Book Review: The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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When we first meet 16 year-old Kyle Donohue in Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things, he is making his way across the Brooklyn Bridge. He is heading home from school among the many others who are scrambling toward safety after terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center. In the midst of this exodus, Kyle’s attention is drawn to a figure on the edge of the bridge. He thinks it could be a large bird. He soon discovers that this figure is a girl wearing wings. “On the bridge, in those wings. Covered in ash. Then, leaning out like she was going to fly. No, like she wanted to fall” (111). Kyle is compelled to rescue her and bring her back to his home.

The Memory of Things might be set during September 11th, but the novel chronicles all of the challenges that Kyle faces. His father and uncle are working at Ground Zero which brings with it great uncertainty. His mother and younger sister are also supposed to be flying home from California. This leaves Kyle as the only one available to care for his favorite uncle, who is home recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Lastly, his “bird girl” seems to be in shock and is perhaps suffering from a case of amnesia.

Gae Polisner’s writing delicately and deftly captures this heartbreaking day. Her novel will allow teen readers to experience the uncertainty many of us felt, while sparing them the graphic images seared into our own memories. Through their reading, they will come to understand the events of the day like Kyle: “So, now I get it. Now I fully understand. Tuesday, and those planes, they’ve broken something. Permanently. And, in the process, they’ve changed everything. And everyone” (153-154). While those of us alive during 9/11 might be hesitant to relive it, our students are curious. After reading a synopsis of The Memory of Things, my readers expressed an interest because they felt the events of that day have been filtered mainly through adult voices and they thought experiencing it through a teenager’s perspective (even a fictional one) would speak to them in a new way. They know to speak of that day using words like “tragedy,” “devastation,” and “helplessness.” But these labels seem empty in their ability to convey the loss felt by those affected. It is through Kyle’s story that readers will find insight about this event that shaped the America they live in.

My readers are drawn to books that have multiple narrators. Many of them also love reading books written in verse. The Memory of Things offers both of these features. Readers will get to hear from both Kyle (prose) and the “bird girl” (verse). This offers the opportunity for readers to think about how the format of each character’s voice reflects who they are and where they are emotionally. I think another praiseworthy quality of this story is Kyle’s exploration of masculinity. He feels pressure from the men in his family to be a certain way and he is trying to reconcile that with his own ideals. This is an important tension to explore with students. Kyle is an earnest character, one who readers will want to follow on this journey. Ultimately, while The Memory of Things is set during tragedy, it is a story of healing, in its many forms.

Initially, I will be using this book in the spring for an after-school book club that typically draws about 40 students. Next year, I plan to include it as part of my curriculum. I envision a literature circle with several other novels like ElevenNine, Ten, and Towers Falling. Although each book poses their own important questions, I’d like to focus our overall exploration through the lens of resilience and how people survive experiences that seem insurmountable. Each novel approaches the same historical event from a distinct perspective, which is why I believe using them in a literature circle would be an enriching opportunity for students. Other teachers can easily make the case for such a choice. This literature circle would fall under the 7th grade Common Core standard RL9: “Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.” It also opens up possibilities to collaborate, especially with your history or art department.

And I will close with perhaps my favorite section of the book: “Change comes in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning. Like Uncle Matt’s motorcycle accident. Or the Twin Towers collapsing one Tuesday morning as you’re minding your own business in school. Or a girl showing up out of nowhere, covered in ash, and wearing some costume wings. That kind of change takes your breath away. But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you can sense coming a mile away. Or maybe a day away. Or, maybe, a few short hours. And since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down” (225).

 

Wherein I am the Worst Blogger and How I Ended Up in Nebraska

I have been telling myself to write this blog post. But I haven’t. So a year in the making, here it is.

“Why are you planning a trip to Nebraska?,” most people asked. I thought planning a trip to Nebraska was the obvious choice for our second literary pilgrimage. Even people IN Nebraska were surprised to find that we did not fly to Omaha to visit relatives. To them I say: Go get you some Rainbow Rowell. Then we’ll chat.

This pilgrimage was quite different from our TFIOS one. Primarily because TFIOS was one book and in Nebraska I was juggling several. Shout out to Rainbow Rowell for tweeting me specific locations and answering any follow-ups I had.

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I knew before we arrived that quite a few locations mentioned in the books had closed. For example, the movie theaters mentioned in Attachments and the bowling alley are now defunct. While that was disappointing, there was still a lot to do.

Our Attachments landmarks included eating a piece of French silk pie at the Village Inn and visiting the Lithuanian Kafe. I had never had French silk pie before. Honestly, I had never even heard of it. But chocolate and whipped cream = what’s not to love? The Village Inn was not what I imagined. Something about it made me think it would have dark wood with window treatments in shades of wine. It was actually more like a Jersey diner. One thrilling twist in our night was that the diner’s garbage had actually caught fire. We essentially walked into an inferno for French silk pie. I have no regrets.

