A Version of the Truth
In Elizabeth Laban's The Tragedy Paper, readers will discover a coming-of-age story set in a traditional location (boarding school) with a familiar setup (love triangle) that turns everything you think you know about this sort of book on its ear. Laban might be giving readers a familiar setting and situations but her characters are so thoughtful and the plot just twisty enough that she manages a page-turner out of the quietest of stories. The conceit is straightforward: Tim met Vanessa while stuck at the airport on his way to his new school. After sharing the sort of fun (and mostly chaste) boy-meets-girl story everyone dreams of, they continue on their separate ways, and he discovers she is not only a fellow student but dating the school's most popular boy. They become good friends as Tim also slowly becomes enmeshed in the school's senior class tradition. It is on one fateful night involving the seniors that he connects with Duncan, the underclassman whose story is really at the heart of the novel.
Laban introduces Duncan in the very beginning as the one who figures it all out. He knows how Tim's school story ended the previous year, but not how it began, and along with the reader, he learns all the sordid history via a series of CDs that Tim has left behind for him in his dorm room as part of a departing senior gift, another school tradition. Duncan has a small but powerful connection to Tim that has left him unsure about his own future, and so hearing Tim's voice, finding out why everything happened the previous year, is critical to his own wellbeing. In the middle of all of this looms the big senior assignment: the "tragedy" paper. Talk of tragedy permeates the senior English class, literary examples are tossed about throughout the text, and Duncan, in particular, is overwhelmed with a desire to get the paper right. Laban makes clear though that tragedy is in the eye of the beholder, and also that while it might reach epic literary proportions for some students, for others the tragic is all too real and in danger of eclipsing every other facet of their lives.
It's important to note that nothing huge takes place in The Tragedy Paper. There is a serious accident, and in both Tim and Duncan's narratives, there are students in trouble, but in comparison to a lot of contemporary YA fiction, the events here are subtle and familiar. Much of the book is about aspiring and struggling to find your way to the best sort of self, and the obstacles, both internal and external, that block your way. This novel is the very definition of powerful, and while it does not possess characters spouting the sort of fake witticisms that seem to crop up all over in teen books lately, they are nothing if not real. There are no villains in The Tragedy Paper, just a lot of wishing you can get things right; a lot of trying to do the best you can.
While coming-of-age themes play into a lot of YA novels, it was through reading a series of nonfiction titles that this column really came together. The first was the exquisitely designed An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris by Stephanie LaCava. This undersized hardcover sports a paper-over-board cover, dozens of careful pen and ink illustrations by Matthew Nelson, and diversionary footnotes throughout the text. (The bibliography is also well worth lingering over.) The first sentence is "I was born strange," and an introductory quotation by Mark Rutherford sets the tone for what is a writer seeking nothing less than to find herself on the page. As you look back upon the detritus of your own past and the items that served as your talismans, consider LaCava's choice of Rutherford's words: "But men should not be too curious in analyzing and condemning any means which nature devises to save them from themselves, whether it be coins, old books, curiosities, butterflies or fossils."
When she was twelve years old, LaCava's family left America for Paris. From that point forward she felt lost between two cultures -- neither wholly one nor the other. At thirteen, however, is when she "fell apart." An avid collector before she left for France (as so many young people are), her items became significant beyond measure as she struggled to hold herself together against an "active, throbbing depression." What apparently sent her cascading over the edge into despair was her frustration over a lack of control in her life. It is this aspect of her book -- revealed in the earliest pages -- that affected me the most, and I think makes it a key title for teenagers.
In the chapters that follow, LaCava writes about her adventures in Paris, the friends she makes, the places she visits, the ghosts who haunt her (it's an exceedingly haunted city), and the objects she discovers and hoards as treasure. Along the way, although she changes their names, she writes of her parents, neither of whom is quite sure what to do with her, and her younger brother. All of these figures weave into her decidedly intellectual exposition, into a title that namedrops Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, ivory carvers, Deyrolle's taxidermy, and butterflies (among many other people, places, and things) but remains true to its nature as a coming-of-age experience. LaCava knows where she is now, she knows where her journey began, but how she got here, how she became someone fascinated by so many things, troubled and aware of her trouble but unable to change it, is something she still feels compelled to consider. So the book is her way to work through her childhood, to fully know the girl she once was. The journey she shares has an epic quality to it, and for all that the narrator was unhappy at times, readers will find still a gorgeous reading experience. Consider it a literary "cabinet of curiosities" and revel in LaCava's success now and her willingness to share so intimately the person whom she was then.
