Wednesday, September 14, 2016

#CBR8 Review #25: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

I’m not sure how I keep finding these books that result in me wanting to have long personal discussions but, alas, the Amazon recommendations have led me here yet again. Adam Silvera’s young adult book More Happy Than Not is one of those ones that wasn’t amazing, but I still enjoyed and wanted to get through quickly. While the story and progression may have been a touch clumsy at times, some of the universal themes of pain, memory, suppression, and relationships were brought forth well. Perhaps a little obvious at times in the language and dialogue, but I suppose that is sometimes to be expected in books targeted at younger audiences, right? Not always, but you can definitely see some of the messages and ideas being laid out very directly near the end of the novel.

But let’s get discussing what this novel is about, and then dive into some of the subjects it brought forth in my mind, shall we? What we begin with is a 16 year-old young man named Aaron, living in s pretty tight-knit community within the Bronx. The story takes place in what is basically the near future, as some pretty recent pop-culture references are made to be current (not sure how that will hold up for the novel with the passage of time), but slightly in the future as a new procedure known as Leteo has been created that people can undergo in order to suppress or “forget” some of their most painful memories. Of course, there is a process to this and not just anyone can walk in and get the procedure done, but Aaron knows someone who has had it done: one of his friends was made to forget his twin brother, who was killed in a not-uncommon act of violence for where they live.

Aaron’s most painful memory at this time, however, is that of finding his father after he commit suicide. Not long after this, Aaron attempted to kill himself as well, but survived. Aaron is not exactly the happiest person in the world, and he recognizes that while he has some friends he grew up with and spends a lot of time with, he is not really close to any of them or feels like he can talk to any of them. The one person he really opens up to is his girlfriend, Genevieve, an interesting artist who helped Aaron through some of his most difficult times when dealing with the death of his father. But when Genevieve goes away to an art retreat for a few weeks, Aaron feels himself falling into a loneliness that he begins to fill with a new friend, named Thomas, from a nearby community. The two come to share a close bond and consider each other best friends in no time (which at first I thought was a bit unrealistic but then I realized, you can really bond deeply with certain people quickly, and teenagers especially form and drop connections to friends at different speeds, and seeing how neither Thomas nor Aaron seemed to be really close to anyone, this makes sense that they would gravitate towards one another easily). Thomas is a bit of a wild-card in terms of not really knowing what he wants from life, but easily goes with the flow. But of course, seeing how close Aaron and Thomas are starts to put a little dent in Aaron and Genevieve’s relationship, and some of Aaron’s friends start to wonder about the true nature of Aaron and Thomas’ relationship. Does some nasty stuff happen? Absolutely. Does the Leteo procedure start to play a bigger role in the story than what it did in the beginning? Of course it does! But I won’t say how until… later… under a spoiler warning.

This brings me to my first point of discussion, which is the presentation of toxic masculinity in this novel. And honestly, let me just say that one of my pet peeves that makes me cringe every time I hear someone say it, is when a guy says something nice or compliments another male friend and follows this with, “No homo.” I mean… that’s just disappointing. No homo at all? Not even a little? 1% partially-skimmed homo (a phrase I have taken to using with my friends given my own bi-ness).
The community that Aaron lives in is not one that I have ever found myself, and so I am not entirely familiar with the way of life or how exactly the community views certain things, but you get a sense from this novel that they way these boys were raised, they are taught to be a particular breed of “man”. Anything else, even the simplest thing such as wanting to play as a female character in a video game is a sign of being “weak” or “a girl” or “gay”. And you know, there are people out there that say things like this! Even within this novel, Aaron as a child wanting to play with a doll is considered evidence that he is not straight, which I didn’t entirely like but there are indeed people who take these things as proof of a person’s sexuality, when really all that is is stereotyping.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and am going to put a big old SPOILER WARNING for all that follows, as I continue to lay out exactly how this book plays out, as it will lead to some more topics of conversation:

