Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

I am not typically a fan of dystopian-YA literature. The genre is usually so formulaic: heroine discovers flaws in supposedly perfect futuristic government, falls in love with random rebel guy on the way, goes forward to take down the bad guys---and always, always, ALWAYS in a trilogy. OH. MY. GOD. The freaking trilogies. And why do these keep coming out? Because that's where money is. It's like those cheesy rap songs that endlessly describe supposedly fun clubs where most people end the night by throwing up. Sounds great! They only succeed because of the overflow of demand from, well, Young Adults. 

Now, Pills and Starships definitely fits into the dystopia/utopia YA genre. It's about a young girl in a futuristic society dealing with the extreme pollution left behind by people nowadays. They live on different pills, or "pharma"--such as mood pharma or vision pharma. These extend life so much that elderly people, who had their children in their 60's, leave this world by buying death contracts. As Nat (the main character) and Sam (her brother) go through their parents' last days, they discover a different land than the one that they're told is the only place they'll survive. 

Dystopian? Check. Futuristic Government? Check. Random Rebel Guy? Check. However, before you run away, this book is really good. The author, Lydia Millet did really well breaking away from the typical YA genre. It's really hard to steer clear of, and, although it is a DYA (I'm sick of writing out Dystopian Young Adult), it's a well written one. 

The first thing I loved about this book is that the future was a result of the past. (y'all: um....yeah?---me:I'll explain! Calm down.) In most DYA's, you are introduced to a new society/government,  but the author doesn't really explain how we go there. (Either that or there was some GREAT WAR (ominous voice) and society went overkill on making sure that it didn't happen again.) This strategy seems kind of lazy. But Lydia Millet doesn't do that at all. She really delves into the history of the earth as the characters know it. It's a lot harder to do than just have some random war. Here's an excerpt. 

       Sometimes a visionpharm helps me work on my collection. I don't need it, but I can definitely use it to good effect. Once or twice I've found things whose loveliness I wouldn't have seen without the pills I was on. But, see, that loveliness is real, because later, after the pills wear off, I can still see it in the collected thing. 
       For instance, this one day I took a visionpharm because I was sad--a facefriend had caught a bug called Marburg and she died. I'd really liked her, we'd been gaming for over a year and vidconfing for just the last month or two; she had freckles and a sweet smile. I didn't want moodpharm , for some reason, I wanted visionpharm instead. 
       And after I took it I was wandering in the complex thinking of her and I found a plain rock. Somehow the rock became lovely to me, like I could see pieces of stars in it, pieces of primordial matter. In that plain rock I can still see the beginning of everything. 
       Even when I was flat again, I still loved that rock. 
       Mostly what Sam objects to is the controlling attitude that pharma has, their ads and slogans that make it seem like if you're not on mood-management pills 24-7 then you're callously "playing mood roulette." They try to make it seem like you're an irresponsible person if you're not a max-dose regular. Selfish and flaky--even a little bit insane. 
       It used to be they just hard-sold the pharma to grown-ups, but now they figure they have to capture the youth population too. We're getting older and sooner or later, they figure, we're going to get hella depressed. 
       So they're already grooming us to have an eventual death wish. I mean it's obvious, we're not stupid. And in a way, I guess it's creepy, yes, as Sam had said to me more than once. But then it's also nature. Is it more creepy or more natural? I can't decide. I mean, it's always been natural to die. And wise to accept death since it's the biggest fact of life. Blah blah. 
        And yet. 
        Sam says he has nothing against death, in and of itself. What he doesn't like is management, which he refers to as "pharmacontrol." He and his hackerfriends on face like to get mad and they have their own lexicon of angry words.
        Among the hackerkids there are a bunch of different factions; some say they don't believe in pharms at all--though most of their parents make them stay on their daily doses anyway, of course--while other ones only believe in fastpharms because they don't think being sped up is bad. They think it helps their rebel cause. 
        Some of them wear their hair in old-time punk styles to show us all what big rebels they are. That always makes me laugh--the mohawks and silly drawings shaved into the stubble and all that--but not in front of Sam. 
      "He's fourteen," is what my mother's said to me about Sam and hacking. She smiles and sighs.  

It was so interesting to see Nat become a rebel in about the last third of the book. You could see her changing. In most DYA's, everyone is a rebel right off the bat. But you can see that Nat is pretty happy with the system--she even mocks her rebel brother. But I absolutely adore that Lydia Millet really constructed Nat as the book journeyed on. That's something that I rarely see.

