Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I Didn't Tell You

-->A Poem By Me

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
at first
that I stopped believing.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner
that I wasn’t paying attention
to the sermons and lectures and tirades 
about miracles and modesty and gay marriage.
I wasn’t paying attention
because I was reading Ephesians
where Paul says we're chosen
to be like Jesus.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
that I didn’t feel chosen.
You would have explained
that faith isn’t a feeling,
it’s a choice,
like love.

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner
that I got angry in Sunday School
when someone said, “Pray for my sister.
She’s started drinking.”
I got angry because I didn’t see
how we had the right to look down
on people with different standards.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
that I hated all the rules.
You would have explained
that being chosen isn’t for everyone,
it’s for the separate,
the beloved.

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner
that I stopped reading my Bible
and started writing poems in my journal
and pretending to look at the verses.
I stopped reading because I wasn’t
experiencing a personal relationship
with the words not with Jesus.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
that trying to read it made me sad.
You would have explained that
sometimes God is silent for a bit
to test his children,
to test their faith-choice.

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner
that I thought God must be evil,
if he’s really in control,
and there’s so much bad that happens.
I thought God was evil, because
he SAID he would never leave me,
but I FELT so goddamn forsaken.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
that I couldn’t see the beauty in the world.
You might have told me sooner
about the time our family was too broke
to buy milk and bread, and an angel
left groceries on the porch.

I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner
that it’s easier to believe
that there is no God,
or He’s too far away to trouble with humans.
It’s too hard to believe that tragedies
like Katrina and Nine-Eleven were planned,
caused by a person with a
“greater purpose” in mind.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you
that I didn’t care about a God who didn’t care.
You might have protested,
but it wouldn’t have made a difference.

You see,
I stopped believing.
I wish I had told you sooner,
but I guess I couldn’t have.

It happened too slowly,
like an engine
of steam.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Where Things Come Back, Printz Award, 2012

At first glance, Where Things Come Back is utterly boring. If I hadn’t been taking a class on the Printz Award, I would never have finished it.

By page five I hated the main character. Cullen is simply a pretentious writer stuck in a teenage body. He’s deeply introspective, in love with love, picked on by jocks, and hopelessly self-important. He’s comfortable with being “an insecure shell of a man” and goes so far as to pick friends who allow him to be this way. He’s misogynistic in his descriptions of Ada, his brusque toleration of Meena, and his ignorance of Laura Fish’s emotions. He broadens these offensive ideas to all women in this ridiculous statement, “Pretty girls always want guys who treat them, and most everyone else, like complete shit.”

His voice grated on my nerves. The “When one does X, he begins to imagine Y” pattern used to distance himself from his fantasies throws me out of the narrative many times. The insertion of super-extra-clever book titles for his journal sometimes make me want to gag. Zombies and dark humor just seem like a contrived part of this emo package.

The setting felt cliché. Lily is a tiny town where nothing important happens; however, this tiny town has much more than it’s fair share of tragedy. Teenagers regularly die, adults who desperately want to leave get stuck there, parents are abusive or alcoholic or absent, and by the end of the book, the biggest hope the town has had in its entire existence turns out to be false.

The interwoven plot was jarring at first. I had no idea there was a dual narrative to this book until I was jolted out of Lily, Arkansas and plopped down into third-world Africa. Even after several switches, when an experienced reader would be expected to easily shift mindsets between narratives, the completely disjointed plot still made me want to throw the book across the room. I didn’t begin to sympathize with plot B until late in his story when I read, “He had traveled halfway around the world, slept in dirt-floor huts, given food and water to the poor and dying, but still hadn’t impressed Mr. Jackson Sage.” I finally felt something for him, and stopped feeling like trashing the book, but I still had no clue why he was there.

As I rounded the corner to the second half of the book, I began to understand why it won an award. I was happily surprised by the beauty and style of lines like these:

“He imagines heaven to be not some huge city with streets of gold and tall, white building, but a simple room filled with just enough of the good people to make him smile and feel like the center of attention as he tells a funny joke or talks about a new idea for a book. He sees his brother standing in the corner wearing green flannel pajamas like he did at Christmas five years before, and he sees his mother and father holding hands at the kitchen sink as he caught them doing on time when he was eleven. He see Lucas Cader tossing a football across the room to his older brother Alex, who looked just like him, and he hears his aunt Julia singing a hymn that he heard in church when he was eight or so.”

