Book review: “Every Day” by David Levithan

As young adult novels go, “Every Day” by David Levithan is a pleasant read. It’s one of the books that attracted me with its fascinating premise rather than its writing style, which is plain and sparse enough that the writing itself fades into the background of the story (and I’m fine with that).

The main character, “A,” wakes up in a different body each day and has done so since his/her earliest memories. His sex, gender identity, race, and mental/physical health conditions change according to the body occupied for the day. I’m going to say “he/his/him” for the rest of this review because that seemed to be his usual gender identity and also for simplicity’s sake in discussing this.

There are a few spoilers below (mostly just the first bullet). Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (But after all, this is a 2012 book, right?)

Things I liked

His love interest, Rhiannon, realizes that love alone isn’t always enough to make a relationship work. More young women should be emotionally and mentally strong enough to separate “want” from “not good for me.” She’s honest when she tells him that the complications of his existence aren’t part of the life she wants. (Reminds me of when I broke up with a long-ago boyfriend who was a decent enough guy but not quite right for me. He was headed toward a future I didn’t want, and I didn’t see myself living a contented life with someone who “joked” by constantly putting me down. Dominance in the relationship was a must-have for him. Also, he felt as if I had to stay with him unless I convinced him that the decision was right, as if dating implies a marital contract and I required his permission to leave.)

The book explores some of the “how” puzzles and the “what if” complications that make the premise so pleasing. What if that day’s body is depressed or injured? What’s his moral responsibility to save or help that person, or at least not fuck up that person’s life with the day’s actions? Does the person whose body is occupied retain any memories? What’s it like to be a gay person and feel utterly at home in that person’s skin? What’s the range of how far he jumps into another body? What if he’s not alone? Can he learn any control of the process? Are there others like him who haven’t developed a moral compass? How much does the mind have to struggle with the body and its needs, flaws or addictions? (Quite a lot, actually.)

Getting it just right: The description of jumping into a suicidal girl’s life for a day felt very real.

The book leaves some questions unanswered: I like not having every conclusion spoonfed to me, so my imagination can fill in the blanks. What’s the mechanism for his consciousness jumping? What in his life led him to have a moral compass? What are his views on religion? What has helped him cope with the loneliness? How did he escape becoming mentally ill?

It wasn’t a Pollyanna ending. I’m usually ambivalent about endings that aren’t heartwarming, but this one worked, at least logically. He made a selfless decision that was right for the girl he loved, a decision that was true to his values. But my heart ached for hm just a little. It was a bittersweet ending, and I wanted a glimimer of happily-ever-after possibilities for him, even in the far future. (Then again, he’s just 16. There’s a lot of life ahead.)

Things that made me think “Meh”

I didn’t like the cover. It looks like a fancy ARC rather than a fully designed book. It wasn’t enough to deter me from buying it, obviously, but I wouldn’t have explored this book if not for the recommendation of a reviewer I like.

The one thing I really detested

The last quarter-inch thickness of pages is a separate prequel story about the same main character. So that meant that the ending sneaked up on me. SO disappointing when I was expecting a richer closure to the book. It just STOPPED. I wanted to pinch the author and drag him back to his keyboard and say, “No, no, no, no, no. Uh-uh. Get back to work, buddy. Seriously, damn it.”

Hmmpf. I’m still miffed.

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Dear Mansplainer: Have you tried listening?

Earlier this morning I was sharing a story about some suited douchebag who decided it would be his personal statement to hump the “Fearless Girl” statue. (You know the one — the tiny lass standing, arms akimbo, in front of the Wall Street bull. Thanks to Alexis Kaloyanides on Facebook for making this distasteful humpery a public story, by the way.)

So after I shared this literal assault on feminism, a friend of a friend decided he needed to hop onto my Facebook page and mansplain to me how the placement of the girl’s statue invited bad attitudes and “defaced” tradition. … Say what?

Here’s the exchange (at least so far):

My friend: Disgusting!!!

Her douchey guy friend: Disgusting, true but why put the statie there in the firat place. It’s just a nose tweak…

Me: Meh, douches like that consider anything other than slobbering adoration as a nose tweak. I say let’s install inspiration everywhere we can. Let the jerks sort themselves out while they sputter (and hump) in protest.

