Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Conviction vs. All the Bright Places (Round Two)


Devon's thoughts:
Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert 
(Spoilers. This book offends my delicate sensibilities so I’m spoiling it in hopes no one else reads it, even though I know that this isn’t how the book slam works)

I don’t mind books that talk about faith; I think it is interesting to watch characters struggle with matters of faith and the juxtaposition of what they learn at home and what they see at school, and I think this can be very helpful for readers to see as well. If you don’t grow up in that faith, as a reader you get to learn about it more intimately than you would from a textbook. My greatest concern with matters of faith in Conviction, however, is how homosexuality is portrayed. Calling it addictive and using it to fill other holes in your heart is offensive. Because of how many references there were to homosexuality in the beginning, I was desperately hoping that the major crisis would be for Braden to be gay. While I know this is an accurate portrayal for some denominations of Christianity, I didn’t see any benefit to adding this to the story. While it is used as a crisis point, it’s done so VERY weakly, and the crisis could easily have had other sources.
I struggled with how well written the novel is; the scenes of his father drinking, the abuse, and the entire scene where Braden and Madi are at the lake… So much of this was beautifully described. Even the discussion of baseball; it went over my head but there was passion and fun in those sections. The structure, on the other hand, was incredibly frustrating. There are too many problems for any character to face – or for any writer to handle effectively. It felt as though there were major problems raised and dropped repeatedly. The female characters exist solely as romantic interests or mothers; they not only have no depth, but when the men-folk do them wrong, the women justify the bad behavior. Is that realistic? Sure, sometimes. But they’re so one-dimensional that again, I thought Braden might be gay and that women just do not show up on his radar. 
I had to re-read the ending, thinking I had missed some major development. I still feel as though I have; out of nowhere, after repeatedly contrasting how important it is for Braden to work through his problems and how critical everyone is over Trey running away, the resolution is to throw down your glove and walk away? It would be full of teen angst drama on film, but on the page it was just confusing. There must have been a MAJOR epiphany that I missed, for him to leave his father, school, baseball, and the church to go live with his gay brother, who not only has room for him but also the time to raise a teenager, write a book, and run a restaurant. And then I just kept thinking about his home with his father standing empty for two months. Did they do the dishes before they left? I don’t need a scene where they pack, but some resolution would be nice.
I honestly would not recommend this book to anyone. Ever. I was horrified by the depictions of homosexuality. I wanted some depth to the female characters. I wanted at least one issue resolved. I don’t feel like one satisfactory resolution is asking too much.

Jon's thoughts; 

 Conviction is a good example of a book that emphasizes the importance of (a) being able and willing to read about other people’s experiences without necessarily feeling like we have to adopt their worldview, and (b) recognizing that sympathetic protagonists tend to make it difficult for readers to do this. For the protagonist Braden, religion is the lens through which he filters and understands the world around him. I think it is likely that secular readers would find the worldview off-putting, but I don’t think that is necessarily an incorrect or invalid way of experiencing the text. Once you get past that hurdle, I found it a remarkably honest insight into the way Christian youth attempt to make meaning of the world in which they live. Much of this can be attributed to Gilbert’s technique—she is an excellent writer, and that is a virtue that sometimes gets overlooked in YA in deference to the story.
            Where Conviction falls short is in its insistence on tackling too many subplots. Braden’s relationship with his faith, his father, his brother, baseball, the trial, his friends, and his girlfriend all exist at times independently of each other while at other times in anastomosis. As a result, none of them feel fully resolved by the end of the novel. Normally, this in itself would be a valid critique of any novel. However, the coming-of-age, bildungsroman-esq nature of the story underscores the issue of having a sympathetic but flawed protagonist who holds problematic opinions or worldviews at the beginning of the novel: if he doesn’t rescind those views or come to a better understanding of his own flaws by the end, it allows room for doubt as to whether those ideas need to be challenged at all.
            Overall, I see Conviction as a text through which non-religious readers can catch a glimpse of how a particular type of Christian youth can struggle to understand the world through the lens of his religion. It’s not so different from reading about young adults who struggle with their gender, sexuality, race, or class. Even as I’ve extolled the importance of writers to write responsibly, it is just as important (perhaps even more so) for readers to read generously. Conviction¸ I believe, is a good exercise in that.

We both put All the Bright Places forward as the winner. 

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