At our house, we are all bunkered down inside, hiding from yet another Melbourne heatwave … and I am taking the opportunity to catch up on a bit of book blogging.

Reading took me in many directions during 2014. Today’s blog is about a moving memoir about reading and the work of a YA author, Rainbow Rowell.


end of your life book club

Will Schwalbe (2012). The End of Your Life Book Club.

Schwalbe lives in New York and works in publishing. This memoir is about many ideas, but it starts from the author’s love of two things – reading and books, and his mother. Will Schwalbe’s mother is undergoing treatment for cancer and Schwalbe takes to sitting with her through the long hours of waiting and treatment at the clinic. Over their time together they take the opportunity to talk about the books they have read, are reading, and are planning to read. Hence, over the course of Mary Anne Schwalbe’s struggle with illness, they create an informal ‘book club’ of two. And, like any good book club, talking about the books ends up being the prompt for their talking about life.

By choosing to focus on a distinct span of time and event, but flesh it out through the books he and his mother read, Schwalbe re-creates for his readers how reading deeply and well, and sharing it with others, in turn deepens and expands our own horizon of experience. As a portrayal of a son’s grief and joy at his mother’s life, and their shared devotion to the power of the written word, The End of Your Life Book Club uses the pair’s reading program to ponder all the big questions of human existence: love and fate; choices and decisions; the ‘roads not taken’; moral purpose in career; family; death. Reading Schwalbe’s memoir also has the effect of sending the reader back to their shelves to revisit old friends, or off to the bookshop to purchase a few of the titles the two of them discuss with such tantalising grace. So many times, while reading this, I found myself re-reading passages for their insight into how reading and thinking about books helps us navigate those other ‘passages’ in our lives. Handily, Schwalbe finishes the volume with a reading list of all the books he and his mother talk about.

Eleanor and Park

Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor and Park. (2013).

Switching between one character’s point of view and another can be risky business in fiction writing, and it does not always work. However, Rowell’s Eleanor and Park pulls this device off perfectly. A romance between an overweight, red-haired misfit girl and a half-Korean boy in a white-bread town sounds like it could be mawkish, lopsided, or just implausible. But it is magic.

Eleanor is a new girl in a small suburban town. She comes from a deeply dysfunctional and poor family. Her mother has remarried and the new step-dad is a no-hoper, abusive demon. She has no friends at her new school, and, on the dreaded bus ride to and from school, must sit in the only available space – next to a remote, Eurasian boy who, initially, shows no signs of wanting to know her. Park, it turns out, has more genuine guts than his father gives him credit for and eventually braves the high-school threat of social annihilation to connect with this strange new girl. He shares his love of indie music and graphic novels and the two of them start their own world apart; however, despite her joy in Park’s company, Eleanor’s bruised self-esteem means she finds it hard to believe in the viability of their love. I thought this was an intelligently written YA novel about first love, social exclusion and family hurt. I really liked the way Rowell made the point of Eleanor and Park’s allegiance to each other being an allegiance to themselves and their difference; together, they resist forces that would diminish them to create the ‘universe of two’ that is part of the power of first love.

fangirl book cover

Rainbow Rowell Fangirl. (2013).

Identical twins Cather and Wren (say both the names aloud quickly and you’ll get it) head off to college in Nebraska. Wren is the more extraverted of the two, has no interest in rooming with her quieter twin Cath, and is quick to dive into all the social scene that college has to offer. Cath, by contrast, hides out in her dorm room, subsisting on peanut butter and protein bars because she is too intimidated by the task of finding the dining hall. She has taken on a more senior class in fiction writing that she is dead keen on doing well in, but is utterly overwhelmed by the seeming sophistication of her older classmates. And, she is desperately trying to complete her fanfic opus, Carry On, Simon, before the eighth and final volume of the canon series comes out later that autumn.

Rowell’s Fangirl was pressed upon me by a veteran reader friend who works as a Teacher Librarian and has been round the block plenty of times when it comes to YA fiction. When she tells me a YA novel really stands out from the pack in terms of quality, I take notice. She raved about Fangirl, and with good reason.

Cath is plagued with crippling, you-would-not-believe-it anxiety. The experience of being cut loose by her more outgoing twin, having to room with a senior called Reagan who is all sharp edges, and dealing with her worries about her bi-polar single dad, who has been left behind in their Nebraska hometown of Omaha, just about capsizes Cath in her first semester. She is also haunted by the fact that her and Wren’s mother abandoned them when they were in third grade, and that Cath has never seen her since. What keeps her hanging on is her immersion in the fan fiction world developed from a fictive urban fantasy series about a character called Simon Snow.

For the purposes of her novel, Rowell has invented an inter-text of a fantasy series about Snow, a teen attending wizard school, not unlike Harry Potter at Hogwarts. Rowell has added a dash of other well-known fixtures of YA fantasy, as Snow has a roommate nemesis Baz, who is a vampire. Cath’s fanfic is ‘slash’, meaning her narrative has re-created the fictional universe of the original text, but she has made Simon and Baz have a swoony gay romance. Cath’s fanfic is wildly successful, and she is ‘huge’ in the online Simon Snow fanfic world, with tens of thousands of ‘hits’ on her daily instalments. There is even a T-shirt for her fans that says, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On, Simon.’ The irony is, that she is unable to translate this online belonging and confidence to anything resembling it in her offline, ‘real’ life.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s ex-boyfriend Levi, who studies agricultural science with electives in literature, is hanging around the dorm. It is clear to the reader, way before it dawns on Cath, that Levi has more than a passing interest in Cath. Levi’s struggle is that while he can read short chunks of text, he has trouble following longer reading assignments. In a moving sequence, Cath reads to him from her fanfic, then reads S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to him all night long, in preparation for an upcoming pop quiz he needs to do well in. Levi is gentlemanly and old-fashioned, and falls in love with Cath’s love of the written word. Their romance is partly about the power of stories to bridge gaps in understanding between people.

Fangirl is cleverly constructed, as the narrative moves between passages of the fictive Simon Snow canon, Cath’s additions to her Simon Snow slash fanfic, and the narrative of her struggles to overcome her anxiety, find her place in the world of college, and navigate her first love. The novel also treats the issues of family dysfunction and mental illness deftly, as well as exploring Cath’s emergence from fanfic into grappling with her most difficult personal experiences in fiction she develops from scratch.

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