“I was trying to figure who I was back then. Trying to figure out why I said and did the things I said and did. Trying to understand why I cried ten minutes after Lucas told me Ada was at Russell’s but never shed a tear when my cousin dropped dead. Wondering why I had written nearly ninety titles, but not one single book. Questioning why I couldn’t do a damn thing to bring my brother back.”

Cullen’s quiet, intense emotion broke through my spite and confusion and began to draw me in. The two plots began to come together. I couldn’t stop turning pages to find out what had really happened to Gabriel. The parallel of themes, the merging of disparate stories, the beauty of Cullen’s emotions gave the feel of something almost supernatural at play in the previously boring story.

When I finished the book, I had to stop and think for a long time. There are so many themes and symbols at play in this book, a literature class could probably spend an entire semester on it. The symbols of resurrection – Gabriel, the bird, the revived town, Benton’s crazy ideas, Russell, and even Cullen himself, combine to create magical realism. Whaley puts it this way, “things could come back from the dead, mistakes could be rectified, lives could be started over.” Whaley provides social commentary on short-lived fame, law enforcement, and religion. Themes include interconnected fates, false hope, cynicism, death, grief, and friendship. Cullen points out something important about the way other people handle grief:
“I wanted to be offered help from people because they cared about me, not because they felt some strange social obligation to do so. If you feel sorry for someone, don’t pretend to be happy. Don’t pretend to care only about their problems. People aren’t stupid. The world can’t be satisfied but that need to fix it all can.”

A more prominent theme, traceable through both stories is obsession. The townspeople are so obsessed with the bird, they overlook a 15-year-old’s disappearance. Cabot’s obsession is aptly described here: “He had taken Benton's notes and not blown them out of proportion so much as he had strapped an atom bomb to every letter of every word.”

Over all of this, the theme of second chances transcends the story. Cullen says, “People can’t give up on other people yet. We all get a second chance, you know. We get to start over like Noah after the flood. No matter how evil man gets, he always gets a second chance one way or another.” Second chances make this story something newer, something beautiful, something that deserves to be read a second time.

Ship Breaker, Printz Award, 2011

 Ship Breaker bases a fast-paced, fascinating story in an even more fascinating world. There’s no doubt setting is Paolo Bacigalupi’s crowing achievement in this book and the primary reason it won two awards. Paolo flawlessly works references into the story that are easily recognizable even though they’re completely unfamiliar in our world– things like Harvesters, the Life Cult, the Scavenge God, the Rust Saint, the Fates, City killers, Orleans II, and the Teeth. The imagined world is frighteningly realistic, since the reader can easily trace a pattern of event from now to that dark, ugly age. The explanation for how that world came to be is even scarier - “The climate changed. The weather shifted. They did not anticipate well.” 

Its style of story telling is quick, with plenty of forward momentum. The style of language is often poetic like when Nailer nearly drowns in oil–“Spinning, spinning, spinning the wheel, his lungs bursting, all or nothing, reckless with the need to get out.” Or when Paolo describes injuries–“His should was a bright blossom of pain.”

Character’s voices reinforce the nature of their reality. Nailer and Pima speak with slang, irregular grammar, and in a clipped terse way like, “Luck or smarts, I don’t care, long as I’m not dead.” Nita speaks in perfect formal language with large words and complex syntax.

 Nailer’s fighting spirit is what makes him stand out as a character. My favorite example of this is his exchange with Pima at the end of the story.
            “What makes you think some lower deck grease monkey ahs a change with a girl like that?”
            “Beats me. Maybe I think I’ll just get lucky.”    
Even through terrible physical circumstances, Nailer is always dreaming big, working hard, and protecting those he loves.

Themes in Ship Breaker include intelligence, luck, poverty, wealth, war, oil-dependence, global warming. The consequences of killing stands out as an important theme as Pima’s mother coaches Nailer on how to deal with his feelings “You’ve got blood on your hands. It always costs. It never goes away.” The primary theme is family. Nailer reminds us that loyalty is more important than blood ties and blood ties don’t make our character. “The blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies."

