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Olympics Challenge and Thirteen Reasons Why (thoughts)

August 8, 2008

Olympics ChallengeI had another post planned for today, but then I ran across the Olympics Challenge, and I fell head-over-heels in love with it. So of course I have to share it with all of y’all! The idea is to show our patriotism and compete for an Amazon gift card by reading as many books as possible between August 8th and 24th written by authors from our own country. I’ll admit-as an American this should be pretty easy. But then I looked at the books I’m reading, or planning to begin reading, and I realised that most of them are international (or at least British-which I don’t count as international since I lived there for seven years). Whoops! lol That’s ok-I’m sure I have plenty of TBR on the shelves that are by Americans.

One of the few library books I have right now (and they’re getting the priority since I’m moving in a week) written by an American is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Dewey really liked this one, and she recommended I read it for the read-a-thon. However, it had a long wait list at the library, so I finally was able to check it out last week. I still wasn’t sure I was going to actually read it, though: teenage suicide isn’t exactly the kind of subject I can’t wait to dive into. So I’m glad the Olympics Challenge gave me a push-because as it turns out, this book is pretty incredible.

Briefly: Hannah Baker, a high school junior, has killed herself. Clay, one of her classmates, receives a package of tapes: a thirteen-sided suicide note from Hannah that is being sent down a chain of thirteen people she holds responsible for pushing her to end it all. There’s also a map. Over one night, Clay wanders around his town looking at all the places Hannah talks about, listening to the tapes and interacting with other people. It’s a good balance, and I was particularly impressed by how Asher conveys Clay’s feelings towards the tapes: since he’s on the list, he’s apparently done something to contribute to her suicide, but he has no idea what it could be. So he keeps listening, in a mix of fear and sadness and curiousity and frustration that mirrors the reader’s own.

Suicide is a difficult thing to talk about, and it seems that some people who read the book see it as condemning the people who did mean things to Hannah and allowing her to abscond of any responsibility for her own death. I don’t want to be mean, but I think these people are just poor readers. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my greatest reading pleasures is when an author trusts the reader enough to leave blank spots, when the author resists the urge to spell everything out. And that’s what Asher does-although Clay certainly gets angry at Hannah for killing herself, and even ‘argues’ with the tapes at points, when Hannah’s doing the talking it does seem as if the world has pushed her to it. And that makes perfect sense: she’s stopped seeing herself as someone who can make proactive choices. Instead, she sees herself as the victim of all the icky high school things-rumours, mean girls, abusive boys, etc. And in the end, the way she sees it, society has only left her with one choice. If Asher had let Hannah take some of the blame for her own suicide, it would have rang completely false. He just has to hope that you can read between the lines and see where Hannah herself could have changed things. I don’t think this book is in anyway a ‘justification’ for teenage suicide-instead, it’s a thoughtful exploration of how a teen may be driven to contemplate it, and how the people around him/her might be able to help.

Right, I’m off the soapbox now! ;) I think this is an important book to read, mainly because it really addresses all the ways girls and women can be sexually victimized (I know I didn’t bring it up before, but most of Hannah’s reasons have to do with it-I didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about it because I don’t like to get too personal), but that’s not why I read it all in one sitting. When it comes down to it, Asher is a wonderful story teller, and he’s used all the potentials of his narrative form to keep the plot tight and the reader intrigued. Hannah and Clay both feel like very real teenagers-sometimes they’re ridiculously dramatic, sometimes they have moments of perfect clarity, but most of the time they’re just trying to deal with the craziness of growing up. And while (hopefully) most of us haven’t had to deal with all of the bad things Hannah faces, I think we can see at least a little of ourselves in her-the part that wants to just curl up in a little ball and never come out again every time someone’s mean, the part that feels helpless to the whims of fate. Clay, meanwhile, is forced to step outside his own interpretation of events, to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ (pretty literarily through a lot of the book), and that’s a universal theme as well. So it turns out this book is about more than teenage suicide and sexual bullying: it’s about the human experience. And the fact that it’s a damn good story is just icing on the cake.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2008 3:40 am

    It does sound like a great story. What an interesting way of looking at the choices a teenager has in her life.

  2. August 8, 2008 5:49 am

    I remember seeing this book on the shelves at work and being intrigued, but I shied away because my boss told me she disliked it. Your review is interesting, though, and I might have to read it and decide for myself how I feel. Thanks for renewing my curiosity!

  3. August 8, 2008 9:22 am

    I’m really glad you enjoyed this, Eva! I thought it was a fantastic book. And I really thought your review was outstanding! I couldn’t agree more with the stuff you said about Hannah taking responsibility for her own suicide. I mean, isn’t that the whole point…when you’re in that much pain, logical thought isn’t exactly overflowing, you know.

  4. August 8, 2008 1:34 pm

    Rebecca, it is an interesting perspective!

    Charley, I really liked it, so if you read it I want to know what you think. :)

    Debi, glad you agreed! I feel like some people completely missed the whole point of Hannah, lol.

  5. August 8, 2008 3:07 pm

    Reading Amer. Lit. does seem a challenge to me, as I read mostly foreign literature. But last night after Mamma Mia I went in the bookstore and got two books–The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Summer reading, perfect for summer. They are both women authors from this country.

  6. August 8, 2008 7:46 pm

    Hmm, sounds really intriguing. Your reviews always make me interested though, you find a way to summarize things so nicely. I like what you had to say about the author trusting the reader to fill in the holes. I think great literature does that, because otherwise why would we spend so much time analyzing it?

  7. August 9, 2008 5:55 am

    Sounds like an interesting book; I’ll have to pick it up. Have you read Something as Simple as Snow? I loved it, and it sounds similar (with the idea of leaving clues behind for others, not necessarily suicide-related).

  8. August 11, 2008 3:05 pm

    Matt, I tend to read an even balance (at least according to my stats). But since I don’t include England in my stats, I realised that I probably read more British authors than American! I hated The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, but I seem to be in the minority, so I can’t wait to see what you think!

    Kim, thanks!! I worry about my reviews a lot, that was a sweet thing to say. :) I agree-great authors have to trust the readers!

    Jessi, I haven’t even heard of Something as Simple as Snow, but now I’m off to find out all about it. :)


  1. Review - Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher « Regular Rumination
  2. Review: Thirteen Reasons Why « Book Addiction
  3. Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why « ReviewsbyLola's Blog

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