When I said people start wondering about Aaron and Thomas’ relationship, what I mean is that they start to think that the two of them are involved romantically with one another. This is not the case, as the two are just friends, but Aaron does indeed have romantic feelings towards Thomas. In fact, he comes out as gay to Thomas, who is super supportive and still loves Aaron, but not in the way that Aaron would like him to. Not only do Aaron’s unreciprocated feelings start to create issues between the two friends, but it also creates havoc for Aaron and Genevieve. And this brings me to the second discussion topic, which is, how that pain of having feelings for someone who doesn’t feel the same way back is so universal, no matter the reason for the other person not loving you in the way you want. Maybe they have someone else, maybe their sexual orientation does not line up with liking you, or maybe there just isn’t attraction there. I’ve had this, and it sucks. But Aaron doesn’t deal with these feelings well, and in fact has convinced himself that Thomas is actually gay as well, but just hasn’t come out yet or perhaps just hasn’t discovered this part of himself. While it may have made for a really nice ending to have the two of them realize how much they love each other not just as friends but something more, it’s just not always realistic. Speaking as a small bi, I can tell you that no matter how much you may want someone to like girls, ultimately you can’t change who someone is. Sometimes things come out and people discover who they are once they meet that right person, but not always. And honestly, Thomas and Aaron’s friendship is so beautiful, and really what Aaron needed at that time, as it led to a new understanding and freeing of a different part of himself that had been under the surface. I mean, I am tired of LGBT+ stories being focused on the coming-out of a person and the struggles they may face (no matter how important these stories may be) and just want to read or see a few more that aren’t just bogged down with pain and suffering. Can LGBT+ characters not just be a part of a story that isn’t ABOUT their sexual or gender orientation? Are we not allowed to be happy even in fictional worlds? Because it feels like that sometimes. So while I would have squealed with happiness at the cuteness of Aaron and Thomas ending up together… This story had other ideas in mind, involving a lot more pain, but also not just copping out easily and letting things fall into place perfectly for everyone. Such is life? Hmm… I seem to be contradicting myself a little on what I want and like to see in these stories.

In any case, Aaron begins to wonder if he can undergo Leteo to make him “forget” that he is gay. To which I want to say, oh my poor boy, even in a world where heterosexuality is often the only “option” presented to young people, all it takes it that one person to touch your heart and make you start to uncover different parts of yourself. Sexuality is not set in stone, as the journey our lives take can lead us down so many different roads. And the novel does a great job of discussing the idea that sexual orientation is not really a choice (though perhaps people may choose how to act and what attractions to act on or not), but is a part of our nature. Just as we may suppress memories of trauma, they still influence and impact us underneath, and may even come up to the surface again: such is one of the main ideas in psychoanalytic psychology, after all! Adam Silver makes a huge point of addressing this issue of there not being anything wrong about who we are as people, as many still somehow believe that being gay or bi or trans is a “choice”. The writing is very deliberate in these areas (as I mentioned earlier, perhaps being a little too on-the-head with it?), but it is an important thing for young people to realize that who we are is no inherently wrong, even if we are not what many would consider “normal”. Though I do recognize and acknowledge those feelings that Aaron presents in perhaps wanting to forget his sexual orientation, and this would possibly make his life less painful, given his upbringing and where he lives (the next brief point of discussion). I mean, I sometimes even wonder if being straight wouldn’t make things easier for me, or if even just liking one gender wouldn’t make it easier to come out to certain people I know who don’t seem to entirely believe in bisexuality or totally understand it. But I didn’t get to choose this, and am learning to be totally okay with it in myself. Now I just have to work with the world around me and hope that I can carve out some happiness even if the world around me is slightly more perilous to maneuver in some areas given this facet of myself.

This leads us to the next subject of violence towards LGBT+ people, particularly in certain areas, cultures, and communities. I have been fortunate enough to not experience that much violence or hatred towards me in my life (oh, but I am also not entirely out yet, am I? Ah… that’s a kicker), with the exception of a couple of guys calling me a dyke as they drove by me on the street once, and the tiny little comments from family and friends that get under your skin and make you afraid to tell them about parts of yourself because you don’t know if they will truly understand or accept it 100%. But in other countries, cultures, and even communities, the physical and emotional violence that can take place is astounding and heartbreaking (that reminds me, if you haven’t seen “Gaycation”, it’s incredibly interesting and illuminating as to how different areas of the world treat and see LGBT+ people. It can be brutal and emotional for me at times, but it’s very good and touches on this subject in certain areas of the world).
And we see this violence towards LGBT+ people play out in Aaron’s neighborhood, as some of his friends react incredibly strongly just to the simple suspicions they have about Aaron and Thomas’ relationship. Aaron suffers an intense beating, and this then leads to a new twist in the story: as I mentioned, Aaron wanted to undergo a Leteo procedure in order to forget that he is gay, but he didn’t realize that he already had, and meeting Thomas had just brought this out of him once again. (See what I mean about how sometimes one certain person can lead to new personal learning?)

