The Bad Decisions Playlist, Michael Rubens

I’ve been a fan of Michael Rubens since my friend Ruby first recommended The Sheriff of Yrnameer four years ago. His first book was a complete win for me – a hilarious space opera that I recommended to all my sci-fi/fantasy loving friends – that I now keep on tap for waiting in doctor’s offices or at the mechanic’s when I need a mental boost.

His second book, on the other hand, a YA novel called Sons of the 613, put me through the emotional wringer. Rubens has a gift for humor, but like most comedians, he is deeply in touch with the raw underbelly of the human experience. Both Sons of the 613 and The Bad Decisions Playlist flirt with laughter, but in the spirit of truthful YA, are grounded in disaster and pain.

25897672This makes sense to me. Adolescence is a shit show, and anyone who claims otherwise just doesn’t remember how hard it is to have everything shaken up and shaken hard all at once. I say this as a person who was well-adjusted, a successful student, close to my parents, and blessed with wonderful friends – I had so much, and yet I remember so much pain. I lost friends to illness and car accidents. I was treated horribly by boys who had seemed so kind. I watched in terrified silence while girls all around me starved and purged and did anything and everything possible to make themselves fit in. I still remember sitting in my psych class one morning and seeing my friend come in late, her head completely shorn of her beautiful black curls – she had spent an hour cutting them off with safety scissors in the bathroom at 7am for reasons too personal to share, even all these years later.

High school is a gauntlet. There’s no free pass. There’s no person pretty enough or popular enough to escape the human condition. And Rubens’ Playlist recognizes that. His protagonist is a stoner with an abundance of talent and a bad attitude – honestly, I hated him for about ninety percent of the book. I kept flashing back to my experience reading The Catcher and the Rye in high school, and how I wanted to punt Holden Caulfield for being such a whiny, narcissistic jerk. I didn’t understand then how deeply troubled and unhappy Caulfield was, or how his perception of the world could be the same as many of my classmates, because for me, adults had always been safe, helpful. For all the pain I felt, I always had the protection of a family who loved and supported me.

I’m not seventeen anymore. I met too many people in college who hurt me and themselves because they hadn’t received the care they needed for mental illness, for abuse they’d suffered, for wounds left too long untended. Then I spent too many years teaching and working with both young children and teenagers not to have seen a whole spectrum of caregiver behavior that floored me with its apathy, ignorance, and anger. I’ve witnessed too much suffering now not to know how or why some teenagers choose to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, casual sex.

Austin Methune is an ordinary teenager. He’s hurting, he’s lonely and a little lost. He’s struggling with his relationship with his mother, and he doesn’t see the big picture. He cares more about impressing girls than he does just about anything else, and although much of this book is a love story, the part of Austin’s journey that was most powerful to me was his development of empathy and his ability to overcome his own buffoonish self-interest to become a good friend.

I like love stories, but I love friendship. People relying on others, trusting them, becoming vulnerable and allowing them to witness it? That is a love worthy of adolescence. That is a love that is fierce and bright and true. Learning that there’s more to friendship than just showing up to smoke weed and talk about girls is a story worth telling because being a kid is hard, and being a teenager is basically impossible. Friends are the lifeline. They show up for the hard stuff, and they are family if the whole blood relations thing doesn’t pan out.

Rubens gets that. He understands how complicated it is to be a teenage boy – as evidenced in his last two books – and instead of running from that, or sugarcoating it, he embraces it. He says, “It’s ok. I know this is messy, and that you might be a little bit of an asshole, but you’re still loved. Your story is important, and your voice should be heard.”

Bonus Tuesday post

When you read to a child, when you put a book in a child’s hands, you are bringing that child news of the infinitely varied nature of life. You are an awakener.
Paula Fox

A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend reached out to me to ask if I’d be willing to participate in a short interview about our family reading habits. After years of teaching preschool, I’d had a lot of practice discussing the importance of reading to young children, and I jumped at the chance chat with Kumkum Pandey. She’s working on a nonprofit initiative to promote reading to young children and is looking for more input from parents about the challenges and realities of reading on a daily basis.

I volunteered to signal boost for her because I know my audience – we’re a bunch of book-obsessed nerds, and regardless of what titles may be on our individual to-read lists, we’re connected by a passion for the written word. If you’re interested in extending help to a project that will try to tear down barriers for parents who’d like to read more to their children but may not have access, time, or support, consider participating in a ten minute interview with Ms. Pandey.

If you’re interested, or have further questions, post a comment and I will connect you with Ms. Pandey via email.

