My problem with teen novels epitomized in one book part 1/2

totally uneditedA few years ago, back when I was a freshman in high school, a girl I had a hopeless crush on recommended me a book. Despite having little to no information, guidelines, or knowledge of its core demographic I quickly sprung at the opportunity to have something to talk about with her. It took me about three days to finish the nearly 400-page monster and once I had finished I was left feeling more clueless and dejected than I was before. Why did I feel this way you might ask? It’s because I had realized this novel, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, epitomized all of my quandaries with contemporary young adult novels.

One thing I’ve prided authors like John Green for doing in their teenage romance novels is their uncanny ability to write realistic characters, with realistic goals, and difficulties.

As an example, I’ll use Paper Towns. Quentin Jacobsen, the protagonist of the story, at a glance, seems to be your typical nerdy teenager, hopelessly in love with a girl who seems to be way out of his league. My mistake, I think I just explained every John Green novel pre-Fault In Our Stars. Kidding aside, Quentin’s characterization is purposely very generic at a first but also painfully realistic. Should the reader decide to go deeper into the story, there’s find a very complex character with discernable flaws and contradictions. As the novel reaches its climax you begin to pick apart the logical fallacies Quentin is driven by. He makes several morally questionable decisions, abandons his friends, and actively allows his feelings to dictate his actions. His incredibly callow nature also works in tandem with the overall purpose of Paper Towns as it serves to criticize the act of idolization. Something so ubiquitous amongst teenage relationships.

The point I’m trying to make is that I could imagine Quentin as a feasible person as I read Paper Towns. He has a purpose, he has imperfections, and he has personal growth. On the flipside, the main character of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; Lara Jean Covey, besides having an awkwardly long name, possesses one of the most ambiguous and unrealistic characterizations of all time.

On one hand, Lara Jean is written like an innocent, sheltered, perfect girl who fades into the background. However, there are points in the novel where she does a complete 180 and Jenny Han, the author, attempts to pass her off as some glorified dream girl who’s super popular, and charismatic. Lara Jean has several out of character moments it’s jarring to comprehend, let alone read. Jenny Han could have used Lara Jean’s frequent lapses to her advantage and make a complex statement about the role significant others play in our budding lives and how easily malleable we are during our adolescence. However, she makes no attempt to do so, which makes me believe she’s a bit of a lazy writer. If Lara Jean’s inconsistencies have no real purpose behind them, then they must be a mistake, otherwise, why have them at all?

I’m fully aware that people do change and that looks and that actions can be deceiving but Lara Jean explains herself so plainly it’s hard to gauge whether I should believe what she’s saying or what I’m reading. She’s so enigmatic that she breaks my suspension of disbelief even for a novel labeled as fiction. The biggest tell for me is the fact I can’t think of anyone I know that would do the things she does in the novel under the same pretenses in real life. I suppose you could argue and say that a lack of characterization is Lara Jean’s characterization. From some aspects that could be interesting but aside from that, her personality is not appealing or subversive it’s simply unrealistic and grounded in a reality so detached from the one it’s supposed to take place in. For comparison, allow me to explain a fleshed out character done right in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; Chris.

Chris is one of Lara Jean’s friends who she spends time with on numerous occasions throughout the book. They form the “Odd Couple” as they seem to be polar opposites. However, unlike Lara Jean, Chris is a funny, defined character, with very clear flaws, and interesting dialogue. She effectively plays foil to Lara Jean’s supposed goody-two-shoes attitude and while a bit stereotypical I believe she’s a well-written character. I’ve seen many attempts to call her an unnecessary part of the novel and I couldn’t disagree more. While her role in the novel is not instrumental she is a good example of the many influences Lara Jean has in her life that ultimately affect her mindset. It’s also a good indicator that she’s not a very judgemental person as if her seemingly perfect persona couldn’t be any more emphasized.

