyone?).

Hand Me Down, Melanie Thorne. Being a teen is hard enough, but when you can’t depend on the adults in your life for Hand Me Downstability, any shot a  normal life can fly right out the window. Liz and Jamie are two sisters with few options.  Live with mom, who’s dating a paroled sex offender? Live with dad, who will probably drive you to school while drunk?  Live with the extremely religious aunt who’s constantly preaching at you, or the aunt whose husband doesn’t want you around? Thorne’s debut novel is a gritty catalog of misery, demonstrating how, when the adults can’t get it together, the kids’ struggle gets harder.  It’s painful to read at times, but Liz is a fighter, for herself and for Jamie, and her sincere desire for something better will keep you reading along with her while she struggles to get it.

FeedFeed, Mira Grant. Betting odds are still firmly against an actual zombie apocalypse, but that doesn’t keep Grant’s novel from being a delicious-exciting read.  Here’s the deal: the zombie apocalypse has happened (it’s complicated), and America has become a country of virus-checks and paranoia. It’s also become a country where bloggers are trusted more frequently than mainstream media, so when a presidential candidate hires a team of teen bloggers to cover his campaign, it’s really just a sign of the new normal. Or is it something more? Grant–a pen name for noted fantasist Seanan McGuire–has produced a world of fear, government conspiracy, paranoia, and good-old-fashioned zombie slashing, one that’s even scarier by dint of the fact that so much of her matieral is drawn from social attitudes and practices that are already de rigeur. A fun, scare-you-silly summer pick that you’ll flip through quickly, either from joy or terror.  First in the Newsflesh (hee) trilogy.

And The Heart Says Whatever, Emily Gould. A non-fic pic that reads like a novel, Whatever is Gould’s story of her late teens and early twenties, which she spent as a struggling writer in New York.   The former Gawker blogger dropped out of college in Ohio to take writing classes in NYC, worked at a lot of crappy jobs, and slept with a lot of different people, many of whom she didn’t really care for all that much. So far, so normal, except that Gould has the writing chops to infuse her story with something more than typical twentysomething angst. There’s a haunted quality to the fairly mundane stories she tells, a sense that all of her searching has hollowed her out somehow, made her less spoiled, less shallow. And yet, to reach that state of wisdom, she apparently had to behave in some incredibly spoiled, shallow ways, something those of us who survived our twenties occasionally forget. Reading Gould is like revisiting that stumble-fumbling time of your life when you didn’t know who you were or what you wanted, reliving the panic and frustration without actually having to feel those feelings up close again. If you’re still there, or if you’ve started muttering imprecations under your breath about “these kids today who don’t understand anything,” Whatever will serve as an empathy injection.

Judging from these titles, I seem to be preoccupied with teenage heroines struggling to survive; interesting. I should go back to the movie list and see if there are any films that revolve around this theme. That way I could have my bookish cake, and consume some more movies too.

Onward and upward!

Leigh Anne

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