Thursday, August 06, 2009
Okay. This is kind of a mash note, but I will just put that out there before I start writing. With some authors, some directors, etc, you just can't expect objectivity from me, and Sherman Alexie is one of them.
So at the end of March, Brian (aka Stinkylulu was out here in LA for a conference, and we went to a bookstore while killing some time before a movie. I left with a book I can't even remember now, and Brian bought two young adult novels, one of them being "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", which had come out in 2007. I didn't even know about it, since it was Young Adult fiction, and I promptly expressed something like sadness, despair, and regret that I had not bought it. Brian, on his way out of town, left the book with me, which was incredibly sweet. I devoured it. And I loved it (more later). So I called him up and asked if he wanted the book back, or if I could loan it to a friend. He said if I wrote about it I could loan it out, but if I didn't I should send it back. So the book has been sitting in my car while I worked out that bargain.
And frankly, the reason I haven't written about it is that I really loved it. And sometimes, even when you really, really like something and want other people to read it, appreciation feels more difficult than constructive criticism of something you didn't like as much. And truly, most of the things I stick with to read fully I love. So I suppose it's a good idea to put down some ideas why.
Sherman Alexie's writing is beautiful. But I have a hard time writing about it. I'm really struggling right now, but since I've made this blog alot about off the top of my head writing (and since I only have about half an hour more until I have to leave), I'll stick to that.
He plays with form, with poetry in his prose, and even in film. I have a copy of his movie "The Business of Fancy Dancing" that I love. I was bowled over at his choice to make a film with a gay protagonist, cast his own stand-in, a writer returning home for the funeral of a friend. Even braver was his choice to mix in poetry, song, and dance to tell his story. And to have an entire crew of women, and try to make the film as a collective.
In "Partly True Diary" his main character, Junior, is a 15 year-old cartoonist. Illustrated by Ellen Forney, the cartoons become another mode of storytelling, another means to get into the thoughts, dreams, and fears, of the young man at the center of the story. Here's the blurb from the website, which tells it better than I can:
In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school. This heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written tale, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art, is based on the author’s own experiences and chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he seems destined to live.
It’s just great. What else can I say? Read it. Junior’s mixture of fear and courage as he navigates the world around him feels so true to adolescence. Alexie gets right the clear sense of logic of a teenager confused about why the world is the way it is, and charts his feelings as he comes to terms with love (family, friends and girls), and loss (family and friends). The drawings are great, and give an extra oomph to the story as well as clarify, in the way that a picture can, Junior’s feelings and thoughts. I’m sounding formal here in a way that doesn’t feel like my voice, but sometimes when you like something it’s even harder to pull it off a shelf and tell somebody anything besides, “Read it!” It’s a quick read, since it’s YA, and worth the time. I’d read it again. It’s one of the most emotional books I’ve read in quite a while. Years, actually. I won’t ruin it by telling you why, but parts of it are just heart-breaking.
I guess what I love about Alexie’s writing is that he doesn’t shy away from either humor or pathos. All the emotions feel earned, and I never get the sense of his hand coming in and manipulating. The voice always feels authentic, male or female. I’ve never been a straight Native American teenager, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been a freshman in high school and I’ve been the new kid in school. That, to me, he nails. And he’s writing is just deeply American to me, and I get it (or maybe that’s brash—to say that about anything, maybe I just like reading it)—the frustration and the feelings, the geography and relations. Maybe part of it is being from the West. And writes characters who see a little outside themselves, or have a sense of themselves in the world. Junior is beginning to, to shape that, and it’s a clear, unforced voice.
Why am I trying to justify it? I always do that—bad habit—like my saying it’s great and I like it isn’t good enough. And if it’s not, it’s not like I’m the only one—he’s got more than a few books out. I mean, it won the frigging National Book Award. Obviously, I’m not the only one who likes the book. I’m just a natural cheerleader, I guess. I made mix tapes in high school.
I just love feeling taken care of by a writer—that I’m more than likely going to believe, empathize, and go for the ride. And when I’m reading, the book disappears and I’m wherever he is. More of that, please.