Another qualm I have with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is its ending. As I reached page 250 I was already well aware the plot was heading nowhere, but desperate for answers I trudged onward, bitterly optimistic. To my despair, the ending was lackluster and as I closed the book my word fears were confirmed. Jenny Han had already planned for a sequel before the novel was even published and purposely made the ending unfulfilling. So unfulfilling it’s not even worth spoiling in this article. I’m fully cognizant that it’s an astonishingly difficult task to end a book. I struggle with ending every article I write on here. However, when I finished the book I felt like a fool. I felt as if I had been swindled by the punitive hands of an author I wasn’t even a fan of. Now it is true that Jenny Han did go on record saying she actually did plan for a sequel about halfway through the first book for the purpose of developing another character that was only mentioned briefly in the story. However, I could think of a thousand different ways she could have handled this dilemma without feeling the need to release a sequel.

Before I continue I should note that I actually wrote this review back in 2015 when I first read the novel. However even as time passes I still find myself resentful of this pitiful collection of paper. Perhaps it’s deeper than just Jenny Han’s inability to write something vaguely coherent, but I believe that the biggest detriment the novel has caused is the inadvertent message it’s spreading to people my age. Another reason why I continue to praise John Green for his contemporary young adult romance novels is due to his realistic approach to teenage love. To put it bluntly, they don’t know what love is. While many view Lara Jean’s fake relationship with Peter as funny and harmless I see an opportunity for misunderstanding. I believe Jenny Han was attempting to make a statement about the way she views modern teenage romance by creating a fake romance between Lara Jean and Peter, however, I think the true intentions of that message were lost in the utterly difficult translation. This is made even more muddled when Lara Jean kisses her sisters ex-boyfriend during all of this, which is a whole different story I can write a thousand negative articles on. However, I believe one more will suffice.

This is part one of a two-part series. In the next part, I will gauge whether the film adaptation of this novel is worth watching or if it falls flat on its face much like its predecessor whilst analyzing it from a theatrical standpoint. In a world so abundant with amateurish romance novels being produced daily it’s daunting this book -that had so much potential- must add to it. I suppose she really shouldn’t have mailed those letters.

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An angel fallen from grace: Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

favorite customerI came out of Father John Misty’s third album: Pure Comedy with a bad taste in my mouth. After giving it a listen or two I was inevitably turned off by Joshua Tillman’s insufferable ability to portray himself as a character who’s sanctimonious. Yet, here I am a year later singing the praises of his newest studio LP God’s Favorite Customer. So what’s happened? Why the sudden change of heart? Well, the answer isn’t all that simple.

In an interview with NME Father John Misty, himself confirmed the album was not rooted in any specific concepts like his previous outings. In his own words, he admitted they were, in one way or another, “kind of pretentious.” In this, I saw a sign of change in Father John Misty’s mind, a glimmer of hope in a desolate wasteland of pompous, self-aware, singer-songwriter tunes. It was clear that rather than delivering a scathing social commentary he wants to talk about something much more personal. Something that was bigger than himself. This is where everything changed for me. I was in full support.

Despite his previous sentiments, God’s Favorite Customer still manages to tell an elaborate story across its forty minute runtime. For once Father John Misty is incapable of portraying himself in his usual bombastic persona. Instead, he’s inclined to sing about himself while he was in his most vulnerable state. With that said, this album isn’t so much about Father John Misty as it’s about Joshua Tillman. It’s about a man who’s been shaken to his core. It’s about being forced to examine yourself at your worst when you’re so utterly defeated by despair and hardship. Tillman explained that before the release of the album he went through a two month period where he stayed at the Bowery Hotel when he was reportedly “on the straights.” That period of time serves as the albums main inspiration and set piece.

Another theme that serves as a major inspiration for Father John Misty’s music is ironically religion. Due to its omnipresence in a myriad of ways, it’s something I’m also going to be focusing on in this article. However, I’m going to be analyzing it through the lens of someone who actually believes in God. I’ll be sure to point out the brief periods of theological ignorance Tillman often sprinkles throughout this discography whenever I find it most apt. The name of the record itself is a good place to begin.

The rather pious title can be taken in a number of ways but I see the title of God’s favorite customer as a position of prestige and weakness in some respects. To be God’s favorite customer means you constantly require His assistance. For whatever reason, you find yourself dependent upon His comforting word, calling out to Him more often than not. The title is also a bit paradoxical as God isn’t supposed to pick favorites. Romans 2 verse 11 spells this out very explicitly.

For God does not show favoritism.