 

Eleanor & Park led us to some residential locations like North High School on Ames

Ellison / Sherman School. I was surprised at how neglected the neighborhood around Ellison still was post-1980s. It was rather a rather depressing sight to see people still living in what appeared to be abject poverty. One night we basically recreated their date in the Old Market by eating at Zio’s, hitting up Drastic Plastic and topping the night off with ice cream at Ted & Wally’s. We also spent some time at the Gene Leahy Mall (or Central Park in the book).

 

Fangirl brought us to South 24th Street where we found Taco Trucks, South High School, and the International Bakery. We also took a drive about an hour away to Lincoln toward the University of Nebraska East Campus, Love Library, Andrew’s Hall, Valentino’s, Downtown Starbucks. Maybe if Fangirl was written before I went to college, I would’ve ended up in Lincoln. It seemed like a great college city.

Although Landline takes place mostly in California, we do have some pivotal moments in Omaha. Namely, the airport and Rainwood Road.

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I am not sure if I will ever back it back to Nebraska so in addition to our Rainbow Rowell spots, we tried to see as much as our time would allow.

We visited Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. It is under some serious construction and it sounds like it is going to be amazing when they are finished. We rode the Skyfari. Did I mention I am scared of heights? We walked down through the Heartland of America Park and saw the cool (and massive) fountain there. Our first day in Omaha it was raining so we visited the Joslyn Art Museum. One of my favorite stops was the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where you can ostensibly be in Nebraska and Iowa simultaneously. We hit up the Sunken Gardens, which were quite beautiful. What is a book pilgrimage without a trip to an indie bookshop? We popped in The Bookworm, where they instantly recognized my telephone shirt as a nod to Landline. We didn’t get to visit Carhenge because it was too far away (Just Google it). Maybe that means I’ll be back in Nebraska.

I consider characters to be the most important element of stories for me. I would never think that setting would play a pivotal role for me as a reader. But here I am – going on pilgrimages so what do I know?

Nobody writes relationships like Rainbow Rowell. She will make you swoon and fill you with hope. Now go buy all of her books immediately.

Things I Learned about Nebraska:

  1. The food is delicious. My favorite meal might be the breakfast we had at a little trendy spot called Overeasy. I had vanilla pancake sticks stuffed with bacon. It was heaven.
  1. There is something happening in Omaha with balconies. They.are.everywhere. I consider it their signature architectural trait.
  1. Nobody does Independence Day like Nebraska. When our server at Over Easy found out that we were visiting, she asked what our plans were for the day. We mentioned that we wanted to see some fireworks and she told us her church had to best view and invited us over. She wasn’t lying. We sat on a steep hilltop and had a 360 degree view of fireworks. In New Jersey a fireworks display lasts for a few minutes. In Nebraska, it lasts for hours.
  1. You have not seen green until you’ve been to Nebraska. There is a rich, deep green. It needs its own name.

    PS: You can check out our on-site readings on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BG9LICRDc0

An Open Letter to Josh Boone:

The Top 10 Reasons Why I Need an Invite to the June 2nd NYC TFIOS Premiere

 

10. Where else better to rock the TFIOS book purse I bought from Etsy?

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9. I am a TFIOS ambassador as I have bought copies for people and have recommended it to strangers in bookstores as a must-read. Also, I advocated for it being used as a high school wide book discussion book the year it was published. I spread the gospel of John Green like it’s my job.

 

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8. I own 9 different versions of the book: 1. My pre-ordered copy signed by John Green, 2. The hardcover I got signed in person at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C., 3. The silver-covered special edition, 4. The English paperback version I bought in Amsterdam, 5. John Green’s audio, 6. Kate Rudd’s audio, 7. Kindle version, 8. Signed Target-edition with bonus DVD, and 9. The paperback movie-tie in . . . Because really you can never have enough copies.

all 9 versions of TFIOS

all 9 versions of TFIOS

 

7. I donated many inches of my hair to Children With Hair Loss. I was inspired to do so after reading Shailene Woodley’s Tumblr post.

 

6. I collaborated with the awesome salon my cousin works at (Northern Lights) so other people could donate their hair too. In addition, we were also able to make a cash contribution.

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5. TFIOS compelled me to travel to Indianapolis. I loved TFIOS so much that I planned a trip to Indy with my best friend from high school, Emily. And it was the BEST TRIP EVER (literally). I loved Indy so much that I even looked at teaching jobs out there. I am convinced it is America’s best-kept secret. I can’t wait to go back. More pictures can be found on my original blog.

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4. I read TFIOS on location in Indianapolis. We posted these on YouTube (something I would never normally do).

 

 

3. My TFIOS travels were not limited to domestic borders. I also went to Amsterdam with Emily. We even stayed at the Hotel de Filosoof. I have seen online that some people have gone to Indianapolis and others have visited Amsterdam, but I know of no other fault fanatics that have crossed the Atlantic and back to see both. More information is available on my original blog.

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2. I read TFIOS on location in Amsterdam (even though I was super cranky). I wonder what people thought we were doing.

