Turtles All the Way Down

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

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I am a huge John Green fan. I started watching Vlog Brothers, the Youtube channel he has with his brother, Hank, a little before Paper Towns came out (9 years ago. NINE YEARS AGO. Oh my god. I need to go recover from that realisation…), and at first I didn’t even realise he was a writer. Then Paper Towns blew my mind – I had the part where Radar tells Quentin that he has to stop expecting everybody in his life to behave as Quentin himself would tacked to my bedroom door throughout the rest of high school. I went to see John and Hank on book tour when they stopped in Swindon, of all places, to promote TFIOS. I have a Pizza John shirt. He is one of a very limited number of men whose opinions I have any interest in.

I’m a fan.

So it kind of figures that Turtles All the Way Down would be my kind of thing.

And oh, it was. Turtles All the Way Down is a stunning achievement. It’s a deeply introspective novel about living with a mental health problem that avoids all of the tropes and ‘fixes’ that so often plague stories on the subject. Aza struggles with OCD, which Green has himself, so that helps with the representation.

While the story did have what I have seen referred to as trademark John Green whimsy – his characters are super smart and definitely manipulate scientific fact to create metaphors about their lives (this time they are very into space) – it felt like a departure from his previous work. In Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska and TFIOS in particular the story is very much a vehicle for an idea, whereas Turtles All the Way Down is a deep exploration of Aza’s mental health, with her mental state functioning as the primary driver in the story.

While most stories about mental health incite some conversation about romanticising unhealthy behaviour – To the Bone, that Lily Collins movie about Anorexia springs to mind – there is nothing romantic about Aza’s situation – and not just because her OCD interferes with her love life. That’s not to say that the novel is hopeless, but it is engaged with the particular struggles of Aza’s life that at times make for hard reading – for example, Aza is plagued by the thought of getting an infection, and this thought that she can’t shake leads her to start drinking her hand sanitiser. She understands rationally that drinking pure alcohol is poisonous, and will seriously harm her body in the long run, but she can’t overcome the part of her brain telling her that drinking the hand sanitiser is the only way she will survive. The compassion and skill with which John Green navigates these especially difficult scenes of the novel means that as a reader you’re falling down the spiral of Aza’s anxiety with her even as you stand on the outside desperate to help pull her out.

One of the aspects of the novel that felt most important to me was the new challenges Aza faced when trying to have a romantic relationship, in particular the physical side of things. Physical relationships are really difficult for some people for a whole variety of different reasons from mental health issues to trauma to all of the nuances in between and don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I’ve seen that represented before. Sex positivity is absolutely wonderful, but it’s contributed to the taboo surrounding having any kind of sexual issues – which a lot of people have. Though Aza does not have sex in this book, she does find that her intrusive thoughts do mean that she can’t be physical with her boyfriend most of the time as making out with him makes her to anxious. Yet she and her boyfriend still have a very positive relationship in which he is understanding, kind, and never shames Aza or tries to push her into doing more than she is comfortable with. And he’s also still like, crazy into her. It’s such a positive view on a situation in which a lot of people feel a ton of shame, and I am so so happy that it exists.

Turtles All the Way Down is a difficult, painful and deeply compassionate novel that tears to shreds the romanticisation of mental health problems. In his typical style, John Green navigates Aza’s internal life in a way that never feels anything but emotionally true. It is a stunning novel about friendship, loss and surviving your own unique challenges, whether that be your OCD or your millionaire father leaving his entire fortune to a reptile.

It was totally worth the wait.

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January Wrap-Up

It’s that time again. I hope everybody is defeating the January blues.

February finds me unemployed again but oddly optimistic as I hunt for my fifth job in the past six months.

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This month I reviewed:

P.S. I Still Love You – Jenny Han

Feelings: A light contemporary that takes on some heavy themes. It’s sneaky feminism at its best.

Winter – Marissa Meyer

Feelings: Marry me, Thorne?

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Feelings: Perfection, basically.

How To Say I Love You Out Loud – Karole Cozzo

Feelings: A book about autism and siblings that I actually liked. I wish this had been out when I was in my teens.

You Don’t Have To Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out and Finding Feminism – Alida Nugent

Feelings: I can see this one leading to many a feminist awakening.

Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson

Feelings: It is possible to laugh your way through the darkness.

I also read:

Mosquitoland – David Arnold

Vivian Versus America – Katie Coyle

Things of the Month:

‘So sure, 2015 was “great” for women. But that statement is only true if 2015 marks the last year in which things can be so very bad. If this year somehow magically marks the end of women being widely shut out of cultural production, paid significantly less than their peers, and rarely given the chance of financial backing to create mainstream art without male interventions in the process, then I will feel ready to celebrate 2015.’

https://medium.com/matter/pay-women-the-money-they-need-to-make-the-culture-e0d80c8cda70#.7t9m8swou

How To Get Away With Murder

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Shonda Rhimes’ commencement speech:

Furiously Happy

Jenny Lawson made a community of crazy when she started writing about her struggles with her mental health on her blog. She writes about the times when life is just bizarre – most of the time, actually – and when it feels like too much to handle. People fell in love with her first because she’s hilarious, and second because she’s honest. She hasn’t so much defeated the stigma attached to mental illness as she has hunted it down with an army of taxidermy animals and a felted vagina* (I really can’t stress enough how much you should read this book). Clearly our collective crazy is something that we want to talk about.

Furiously Happy is her second memoir. It calls itself a funny book about horrible things. And it has a taxidermy raccoon called Rory on the cover. He’s the happiest damn taxidermy racoon you ever did see. I promise.

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See? He’s loving life.

Jenny Lawson’s funny and ridiculous stories just make you feel better about life. There is a sincere tone to all of her essays that made my heart feel full throughout. It is this truthfulness at the centre of the work that allows Jenny Lawson’s writing to veer so fluidly between talking about laminated cats and self-harm, I think. Whatever emotion she is in, she is in fully, and as a result, so are we.

I ended up giggling with this book in the corner of a library (not recommended. People get annoyed) and doing that thing where someone is talking but you can only nod because if you talk you will inevitably cry. Kind of like after you watch a really emotionally manipulative advert and you don’t want the people around you to know it got to you because you’re smarter than that. Except Jenny Lawson isn’t trying to sell you a new phone plan. She’s just telling you about her life, which, like most people’s, is made up of the pretty great and the very bad.

‘…There is something wonderful in accepting someone else’s flaws, especially when it gives you the chance to accept your own and see that those flaws are the things that make us human.’

Furiously Happy, for me at least, was a book that demanded I see life outside of my own skin sack. When you look at the community that Jenny Lawson has created you notice one overwhelming truth: everybody is struggling. For the past few months I’ve been feeling pretty lost in life, and when you’re in that space it becomes really easy to consider yourself… kind of a failure. Reading this made me feel – for a little while, at least – like that’s bullshit. Everybody’s struggling with something. Whatever negative feelings we’re dealing with right now don’t make us failures, they just make us people. And that’s totally okay.

‘…Stop judging yourself compared to shiny people. Avoid the shiny people. The shiny people are a lie. Or get to know them enough to realize they aren’t so shiny after all. Shiny people aren’t the enemy. Sometimes we’re the enemy when we listen to our malfunctioning brains that try to tell us that we’re alone in our self-doubt, or that it’s obvious to everyone that we don’t know what the shit we’re doing.’

*Reading Jenny Lawson’s life makes your own more amusing. While writing this review I searched through the whole book asking myself what was that vagina made of? and then, after a while had passed and I still hadn’t found it did I imagine the vagina? and, eventually finally! The vagina! This is only one of the many gifts reading Furiously Happy provides.