Turtles All the Way Down

It’s been almost six years since YA uber-author John Green has published a new book (something we wrote about a while back). That’s almost  generation’s worth of his target audience – many teen readers will have been too young for his last book, The Fault in Our Stars, when it was published in 2012. The rocket-like success of that book (and subsequent movie) was both a blessing and a curse for Green: his books were being read by millions more people, but that success resulted in a period of crippling anxiety for the author. The expectations for his next book felt so overwhelming, that for a while he could not write at all.

Green has not made a secret of the fact that he’s wrestled with Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder most of his life, and what it’s like to live with mental illness is the overriding theme of Turtles All the Way Down. Aza Holmes, the narrator of the book, struggles mightily to control the obsessive thoughts that often consume her, which she calls “thought spirals” that grow more and more tightly coiled until she is driven to a compulsive behavior to quiet them.

The ostensible plot of the book is a mystery: the famous father of a childhood acquaintance has has skipped town to avoid legal troubles, and Aza’s BFF Daisy is convinced the two of them can figure out where he is and collect the $100,000 reward.  TATWD has all the John Green-isms we’ve come to expect: the quirky best friend, the seemingly impossible task, the sweet love story, and everyone’s got a poem or literature quote ready to go at a moment’s notice, (John Green characters are a bit more well-read and well-spoken than the general teen-aged public). But the real journey the reader is taken on is what it’s like to live in a hijacked mind.

Aza has a dread of germs. One of the first compulsions we witness is Aza forcing open a wound on her fingertip, so that she can clean and sanitize it before covering it up with one of her constant supply of band-aids, a ritual she performs so often that the wound never completely heals. Hand sanitizer is used combatively –  at one point she even starts drinking it.  Aza’s helplessness in the face of these thoughts and compulsions can be painful to read, and there’s no “all better now” resolution at the end – the prevailing takeaway is it’s ok not to be ok sometimes. Green has managed to paint a picture of mental illness that is more matter-of-fact than sensational, and the writing is evocative and mature. It’s a thoughtful novel that will appeal to adults as well as teens, and well worth the six-year wait.

Five stars.

Jenn Reads: Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is our July pick for the Cheshire Cats Classics Club. It was chosen largely to appeal to men and to those who like more modern classics. This is not my typical fare, necessarily, and was not even on my to-read list. Far from it, actually.

I’m not sure what I thought Slaughterhouse Five was going to be, but whatever notions I had where quickly dispelled. I think I heard that it included a fictional planet, and time-travel and thought “Not for me…” First impressions are often wrong, prejudiced, and just down right stupid.

Slaughterhouse Five is a crisp 275 pages, easily read, and likely easily misunderstood. Some may find the scenes of Tralfamadore ridiculous, the war depictions brutal, the episodes of sex raunchy, but they unfortunately have missed the essence of the book. And don’t let the ease of reading the book fool you: Vonnegut is trying to send an important message on the destructiveness of war, finding happiness, and mental illness.

Slaughterhouse Five, to me, is an anti-war novel on the surface. The subtitle, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death alludes to the fact that so many of the men who bravely fight our wars are merely boys. They are dancing with death in a way many of us will never experience.

What Billy Pilgrim experiences and views at the bombing of Dresden forever changes him and shapes the novel. Billy’s “strange” behavior of time traveling and episodes on Tralfamadore are manifestations of his PTSD. Knowing that Vonnegut himself saw the bombing of Dresden makes you wonder how much of this was truly Billy Pilgrim’s story and how much of it was autobiographical. Anyone who has seen actual warfare is never the same.

I listened to this book, as I try to do with all of the classics we read for the club. Ethan Hawk was the reader for this version, which included an interview with Vonnegut. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with this book, having gone in with low expectations. Hawk’s reading of it was admirable, although the mixing on the recording was very low and he was often difficult to hear, and the story moved.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (but it’s a hearty 3 stars)