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“If I Stay” by Gayle Forman: a book review (and a personal introspection)

“…Dying is easy. Living is hard.”

This is one of the best books I will ever read in YA. Read it in a day, by yourself, and then let this one simmer. Girl gets in horrific car accident in chapter one, most of family dies, she has an out of body experience following her body and loved ones around the hospital, and using a potent flashback device we relive with Mia the years leading up to this point.

Her choice is this: leave this world, or stay?

Wow.

It’s not with out minor faults, but when you read it cover to cover, you’ll understand the high rating. Forget the cover art, forget the stupid “Twilight” quote from USA today for marketing purposes… just read.

A heavy tale that exemplifies great modern meta-fiction done right to connect with its target audience. “If I Stay” (released in 2009) houses references to rock-and-roll magazines, CBGBs in NYC, a plethora of 70s and 80s figure heads like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, and punk rock bands like Weezer, Nirvana, and the Ramones, Batman, television shows, celebrities, movie references, and Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, and Lord of the Flies. But ultimately, it’s about family, love, and why you should live your crazy life.

Yes, making too many modern pop-culture references in your story can often promise the novel will age poorly or just always hearken back to the time period in which it was written in, but when dealing with the Young Adult genre, it’s wise when doing realistic and dramatic teen fiction to put the characters firmly in the here-and-now; to force the reader to reflect and empathize with the characters in the novel who seem to be inhabiting their own familiar world. Yes, as the years pass, tales using this ploy may not be as affective or relatable for future generations, but in the case of “If I Stay” by Gayle Forman, not only is it crucial, but it’s done masterfully and balanced and graceful. It’s a book for today’s cultural environment and youth and makes no excuses or apologies for it. It’s done well.

Another book will be written by another author years from now for the next generation. This one is for the kids born roughly between 1980-2000. Awesome, awesome message of hope and love that never, ever feels forced. Gayle, fucking bravo, girl!

On the down side (and there is very little to criticize about this book): three issues. One: The early description of the car wreck and the graphic details are a bit much and not necessary. Two: the elitist, scene hipster character, Brooke Vega, though not in the story for long, was an unrealistic personification of the punk landscape, thrown in specifically for humor and stood as a cheap, lazy construction of a very dead part of early seventies era glam-punk. Young teens in Portland, Oregon would never have and don’t have rock gods like this anymore. The descriptions and the dialogue this character spouted pulled me out of the story and rang untrue.

Which leads us to the final complaint: in a story that is so short, there may be too much “insider-type” referential material, two or three too many call-back and shout-outs to obscure sub-cultures which most 15-23 year olds would never know about in any way, shape, or form unless they harbor very curious niche tastes or their parents were born in the seventies, grew up in the eighties, and pummeled their kids in the nineties with tons of rock trivia. I know about it because I’m a punk rock junkie, but not everyone might. I’m turning 27 soon, and I listen to punk from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s; I pride myself on being the person in my group of friends who knows everything about punk rock’s evolution. I even own some of the better documentaries on DVD on the subject, okay? Me. Dork.

Part of this story was very cathartic for me on a personal level. Yeah, I’m gonna get personal on you now. The dad of Mia and his story closely mirrors my own. The parents are in their thirties, and that’s where I’m headed in less than five years, and the dad’s whole back story (the localized popularity while never getting big famous, releasing the CDs, doing the summer tours, then giving up, putting on a tie, and getting a real job) is exactly what I am. Even down to the eerie detail of how the dad’s bands were somehow popular in Japan and fans offered up their houses if they would fly from America to play in Japan. This happened to my band “Flash Grenade” except with fans in London and, strangely, Australia. I honestly thought Gayle Forman read my diary.

 

circa 2006

circa 2007

circa 2006 again

To make it doubly freaky, I too have considered becoming a teacher since my wife and I are talking about having kids in a few years. Then Gramps says how Mia’s father wrote lyrics like poems and he thought he’d be a writer someday. I have a book on Amazon. I wrote lyrics for my band like short stories. Mind-fudged… that’s what I got. Never has a book done this to me. Page 152-160 shook my soul.

circa 2009

It was tricky to read some of these parts. I’m a push-over to begin with: I’m a hopeless romantic, I don’t shy away from sad thoughts or introspection, so when I saw what I could be in a few years, I was struck with a volley of contrasting and opposing ideas, stirring up long buried philosophies about my life and my choices. I still secretly breathe the punk scene. It made me think: would it be sadder to leave those hard decisions of “moving on” in the past, or is it sadder for a librarian and shoe salesman to reattempt slam dunks when he hasn’t touched a court for years?

From 2004-2010, during the reign of Flash Grenade, (yes, on iTunes) I was sure music would be my life, and then, suddenly, it couldn’t be and wasn’t for several reasons. We made thousands of dollars and hundreds of memories in a few short years. Now it’s over. One day, I was going to open for Green Day, right? Of course I was. Just a matter of time, right?

In the end, I guess I’m saying this book hit home on a personal note and made it really real for me – I could honestly relate to at least half the characters and empathize with them.

And then I continued to the final fifty pages of this novel and was blown away by how powerful and honest it was. This book is surely one of the best in recent years. Period.

This YA book for older teens (15+ I’d guess) is not even 200 pages long but pack a punch, keeps those pages turning, and has some wonderfully fleshed out and dimensional characters—further proof that size and page-count of the book isn’t everything when crafting excellent fiction. It’s haunting; it’s true to life, honest about punks and alternative culture (for the most part) and portrays self-doubt and first loves realistically.

The ending of this book is incredible. Must-Read, not just for girls, but for all. I will be reading the sequel, Where She Went (last year’s goodreads.com winner for best YA novel).

5/5
MH

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