The only part of the book I didn’t care for was the weak explanation of the corporate war going on that trapped Nita in the middle. The evil guy’s main character flaw was quasi-legal tax evasion? Maybe I missed something big. I think teenagers are old enough to understand business relationships, but Paolo used such large words in Nita’s mouth that I didn’t understand most of it. Paolo knows teens can handle the violence and darkness in the world of Ship Breaker, so why doesn't he give them the chance to understand a few business concepts? Keeping this information lofty and out of reach is just as bad as talking down to kids.

While I don’t usually quote other readers, Stefan, a reviewer on Amazon.com, wrote a comment I completely agree with and couldn’t say better myself: “While I enjoyed Ship Breaker, and would recommend it to mature YA readers, I can't help but wonder if this story wouldn't have worked better as a regular, non-YA novel. Some of the darker concepts, situated on the periphery of Nailer's story, are only broadly hinted at rather than described outright, which left me feeling frustrated and wanting to read more. If you told me there was a 600-page adult version of this 340-page YA novel, in which Paolo Bacigalupi really embraced the story's darkness and delved more deeply into the world's history and set-up, I'd be first in line to read it.” I too wanted to know more about the darkness of this world, and I wanted so many more pages of this wonderful story.

Going Bovine, Printz Award, 2010

Going Bovine is a deeply satirical, often dark, surreal quest story. It’s not the kind of story for everyone. It’s long! The plot is complicated and twists in and out of believability. It’s off-color and even vulgar. But Bray takes on huge social concepts and turns them all into comedic barbs. The story is quite a trip, and that’s the point.

The main character sells it as a believable teenager. He coasts through school and work, likes pretty girls, hates his father for having an affair, despises his emotionally distant mother, fights with his sister, gets high in the bathroom at school, and generally doesn’t give a fuck. His voice is alternately sarcastic and apathetic or positively ecstatic. When something does make him light up, make him care, he’s whole-heartedly passionate.
Music does it: “The song makes me want to run and shout, kiss girls and ride motorcycles through the desert. It makes me feel really alive, the way Eubie says music should.”
Dulcie does it: “Something brushes against my bare skin. Fingers? Lips? Wings? I can’t say, but the sensation is incredible. . . . It’s so intense, this happiness – there is no escape velocity from this kind of feeling. And for once, I’m not looking for a way out.”

As far as style goes, I’m jealous of Bray’s ability to blend dreams/fantasy and reality. She sends Cam from waking to dreaming and back flawlessly in this selection:
"I’ve put my head on my desk, where I can hear the minute hand ticking hard in my ear. My eye-lids are heavy. Almost . . . Asleep . . .
The room is on fire. A row of flames shoots up in to my field of vision. I leap out of my chair, knocking it over. It hits the ground with a loud thwack.
'Mr. Smith? Are you okay?' Mrs. Rector asks.
When I look up to the front of the room, everything’s fine. No fire."

Transitions from Cam’s journey to the hospital room are also fluid but clear. The reader knows exactly where reality is interrupting the imaginary journey.
“The fire god pries open my mouth and covers it with his. He breathes out, filling my lungs with choking smoke. My body shakes. Somebody’s pushing against my chest in a hard rhythm.
‘Page Dr. Xavier!’ Glory shouts. I’m on a gurney, watching the fluorescent ceiling lights strobe over me fast . . . .
The next think I know, I’m on the pavement of Farm Route 44 with a van headed right for me.”
Setting is where Bray’s wit shines, starting with the SPEW test (State Prescribed Educational Worthiness) where thinking outside the pre-prescribed test material is strictly prohibited, and continuing on to a giant mockery of MTV’s spring break television shows. She purposely compares the setting of this story to the setting of Don Quixote. The famous literary novel is introduced by Cam’s cheating; he says, “The Fake It! Notes tell me that Cervantes is satirizing the culture of idealism.” He goes on to compare suburban housing to Don Quixote’s windmills. And the reader automatically continues to make similar comparisons throughout the book.

Themes in Going Bovine include mental instability, dysfunctional families, news and television, education, environmental concerns, religion, instant gratification, family, friendship, love, lust, fear, and death. Dulcie shares this ultimate theme with Cameron, “Everyone’s dying. A little, every day. Make it count.”

