A Brief but Vital History of OK

I have officially fallen down the rabbit hole of research for the new novel, since it takes place in early 20C eastern US, and I’m trying to, you know, be accurate with my unrealistic nouvelle-magic-realism-story.

My funnest find today:

“OK “ was supposed to be a joke. In the 1830s/1840s in Boston, it was all the rage to abbreviate everything, because Cool Bostonians were too busy to, like, say whole entire words. People ran around saying, “That’s an NG!” instead of “That’s a no go!”(or, more correctly, “that isn’t going to happen!”) and “Bob is GT, like everybody else” instead of “Bob has gone to Texas.”

(Why, Bob, why? I can see wanting to get out of Boston, but Texas? It’s super hot.)

So, “OK” was part of that language craze. But there was a joke in it, too. “OK” stands for “Orl Korrect,” which is a Hey I’m Being Silly-Talkin’ way of saying “All Correct.” So it was, at its inception, supercool in-crowd talk for “yep.”

So, moral of the story: 1840s Americans were HILARIOUS, yo.

Think of THAT every time you say “OK” now. Okay?

(Oh, and OK, it just occurs to me, are the initials of the main character of the novel, too. Well, it all comes full circle, doesn’t it, and I’m sure it means SOMETHING.)

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REVIEW: Into the Blue by Pene Henson

Into the Blue by Pene Henson (July 7, 2016); 236 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

“Sometimes we don’t get to keep things exactly the same. They can still be good.”

–Hannah, in Into the Blue

The Blue House is a crumbling, aqua blue seaside house on the North shore of Oahu. It’s home to a small found family of surfer kids: Tai Talegi, Ollie Birkstrom, Ollie’s younger brother Jaime, Hannah and Sunny. The ocean is practically at their back door, so they spend their days surfing the Banzai Pipeline and working or going to school when they must. The story centers around Tai, a budding board shaper, and his best friend Ollie, a world class surfer clawing his way back to the top after a pretty rough injury had knocked him out of competitions.

When Ollie gets tapped to compete in a worldwide tour surfing competition that will take him to places as far flung as Australia, Tahiti and South Africa, he asks Tai to come along as his supporter, board tech and coach. Though they have the “greatest friendship in the world,” once they’re away from their normal lives and everyday family, they discover that they can—and must—have more together.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and of course, things get in the way. But what’s central here is a kind of lighthearted-yet-determined struggling: the beachy, slapped-together home life of all the kids (who care for each other and work for each other to make a tight and fiercely intimate little family); Ollie’s climb back from injury to compete as a world class surfer; Ollie and Tai’s shaky, nascent love as it grows, a love which pulls them closer and farther apart like a tide, everyone’s desire to Figure It Out (the It being What to Do in the World and Whom to Be). This made me long for the days of that kind of brilliant patchwork life, full of uncertainty and people and love and risk and absolute newness, as difficult as it was rewarding. I remember windows wide open on weekend mornings, coffee cooling on the stove, sprawling meals we all cobbled together around a second-hand table (avocado, pancakes, a bowl of cold black beans, whatever we could scrounge, held together not by how well it fit but by how hungry we all were, how determined we were to call it a meal). The shared meal was the one moment of stillness we found together in our otherwise wide-scattered lives. This book puts me back there, in the best of ways. Life in the Blue House is like this.

It strikes me that this book is about people trying hard to hang on, trying to keep alive what’s precious to them. It’s what everyone in this book is doing: Blue House life is threatened again and again (by everything from absence to eviction) and the kids have to figure out how to persist; Tai tries to discover how to do what he loves while still staying loyal; Ollie’s trying to hang on to his life as a surfer though it’s really hard work that pulls his focus and sends him far away; Jaime’s on the cusp of college and all the kinds of leaving-behind that usually entails; Ollie and Tai find love but don’t know how to bring it home (for them, home threatens their love and their love threatens their home, and there’s no clear solution). Everyone is desperately trying to hang on. (And I’m refraining from making the point that surfing is also about hanging on, mostly because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to surfing. I can barely balance myself on land.) Okay, and that’s another thing I can say: it’s about trying to find your balance. And let me point to back to that quotation with which I started: it’s about finding new and beautiful kinds of good, without needing to hold rigidly to what was good in the past.

There’s lots in this book you won’t see coming. That seems to me to be part of the point: insecurity, searching for solid ground (even surfers, seriously). There’s a lot that threatens to tip over, and the gentle suspense is tightened by the backdrop of Ollie’s progress in the worldwide surfing competition as we see it through Tai’s eyes. It is, at its heart, a love story between two men who have always been friends, but that story is intertwined so skillfully with a comeback story, and with several different coming-into-oneself stories. The writing and the pacing are exactly right for this: quick, smart, clean, but descriptive enough to stir up real longing in the reader.