Fans of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (a must read!) will be delighted to know that David Godine has rereleased the second book in the Corfu Trilogy: Fauna and Family. Set again in the World War II period on the same Greek island, Fauna and Family is another of Durrell's droll memoirs about growing up with his crazy family. Written entirely from the author's perspective as the youngest Durrell, these books are perfect light reading for those who enjoy the certain type of quirky British humor that the author excelled at. His widowed mother is loving, acerbic, slightly dizzy and endlessly patient; eldest brother Lawrence, a future novelist, is pompous and self serving; sister Margo is obsessed with her appearance (and cute young men); and Leslie likes to blow things up. A lot. All of these caricatures are made from the distorted perspective of a much younger brother, but readers will likely be laughing too hard to care just accurate they are.
I read my first book by Durrell more than ten years ago, as an adult, but think his perfect audience might actually be teenagers. Much of the Corfu Trilogy is dedicated to his education, which relied heavily upon tutors and an immersion into the island's natural history that is full of a dedication to observation that the most ardent naturalist would envy. Gerald collected everything; a running joke in the family is his ever-changing bevy of pets, but they are not there simply to entertain. Gerald studied the creatures he found, from dogs to birds to fish and lizards, assigning them names, noting their actions, considering their personalities, and reveling in their every odd movement. His future as a zookeeper was written in his childhood love of animals and seeing how he became the man he did is a large part of what makes his books so entertaining. (I also could not help noting a kinship between the young Gerald and young Stephanie LaCava, pining away in Paris and making her own keen observations.) Fauna and Family is enjoyable on multiple levels, but for me it is mostly a celebration of the merits of an unorthodox education, something any classroom-loathing teen will appreciate.
Finally, Lucy Knisley takes readers through her entire life via the restaurants she visited, the meals she helped prepare, and the tons and tons of delicious food she has eaten in her graphic novel Relish. Complete with recipes, this full color memoir is about growing up as a foodie with parents who loved cooking, a mother who became a serious gardener, and a lifetime of thinking about meals as something to enjoy, not just get through. Along the way, there is a tween-aged trip to Mexico with family where she should have gotten into trouble but didn't, some culinary culture shock in Tokyo, many jobs in food-related service industries (ask her about cheese), and ultimately a grand appreciation for the sheer joy of sharing a meal (and recipe) with people she cares about. Relish is not a chef's memoir, and miles from the chaotic competition shows on Food Network. But food is central to this story and shared in a manner that is both fun and informative. Knisley fits perfectly for young readers who have outgrown Raina Telgemeier but aren't ready for Alison Bechdel yet, and is also perfect for foodies of any age.
COOL READ: Every now and again, a book comes my way on a topic that is utterly and completely unexpected. Faythe Levine and Sam Macon's Sign Painters is the sort of artistic celebration that should be commonplace on the shelves and if Levine (author of Handmade Nation and creator of the documentary of the same name) has her way, it will be just one more entry into a curated collection of artisanal American. In this heavily illustrated (with photographs) title, the two authors introduce a dizzying array of painters from a wide range of states who are in love with typography, graphic design, and illustration. These men and women, covering a wide range of ages and backgrounds, revel in developing their own style and embracing life as utter individuals. Although it might be romantic to consider them a dying breed, the broad array of examples shown here makes it clear that sign painting is still a relevant and striking part of American culture. This is graphic design at its best; these signs command attention, enliven the landscape, and bring customers in. Levine and Macon aren't celebrating nostalgia with Sign Painters; they are shining a spotlight on a career that most artistic teens have likely not considered. For those seeking a profession where suits need not apply, Sign Painters offers an appealing glimpse of people at work doing something they love. It's about taking the way you see the world and sharing that view with others. Good stuff, and damned inspiring.