The douchey guy: The bull statue on Wall Street has been an icon for a very long time. So where does it end? Should we put a statue of dead Vietnamese in front of the Vietnam Memorial? Or maybe a statue of a Syrian refugee in front of the Statue of Liberty? Or how about a statue of a dead Confederate soldier facing Lincold at the Lincoln Memorial? What ever happened to decorum and common sense?

Me: I’m not going to jump on board and slide down your slippery slope with you. It’s not a statue of a vulva. It’s a little girl. If that violates your decorum, then your decorum is too delicate to be out and about in public. (Or you are just looking for someone to argue with.)

Return of the douche: Just saying that some traditions are worth keeping, some are not. When we start defaming those traditions then our society and republic are indeed on a slippery slope.

Me: Just saying that this is your view. And it’s not mine. It’s not “defaming” to place a statue of a little girl in front of a bull statue that is a well-known tourist attraction & tradition for people who want to rub its balls. (Look it up.) Could you BE any more ironic/blind? How does the image of a child being brave to a stronger force somehow defame your traditions or values?

I feel sure it will devolve into more sputtering on his part until I block his nonsense. I often face this dilemma. Do I take out my file and wear down the edges of his patronizing attitude, or preserve my peace of mind and banish him from my space? After all, I don’t know him from Adam. (It’s often this exact person — a friend of a friend — who butts into MY social media space with his unsolicited opinion. And quite often with a patronizing attitude.)

I feel like I should keep speaking, because they need to hear opposing voices. And it’s a Catch-22 when I decide to just block such people, because I believe it ups their smugness quotient. So, when I have the time and the energy (and often when I do not), I will:

  • Point out that the world changes, and we must change with it or become obsolete. Tradition for tradition’s sake doesn’t make allowances for the current needs of the living.
  • Show that it’s the duty of the privileged to protect and help those who are not so fortunate.
  • Show that it’s the duty of the brave to stand up when we can, even if afraid.
  • Explain that the objector is actually privileged and unseeing when he insists on “protecting” some viewpoint, practice or tradition that is harmful to others.
  • Keep on keeping on.

#Resist.

 

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Gimme one song — your favorite.
Here’s mine.

I wrote a rough (unedited!) and heartfelt emotional essay in one passionate blurt after this meme blazed across my phone last month (Feb. 18, to be exact). I was a little disappointed that others didn’t join in when I posted this on Facebook, but I get it. We’re all busy. So I’m re-running it here. If you have the time and the inclination, I’d love to hear about a song that speaks to your heart like this, and why.

The song I will always stop and listen to

Arlo Guthrie, “City of New Orleans.” First heard it when I was in high school, sometime after the 1977 album “Best of Arlo Guthrie” came out.

Favorite song of all time. I will stop what I’m doing, close my eyes and just listen when I stumble across it. It’s about a train of that name that cut across my home state of Mississippi the long way, from north to south. And it was written about the decline of America’s railroad system in the modern era.

Here’s what it means to me.

My mama rode that very train car when she was a student at Touro Nursing School in New Orleans, going home to Jackson, Miss., to visit family and then back to school again. She often talked about those years as a golden time of her youth, full of fun and dating and preparing for the career she loved.

So it’s about freedom, and change, and hope, and excitement and melancholy and a little homesickness and growing up.

I heard it in the late ’70s, when I was in high school, enjoying learning, being a bookworm and a little “boy crazy” too, an introvert struggling with my social skills and personal identity, and the tingling of the body in conflict with my Southern Baptist faith. The song’s line about “rolling on down to the sea” captures that feeling of momentum, being carried along inevitably and unstoppably toward my future whether I liked it or not.

So it’s about aloneness and change and self-reflection. Good and bad, pleasurable and scary.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a railroad man with the GM&O Railroad before and during the Great Depression until his death from tuberculosis, contracted way back when he was in World War I. Mama told me how he used to hop on board the train without it really stopping, with his railroad lantern swinging.

