One of Rory Gilmore’s great t-shirts
A couple months ago, John Green put out a list of book recommendations in one of his vlogs. I’ve tried 3-4 of the books from the list, but haven’t finished any of them. They just didn’t grab my attention. But, I’d had my library order Joshua Braff’s (yes, that family of Braffs) The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green for their collection, so I felt like I should give it the old college try. I read it in its entirety in one sitting. It’s a very fast read. It’s not easy content, but it is fast. Based on the vlog, I was sure this book was a comedy. And parts of it are extremely funny, but other parts are heartbreakingly sad.
The funny is easy. Jacob is a young Jewish boy growing up in the late 70s- early 80s, starting when he’s ten and going until he’s fifteen. He’s at the height of his sexual awakening in an era when all things sexual weren’t available with the press of a few keys. He’s getting his knowledge from his older brother, Asher, the family boarder, Megan, and his school friend, Jonny. We experience a London’s Blitz of slang terms for genitalia. It’s funny. It should be crude, but Braff’s skilled writing turns it into innocent discovery. The bar mitzvah thank you letters, the letters to Megan, and the family rules are a great vehicle to glimpse into Jacob’s thoughts without a lot of exposition or forced dialogue. Entertaining and informative.
Jacob’s relationship is Megan is far from innocent, except that it’s not. For him, it’s an attraction to an older girl. It’s a crush that he’s allowed to act on in seemingly innocent ways. He gives her back massages. They lay together while watching tv and movies. They hang out together. She gives him emotional support. But she’s not a teen. He’s thirteen when this is happening. She’s in a nursing program and at least somewhere in her 20s. Her questionable behaviour starts by going braless during massages and eventually leads to letting him grind against her until he blows his first precious load against her back. We should hate her. Rightfully, we should. If this was the opposite way and older man with a younger girl, we would. It’s such a double standard. I know that. And I have such mixed feelings about her character. She allows these things to happen, even encourages them, but she’s the only one really looking after the emotional needs of this kid. And when she disappears from his life without even a goodbye, she becomes the place he takes out his anger.
This is where the heartbreaking stuff comes in. Jacob’s family is messed up! His mother is clearly embarrassed by her husband. His brother is an artistic hard rocker straying as far from Jewish tradition as possible. The younger two children are too young to know what to do or which side to take when the family starts to disintegrate. But the worst part is Jacob’s father, Abram. The Green patron is a terror. He terrorizes his family with niceness. At first he seems like nothing more than a slightly overbearing father, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s a monster – using his family to overcome his shortcomings.
The terrorizing reaches a peak when Jacob getting so angry he punches a mat so hard he breaks his wrist. His father picks him up to go to the hospital and while his son is sitting in the passenger seat, cradling his broken arm, in pain, and covered in vomit, Abram becomes furious when Jacob isn’t excited about having a movie night. He barely seems to register that his son is hurt. He’s so caught up in his own mania; he can’t see how he’s hurting the people around him. He is the epitome of keeping up with the Jones’ or Bittermans – as the case may be. The movie night comes to a head in the kitchen when Abram loses his shit trying to rip Asher’s pants apart. There are a lot of examples before and after this scene, but for me, this is the moment that was the most painful to read. It’s clear that the Green patron has some type of mental disorder or chemical imbalance that isn’t being treated. I’m not saying mental disorders make people into terrors – I am definitely not saying that. But this is a prime example of what can happen when said disorders/imbalances are not treated (whether through medication or therapy or whatever).
This entire family suffers for years and eventually crumbles under the weight of Abram’s manic swings. Had this story taken place in a different time when his actions may have been recognized, a lot of broken people could have been saved, but it wasn’t. Instead we see how a family that appears perfectly normal on the outside is destroying itself on the inside. It’s a heavy story, but Braff couches it in coming of age humour that allows the reader to get through it without feeling like their drowning in the sorrow. It is absolutely worth reading.
A book for pre-early teens who desperately want to believe they’re not related to their family.
In The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, the young protagonist is eating breakfast one morning and sees the face of a three year old child kidnapped twelve years earlier. The more she looks at the box, the more certain she is that the face is hers. Her parents have no pictures of her before the age four, so that’s all the proof she needs to start searching.
Before the time of the internet, her search includes the library and driving by the home of the family she believes she belongs to. I remember few of the details of the book, but I loved it the first time I read it. It was shocking and exciting. This was not your typical YA book of the time. I re-read it about fifteen years ago and remember thinking the writing was awful, but I maintained the happy memories from that first read.
Apparently, this book is the first in a series, but I’ve only read the first one – which apparently came out in 1990… it doesn’t read like a 90s book. In my memory, this is an 80s book. I guess since it was published in 1990, it technically is an 80s book. Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that it reads a little on the wholesome side.
Like this. This is exactly the kind of book report collage I would expect for this book.
This book probably won’t connect with the kids of today – who probably won’t understand the title anyway. If it’s re-released, I supposed it would be called the face on the facebook page or InstagramMe? Or something equally dating, but the content might resonate.
But let’s not forget, this book also introduced us to the new and exciting world of lactose intolerance. That’s what really matters.
There was also a made for TV movie version of this starring the quintessential 90s go to girl Kellie Martin. I haven’t seen this, but now I desperately want to.
There are a lot of great crime drama novels. There are also a lot of awful ones, so that might be another list.
But there are too many good ones to narrow it down to ten, but I’ve tried. I’m sure I’m missing many. Several will probably haunt me for their lack of position on the list.
As usual, in no particular order:
Birthdays for the Dead – Stuart McBride
Crime novels are dark by nature, but this one is very, very dark. It never lets up on the reader. Ever.
Dark Places – Gillian Flynn
Another very dark story. Like any good mystery protagonist, you both feel for, and can’t understand the actions of, the main character.
The Bone House – Brian Freeman
Just one of Freeman’s excellent crime novels. Dead teens, sketchy people, fire. It’s got everything it needs. And it’s a stand alone.
The Body Farm – Patricia Cornwall
Cornwall’s writing has lost a lot of its spark over the last decade , but the early Scarpetta novels were excellent. This was where I learned about the actual body farm in Virginia. If only I’d been better at biology, I’d have a different career.
The Keeper of Lost Causes – Jussi Adler-Olsen
The scene with the tooth abscess is awful enough to make the book worth reading, but the whole book is amazing. It’s the beginning of a great series – as long as you allow for some errors in the translation syntax.
The Millennium Trilogy – Stieg Larsson
Yes, I’m cheating on this one and pulling the entire trilogy. But, the books are so closely linked it’s hard to separate them – especially the last two. And since Larsson is now dead, these are all his books we’ll ever get and they all deserve respect.
Interred With Their Bones – Jennifer Lee Carrell
In the theme of academic mysteries, this one was extremely entertaining. It includes a lost Shakespeare manuscript, a treasure hunt, and a lot of intrique.
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
This novel spawned dozens of homages and created a genre trope – I think, I should probably do more research. But this is a great classic read.
The Murder Book – Jonathan Kellerman
This is the 16th in a series, but it’s really the only one that needs reading.
The Death Pit – Tony Strong
One of the books I got when I was part of one of those book of the month clubs and I forgot to say no to the monthly book. Pleasant mistake.