I’ve been catching up on my magazines this month, but I’ve also read three books…
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Charlie is a friendless teenager beginning his freshman year at a high school in the affluent southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. The book is a series of “Dear friend,” letters he’s writing anonymously. His writing style and some of his perceptions of things are weirdly innocent, like he’s four or five years younger, which made me feel afraid for him right away.
Charlie soon makes friends with two seniors, Patrick and his stepsister Sam, who introduce him to “good music” and parties with lots of drugs. The friendship is valuable and helpful to all three of them, but there’s a lot of drama of many kinds (romantic issues, conflict with the popular crowd, family problems, sexual orientation, academic struggles, abuse, mental illness) constantly twisting all of them around and destabilizing their relationships. Some of this story is about the joy of having a few good friends in a school where you’re mostly an outsider. Most of it is about struggling along trying to deny that something is very wrong with you.
I’d been planning to read this book since I saw the 2012 film–which I basically enjoyed but found a little unsettling, with one plot point that was hard to understand but which I thought might be better explained in a book with narration of the protagonist’s inner thoughts. It turned out that this part of the plot was different in the film than in the book. Although the rest of the plot was very faithfully adapted to the screen, the overall tone is very different. The film seemed to be trying too hard to be a feel-good teenager movie when it really wasn’t; the casting and acting were great, but the script made some scenes puzzling. The book is just heartbreaking: Charlie is horribly damaged before the story even begins, he’s so sweet and uncomprehending, his friends are kind to him but simultaneously throwing him things he can’t handle, his parents allow too much and can’t seem to see him until he needs emergency care . . . I read it quickly, could barely put it down, but felt so terrible for this poor little boy that I won’t read this book again.
The part I liked best was Patrick’s definition of what it means to be a wallflower: “You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” Having been one of those kids who was on the edges of things and did a lot of observing and analyzing others’ behavior, I know what he means. But I’m glad that my own high-school wallflower crowd was less dysfunctional and drugged-up! Actually, for me, one of the “perks of being a wallflower” was that I didn’t get invited to any big, loud, druggy parties until I was in college and old enough to cope better.
If you want to read a book and/or watch a movie about teenagers in Pittsburgh, I recommend Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (reviewed here) over The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Trigger warnings: Self-destructive behavior and twisted thinking. Physical and sexual abuse. Disturbingly casual drug use. Suicide. Heartbreakingly distant parents. Suburbs with no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
What’s it like to be raised by a zealous evangelical Christian in working-class England, and grow up to realize you are a lesbian? This fictionalized memoir provides one answer to that question. It’s entertainingly weird and often very funny, including a chapter in which the protagonist is employed by both an ice-cream truck and a funeral parlor and these jobs get tangled with each other and with people from the church that’s now ostracized her. I admire her determination to love as she’s oriented to love and continue to serve God, even as her mother and almost all the church people are calling her a demon.
Childhood Unbound: Authoritative Parenting for the 21st Century by Ron Taffel
This book addresses the idea that kids today are different from previous generations and suggests strategies for parenting these kids responsibly rather than throwing up our hands in despair. It will be much appreciated by any parent who’s struggling with a 21st-century kid and hearing advice from previous generations that just doesn’t seem to apply. Although the author’s descriptions of generational differences are a little overstated and overgeneralized, he’s describing a real phenomenon and giving some fairly helpful advice, I think.
The basic premise is that changes in technology and societal standards have changed children’s sense of appropriate behavior, so that many parents today face disrespect, entitlement, endless negotiation, and inappropriate behavior that were less common in previous generations or didn’t appear until adolescence. The author explains how to get kids’ attention, negotiate effectively, set limits you can stick to, connect emotionally, and provide effective guidance. I felt that the book spent too much time explaining the problem over and over, and not enough time outlining solutions, but the solutions are there! I marked a number of things to reread later, and I expect to be writing about some of the specific parenting issues discussed in this book.
There is one idea, though, that the author says is prevalent among today’s parents but that I’ve never encountered:
The desire to instill in kids deep down gratitude for efforts made by the adults who provide for them has been sacrificed to a widespread fear of inflicting pathological guilt on children. Every time I bring this up at parent presentations–that parents might consider letting kids know what they must do in order to make ends meet–someone challenges me.
Apparently, he meets a lot of parents who believe that if their kids know what they do at work, that it isn’t always easy or glamorous, that earning the money to buy stuff for the family requires some effort, then the kids will feel guilty and this will damage them. I’m baffled, not only based on my own experience as a child and as a parent, but also because I’ve never heard this idea from contemporary parents and I’ve known many 21st-century children who describe their parents’ careers fairly accurately. I started a discussion on my personal Facebook page, and nobody there related to this idea, either. If you have any insight on it, please share in the comments!