John Green 2020 aka a review of Turtles All the Way Down

It’s happening, people. John Green is back and I, for one, feel lucky to be alive at a time when he is writing new books. Is that a touch dramatic?

Anyway, I pre-ordered Turtles All the Way Down back when pre-orders first became available. I really wanted a signed physical copy, but being poor and in the middle of a cross-country move with no real address to ship to would’ve made that difficult. So at midnight last Tuesday, I downloaded my eBook and promptly devoured it. Now that I’ve finished, I am HYPED to talk about Turtles! I’ll do my best not to give any spoilers here, but I also don’t really know what people consider to be spoilers, so proceed with caution.

A cover that could only have been improved by some ninja turtles falling down the spiral, am I right?? ๐Ÿข

Turtles follows the story of Aza, a 16 year-old girl who deals with OCD and anxiety. She has thoughts that her therapist describes as “intrusive,” though Aza prefers “invasive,” and these thoughts go in spirals that feel to her like they are ever-tightening. She feels a lack of control over her life, her thoughts, or anything really, and believes that life is “a story told about you, not one that you tell” (page 1). One way her mental illness manifests itself is through a hyperawareness of bacteria and the potential of getting sick. She worries especially about an infection called Clostridium difficile, or C diff, and is constantly concerned that she has contracted it. She has a habit of obsessively opening a cut on her finger that she believes could be infected, letting it bleed and/or putting hand sanitizer on it, and changing the bandaid. Over and over, spiraling.

At the same time, Aza’s best friend Daisy involves her in their own secret investigation of a missing billionaire, who happens to be the father of Aza’s estranged childhood friend, Davis. What starts as Daisy’s quest to get the reward money for information leading to Davis’s father becomes much more, revealing tension in their friendship, a blooming romance in Aza’s reconnection with Davis, and a continuing, worsening spiral in Aza’s mental state.

While the mystery of the missing billionaire and the burgeoning love story are engaging, enjoyable parts of Turtles, the real story ultimately occurs within Aza’s own mind. Following her triumphs and struggles with mental illness is fascinating, emotional, and for someone with her own mental illness, very real. This makes sense, as Turtles was inspired by Green’s personal experiences with anxiety and OCD. Green has stated very publicly that the 6-year gap between The Fault in Our Stars and this book had a lot to do with his own battle with mental illness. As Green discusses in the Hilarious World of Depression podcast (found here or in Apple podcasts), he tried a multitude of medications to treat his conditions that had become rather crippling, and even tried going off his meds to boost his creativity for his writing. That’s when his own “thought spiraling” became its worst, and it took a strong support network of family and mental health professionals, along with finding and sticking with the correct medication, to feel like himself once more and to be able to produce his latest novel.

The ways in which Green (via Aza) depicts mental illness are moving and relatable. While I do not have OCD or Aza’s intense fear of contamination, I do have anxiety and depression and can relate heavily to the way she worries uncontrollably about things that she knows she shouldn’t. Some of my very favorite quotes on the matter of mental illness (**could be considered spoilers if you don’t want to know any of the text ahead of reading the book yourself ๐Ÿ˜‰ **) are the following:

  • “True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice in the matter.” (page 22)
  • “‘I don’t mind worriers,’ I said. ‘Worrying is the correct worldview. Life is worrisome.'” (page 52)
  • “I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.” (page 85)
  • “…we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify…” (page 89)
  • “…my thoughts came not in lines but in knotted loops curling in upon themselves, in sinking quicksand, in light-swallowing wormholes.” (page 113)
  • “…cohabitating with a demon that forced me to think thoughts I hated thinking…” (page 128)
  • “I couldn’t make myself happy, but I could make people around me miserable.” (page 157)
  • “In job interviews they’d ask me, What’s your greatest weakness? and I’d explain that I’ll probably spend a good portion of the workday terrorized by thoughts I’m forced to think, possessed by a nameless and formless demon, so if that’s going to be an issue, you might not want to hire me.” (page 227)

Literally all of the above, I read and thought, “ME. IT’S ME.” I think the frequency with which quotes like those came up – quotes that deeply resonated with me, someone who often feels totally alone in her mental illness journey – shows how important Aza’s story is, and the justice it does to the experience of anxiety. It is a feeling of constant fear, and in my case, often a fear I can’t even put my finger on. Words aren’t adequate to describe the way it feels when your mind is reeling. You can see yourself being irrational, but can’t stop. The same goes for being able to see its negative effects on those around you. It is a weird, terrifying, isolating experience, so seeing it reflected in a similar vein in another (albeit fictional) person means so much. I can see teens and adults across the country who are mentally ill having the same kind of moments I had, moments like, “Oh. Wow. Someone else feels how I feel.”

Another thing that I really appreciated about this story is that in no way does it glorify or glamorize mental illness. It is not a story of “girl has messed up brain, girl has adventures with friends, girl falls in love, girl realizes she doesn’t want to be anxious, girl just becomes happy instead, girl lives happily – and not anxiously – ever after.” It’s much more gritty and real than that, and I can imagine my teenage self (my self who didn’t yet have anxiety, or at least didn’t realize it) getting to the end and being like, “wait, that’s it?” I could also possibly see Turtles not appealing to every John Green reader, in particular the ones who expect a tear-jerker, epic love story for the ages. But for those with an open mind, and perhaps especially those with their own demons that control their minds in some form, I think its rawness, its anti-fairy-tale-ness, will be immensely appreciated.