The memories that flood back to Aaron after he is severely beaten –almost to death—causing this undoing of the procedure in his brain are painful, but ultimately a part Aaron’s story and what led him here today. We see him growing up as a boy, and the comments made by his father and brother about being a real man. We see Aaron developing a crush on one of his friends as a child, who is now fighting against who Aaron is. We see Aaron in a relationship with a boy at school, only to face violence for even sitting next to him on an affectionate way on the train. We see the two of them being ripped apart by fear and circumstances that make them want to hide. We see Aaron coming out to his accepting mother, but the anger and violence that this results in in his father. We see Aaron coming home and finding his father dead, only to feel as though this is somehow his fault, in that his father didn’t want to live with a son like him. There are so many layers to not just the physical but emotional violence that you can experience in your life, that is laid out entirely with Aaron’s recovered memories. But despite the fact that these memories are newly uncovered and may illuminate certain things to Aaron about himself, he faces another setback from the changes caused in his brain: he now suffers from anterograde amnesia, wherein he struggles to form new memories. He has remembered his past, but cannot seem to remember his future or keep the present in check.

Basically, we have changed from Aaron wanting desperately to forget certain things about his life, to a new stage where all he wants to do is remember. This kid can’t catch a break and honestly, it gets to be a bit much where I just want him to be happy and for something good to happen to him (just as I was talking about the suffering of certain characters earlier). And this is all really a part of understanding memory and how our experiences and memories define who we are and who we may become. We may try to suppress and forget things, but they are a part of us no matter what and influence how we behave. And knowing about these memories may be helpful in truly understanding ourselves and why we are the way we are, no matter how painful it is. But being unable to make new memories is a struggle that stops us from moving forwards: how can we develop and change if we do not remember our experiences? It is an interesting idea, and I like the interplay of the forgetting versus remembering within this book.


Ultimately, More Happy Than Not is a good look at the experiences of a boy within a particular community that I do not have any experience with. Yet it touches on subjects I know I have discussed before and are close to me. Adam Silvera’s overall presentation of the novel is perhaps a little clunky at times and the messages are delivered in a very obvious and in-your-face manner, but they are still some very important topics being presented that I think a lot of young people can benefit from hearing (especially given that that is the target audience for the novel). It was not my favourite book, nor my favourite within what would be considered the LGBT+ genre, but it was still something I had no trouble finishing and engaged me the entire time while reading it. And for that, I give it 3/5 stars.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

#CBR8 Review #23-24: He Forgot to Say Goodbye and Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

One of my favourite books I read last year was Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I just fell in love with the soft, intimate voice that Alire Sáenz had, and the story really touched some personal themes from my own life. Consequently, I decided to take a look at some more of his work, but this time in the realm of different subject matter (though I believe all would be considered within the young-adult genre).

The first, a novel called He Forgot to Say Goodbye, sad some of those delicate elements that I fell in love with in Alire Sáenz’s writing, but I had a little bit of trouble really connecting with the story. Told from the perspective of two young men (Ram and Jake) who are both from very different walks of life, dealing with different personal issues, but both contemplating the fact that their fathers were not present in their lives and how this fact may have shaped their lives and personalities in the end.

One of the young men, Ram, is from a middle-class Mexican background, with a delightful character to be found in both his mother and his aunt, dealing with issues surrounding his brother’s drug use. Ram has an interesting relationship with his best friend, Alejandra, who I was not sure who I ultimately felt about as a character: sometimes she felt too pushy with Ram, and at other times, she felt like she was strong and working with her own struggles as well. For some reason, however, I felt like her character became a bit too central, especially when she met Jake, and she became almost the entire object of his attention.

