Needle and ThREAD

Reading Roundup

cut.jpgWhat’s on my nightstand? Cut, by Patricia McCormick.

Once again, I’m going to contradict myself–I am such a liar! Cut is a problem novel. The title pretty much says it all, so I knew that going in, even though I didn’t read the jacket copy.

I claim to not like problem novels, but I loved this book. Even though the problem–cutting oneself–is extreme (not mainstream teen behavior), I never felt the book approached melodrama. It never went over the top, uber-dramatic for the sake of shocking the reader and grabbing attention. In fact, I thought the story was quiet, not at all in-your-face, and I think it’s this quietness that makes the story feel genuine and the MC, Callie, heart-wrenchingly sympathetic.

Fifteen-year-old Callie is at a residential treatment facility because she’s stopped talking and started cutting herself. It’s told in first person, so we see what Callie is thinking. As you might expect, she’s disconnected from other people. I really liked the way Patty shows this: Instead of paying attention to things going on around her, Callie memorizes the colors of cars in the parking lot and counts stripes on wallpaper. Let’s be honest, this is boring stuff to write about, but it’s wonderfully effective. I felt the disconnection. Callie’s lack of emotion thoroughly engaged mine, which is precisely what I want from a book.

I also appreciated that the root of the problem wasn’t bizarre or so unlikely as to be unbelievable. The root of the problem, it turns out, is almost mundane, but the family’s responses to the problem combine to make it unbearable for Callie. Another kid may not respond so dramatically to such a problem, but I can believe Callie does. There are no flat, two-dimensional bad guys causing the problem; Mom’s not evil, Dad’s not abusive. Rather, they are generally good people responding poorly to a difficult situation. Totally believable.

I’m probably also drawn to the book because working with kids like Callie was a career path I considered but ultimately didn’t take. I love the Callie’s of the world.

Your turn. What are you reading?

Categories: Needle and ThREAD, Reading

3 replies »

  1. OK, I’ve got to jump in to play devil’s advocate once again. (Hey, someone’s got to do it.) I want to know why you tend to have the automatic assumption that a *problem* necessarily involves over the top, in your face, uber-drama. In my experience, problems tend to start very quietly. Cutters have a need for release or a need to truly feel…they experiment with a bit of cutting, usually in places that are hidden from the eye. Eating disordered folks tweak their eating habits, hide in baggy clothing, and purge in private. Folks who develop drug/alcohol problems begin with what they think is harmless experimentation, which turns into something far more. (These examples are over-simplified, but I hope they make a point.) But in truth, there’s a considerable length of time when the person with the problem suffers on the QT. If the behavior escalates because the person isn’t able to overcome the stressors that got her to that point, then drama or melodrama may occur. But not necessarily and not all of the time. I think quite the opposite is true.

    Additionally, and unfortunately, these problems are all-too-common. Just a few months ago my 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, saw cut marks on a good friends arms while they were changing into their gym uniforms. Her friend had some flimsy story to explain them. Out of concern for her friend, Jessica went to the guidance counselor. All of this was very quiet and not-at-all dramatic. Melodrama did evolve, however. Other girls in their tight circle decided that Jessica had been very disloyal. In one afternoon I received a phone call from one mom while Jessica received calls from three friends, all of them very angry at Jessic. The young girls decided that Jessica should be outcast; they weren’t going to speak to her anymore. They told others in the school that Jessica was a big liar. No one would talk with her in class, nor would they sit with her at lunch.

    I ended up meeting with the guidance counselor and the assistant principal. All of them were highly supportive of Jessica’s actions in reporting the self-injurious behavior of her friend, just as my husband and I were. No doubt, she had done the right thing, a good thing. But the melodrama was real, and the pain Jessica experienced was also very real. This is her first year in middle school and her friend is struggling with very real problems. Jessica was on the receiving end of the fallout.

    So this is why I have a continuing bone to pick with you. Problems are real and prevalent. Quiet problems are real. Melodramatic problems are real. The books that deal with them are good and helpful. Not all of the books are good, obviously. But if they help some kid(s) somewhere, then I’m all for them.

    Here is my question for you: Why do you continue to be surprised to read a problem novel to discover that the MC is believable, not over-the-top, and likable? If the same thing keeps repeating itself, at some point it should cease to surprise you.

    Take that, you big meanie!

    FYI…the turmoil with her group of friends was very slow to turn around. Surprisingly, the person who stuck the closest to Jessica throughout the ordeal was the girl who had been cutting. She appreciated that Jessica went to guidance…she ended up finding a counselor and is still seeing her regularly. She likes her a lot and is doing much better.

  2. Shelly, what wonderful points. I’m so sorry your daughter has had to go through such an experience, but applaude her for having the concern and courage to do the right thing. What I can’t believe is that parents would have wanted her to have done anything else! There are people who don’t want to have to face ugly realities, even when they are under their noses.

  3. First of all, hats off to Jessica. Her strength and concern is admirable. I hope she can hang on until her peers are mature enough to understand that.

    Shelly said: “I want to know why you tend to have the automatic assumption that a *problem* necessarily involves over the top, in your face, uber-drama.”

    I’m don’t claim problems have over-the-top drama; I claim problem novels often have over-the-top drama.

    I readily acknowledge that my threshold for uber-drama is low. What I consider over-the-top, someone else may consider completely ordinary. Likewise, what I consider scary, others may consider soothing.

    I agree completely that problems tend to start quietly. That’s why I like novels, like CUT, that depict that rather than something uber-dramatic. It doesn’t take a major trauma to ignite a problem. Very real problems don’t necessarily manifest themselves in super-drama. Problems are often subtle, kept hidden, and take place in quiet isolation. I like it when I see them depicted that way.

    I think entertainment–books, TV, movies–are getting more and more dramatic because that’s what the public appears to want. I think the level of sex, violence, and *drama* has increased in entertainment. It’s as though people build up a tolerance for drama and need more and more and more to get the same thrill. I find the ever-increasing drama annoying, boring, and unrealistic. The long “chase” scenes in animated films drive me nuts. Love the movies, hate those scenes.

    I agree, too, that there are melodramatic problems in real-life. Certainly there should be books about them. But I would wager that the proportion of uber-dramatic problem novels to more realistic problem novels is skewed toward the uber end.

    I have always felt that all kinds of books should be available to suit a wide range of readers. I would never suggest that a melodramatic book should not be published and available to interested readers. I, however, don’t have to like it.

    Shelly said: “Why do you continue to be surprised to read a problem novel to discover that the MC is believable, not over-the-top, and likable? If the same thing keeps repeating itself, at some point it should cease to surprise you.”

    I continue to be surprised because I read more problem novels I don’t like than ones I do like. I don’t talk here about books I don’t like because I don’t want to tarnish something someone else might love. What purpose would that serve? I know some people like uber-drama, and that’s fine with me. It should be fine that I don’t like it.

    As for being surprised over and over, well, I like surprises, especially happy surprises, so I have no motivation to stop feeling surprised.

    I don’t think we actually disagree on anything here. I think we have different thresholds for drama, different perspectives on what is “normal,” and maybe somewhat different tastes in books.