The theme is lofty, literary, and admirable, but I do take issue with the suggestion that what Cam did on his journey was really the core of living. Unless Bray believes the sum of these activities to be much greater than their parts, I don’t get it. Cam “lives” by partying, drinking, smoking weed, stealing money, avoiding religious crazies, having unprotected sex with a school crush and doing it again with an angel an hour later, running away from a dark evil force, getting put on a wanted list, and grappling with the intertwined concepts of music, physics, and trans-dimension time-travel. His version of “making it count” is only "making it fun." I was rooting for Cam to care about anything other than survival and self-gratification. I have a hard time accepting that anyone can make his life count- even an imagined life- without ambition and gratitude.

The White Darkness, Printz Award, 2008

The premise of The White Darkness is absolutely fascinating– slightly insane girl gets dragged to the arctic by her more insane uncle and must fight man and nature to survive. But the story’s execution wasn’t so fascinating.           

The setting and characters were often too strange to be believable. Sym’s multiple personality disorder with this persona of a long-dead explorer was acceptably quirky. I could not relate, but I could wrap my mind around it. However, her willfully ignorant adoration of her insane uncle rendered her one of the weakest female characters I’ve ever read about. The way she idealizes ignorance and “a little child’s imagination” (35) made me despise her. Victor, as a character, was completely over the top. His insanity was obvious from the moment he “lost” Sym’s mom’s passport and would not let Sym call home. From then on, it was easy to guess that he was scamming Manfrud, that he was drugging the members of the Pengwings Expeditionary Force, and that he never intended for Sym to leave Antarctica alive. My only surprise from this character was that he murdered Sym’s father.

Dialogue often confused me, like I was listening to part of a group conversation where a hidden party was saying something to connect the other peoples' statements. It was jolting and unnatural. Here’s an example:
Sigurd: “Your uncle, at home, his profession is . . . ?”
Sym: “Yes! I know.”
Sigurd: “You like maybe the animals . . .”
Sym: “I heard penguins stink.”
Sigurd: “I heard that also. That is a very attractive skirt.”
Sym: “Is that the itinerary. Can I see it?”

Setting promised to be a highlight of this story. Some descriptions shine as excellent writing like this one:
“I chose not to believe in weather stations and trucks and prefabricated igloos painted fire-engine red. I preferred to believe in meteorites nicking the planet’s skin, needle sharp starlight pricking it, the blood of dogs and ponies” (74).

Descriptions of the arctic wilderness were interesting at first, but became overdone and monotonous. I identified with a reader review on amazon.com that said, “We get it. It’s white!” There were even descriptions that, frankly, made no sense to me like this one:
“The horizon, for the first time was sharp as wire- three wired, in fact, because the horizon had tripled. And there floating above it, with a hand span of sky for a moat, hung a jet-black palace.”

Minute detail, and high emotion in description was wonderful. Here’s an example: “He threw the tin of syrup so that it hit the mantel-piece and we all sat and watched the syrup drip, drip, dripping into the grate like big amber tears” (69). But the narrative was so description-heavy that it was hard to find the beautiful moments.

Themes of The White Darkness include ignorance, innocence, exploration, discovery, crime, insanity, sexual discovery, love, and survival. A significant sub-theme is the contrast between subconscious knowledge and personal willingness to admit that knowledge. Sym says, “Every crime like this needs someone like me to look away and say nothing,” pointing out that her unwillingness to consciously admit certain facts allowed someone else to do wrong. The biggest theme is friendship, friendship which overcomes obstacles and fights for it’s own existence. Sym says, “Friends aren’t friends who tell you black is white just because you want it to be,” recognizing that friendship in itself requires one to stand up and say the right thing whether or not it’s going to be accepted.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Looking For Alaska, Printz Award, 2006

The story of Looking For Alaska depends entirely on character. The boy-meets-girl, girl-dies-tragically plot is weak, but three vivid characters–Pudge, the Colonel, and Alaska–shine as Green’s true accomplishments in this book.  

Pudge is a unique teenager– intensely inquisitive, kind-hearted, and desperate for affection. We see his character most clearly in the way he views Alaska. He sees himself as nothing, and Alaska as everything in this passage:
“[I wished we could] just sleep together, in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane” (88).
The ability to make the reader love, hope, pine, and lash out just as the main character does is a mark of great fiction. Green does this beautifully, and as the book progresses, the reader also takes his focus off Pudge and develops an obsession with Alaska.