This revelation makes the title of God’s favorite customer all the more insignificant as to now show favoritism everyone must be God’s favorite customer. Significance is something Tillman actively chases throughout the record. Whether the title is meant to highlight his feelings of worthlessness or to be taken humorously, its a good example of the persistent theme of religion he frequently uses without discretion. Now without any further delay, let’s get into the music, shall we?

“Hangout at the Gallows” marks the beginning of Tillman’s journey through despair. It’s carried by a slow drumbeat and a plucky bass. Father John Misty sounds desperate and even a bit deranged as he coos about the gallows. In case you don’t already know, gallows are a set of structures that were primarily used for public hangings back during a time when capital punishment was more primitive. It’s here where the title of this track should make more sense as it’s a painfully obvious pun about suicide. Tillman’s suicidal thoughts are regularly shared on this album making it a much more poignant experience. It’s a rather somber note for the album to begin on and it only gets severer as the listener trudges onward.

“Mr. Tillman” is the next track and my personal favorite. It’s a great example of self-reflection as Father John Misty doesn’t sing about himself from a first-person perspective instead; taking on the role of a hotel concierge frustrated with him. It’s a rather pleasant sounding song, with a loud acoustic guitar, charming bells, and beautiful harmonies done by Father John Misty himself. However, all of this is immediately contrasted by its decisively melancholic sentiments.

Mr. Tillman, for the seventh time. We have no knowledge of a film that is being shot outside. Those aren’t extras in a movie; they’re our clientele. No, they aren’t running lines and they aren’t exactly thrilled. Would you like a regalo on the patio? Is there someone we can call? Perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone….

The track references the hotel Tillman stayed at during that two-month period where he was having a personal dilemma. In fact, its working title was simply “Bowery.” The listener is able to take pity on poor Tillman; his humiliating actions have caused him to become a public nuisance. His crass character traits were also displayed on the previous track when he asks the audience, “Whats your politics? Whats your religion.” Both of which are inappropriate to ask so outwardly. Nonetheless, the hotel receptionist attempts to stay as professional as possible whilst subtlety scolding him.

“Just Dumb Enough To Try” is Tillman’s failed attempt at regaining his haughty stature. It’s posed like a love song but it’s conclusively about how Tillman is a failure at love and by extent life itself. This was the track that really opened my eyes to Father John Misty’s inner struggle and growth not just as a musician but as a person. While the entire album is a harsh self-reflection this is one song that really deconstructs his personal character flaws. Flaws that were undoubtedly the terminal cause of his downfall. “Date Night” maintains this theme and further exemplifies Tillman’s sleazy nature. Whether it’s supposed to be him talking to his wife or another woman entirely is not exactly clear, but a lot can be derived from his words. Despite his unfavorable situation he still tries to maintain his egocentrism.

Nothing surprises me much. And my hobbies include: Laughing in the dark. Do you want to go to the farm? Do you want to go to the park? I’ll get you ice cream if you give me your card.

This lark of a persona comes to a halt once we get to the next track “Please Don’t Die.” Father John Misty recapitulates the theme of suicide and depression as he sings from the perspective of his wife who’s very overtly pleading with him to not kill himself. It’s another song that highlights the negative characteristics of Tillman. Suicide is an act often seen as selfish to some degree. Contrary to what many may believe the pain of the victim doesn’t die along with them, instead, its carried on to the ones who truly loved and cared about them. Tillman has revealed before his struggles with depression and how much his wife has helped him through it. However, it seems their estrangement has only caused it to fester. Tillman realizes this and makes progress to end his suffering on the next track.

Tillman’s soft piano driven song, “The Palace” is him finally personally acknowledging his shortcomings. He pokes fun at his drug abuse, recognizes how badly he treats others, and admits he needs help and is ready to change.

Last night I texted your iPhone. And said I think I’m ready to come home. I’m in over my head.

It’s a hopeful end to Tillmans despair. As he, after all this time, understands the fruitlessness of maintaining his masquerade. After “The Palace” the album seldom returns to the routine subject matter Father John Misty so often tackles. “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All” and “The Songwriter are both about his wife. But the title track is one of particular importance as it somewhat continues the narrative of the record.