Look for this rare gem of a book when it comes out in June 2014! Published by Akashic Books.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

This book was an uplifting portrait of a young girl's struggle with grief. I know that sounds slightly skewed and oxymoronic (My brain: is that even a word? Me: shut up.), but I felt absurdly happy and free, not while, but after reading this novel. Let me tell you a little story:

My Mother: Come downstairs!
Me: (reluctantly puts book down)
My Mother: I need you to put these wontons in the oven for TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. DO NOT BURN THEM. I'm going on a walk. TEN MINUTES.
Me:OK...(drifts upstairs back to my room to enjoy the blissful escape that is reading)
My Sister: You know you burnt the wontons, right?
Me: (puts book down) *screams a number of unprintable words*

Yes. This books is so good that it is worth burnt wontons. (My brain: that doesn't sound like the highest compliment. Me: Did I ask you?) That phrase might not sound like a wonderful assessment of the book, but if you ask me, burnt wontons are a high price to pay. 

The Usual Rules is the tale of 13-year-old Wendy--Living with her mother Janet, younger (half) brother whom she loves to death, and her mother's second husband Josh, worrying about her appearance--a normal teenaged girl. The date is September 11, 2001. Her mother, a former dancer, is working as a secretary on the 84th floor in one of the buildings that collapses on that fateful day. Later, as the fact that her mother really is gone is settling in, her real father who hasn't seen her for years steps in and sweeps her off to California with him--where she discovers a new part of herself as she deals with the unspeakable tragedy she's suffered.

What I most enjoyed about this book were the relationships between Wendy and her stepfather, as well as her father. Most books depict the stepfather as a horrible demon from hell. (Although, thinking about it, where else do demons come from?) But in this scenario, Josh (the stepfather) is the more loving parent, whereas Garrett (Wendy's birth father) is kind of a bad parent at first, having not seen his daughter or had any children to care for around 6 or 7 years. He wasn't a very good father for those first years either--cheating on Wendy's mother was one of the bad things he did that caused her to leave him. 

I'm including an excerpt from the book here. Just a warning: Ms. Maynard decided to not include quotation marks for the entirety of the book. I personally liked this style--I think it increased the feeling that Wendy had retreated into herself after her mother's death. However, it takes a little getting used to.

He [Garrett] opened the fridge. Here, he said. See what hits the spot.
      It was nothing like their refrigerator back in Brooklyn, with half a dozen different kinds of cheeses and the crisper drawer crammed full of vegetables that her mother used to complain were always more than they needed. You never know what you're going to feel like, Josh used to say. Could be cold roast chicken. Could be a bagel with cream cheese. A person has to be prepared.
      Here there was a stick of beef jerky and a package of sliced turkey breast. Store-bought tomato sauce. A couple of eggs. Margarine. Never trust a person with margarine in their fridge, Josh told her once. 
      Stop giving our daughter these ideas, her mother said. The first thirty-five years of my life, that's all I ever had.
      Our daughter.
      Wendy was still standing in front of the open refrigerator. Nothing strikes your fancy, huh? Can't say I blame you. But I was saving the best for last. 
       He opened the top door, the freezer. A half dozen Healthy Choice dinners were stacked inside. Take your pick, he said. The sky's the limit. 
       In the end, she settled on a couple of Oreos. That's genetics for you, he said. I love these things, too. 
       He had fixed up a room for her. It must have been his workroom before, because there were still boxes stacked in the corner with papers and a few more tools and art supplies. But he'd put an India-print spread on the bed and a vase of flowers next to it. He'd set up a stuffed lion on the pillow.
       It was mine when I was a kid, he said. Of course you're too old for that kind of stuff. I just thought you might like a little homey touch. 
       He set her bigger suitcase on the floor at the foot of the bed. In a day or two, we can set you up with whatever other stuff you need. You probably like music, right?
       We'll head over to Circuit City and get you one of those portable CD players. Just don't tell me you like rap okay? 
       She hadn't pictured herself this way. Actually playing music in some room other than the one back home. Hanging her clothes up in this closet next to the box of tools. 
       No, she said. I listen to jazz mostly. But I like Madonna and Ani DiFranco and Sade. 
       He left the room. When he came back, he was holding something--a very old photograph of her mother, from when she had long hair. Pregnant, from the looks of it. 
       Janet kept most of our pictures, he said. I only have a few. 
       She looked at the face in the picture. Her mother wasn't exactly smiling. She had a puzzled sort of expression. Wendy wondered if even then they had been arguing. 
       We had different ideas about a lot of things, he said. She was more the type to want to settle down and make a home. I never believed in traditional family structures. It always seemed to me like most people's problems start with their parents. I wanted things to be a little looser, hands-off. Like the whole world was your home, instead of just one place. 

You can see the difference between the sweet, comforting feeling of Wendy's home and family in New York and her new life and awkward relationship with her new father in California. 

Family. The truth is, this book isn't about 9/11. It's about familial relationships. This book includes a mother, stepfather, half-brother, father, and even that father's girlfriend. You can't really define family. Almost everyone has their own definition. Some people's entire families aren't even related to them at all. That doesn't deduct from the love you can show them. And reading this book helped me (and probably numerous others) realize that.