Voice, style, and authenticity all contribute to this melding of character and reader. Pudge’s voice is intelligent and obsessive. It is invaded by reference to Alaska even where she isn’t immediately present. For example, when he day dreams in class, he thinks,
 “The trees seemed to clothe the hill, and just as I would never notice a particular cotton thread on the magnificently tight orange tank top Alaska wore that day, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest – everything so intricately woven together that it made no sense to think of one tree as independent from the hill” (39).

Style changes effectively reflect Pudge’s state of mind including physical and emotional calamity. For instance, Pudge’s change in mind during his concussion is evident from his incessant repetition of “I’m concussed.”  Minute details display his hopelessness after Alaska’s death–details like, “I’d gotten a plastic stock car with my Happy Meal, and it sat overturned on the table. I spun the wheels” (175).

Authenticity of a teenage experience furthers the bond between character and reader. High school is full of silly pranks, little crushes, big dreams, nervous embarrassment after any sexual encounter, and relationships that consist of little but fighting or settling for the easiest companion. I specifically identified with the fun of cramming six people into a tiny old car to go to McDonalds.

There were only a few problems I had with this text. I personally could not identify with the prevalence of smoking, drinking, and sex in a high school setting, because I attended a private school where immediate expulsion was the consequence for these activities. I also had questions about plausibility like, Why is a dork like Pudge attractive to Lara and Alaska? and, How are these students getting such high grades when they spend so much time drinking, talking about sex, and playing pranks? and, Why would any parent pay for their child to attend a school which cultivates such blatant disregard for authority?

My biggest problem with the story is Pudge’s treatment of Lara. After setting Alaska up as a such a strong feminist, Green works against his own message by allowing Pudge to ditch Lara immediately after their first sex experience. In his grief over Alaska, Pudge becomes the kind of hit-and-run guy that Alaska and all self-actualized women would despise.

Themes in Looking for Alaska include relationships, authority, religious philosophy, death, guilt, and forgiveness. Controversial issues include underage smoking, drinking, and sex, suicide, and dangerous pranks; however, no content is gratuitous. The primary theme is the passion of a youthful spirit. It is summed up in the last passage of the novel.
“Awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be . . . We [teenagers] think that we are invincible because we are.  They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

How I Live Now, Printz Award, 2005

The story of How I Live Now is fast-paced, unusual, and engrossing. It’s a perfect blend of love story and survival story. Expert handling of voice, character, and setting make Daisy’s journey completely believable amidst incredible circumstances.

The primary part of the novel is written in continuous prose style, without normal punctuation, a style which is very difficult for some readers, but can create a spell-binding effect of actually being inside Daisy’s head. Daisy later explains her unconventional writing as grief stricken ramblings because she “refused to relinquish a single detail of the past.” Her voice is sometimes devastatingly sad and sometimes quite humorous. Daisy’s teenage mind flawlessly blends the two as a way of allowing both herself and the reader to cope. One of my favorite examples of this is in chapter 28. “We couldn’t go on. We went on. Staying alive was what we did to pass the time. . . . I was thinking of approaching my old school the next time we were in New York and telling them to replace the unit on Media Communications with one on How to Survive Half Dead in the Wilderness without Much in the Way of Hope.”

The setting of a vague current war is frankly terrifying to me. Some readers won’t abide the lack of specific details about this war, but the lack of detail is authentic and understandable. Rosoff merely asks us to imagine what life would be like if an organized terrorist group were to attack both Britain and the U.S. and cut off all normal communication like phone and internet. People would be confused, to say the least. Many would not even know who the real enemy was. Transport systems for medicine, food, and gasoline would fail. Hospitals would be dedicated only to war injuries. People would organize militia groups to fight back. Drafting and quartering acts would be expected. When the enemy is defeated, people would debate about what exactly started the war in the first place, throwing out ideas like “oil, money, land, sanctions, democracy.” The vagueness of this war is not at all a weakness of the story; it provides a strong emotion-laden setting.

