Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Theirs not to reason why

Min Green and Ed Slaterton are teens you want to know. They're smart (maybe a little too smart), they're funny, they have wide interests, and they seem to spend very little time interacting with electronic devices. A mobile phone is mentioned only once that I recall and they barely seem to be aware of television and the internet. Why We Broke Up: except for the part where Ed breaks Min's heart, it's every girl's (dare I say women's?) fantasy. The opportunity to tell him what you think -- with great wit, pathos, and for as long as you want to talk about it. A book-length esprit de l'escalier. An entirely enjoyable esprit de l'escalier.

Unless you simply know nothing about books for teens, you know that Why We Broke Up was written by Daniel Handler (nom de plume Lemony Snicket) and lavishly (like it was a picture book) illustrated by Maira Kalman. It recently won a Printz Honor. In the book, Min Green -- high-school junior and art-film geek -- is writing a long letter to Ed Slaterton -- high-school senior and basketball star. Along with the letter, she's returning a number of objects she acquired during their short (about six weeks) relationship. Describing the objects and why they are meaningful allow her to tell the story of how they met and why they broke up. Min is a delightfully unreliable narrator, but she's pretty honest too. She has a way with words that can't be beat, and all this listener wanted to do was keep listening to her authentically sounding teen girl voice, learn how those objects piled up, and experience the story of Min and Ed's romance. When Ed betrays Min, my heart broke as well.

I rarely write quotations down while I'm listening, since I don't always have a pen/paper handy. But I kept a copy of the book around, so I could look at Kalman's pictures (the downloadable audiobook included an e-book of the images, but this expired before I got around to listening), and I made note of one sentence that just struck me. Min is at her best-friend (and soulmate, of course) Al's house and they are tiptoeing around the subject of whether Min will have sex for the first time with Ed. "His house got quiet the way every room does with the word sex, even the jazz musicians [playing on the stereo] leaning forward in the hopes of hearing it through the speakers even as they kept playing." [page 186]

In addition to that -- and many more -- drop-dead gorgeous metaphor, Handler makes up movies (both arty and cineplex-y), movie stars, jazz musicians, recipes and all manner of cultural references that sound completely real. The whole thing makes up this pretty perfect package of teen literature. Handler's understanding of teen girls is uncanny.

He is aided in his characterization by the novel's narrator, Khristine Hvam (silent h, rhymes with bam). She is pretty darn perfect as Min. She captures Min's superior intellect along with her superiority, yet is as capable of showing her insecurities. We have no doubt that Min is completely captivated by Ed, Hvam is nearly giddy in several places. And when Min learns what Ed has done, her devastation is palpable. There aren't very many other characters in the novel -- a few friends of Min, a few ex-girlfriends of Ed -- and Hvam portrays them distinctly and authentically. There are absolutely no vapid Valley Girls here, I'm pleased to report.

Hvam also has to narrate very long passages (long sentences too, I think) where Min philosophizes about the objects, the relationship, old movies, etc. that have the potential to drag down the narration. But she consistently produces enough variety in these sections (pacing, vocal effects and the like) that they remain entertaining.

The audiobook has sound effects as Min tosses her objects into the box that she's delivering to Ed's door. Some of the objects can make a distinctive sound (a condom wrapper), while others (a tea towel) are just kind of generic, and tell you that something else has ended up in the box. I think I could have done without them, but they are brief and don't really interrupt the flow of the storytelling.

There's also a phone interview between Hvam, Handler and Kalman. The sound quality is really bad, and one of them has a TV going in the background which was deeply distracting. But, the three of them are so entertaining that -- in the end -- these things don't matter. While Hvam asks unsurprising questions, the answers are frequently hilarious enough that it doesn't feel like one of those interviews ("How did you get your ideas?"). Handler and Kalman came up with idea of a break-up novel while having American cheese sandwiches at the Bologna Book Fair. What could be better than that?

In a brilliant bit of cross-marketing, Handler and Kalman created the Why We Broke Up Project where readers and others can post their break-up stories. This includes you ... and occasionally Daniel will respond. (In a downpour, you turned to me and said, "I don't really think this umbrella was made for two." Daniel responds: Relationships are like umbrellas -- too many of them are made cheaply and fall apart when the first cloud appears.) And in other news (old?), Lemony Snicket has chimed in with a few observations on Occupy Wall Street, from a discreet distance of course.

[The sugar dispenser that Min and Ed steal from the diner (because sugar tastes sweeter if it's stolen) is one of Maira Kalman's illustrations. This image was retrieved from a slideshow at the Huffington Post. I wish the egg cuber had been on offer.]

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
Narrated by Khristine Hvam
Hachette Audio, 2011. 6:33

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