Book Review: Matthew Quick’s “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock”

Published 12/9/13 by:

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Leonard Peacock surprised me. He surprised me in so many heartbreaking and amusing ways. I won’t lie to you; I picked this book off the “new young adult” shelf at the library because it shouted Silver Linings Playbook at me. That movie was twisted and simultaneously hilarious. Author Matthew Quick must be on to something, because he pulled off the same insane, uproarious, and often polarizing humor in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.  Is this a novel about teen suicide? Yes. Is it about family dysfunction, and discovering your own makeshift family? Yes. Would I hand this to any middle school student? No. Can I identify who the target audience of this novel is? Yes, but I’m not sure I’d lend them my copy. Herein lies the rub: This is a phenomenal young adult novel, and the craft of it is beyond the scope of anything I’ve read recently, but its darkness makes it a difficult book to recommend to teenagers without some serious apprehension. Basically, as a middle school English teacher, I feel a little stuck. I yearn for people to devour the sheer imaginative power of this novel. I want people to realize that Herr Silverman (Leonard’s history teacher who becomes so much more than that) is manifested in half the teachers I know. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to preach to the adults, and then the teens. It won’t be easy.

 

To the adults (let’s categorize this as 17 or older): You know, knew or love someone like Leonard Peacock. He’s a hopeless dreamer, whose will to live has been squashed by neglectful parents, and a best friend who did an unforgivable thing. You may find him irrational, dramatic, charming, odd, sincere and lonely. You could become easily frustrated with him, his actions, and his reckless abandon. You will admire his letters from the future with tears in your eyes, and perhaps examine how you too can make your (dream/real) life more simplistically gorgeous.

Moment to appreciate: Leonard has just surprised his best friend with tickets to a Green Day show for his birthday. Post-show the two are hanging around the casino where the concert has ended.

“We really didn’t say much more than that; nothing all that extraordinary happened — just typical stupid-ass kid stuff.

Maybe it was the type of high only kids can get and understand.

There were hundreds of adults drinking alcohol and gambling and smoking that night, but I bet none of them felt the higher Asher and I did.

Maybe that’s why adults drink, gamble and do drugs — because they can’t get naturally lit anymore.

Maybe we lose that ability as we get older.

Asher sure did.” (Quick, 128)

 

To the teens: If you are already sad, then this may not be the book to look to. While this novel may include issues you’re dealing with (homosexuality, abuse, neglect, rape, suicide), it does not provide a lot of solutions, or happy endings. If you know someone battling these types of issues, then this book could actually be helpful in you gaining more knowledge about these topics. This book can be entertaining, educational and enlightening. In order for you to experience all of its assets you have to be in the right head space. I’m not sure if you know anyone like Leonard yet, and I worry that when you read this, you may see a bit of Leonard in everyone at your high school, or middle school. This concerns me, but knowing that you reading this book could motivate you to get a classmate help or attention makes me want to recommend it to you. I just don’t want you adopting any of Leonard’s ideas – unless they come straight out of his letters from the future.; In that case, imagine and adopt away.

 

Moment to appreciate: Leonard meets a Christian girl named Lauren who goes to the train station every day and asks people to give their life to Jesus. Leonard has no interest in Christianity, but has a monstrous crush on Lauren, so he sort of pretends to be interested in Christianity to woo her.

     “But I had to know what it was like to kiss her. I just did. I didn’t want to fake being interested in Christianity again, because I was so tired of faking it with everyone else in my life…I thought up a list of questions and I asked her a new one at the train station three times a week.

   Why would god allow the Holocaust to happen?

     If god made everything, why did he invent sin to trick us and then hold our sins against us?

     Why are there so many religions in the world if god created the world and wants us to be Christian?

     Why does god allow people to fight wars over him? (Quick, 152)

 

I apprehensively endorse this book to all teenagers. I wholeheartedly endorse it to adults. It’s my opinion that this book belongs in the modern young adult canon with Speak, Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault In Our Stars et al. I hope it garners enough attention to make its way there.

I tip my hat to you, Leonard. Here’s looking at you, kid.

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An Open Letter to Veronica Roth

Published 11/11/13 by:

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****This post contains spoilers as to how the third book of the “Divergent” series ends. If you have not finished “Allegiant” then please refrain from reading.****

Dear Veronica,

I feel the need to start by saying thank you. Thank you for “Divergent”, and everything it gave me as a new middle school teacher. When it came out, I was in my first year of teaching sixth grade English. I bought five copies so I could teach it to a group of  boys that just were not buying into the whole reading thing despite my best efforts. These boys were capable. They were unchallenged by choice. They needed the right conversation starter. You know what did it? Fear landscapes. So thank you for writing a book about romance, bravery, choice, and fear landscapes. It was one of my favorite teaching moments I’ve ever had.