Everything in this book presses you forward, and you move with it happily, looking for the end you both want and don’t want. Is that a surfing metaphor? Not intentionally. Like I said, I have no idea what I’m talking about there. But it strikes me that bodies of water do that: ebb and flow, undertow, push forward at the same time you pull back. It seems like the whole exercise of surfing, like reading, may be self-defeating: the joy is in the brief ride that must be brief to be joyful. The very thing (the wave, the book) that thrusts you onward must inevitably come to an end and leave you behind.

Happily, unlike waves, which you can only ride once before they’re gone forever, you can re-read and re-read a book.

 

 

REVIEW: Set Me Free by Kitty Stephens

Set Me Free by Kitty Stephens (June 9, 2016); 256 pages. Available from Duet/Interlude Press here.
 
Aaron Ledbetter is supposed to marry his childhood friend Lyn; their parents, both heads of wealthy families looking to further their own power, made the decision long before Lyn and Aaron could talk. It’s a good thing Lyn and Aaron have grown to be best friends. All this would be fine (well, not fine, but tolerable), except that Aaron’s gay and both he and Lyn have their own plans.
 
Enter Jonas “Lucky” Luckett, who’s scored a job as a caricature artist at the carnival on Tybee Island where Arron’s and Lyn’s families vacation. Aaron and Lucky meet (in the men’s bathroom, of all places, but innocently enough), and everything seems to settle into place. This becomes the story of Aaron and Lucky falling in love and working out how to manage the different forms of distance and familial resistance they face in order to be together. They strike up a semi-secret (Lyn knows) summer courtship.
 
The title (SET ME FREE) sets us up to understand this as Aaron’s story—he’s the one who’s trapped by his family (well, so is Lyn, but her role in this story is to the side), and he’s the one Lucky might save. The “freedom” of that title is an either/or: the freedom allowed by financial success and familial/social support, versus personal freedom to live as he pleases (no Harvard, no wife).
 
Despite the focus on Aaron (and, to a lesser degree, Lucky), one of the biggest joys of this novel is Lyn—she’s feisty, smart, independent, and totally roots for Lucky to be happy (she’s all the things a GBF could want, really); there’s stuff going on for her (her own secret loves, her own aspirations and interests) to which the reader isn’t much privy (since Aaron doesn’t see it, and the narration alternates between sitting on Aaron’s and Lucky’s shoulders). She’s clearly got depth beyond what the other characters see, and it shows in little flashes here and there. (In fact, I’d love to see the novel from her point of view, her own story and her own desires coloring this world. She’s got a lot going on, not the least of which is being forced into marrying Aaron when she’s in love with someone else and knows her husband-to-be is, too. But this isn’t her story—there are plenty of stories of straight girls falling in love with the man of their dreams; this one instead belongs mostly to Aaron.) Lucky, too, proves to be feisty and smart and rooting for Aaron. The only people who don’t seem interested in rooting for Aaron are the “parentals,” as Aaron and Lyn call their parents. Aaron is, well, pretty lucky.
 
Since this book is published by Interlude’s young adult imprint, Duet, I’m going to try to rewind myself about 30 or 35 years to remember what it was like to be a young adult. (Yes, we had books back then, you jerk.) For young folks wishing for love, struggling with familial control/approval, and just figuring out their own independence, this book will hit some really right notes, not the least of which is the longing for freedom and independence from familial/social control (oh, kids, I’ve got bad news for you… that usually never goes away).
 
It makes itself a version of a “topsy-turvy” world. Since probably only people who have studied medieval Europe will understand that, I’ll first apologize, and then say that the notion of “topsy-turvy” was what undergirded Carnival/e (a tradition in many, many countries, which is now most notably seen surviving in celebrations in Rio and New Orleans): every year, the society would hold a festival in which all usual hierarchies were inverted (the king would act like a peasant, a peasant got to be “king,” gendered roles and behaviors were reversed, etc), and in this way the brief celebration acted like a steam valve, letting off the pressure in a brief and controlled way (so that the rest of the year, everybody stuck to their expected roles). Tybee Island vacations seem to be intended to function this way for Aaron’s family, but this year the “flight of fancy” (yes, it is related to a “fugue state,” and thus a musical fugue, since “fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight”), the summer fling, is intended to be just that: a retreat into fantasy that lets one go back to the plodding difficulty of your normal life afterward.
 
Except, when Aaron and Lucky meet, everything goes topsy-turvy for the summer, but then sticks for good.