An Address in Amsterdam, Mary Dingee Fillmore

When I was nineteen, I spent two days in Amsterdam. I was on an art history trip with eighty classmates (my university had a study abroad program in the Netherlands, and during our semester, we took two trips as a group – one to Paris and one to Amsterdam). It was late September, and we hadn’t been in Europe long. While I made use of the fact that the drinking age was lower than at home, I had no interest in seeking out any of Amsterdam’s seedier attractions, and a few friends and I happily spent our time at the Van Gogh Museum, renting bicycles (completely in awe of such a bike friendly city, having come straight from Boston, where cyclists must be at least half mad to compete with traffic), and standing in front of the Anne Frank House. I remember the keen disappointment mixed with relief that the museum was closed for repairs. I desperately wanted to see it, but I also remembered how sobering it had been a year before when I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC on spring break with the very same women standing beside me.

an-address-in-amsterdam3I’ve always found World War II to be a fascinating period of history. My grandfathers both fought – my mother’s father, a firebrand even onto his death at 90, told me about being a part of the liberation of Dachau, of how he carried chocolate bars to give to the children there (it only occurred to me recently that he must have left out many details too horrific to relive, or to speak aloud to his granddaughter), while my father’s father, always a gentle and courageous man more comfortable behind the scenes, found his place teaching others how to parachute out of planes. When I was in school, WWII was a topic covered in history every year, and yet it’s only as an adult that I’ve read and learned the stories that have sunk into my heart and haunted me.

This book, borrowed from my best friend, a passionate Jewish woman who has, since we were ten, been teaching me to examine the world from uncomfortable and worthwhile perspectives, is one of the stories that will hover just outside my conscience for the rest of my life. The story evokes Amsterdam – an Amsterdam before the death of 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands – with such prismic clarity that I was transported. It was such an exquisite city when I visited, and yet the world as Dingee Fillmore creates it is infinitely more special.

Her heroine, Rachel Klein, is so similar to the girl I remember being when I walked the streets of Amsterdam. She was carefree, a good student, surrounded by loving friends, and anxious to have a boyfriend. She is a good daughter not because she has to be, but because she loves and respects her parents, and their opinion of her matters. She exists in a bubble that every teenager deserves to experience – one where the most exciting and important things in her life are tantalizingly out of reach – but in a present that is still sweet and special and intoxicating.

The Rachel we meet at the beginning of the story and the one we leave at the end are hardly the same person. She is a woman who has watched as one by one, her rights and opportunities have been stripped away, leaving her with nothing but memories of friends and neighbors being beaten and stolen and tortured for the amusement of others. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, after Rachel has just barely escaped yet another belligerent encounter with the Dutch police, she has a moment of bitter insight:

If she had been alone in the world, Rachel would have leapt at him and hit him the way Joost had taught her. They would have locked her up as another crazy Jewish terrorist. Yes, terrorist, she thought, the more they brutalize and go after us, the more they accuse us of being the aggressors. And a terrorist is someone every civilized person is authorized to hate. (p 147)

When I finished this book, I immediately called my friend to let her know how heavy my heart was, how it felt as though it were straining to take in so much sadness, and how it was desperate for fresh air and bright skies. She and I talked, as we have a few times before, about how different a book like this is for each of us – for her, hearing the voices of her people silenced in a number so staggering as to be as incomprehensible as the stars, and for me, buried in guilt wondering if I would have resisted, if I would have helped to save my neighbors, or if I would have stayed safe.

When I was a kid, another dear friend’s mother had posted this quote by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant minister, on her refrigerator, and I remember staring at it every time I was in her kitchen:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Back then, the part that chilled me was the idea that no one would be left to stand up for me, but as an adult, it is the sick fear that I might not do so for my neighbors. The world we share is not so different from the one Dingee Fillmore paints – the gap between privilege and oppression is as razor thin as it was in 1940. The resistance people like Rachel were brave enough to put up is viewed differently in hindsight than it is in any given moment. Those who are comfortable will always be made nervous by upheaval to the status quo, and those who ignore hatred in its many forms will always be caught unaware when the day of reckoning arrives.

It frightens me anew to read about how insidious and normalized oppression can be, how it slips through cracks until it has wound itself into and around everything, choking out reason and freedom. Dingee Fillmore includes certain details – the purchasing of Stars of David, the signs forbidding Jews from entering shops, the loss of access to bikes and public transportation – as almost an afterthought, as surely they must have seemed to many people at the time. When rights are taken away gradually, people accept the new normal much more willingly, even though to us, it’s obvious what it was – a chilling shift in political perspective. Instead, the moments seared into Rachel’s brain, as they undoubtedly would have been for most people, were seeing a friend’s home ransacked, or listening from behind closed curtains as families were dragged into the street in the middle of the night, or watching as her parents argued and grew thin under the occupation.

This book is truly a love story between a young woman and Amsterdam. It is about her incredible resilience and the undeniable horror she had to face. Rachel is just one woman, but her experiences remind me of all the untold stories – the victims and persecutors, those who were complicit in their silence, and the ordinary people who lived and fought and died, transformed into heroes through their willingness to risk everything for justice and freedom.

To read more from Mary Dingee Fillmore, head here.