So thank you, John Green, for fighting your demons and gifting the world with this brilliant little piece of young adult literature. It is now one of my all-time favorite books. I am as touched by your prose as ever and even more so after following your career and personal struggles over the past few years. I titled this “John Green 2020” because I wish there were more world leaders with the intellect and compassion that you have, but as a fellow anxious person, I wouldn’t really wish that job upon you. Plus, I’d like it better if you kept writing books.

To all my fellow readers out there, go pick up your copy of Turtles All the Way Down and let me know what you think!

KHill

The Hate U Give and all it gives us

I often see authors, actors, and others in the public eye asked the question, “What is a book that changed your life?” I’ve seen many answer with To Kill a Mockingbird, which makes complete sense, and I feel the same about Harper Lee’s classic that was once my 9th grade assigned reading. A book so profound and as important at its publishing as it is today has made me wonder whether modern literature can produce anything that lives up to TKAM. After reading Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, however, I no longer have to wonder; I feel confident in saying that Thomas has produced a classic of the proportions of Lee’s, and there’s no book that I’d rather recommend in my very first official book review!

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Also, this cover art?! So good.

I read The Hate U Give in the span of 24 hours because I could not. put. it. down. As powerful and moving as it is, it is also incredibly enjoyable, smart, and funny. I now recommend it highly to readers of all ages and backgrounds, and I basically can’t stop talking about it. THUG (acronym intentional – read the book to know why!) is told from the perspective of a teenage girl, Starr Carter, who has grown up between two different “worlds,” though they are only a 45 minute drive apart. On one side is her low-income, predominantly black neighborhood, Garden Heights, where Starr has grown up and where her family owns a grocery store. On the other end is the wealthy private school in the suburbs that Starr and her brothers attend, and where they are among almost an entirely white student body. Starr puts forth two different versions of herself in each place and feels like she is managing both well; she has a boyfriend and two best friends at school, where she plays basketball and makes good grades, then she has her loving, grounded family and a couple of neighborhood friends at home. This all starts to change before Starr’s – and the reader’s – eyes by the first few pages.

While Starr is riding home with a childhood friend, Khalil, following a party in Garden Heights one night, their car gets pulled over by a police officer. In a rapid succession of awful events, Starr becomes the lone witness to the police officer shooting and killing Khalil. What follows the murder challenges Starr in ways that no teenager – no person, really – should have to deal with and creates a narrative that sheds light on police brutality, racial justice, family bonds, white privilege, and so much more.

I definitely need to acknowledge that as a middle-class, white person, there is much that I don’t or can’t understand about the experiences of people of other races or socioeconomic situations. This is the case for many (if not all) of my white peers. I think the best things we can do for ourselves and for our neighbors is to keep an open mind and heart, to listen, and to allow ourselves to learn. Thomas’s novel is one excellent, accessible source for young and old alike for such learning about the experience of being black in America today.

Thomas does an amazing job of developing her characters, making the reader bond with them from the get-go. It wasn’t more than a couple of chapters before the inciting event, Khalil’s death, and by the time it happened, I had already grown to love him and felt heartbroken by the loss. Through her narration, I became so attached to Starr and the funny, loving, hurting, brilliant young woman that she is. Like, I want to be her best friend and go buy Jordans with her. Her boyfriend, Chris, is so cute and sweet and high school me would have wanted to date him (maybe current me does too, but that would be kind of creepy). Her parents are amazing, and her goofy, teasing-but-in-a-loving-way relationship with her brothers reminds me of my own.

Even Hailey, a wealthy, white friend of Starr’s from school who is an especially problematic figure, is important and relatable — I know plenty of Haileys. Honestly, I’ve probably been a Hailey at some point in my life. Through Hailey’s ignorance, her little nagging jokes or comments that she doesn’t think are offensive but in fact really hurt Starr, I think we see one of the more important takeaways for white readers. Just because we don’t explicitly/consciously think or say things that we think are offensive to people of color, does not mean we aren’t racist. Racism is so deeply imbedded in our society and its institutions that we as the more privileged race often don’t even notice that it’s there. But rest assured that the people it affects do notice and are hurt by it over and over.

The portrayals of the media and the police in THUG are also very important as they aren’t given some biased or made-up coverage to coerce readers into seeing them as the villains; the things they say and do are literally pulled straight from reality. How many times have we heard about a black person being killed by a police officer, and the very next sentence is about his/her past run-ins with the law, history of drug use or gang involvement, *even when* that same person was completely unarmed and free of illegal substances at the time of their death? The media and police portraying Khalil that way and putting those doubts in the minds of public in THUG – that is not fiction.

