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Posts Tagged ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’

Once again the Concord Monitor asked columnists and readers to add to the cacophony of holiday book recommendations. I’m not much of a fan of this sort of general advice for gift-giving — it’s personal, and without some idea of the tastes of the person you’re shopping for, how can I make a suggestion? But in the spirit of cooperation and community I played along. My suggestions are pasted below. For all the recommendations the Monitor ran, take this link.

I stand by the advice I gave last year in this space: Visit your local independent bookstore and public library for expert book suggestions. A gift card from your indie bookstore and a stocking stuffer from the Friends of the Library sale shelf (plus a library card application, if your giftee doesn’t have one), with the promise that you’ll spend an afternoon together browsing and enjoying a café treat, is a return-proof gift sure to appeal.

That said, here are four widely appealing recent books that would be great gifts for teens through great-grandparents:

Richard Blanco’s For All of Us, One Today is a brief memoir of his experience as inaugural poet. He writes movingly of his life, his family, his writing, and why poetry is important to our national conversation as one people in a diverse country.

Billy Collins’s new collection, Aimless Love, is brimming with his trademark wit and quirky perception, and is especially appropriate for those who fear they don’t get poetry.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence is a tremendously fun, sweet-not-syrupy, thought-provoking coming-of-age book. Told from a teenager’s perspective (but not a Young Adult book), this novel also addresses parenthood, aging, friendship, and end-of-life issues, as well as the power of books (and libraries!) to bring people together.

Shopping for a voracious reader? I suggest (and hope to receive) the literary almanac A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year.

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It’s been a while since I read a book that made me want to stay up too late or get up early to read. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence did both.

The hero of Extence’s debut novel is Alex Woods, a seventeen year old from Lower Godley, a village near Glastonbury. When we meet him it’s the middle of the night, he’s just off a ferry from France, he’s had a partial seizure, and he’s being arrested for having a bagful of marijuana, a considerable amount of cash, and an urn full of ashes in the car. As he sits in police custody he reviews how he ended up in this situation.

We learn that he’s the child of a single mother who operates a witchcraft shop and does tarot readings, and who conceived him at Stonehenge with a man she never saw again. When he was ten, he was the victim of a freak accident:a meteorite streaked through the sky over his home, broke through the bathroom ceiling, and hit him squarely on the head. When he came to a couple of weeks later he had a scar that would prevent him from growing a normal head of hair ever again and a brain injury that caused his epilepsy.

By the time he began secondary school, Alex was firmly “different.” Besides having an unusual mother, he did well in school, was “poor” in the view of his peers (which meant “not having the right stuff,” he explains), had a shaved head, and liked to feed ducks, learn about space, read, and care for his regularly-pregnant cat Lucy — all “gay” behavior as far as the school bullies were concerned. One Saturday three of them chased him through the village. Alex crashed through a hedge, took shelter in a shed, and had a seizure. When he woke up the shed’s owner, Mr. Peterson, (an American, Vietnam vet, and widower) was pointing a gun at him. It turns out the thugs smashed some windows and left Alex to take the blame.

Alex’s mother made him agree to do chores at Mr. Peterson’s house to make amends. His first task was to type Amnesty International letters. As he got to know Mr. Peterson he began to borrow his Kurt Vonnegut novels. And they became friends — one review suggests Mr. Peterson is a father figure, but I’d argue that’s not the case. As Alex tells it, Mr. Peterson treated him as an equal, not a child.

Other adults also factored into Alex’s strange upbringing. From his neurologist, Dr. Enderby, he learned meditation, which tames his epilepsy even better than medication does. From Dr. Weir, the astrophysicist who saved the meteorite from trophy hunters while he was hospitalized, he discovered his affinity for science. From the librarians at Glastonbury Library and other members of Alex’s Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, which he advertised as “a book club for people interested in all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extraterrestial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humor, et cetera) he learned that his interests and views were valid and valued.

So why is he sitting in a police interrogation room? He’s had to make life-altering decisions. Not about university education. Not about his strange relationship with Ellie, a classmate who works for his mother. Alex is unlike other teens, and the challenge he faced turns out to be unusual as well: Mr. Peterson needed help with two things that were perhaps ethically and morally right based on his circumstances, but illegal, at least in England. If I say any more I’ll give away too much of the plot.

So what was simply a quirky, funny, perceptive coming-of-age story is suddenly entangled with moral conundrums. I could not wait to learn the outcome.This much I can say: Alex, who was a bit of a twit to his mother and a bit too attached to his own precocious loner status, proves himself to be a deeply thoughtful and compassionate young man who copes with what happens with grace and love.

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