For those of you who didn’t get the note I sent out last weekend, boundless apologies for not getting this discussion post up in time. I have been plagued by some kind of malicious internet god this week…let’s just call it the Telstra God…which has made it impossible for me to a) load Google Homepage in under 5 minutes, b) trust that my internet connection won’t just suddenly drop out FOR NO REASON while I’m in the middle of doing whatever thing I’m doing, c) reliably receive phone calls or texts or email or…well, do anything much at all on my mobile. Apparently there have been local ‘works’ going on. JOY. But to tell you the truth, the internet out here in the country is always kinda crappy. Blame the government (I sure as hell do).
I’ve also been called up to work a lot lately (I’m a casual relief teacher), and I’ve been on deadline – but it’s primarily the internet issues that have been holding me up. And usually, each month I find an independent reviewer, and ask if they wouldn’t mind allowing us to use their review of whatever book we’re reading, so we can have a jumping off point for discussion. I usually contact them by email etc… Well, obviously, this time I couldn’t do that – argh! Holy galloping galoshes, Batman! What to do?
So I’ve written the review myself. Ahem.
Just to clarify – I don’t usually do this. My typical practise is to stay out of the reviewing aspect of hosting bookclub, because I don’t want to cast judgement on a colleague’s work (not that I cast down lightning bolts or anything, but I generally prefer to stay out of it). But desperate times call for desperate measure. And I’m kind of glad I got the chance to write a bit about How To Be Happy, because it intrigued me as a reader and a writer, and I believe it’s been one of the most thought-provoking titles we’ve had so far.
So – on with the show!
Spoiler: I can’t tell you how to be happy either. I can tell you all the things that make me happy – hugs from my kids, hanging out on the couch with my partner watching TV, being in the garden on a day of really lovely weather, finding the perfect words for a story, teaching something and having the students ‘get it’… All those things (and more) provide a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment and joy that can lift me out of a dour mood, if that’s the way I’m trending.
But what if you’re in high school and you’re frequently trending down? What if your identity is still forming, and your ability to rebound emotionally is depleted because you’re already coping with hard times at home? How do you cope then?
I found How To Be Happy by Dave Burton confronting, deeply moving, and hugely satisfying to read. My usual response to great YA is delight – how fantastic to read writing like this! How insightful and perfect! – and while HTBH is delightful and insightful, my strongest response to it was curiosity and questioning. How did the author remember all this stuff from high school? Were his family okay with him sharing? What about his friends and exes?
I guess some of these questions are ones I always have when reading memoir. To me, memoir is a uniquely vulnerable approach to writing. With fiction, you can fudge it: colour a certain scene a different way so nobody recognises you were ever in it, change a character name to hide a resemblance, cannibalise bits and pieces from your own life to create a thinly disguised version of the truth. Most writers I know use real-life experiences to flesh out their stories. But memoirists are totally out there – everything you see here is real, folks. That takes an extraordinary and nail-biting courage.
It also makes reviewing their work quite hard. Is it possible to critique the story without critiquing the teller of it, if the story is taken directly from an author’s own experience? Thankfully, HTBH was a story that kept me hooked. I could see lots of parallels with my own life, my own thought patterns as a teenager. It captured the essence of a certain type of high school experience that so many of us are familiar with, and the writing was clever and witty. I laughed a lot, reading this book. I was also moved to tears. Sometimes high school, and life in general, can be really shit. I think Dave Burton captured the spectrum of that.
But some questions I had about HTBH were about the nature of the YA memoir form itself. I was hugely interested to find out what the teen response to this book has been like. It’s been pitched to teenagers, through schools and libraries – is a book like this appealing to a teenage audience? Would it be too much, reading about someone else’s shitty high school experiences while you were in the middle of living your own? This is the part of the book I was curious about. I read a few online reviews of the book (when my mobile was cooperating) while thinking about my own response. I noticed that most of the adult reviewers of HTBH really loved it, and felt it was an important resource for teenagers struggling with issues of anxiety, sexual identity and depression, and I’d certainly agree with that assessment. But the teenage response…was not as present, or as positive.
Admittedly, I only took a small sample, but the teens who did review didn’t seem to get it. I don’t think it’s because of the language. I’m just not sure if the memoir form strikes a chord with teenagers. I’m going to take a wild stab and say that teenagers generally read for entertainment, and want to be taken out of their own world and into another – a world where they can sink into the character of someone who is them but slightly (or maybe a lot) better, someone who will win the day at the end of the book. The end of HTBH is ‘happily ever after’, but it’s a bittersweet ending. I wasn’t sure if teenagers would find it uplifting – to know that yes, recovery and happiness are possible and can happen – or a downer – because in real life, there are no perfect happy endings.
Anyway, that’s my review. I’m going to claim HTBH as one of my favourite books of bookclub so far, and I hope you enjoyed it just as much. So write me some comments, here or on the FB page! I’m really really keen to find out what people thought about this one.
Have a good week, and if the internet gods are smiling upon me, I’ll put up the new title selection post for May sometime this week.