This is where my love fest for you ends. I finished “Allegiant” an hour ago, and I’m so outrageously disappointed. It’s a testament to you how upset I am, because it shows how much you’ve reeled me in. I am a guppy in the land of factions. I’m a guppy whose heart is broken and deflated. “Allegiant” did that to me. You built Tris into this absurdly brave girl. This girl who had strong beliefs, desires and loyalty. As a reader, I knew how vulnerable she could be because of the circumstances she put herself in, but when you had her die for Caleb, and a cause she barely knew anything about, I was enraged. What sliced me open even more is that while people lived peaceful lives after Tris’ sacrifice, no one was a success. If you’re going to kill your badass protagonist, then it better be for some insanely awesome greater good. Four living a boring life with his mother that he should’ve never forgiven? Awful. Christina working as an outreach coordinator for people in transition? Mediocre. Caleb working in a lab? Predictable. Everything was so mundane in the end, for a series that was so triumphant until “Allegiant” breathed its last breath. I was, and will continue to be devastated by this lackluster closing.

In the spring of 2007 I was a senior in college, and I was taking a class called “Fiction of the Modern”. We read the likes of James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, and D.H. Lawrence, and dissected their novels into smithereens. It was a fairly enjoyable class, that often skirted the line of being too cerebral. The Erudite would’ve eaten it up. The professor of the class was also my advisor, and she was a bookish British woman who rarely veered from the syllabus. One day, we were discussing the assigned novel of the week, and she bestowed upon me one of the most intriguing literary ideas I’d ever heard. She said, “the mentor always has to die in order for the hero to be actualized. That’s why you should’ve known that Dumbledore was a goner.” This was news to me because evidently I didn’t take enough “hero’s journey” courses in my career or watch enough “Star Wars”.  Anyway, my point is, that my gut told me that Christina, Tris, Four or Caleb had to die before “Allegiant” was over. My previous adoption of this mentor dying philosophy convinced me that Four, Tris’ guiding force, her Dauntless teacher, would die in order for her to be independently accomplished. I also assumed that you were foreshadowing when  you included Four as one of the narrators in this last installment of the series. I think a part of it is that I’m a sucker for the build them up to shoot them down process. I guess I just didn’t think you had it in you (as an author) to kill a 16-year-old girl.

Here’s the rub: it’s your series. It’s not mine. Tris and Four felt like family the way that very few other novel characters have to me, so I have to be reminded that this is your story that I’m a witness to. It still hurts. I wanted so much more for Tris and Four. Apparently I shouldn’t have assumed that you wanted it all as well. What did you want? For Tris to finally be Abnegation? For Four to finally have a mother? If that had been clear from the start, then maybe I would be more accepting of this ending, but this guppy feels gutted.

Disappointed, but still with gratitude,

Kaitlin

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Book Review: Domenica Ruta’s “With Or Without You”

Published 11/8/13 by:

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Memoir is a genre that lends itself to being criticized for seeming embellished, self-accolading or an over-share. These are only three of a myriad of insults and criticisms that the memoir author faces. Well, guess what? Domenica Ruta could care less. Her brutally honest memoir entitled “With Or Without You” chronicles two decades of surviving with her drug addicted mother Kathi, in a place filled with townies Kathi is either related to, owes money to, or both. In her debut, Ruta has established herself as someone with talent, humility, and unadulterated honesty. It’s my sincere hope that she’s an author here to stay.

Despite her best efforts, Ruta’s faithfulness to her hometown of Danvers, Massachusetts is embedded in her. Her parents, both townies, and teenagers when she was born, never leave, and she’s often left wondering if she’s capable of getting out. She identifies so much of her heritage by living in an apartment on the family “compound” alongside her grandmother by the river: “These animals, this river – it all belonged to us. I decided this the way that only children and dictators assume things, by pointing a finger and saying it is so.” Ruta mockingly remembers her grandmother thinking they were “just like the Kennedys” and it’s this type of lack of awareness and identity that I think makes her story so compelling. Ruta grew up in an apartment with her mother in a place that had trash piled so high it made the front porch concave. For her grandmother to compare her self-proclaimed trashy family to the Kennedys just makes you smirk. What made this smirk-worth to me, is that I know these people. I know their pride, and how its foundation really has no connection to reality. In Massachusetts, these folks exist, and while they may have many faults, they can be quite charming in their approach.

One aspect of “With Or Without You” that made the story that much more compelling to me, was Domenica’s desperation for knowledge, despite having no so-called “academic mentors” in her life. She admits whole-heartedly that “if it had been possible to lap words off an aluminum can spilled out of a dumpster, I would shamelessly have gotten down on all fours.” And I believe her. While Domenica’s academic prospects seem hopeless, her drive lands her a scholarship in the most unlikely of places. This scholarship makes Kathi feel like she’s hit the social climber lottery. Throughout the memoir I felt like Domenica was directly addressing Kathi, and admitting to her that she worshiped her and pined for her love for so long, but everyone has to grow up. By the end of the novel the reader is made aware of their relationship status, and you experience how much Domenica has grown since she thought that her “mother was the one who called in the tides” of the Porter River.

This book will strike you in moving ways. It will appall you. It will remind you. It will irritate you. It will challenge you, and it will motivate you. You may end up dreaming of having a daughter that blindly adores you the way Domenica adores Kathi, but you also may vow to never have someone like Kathi poison anyone in your circle of family and friends. Domenica Ruta is a writing force, and her tornado winds? Well, she got them from Kathi.

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