So it’s about family history and a man who died too young, someone who I never knew and who my mother had only a handful of years with. She was about 6 (I think) when he died, the same age I was when my dad died of a heart attack. When my grandfather died, my grandmother was poor and uneducated and unable to put food on the table for her five children by herself. She struggled and tried and failed. So she put the four youngest, the daughters, in the Baptist Children’s Home. Her son was old enough he was working and earning his keep, so he didn’t have to go. The sisters were at the orphanage for four years. That one shattering event shaped my entire family history, and the effects of it have cascaded on down through the generations.

So it is about grief and loss and being swept up by events bigger than one’s self and having to just hang on and survive as best you can.

The song talks about iconic scenes from the South, telling the story of a disappearing culture. (You can mourn the loss of something distinctive that is fading away without being against the progress that is supplanting it.) I grew up in the South during the ’60s and ’70s, a period of great social and economic change, and I felt the tension and pain of older people who were yearning for familiarity and trying to adjust to a different world while they felt at a loss for words. That was the South at that time, at least to my eyes and ears and heart.

The song talks about places I’d never heard of, so I looked them up (back when you had to get the encyclopedia out to do so). The exotic sounds of the place names and the long travels of this particular train, much farther than I’d always heard of in my mother’s stories, awoke in me the knowledge that I was part of a bigger world than I knew. And I was in high school, already thinking ahead to college and to a future where I wanted to make a difference in the world and really matter in some way — not knowing yet that “mattering” isn’t about place, and it’s not even always about doing. It is about being the only person who can ever be me.

So it’s about hope and yearning and destiny and trying to stretch myself in some way or some direction I hadn’t yet really realized or defined.

The song mentions the pleasant pastime of playing cards with old friends, “penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score.” And I recall playing poker with my stepbrothers, who taught me, and using pennies too. I desperately wanted them to like me and they never really did. They played with my toys, even took my dirt bike in later years. They didn’t really see me as more than an annoyance. I was always an only child, and there were three of them, handsome and angry that their father had married my mother instead of remarrying their mother. I knew they thought of me as a spoiled brat, like two of my cousins always did, and it hurt. I wanted to be liked. But the glue between siblings never stuck to me.

So the song is about not fitting in, sitting on the sidelines and enjoying what I could even though I never really fit into their tight, fierce world of brotherhood.

This song came to me toward the end of the nine years that my stepfather was part of my daily life before I went off to college. My mother fought constantly with him and felt contempt and anger and resentment and a deep sense of hurt and betrayal over his amiable, oblivious alcoholism. I was the witness to her sharp pain, her sounding board and her sponge. Even today, 40-ish years later, I can still wring a drop or two of her remembered distress out of my own “sponge” of a heart.

So the song is about experiencing the pain of someone I loved and wanted to help, and being unable to do so. And it’s also about my anger at the burden of adult stress she offloaded onto me, even though I knew then and know now she was flailing in deep waters trying not to drown, and I cared wildly about her suffering. And it’s about the shame I felt for feeling angry and resentful. And it’s about the anger and mingled pity I felt toward my stepfather, who was drowning in his own way. “Helpless pain” captures my state of mind.

The song has a beautiful quality, joyously celebrating a train that has history and power and meaning and usefulness. And the song is simultaneously melancholy, with a train lover mourning the loss of an eroding culture. It’s the “disappearing railroad blues.”

I felt like that train and that train lover, my life changing in many ways, carried along by momentum that I didn’t start and couldn’t stop and that I wasn’t sure I wanted to stop anyway. So the song is about pain and joy and growing up and leaving the familiar behind.

And the song also made me think about driving down to Gulfport with my mom and family a few times, seeing a beach and feeling hot sand beneath my feet and seeing endless tiny waves lapping against the shore. It was beautiful and gritty and fishy smelling and I could look out at the water forever. I never wanted to leave. I remembered taking a trip down there with my mom and her mother shortly after my daddy died too.

You wouldn’t think that a song that evokes melancholy and longing would be my heart’s song, would you. But the lump that it always, always, ALWAYS brings to my throat feels good and right. It feels like honoring the people and places and circumstances — good and bad, happy and hurtful — from my early years that went into shaping me.

I will always love that song.

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