Saturday, 10 May 2014

Late again for The Year in Books: 'The Universe versus Alex Woods'


I've haven't got to the blog for nearly two weeks and am late again with my April record for 'The Year in Books'.  The reason for this can be spotted underneath my book: it's exam season and my evenings recently have been spent marking practice GCSE essays.  But enough of that.

'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is an excellent book.  I couldn't put it down and was sorry to finish it as I wanted to spend more time with Alex: he's really entertaining company.  The novel is about a teenage boy who had the unfortunate experience of being hit by a fragment from a meteorite which crashed through his bathroom ceiling when he was 10.  As a result he develops epilepsy.  It doesn't sound much fun but the way that Gavin Extence's character tells his story is full of humour, warmth and wisdom  Unsurprisingly, he doesn't easily fit into secondary school with his epilepsy and 'geek' fascination with science and the universe, inspired by his unfortunate experience. His description of being different in secondary school is told without any self pity.  I liked it so much that I read it to some of the students I teach as a starting point for discussion. And I thought I'd share it with readers here too:

'In case you didn't know, in secondary school - especially in the early years of secondary school - diversity is not celebrated.  In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit.  Most of the things the UN considers crimes are not considered crimes at secondary school.  Being cruel is fine.  Being obnoxious is fine.  Being brutal is fine.  Being superficial is especially fine.  Explosive acts of violence are fine. Taking pleasure in the humiliation of others is fine...... None of these things will hurt your social standing.  But being different - that's unforgivable.  Being different is the fast track to Pariah Town.  A pariah is someone who is excluded from mainstream society.  And if you know that at twelve years of age, you're probably an inhabitant of Pariah Town.'

I also liked this section where he comments on the way boys in particular use the word 'gay, something that I find very offensive, in his list of crimes of 'being different',:

'Being gay.  This has surprisingly little to do with what you do with your private parts (or, more accurately, what you'd like to do with your private parts). ......
If you're a boy, any display of sensitivity is gay.  Compassion is gay. Crying is supergay.  Reading is usually gay.  Certain songs and types of music are gay...Love songs are gay.  Love itself is incredibly gay, as are any other heartfelt emotions.  Singing is gay, but chanting is not gay...Neither is all-male cuddling during specially designated periods in football matches, or communal bathing thereafter. (I didn't invent the rules of gay - I'm just telling you what they are.)'

The main plot of the book is about the friendship which develops between Alex and Mr Peterson, an American Vietnam veteran, and how Alex helps him cope with terminal illness.  It sounds depressing, but actually it was more uplifting/

Everyone at my bookgroup loved this book and I think this is a first.  I recommend it highly.

In May I plan to read 'Black Swan Green' by David Mitchell, which my husband has just finished and loved.  It's another story told by a teenage boy, like 'Alex Woods' and 'The Shock of the Fall'.

10 comments:

  1. Alex sounds like my son - apart from the epilepsy and the meteorite - I think I would love to read more about him and pass the book on to my two oldest ones. I often wonder what Sam reads at school, he never tells me much. He is just finishing second year, starting third on Monday.

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    1. I'm sure you'd love it, Christina, but read it first before you let your son read it as some of the themes are quite adult.

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  2. This sounds fascinating. Teenagers have a secret world of their own so it's good to get an insight into their way of thinking.
    'Black Swan Green' is also sitting on my bookshelves - hubby read it some time ago and although he recommended it, I never got round to reading it.

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  3. Just started it and it seems similar to Alex Woods in some ways.

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  4. ooo it sounds fabulous, thank you for such a great post, i am adding it to my 'to-read' list now! I was even later to the year of books party....i only posted today lol! xxxx

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  5. sounds good. I'm wondering if it's fiction or perhaps that's a daft question! I guess he must draw from real life anyway. I'll look out for it. Heather x

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  6. I read this while on holiday last year, and then passed it to my son to read. He reminds me of Alex. I thought it was an uplifting read too. I became really attached to the characters, and was willing Alex and Mr Peterson to be successful in their ambitions to give him the right to die.
    Leanne xx

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  7. You're son must be lovely if he's like Alex. I was sad to finish this and haven't found anything to match it since.

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    1. Whoops 'correction 'your son'. Not exactly impressive for an English teacher.

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