The other boy, Jake, is from a more affluent up bringing, struggling in his relationship with his mother and stepfather. Jake seems to be very conscious of the world around him, yet I can see how some people may not feel for him and his issues as I am reminded of a girl in one of my counseling classes who said she may struggle with working with people who seem so privileged. Yet, no matter a persons upbringing or how privileged they may be, this does not invalidate their experiences or mean their pain isn’t real. And honestly, I had a hard time liking Jake’s mother in the slightest and felt for him (though I wonder if his mother was fully developed and not just a caricature of a character in some ways?)

Truth be told, there was not a huge plot involved in this novel, as a lot of it was introspective and reflective on the parts of the two boys, though there was some movement in terms of their different personal relationships. One of the strongest aspects of the novel was how the two boys’ lives intermingled and their interactions with one another, so it was a shame that these interactions and their relationship was not given as much room to develop. I would have liked to have seen more of that, as I feel like it could have been very interesting and helped their characters develop more as well.  Ultimately, tone of this book, even if I got a little irritated by Jake often using his signature phrases repeatedly to the point where it was like, okay, I get it, he’s a teenager with signature terms, can we chill out a bit? Despite this, I found the novel easy to read, I just wanted there to be a bit more, and found I was not as drawn in by the characters as much I would have liked.

The second novel in this Benjamin Alire Sáenz double-header is entitled Last Night I Sang to the Monster, and focuses on a young boy named Zach in a rehabilitation facility, as he struggles with remembering how exactly he got there, and dealing with a lot of repressed memories and trauma. We also get to meet some of the other patients at the facility working through various issues (mostly addictions like Zach), such as Rafael, who is an older gentleman that is a roommate and close friend to Zach. We also get to meet Zach’s main therapist, Adam, who works with him both in group sessions and individually throughout the course of the novel.

Similarly to the other books I’ve read from Alire Sáenz, this novel has a very gentle way of being, that truly tries to capture the nature of human emotions and pain, and succeeds quite well in these areas. I just found there to be some issues with awkward phrasing and language used in trying to be poetic and discuss these emotions, which put me off a little. I also feel as though my background in studying counseling and therapy for the past few years came as both a positive force in appreciating some aspects of this book, while making me critical and skeptical of others. 

On the one hand, I think the examination of how different people deal with trauma and pain, and how some are willing and able to work through it while others aren’t is very well depicted: the place of dreams in a person’s mind and experience is also what some styles of therapy likes to focus on, so having Zach’s dreams be a part of it was definitely relevant. I also liked how there was the inclusion of some art therapy aspects (my specialization), though these parts weren’t fully developed and I know I personally would have led them or dealt with debriefing of pieces in a different manner. That being said, while I recognize that there are different styles of counseling and therapy (and some practitioners are comfortable with certain things while others aren’t) I couldn’t help but question some of the methods that were depicted or some of the things said by the professionals in this novel. That is, I would never do or say these things or even be comfortable thinking about it. But, maybe that’s me being nit-picky and letting my own levels of comfort and personal style get in the way of how I see things in these areas now.

My other conflict of thought was in the depiction of trauma, suppression of memories, and the process of remembering. I feel like this was done well and showed how sometimes we can just push things so far down that they tear us up inside without us even realizing, because we feel as though remembering and being aware of what happened will hurt us even more. The process of healing though, seemed a bit quick to me. Both Rafael and Zach have huge breakthroughs of remembering or being able to talk about things that happened to them, and while I know that being able to express these things can be very helpful, it almost came across as though as soon as they did this first step, it was smooth sailing to healing and coming to terms with things. But healing and recovery does not occur in a straight line, and awareness is just the first step of the work, the processing, and the moving forward: healing is more like a spiral, where sometimes this takes you forwards and sometimes backwards, though you are still moving and working on moving outwards. Therefore I was a little bit conflicted about the ending of this novel and how the lives and healing of certain characters played out. I was still, however, very appreciative of the depth of emotion displayed throughout the novel, and how pain and struggling was treated not as a weakness but as something that we as humans may face and have a hard time dealing with, yet we are still capable of working through and coming to the other side of in our own time and in our own ways. 

So, I guess in a way both He Forgot to Say Goodbye and Last Night I Sang to the Monster had their strong points, and had a really soft nature to how they approached different topics. But ultimately, there was a bit of a disconnect for me in some areas in each, which stopped me from absolutely loving either. Consequently, I would give both novels 3/5 stars.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]