“God’s Favorite Customer” follows Tillman on, as he puts it, “another night on the straights” where he unexpectedly calls out to God for direction. Father John Misty has made it clear he doesn’t believe in God. During his childhood played religion such a prominent role in his life that it ultimately drove him away from it and with it his evangelical parents. However, this track captures one fleeting moment where he once again drops his idiosyncratic attitude to call out to something greater than himself. Ironically he still does this selfishly as he believes the former title of God’s favorite customer entitles him to special treatment. It still manages to be a very interesting departure from his usual inflammatory statements toward religion and the bible you can’t help but see how far down the rabbit hole Tillman leaped during his dark period.

The closing track of the record “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is Tillman finally changing. It neatly wraps up his misadventure through suffering in his usual methodical manner. Tillman shows a better understanding of himself and other people as he decides to relate himself to them rather than attempting to further distance himself. He’s taken his period of crisis as a learning experience and seeks to change for the better. A happy ending to a sad story.

Father John Misty continues to impress as his albums show consistent maturity throughout the years. The man who had claimed to know all the answers was finally met with one that couldn’t be solved. This album is a perfect metaphor for growth both in musicality and in spirit. For the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

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150-word track review: In the Zone – Ken Ashcorp

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Ken Ashcorp is one of those artists that’s consistently able to floor me. Whether it be by his masterfully created ballads or his ability to sing about anything and make it sound good, he always finds a way to fascinate my delicate mind. This track is obviously no different. In its most raw essence, the song is about sex. It’s about losing yourself and taking everything in the heat of the moment. When you’re in the zone you don’t really care what anyone else thinks, despite how vulnerable you may be.

Oh, confidence exude, God, I love that attitude. Shudder from the shutter, shut up and make me glad that I did this with you.

The constant booming guitar riff and the almost wispy way Ashcorp delivers his lyrics makes for an incredibly enjoyable track that I listen to rather regularly. Give it a listen and get in the zone.

150-word track review: Come Smile With Me – Sleepspent

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If there’s one thing I love it’s a song that puts me at ease while simultaneously being fast. Sleepspent is able to capture this very specific tone in such an impressive and engaging fashion. The track has themes of isolation in its lyrics while ultimately recounting a story of self-destruction.

When the world falls asleep it may as well be decimated. I can’t see and I can’t sleep oh, seven years of tired waiting.

The rolling acoustic guitar riffs play together nicely with the hard-hitting drums. It all culminates into this beautiful ballad sung predominately by the lead singer; Austin North. Fittingly enough, the song ends just like how it begins: abruptly.

It’s the epitome of a summertime jam. Something you can listen to as you drive across the sandy coast or as you’re drifting to sleep on a warm night. It’s sure to bring a smile to anyone listening.

150-word track review: Okay – Temporex

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It’s incredibly rare when you find a song that you relate to so much you’d’ve thought it was written especially for you. Such is the case of this bubbly track by Joseph N. Flores AKA Temporex. The track details the age-old struggle of being separated by the one you call yours.

Baby, I don’t know what to do. I’m just so damn far away from you. I kiss you before you get onto the train. Might not see you for months and that pains me to say…

It’s something that speaks to me very deeply at this point in time and its poignancy is made more elaborate by its contrasting production. In true Temporex fashion, the song is layered with bells, a fluffy guitar, and jazzy drums. Its ladder section is more experimental but a nice closer to an already enjoyable track. Give it a listen, it’s anything but okay.

150-word track review: Bitter – Palace

breaking me down

Lend me your brakes again, you’re more than my speed. And I’ve played heartstrings before, but not in your key.

These are the first words uttered by Palace frontman; Leo Wyndham in the second track off their 2014 EP entitled Lost in the Night. This is said after the audience is able to hear the opening guitar licks that effectively set the narrative tone for the rest of the track. It’s desolate, whispy, and above all else; cold. Those are the very few words I can use to describe this beautiful song as anything else would just come off as disingenuous.

It’s one part heartbreaking and another part reassuring to hear Wyndham sing about the bitterness of envy. It’s sung to such a minimalist yet complex instrumental that it causes the listener to focus solely on the emotional vigor echoing from Wyndham’s words. Give it a listen. You won’t feel bitter.

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