Flashback Friday: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

My rules — since I’m making this up:

  1. Has to be something I’ve (you’ve) read myself (yourself) — oh, you know what I mean!
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

(published 1998)

From Amazon:

Flannery Culp is 19, precocious, pretentious and incarcerated. Accused of Satanism and convicted of murder, she and her seven friends (the “Basic Eight”) have been reviled and misunderstood on the Winnie Moprah Show and similar tabloid venues. So Flannery has typed up and annotated the journals of her high school years in order to tell her real story: “Perhaps they’ll look at my name under the introduction with disdain, expecting apologies or pleas for pity. I have none here.” Handler’s sharply observed, mischievous first novel consists of Flannery’s diaries from the beginning of her senior year to the Halloween murder of Adam State and its aftermath. The journals detail Flan’s life in her clique of upper-middle-class San Francisco school friends, who desperately emulate adulthood by throwing dinner parties and carrying liquor flasks. Kate (“the Queen Bee”), Natasha (“less like a high school student and more like an actress playing a high school student on TV”), Gabriel (“the kindest boy in the world” and in love with Flan) and the rest begin experimenting with the hallucinogen absinthe. Squabbles once easily resolved grow deeper and darker when Natasha poisons the biology teacher who has been tormenting Flan. Should the Basic Eight turn on, and turn in, one of their own? Handler deftly keeps the mood light even as the plot careens forward, and as Flan, never a reliable narrator, becomes increasingly unhinged. The links between teen social life, tabloid culture and serious violence have been explored and exploited before, but Handler, and Flannery, know that. If they’re not the first to use such material, they may well be the coolest. Handler’s confident satire is not only cheeky but packed with downright lovable characters whose youthful misadventures keep the novel neatly balanced between absurdity and poignancy. (Publishers Weekly)

The Basic Eight, Daniel Handler’s first novel, is a wicked, funny, snarky story of high school, friendship, cliques, media, and murder. Before he became famous for his hugely successful Lemony Snicket book series, Handler wrote this novel, set in a fictional San Francisco high school not so very different from the real San Francisco high school that he attended.

To call The Basic Eight irreverent is putting it mildly. (Rumor has it that Handler was banned from the high school’s alumni wall of fame based on this book and its absolute skewering of the school’s faculty).

The plot moves in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions. Interspersed throughout are vocabulary lists and essay questions:

1. In this chapter, Flannery writes: “I lead a ridiculous life.” Do you agree with her assessment? Why or why not? Do you lead a ridiculous life? Why or why not?

I’m always surprised that more people haven’t heard of this book. The Basic Eight is dark and twisted, and at the same time, manages to be uproariously funny. Flipping back through the book as I write this and remembering how much fun I had with it, I’m quite tempted to read it all over again. Be warned: this is one of those books that springs so many surprises on you, you’ll want to go back to the beginning as soon as you’re done and see what clues you missed the first time around.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: This is my baby-steps attempt at a blog hop! Join in, post a Friday Flashback on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Let’s get this party started!

Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman

Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler; illustrated by Maira Kalman

Min Green and Ed Slaterton were young and in love… and then they broke up. Why We Broke Up, written by Daniel Handler and gorgeously illustrated by Maira Kalman, is Min’s letter to Ed, hastily and tearily written by Min on her way to dump on Ed’s doorstep all of the accumulated mementos from their brief but intense relationship.

The writing is supercharged with teen-aged emotion and humor. Min is part of the “arty” crowd, an avid film buff who relates everything in life to old movies. When she falls unexpectedly for golden boy Ed, co-captain of the basketball team and center of all that’s popular in their high school, you’d think it was the Montagues and Capulets all over again. Neither Min’s nor Ed’s friends approve, but these two are in orbit around each other.

The point of view is quite interesting. We’re meant to sympathize with Min, yet I can’t help but feel that her perspective is not always reliable. Ed points out to Min repeatedly that he likes her because she’s different — meaning different from him and his friends — but Min never seems to work her way around to being able to reciprocate. Instead, it’s Ed’s popularity and the seeming ease with which he breezes through life which Min consistently adds to the list of reasons of why they broke up. She seems to try to mold Ed into her idea of an acceptable boyfriend, but can’t bring herself to enjoy any of the pursuits that make Ed who he is. Min fails to do more than acknowledge in passing that Ed is largely being cared for by his older sister while his mother is ill — yet as readers, we can infer that his mother is terminal, and thus Ed’s actions may be understandable in a different light, one which Min ignores completely.

Still, these two sparkle together, and their love and lust take them to some touching and surprising places before they’re through with one another. Min speaks with the voice of a girl experiencing first love, and her heartbreak when it falls apart is piercingly true. Min’s internal collapse when she realizes that it’s all over is particularly well-written — a three-page venting that anyone who’s been a teen-aged girl can relate to, in which she lists all the ways in which she’s not special, not different, not anyone of note. It’s dismaying, yet so true a first reaction to rejection that I had to stop and marvel that a male author could capture a girl’s inner voice so accurately.

The writing sparkles, the pictures are lovely, and the story is just a delight. Don’t let the young adult classification fool you — this is good literature, enjoyable for anyone who appreciates witty characters, heartfelt emotions, and a story well-told. Don’t miss it.