Through the realistic characterization of how society reacts to police violence and the simultaneous insights into various characters’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences, I feel like THUG says to even the most reluctant-to-sympathize, die-hard blue-lives-matter reader, “hey, these are people just like you.” As cheesy as that sounds, I think that’s hard for people to conceptualize sometimes when they see protests on the news and feel like their “values” or the nation they love and respect are under some kind of attack. In The Hate U Give, Thomas gives fair play to all sides of one of the more contentious issues in today’s society – even when she certainly doesn’t have to – and the “right” and “wrong” are still pretty clear. Authors of color – people of color – owe nothing to their white readers or white counterparts in terms of helping us understand, but Thomas did so anyway and we should all be grateful to her for that.

I know I’ve maybe sounded a little preachy here, but this book is just so important! And I am so in love with it, and grateful to it and to Thomas for giving the world something so needed in the form of a very entertaining young adult novel. I highly doubt that I’ll have this much to say about many other books (lol) so thanks for giving me the chance here. ๐Ÿ™‚ Please feel free to leave comments and discuss! And above all, GO READ THIS BOOK. You will be wiser, more empathetic, and better for it.

KHill

Little KHill, Big Book Blog World

Hi there! I’m K. Hill (KHill, K-Hill), and this is my blog, Hilliterate.ย Thanks for taking a look at my very first, very much agonized-over book blog post! At the encouragement of my best friend Katie, my mom, and (I’d like to think) my family’s pet chihuahua Lilly, I’ve started this page to share my love of books with an audience who will hopefully appreciate it. The book blogging community is vast and intimidating and I don’t expect to get any sort of following, but writing is as fun and cathartic for me as reading is, and what’s more fun to write about than all of the books I love?

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a happy weirdo, overwhelmed and overjoyed by the literary possibilities

To get started, I think I’ll tell you a bit about myself. As a kid, I loved reading more than anything. Library day was my favorite in the “special subjects” rotation in elementary school and the Scholastic Book Fair was my Super Bowl. My favorite series was the Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne. It was kind of meta (if I’d known the term “meta” back then) to read about Jack and Annie jumping into a new setting and adventure as I was basically doing the same through the books about them, getting equally engrossed in their world.

Over the years, as I’m sure happens for many a young bookworm, I became too busy with school, life, and, well, Netflix, and I lost a lot of the desire to pick up a new story in my precious downtime. Throughout college, I watched an embarrassing amount of 8- or 9-season TV series as my way to wind down, because why would I do MORE reading after I finished my exams and research papers? I would read for fun during the summer but rarely otherwise, and I continued to struggle to find the interest in it in my so-called ~adult~ life.

At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to read more. Some call this a resolution, I hear. Without thinking much about it, I brushed the dust off the ol’ Goodreads account and set up a 2017 Reading Challenge for myself to read 50 books. This meant that I’d have to read roughly one per week, which seemed pretty ambitious after not having read 50 books total over the last 5+ years. What I didn’t count on, however, was for reading to return as my favorite pastime so easily. Enjoying a book quickly became my addiction, reaching the goal my obsession. I signed up for my first library card since childhood and much like the Fresh Prince, my world got flip-turned upside down. What do you mean, I have access to all the books that I could possibly want to read…for FREE? And that most of those books can be downloaded to my Kindle, so I never even have to leave my bed to access them? This library thing is the hottest, best-kept secret in town! (Please eye roll at me, with me.)

I consulted my ever-growing “want to read” list and got to work, downloading one after another of the many books I’ve thought sounded interesting over the last decade or so. I’m not a very fast reader, but I am both dedicated to finishing books I’ve started and easily invested in storylines. I had also just moved to a new city where I knew no one at the end of last year, so combine that with my serious social anxiety and I had a lot of free time that I didn’t want to spend with anyone/anything but my books. It only took until June to reach my goal of 50, and I’ve kept on going since.

Meanwhile, I got back into keeping up my personal blog and adding a book recommendation to the end of each post. My aforementioned bestie, Katie, mentioned to me one day that maybe I should try devoting an entire blog to book recommendations and reviews. And here we are…

I hope to use this space to share with my fellow readers my thoughts on some of the things I read. I’ve missed a lot in book world in the past 10 or so years, so the books will not all be new releases (and may in fact be things that have been reviewed hundreds of times by others) nor will they necessarily have anything in common with one another. While I lean mostly toward popular fiction and my favorite genres are YA, mystery, and historical fiction, I’ve spanned many genres this year with no real pattern. Another thing worth noting is that I’m not a very harsh critic. Like, if a story is even remotely engaging and lacking in obvious grammar/spelling mistakes or huge plot holes, I’ll probably get into it and at least somewhat enjoy reading it. Additionally, I’m super impressed by authors in general and don’t want to make anyone feel bad about their amazing accomplishment of putting books out into the world for mere plebeians like me.

ALL of this rambling to say, I don’t pretend to be anyone more knowledgeable or shrewd than I am or expect to produce brilliant, inspired critiques that have never been done before. I’m just your average twentysomething gal who loves to read and to share that love with everyone. If even one person gets a kick out of something I’ve written or checks out one of my recommendations from their own library, I’ll be thrilled. So please feel free to give a like, a comment, or even a follow if you want, and I’ll be happy to have you along on my fun, eye-opening, heart-happy-making journey through the literary world. ๐Ÿ™‚

KHill