 

 

1. I had the opportunity to attend, but unfortunately had to miss, the May 3rd fan screening in NYC. I saw that Vulture was running a contest on Twitter so we started tweeting our pics from the pilgrimage. Emily got selected and I was crushed, because I found out that the screening was on a day when I would be chaperoning the senior class trip to Orlando for Grad Bash. Had it been any other commitment I would have found a way out of it. This was a devastating blow. It was actually physically painful. Instead of the screening and Q&A session with you, John, and the cast, I was in Florida with 46 teenagers whom I love dearly. [Insert shout out to the Class of 2014 aka the best class ever in the history of graduating high school seniors] The trip was beyond amazing, but missing the screening still haunts me. But it is true “the world is not a wish granting factory.”

In conclusion, I hope you will see that this is clearly a wrong in the universe that needs to be righted. I feel my devotion to TFIOS is evident for the aforementioned reasons and hope that you believe the same. Inviting me to the premiere would make my life. Okay???

 

All good things,

Nicole Warchol

 

P.S. This year I also went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Magritte exhibit. My main motivation for catching this exhibit was to see The Treachery of Images as referenced in TFIOS. I didn’t expect to love the rest of the exhibit as much as I did. I also went to the Whitney to see their Robert Indiana retrospective, also motivated by our trip to Indianapolis. Look how TFIOS got me cultured and stuff 😉

 

TFIOS Pilgrimage Part 1 – Indianapolis (July 2013)

When I told people I was going to Indiana, many cocked their head to the side and asked why. I don’t know how you explain why you love something.  But I think that many people might relate to the experience of doing crazy things because of love.  My friend Emily and I, along with millions of other readers, love John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars.  Although, I am not quite sure how many of those readers would plan a TFIOS pilgrimage.

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Our United flight began its descent to Indianapolis.  The captain indicated that we needed to turn off our electronic devices.  I pulled out my ear buds after just having listened to John Green read chapter five.  As I looked out the window, the colors seemed more vibrant.  It turns out the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, unless the grass is in Indianapolis. Literally.

The first spot from the book that we checked out was Holliday Park.  Since it wasn’t within walking distance of our hotel, we took a bus.  Although this only got brief mention in the book, there was much more going on in this spot than we anticipated.  Despite the fact that Hazel describes the park as a kind of geographic inconvenience that prevents her from driving directly to Augustus, she also had some happy memories there.  There was a great playground for children.  The flowers were beautiful.  We wandered around and took a look at the Ruins.  We also met some interesting people.  We met Amy and her rescue dog Hugo.  We met Krembo, a Bronx native and former teacher, who moved to Indy 20 years ago and now travels the county with his sideshow.  A short hike and we found ourselves at the White River.  There seemed to be so many people (and their pets) taking advantage of the outdoor space. Verdict? . . .  Loved it.

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Another place from TFIOS that was a priority was the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA).  When we got to the museum, it started pouring so we spent some time exploring the exhibitions (which I also enjoyed).   The building itself is architecturally interesting.  The grounds also have beautiful landscaping.  We walked the 100 Acres in search of the Funky Bones sculpture.

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Out of all the Indianapolis locations in the book, this is the one that stood out to me the most.  When I first read the book, it didn’t even hit me that it actually existed until I stumbled upon it via the Internet, the keeper of knowledge.  One of the things that I liked most was seeing how my visualization did not match up with the reality.  I also could not fit the entire piece in picture so I was glad the gift shop had a postcard of the whole work.

As we approached the sculpture, there was a group of children jumping across the bones.  It is true, they literally cannot resist.  To make the experience more eerie, I heard a mom shout, “Esther, do you want to come with us?”  This was one of those moments where you feel like the universe is conspiring in your favor.  Seriously, what were the odds that a young girl named Esther (which I would consider not that common) playing on the sculpture used in a book dedicated to another Esther?  Since it had rained, I was a little nervous about standing on the sculpture, because it made gaining purchase on it questionable.   But stand we did :).  It amazes me how the children were just leaping between the bones like hopscotch. Oh to be young!

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As we were making our way back (and because I have a bad sense of direction), we also found the basketball court sculpture that Hazel mentions, which I totally did not know also existed.

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Emily and I spent out last morning in Broad Ripple.  Now this was a neighborhood we had wanted to visit then decided to skip, because we didn’t think that we’d have enough time to squeeze it in.  But as I was listening to the book I discovered that it was briefly mentioned and someone told us it was definitely a place that we wouldn’t want to miss.  And I am glad we went.  There were so many cool stores and places to eat.  We had brunch at Petite Chou.  The omelet was divine, but the sour dough bread topped with cinnamon was beyond.  There was also a cute pet store, where I was able to buy some gifts for my puppy, who was surely missing me at home.

One of the things I found lacking in Indianapolis was a convenient and well-stocked bookstore.  We found one in Broad Ripple called Big Hats Books.  It had great books for all aged readers and of all interests in a relatively small space.  And they had awesome reading-themed buttons that I bought to add to my school bag. They did have copies of The Fault in Our Stars available and we bought one to pass on to the staff at our hotel.

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This trip was incredible.  I have never read a story that made me want to travel to its setting.  But I am forever grateful that TFIOS sent me to Indianapolis.

 DFTBA!