Although Daisy is really the only developing character in the story, the others are by no means boring. Piper is angelic, innocent, trusting, and she can talk to animals. Her weakness serves as the catalyst for Piper’s growth. Edmund is a 14-year-old smoker with scraggly hair and puppy-dog eyes. He’s intelligent and sensitive. He has some kind of telepathic ability that allows him to hear people’s thoughts. He serves as motivation for Daisy’s journey. Daisy gradually grows from a selfish, insecure, anorexic teen bent on punishing herself and her family into a brave young woman who fights to protect the safety and innocence of Piper, to survive the threats of the wilderness and war, and to love Edmund despite his damage.

In spite of numerous negative reader reviews concerning the “cousin issue,” I didn’t personally find it to be a problem. A relationship with a first cousin is not morally wrong, or incestuous; in this book, it’s not even gross (the cousins have never met each other before). It is a societal taboo, and Daisy recognizes that fact, pointing out that they can only get away with this behavior because adults aren’t around.

The only part of this book I didn’t like was the abrupt end to the first section. I would have appreciated knowing what Daisy thought as officers showed up at her door and carted her off to a plane bound for America. I wanted to know how she felt about being put in a hospital when she went back. I understand leaving a gap for the time she was actually in the hospital, but details leading to that point could have emphasized Daisy’s emotional state when she began writing her story.

Themes of How I Live Now include love, responsibility, control, hunger, lust, underage sex, anorexia, telepathy, war, and survival. The primary theme is survival for the sake of love. Survival in itself is never Daisy’s goal. When she lives in America and feels unloved, her self-punishment and demand for control work against her own survival. After she grows to love Edmund and Piper, and they love her, she uses base survival as a means to keep that love. She reminds us at the end of the book when discussing her love for Edmund that “Fighting back is what I’ve discovered I do best. . . . And that’s how I live now.”

The First Part Last, Printz Award, 2004

The First Part Last follows the relatively boring life of a teenage father. I say boring because all of Bobby’s actions and reactions are expected and understandable. His experiences even seem designed to be an “issue story,” a cautionary tale to teenagers about the dangers of unsafe sex. Need I emphasis how annoying those stories are to teen?

But Angela Johnson does something wonderful. She transforms a predictable, issue-heavy narrative into a vivid experience through her expert handling of voice, character, setting, and style. Booklist calls The First Part Last “poetry,” and I agree. The feel of reading it is more like reading a novel in verse than reading a novel. The narrative is clear, concise, and construed more to make an emotional impact than to spin a story.

Bobby’s voice is like we’re hearing a story he’s telling himself. His thoughts are often short, which makes him sound like a teenager. Sentence fragments emphasize his immaturity and eagerness in passages like this. “I spray black. Then red, mixed with some blue. The boy’s got to be paler. But no, maybe just some green all around him. Maybe just some more green. I’m losing wall now. It’s all got to come to an end soon.”

But the thoughts themselves are often deep and focused, which makes him seem mature. For instance, when Nia is about to break the big new, he notices a balloon. “Nia was waiting on our stoop for me with a red balloon. Just sittin’ there with a balloon looking all lost. I’ll never forget that look and how her voice shook when she said, ‘Bobby I’ve got something to tell you.’ Then she handed me the balloon.”

For Bobby, voice perfectly matches character. He’s alternately immature and mature, petty and deep, irresponsible and responsible. He loves basketball, video games, painting and pizza. He wants to have it easy sometimes. He’s scared of responsibility. He doesn’t trust his rich teacher or the rich families that could adopt his baby. When he finds out he’s a father, he wants to do the “right thing,” not just because his mom tells him too, but because he loves Nia and the baby that kicks inside her. The Then/Now sequence of the book, while confusing at first, falls into an understandable pattern, and serves to contrast Bobby’s former self and current self, as he grows from a carefree child into a responsible teen who puts the good of those he loves above his own.           

The setting of Manhattan is real, but not overbearing. The story could take place in any large city. We see Bobby’s world most often through the things he loves about his city. He says, “He loved the smell of it. Pizza on one corner, falafel and French pastries on the next . . . Couldn’t sleep without the ambulance noises and people calling to each other in the street who are just getting back from the clubs . . . He loved the sounds the kids made running to the subway, and cabs blowing by and screeching to a stop.” This passage, where Bobby takes on a third person voice to tell his own story, is particularly engaging because many of us do take a step back and think of the story of our lives when a difficult situation arises.

Themes of The First Part Last include teen pregnancy, parenting, love, grief, and sacrifice. The primary theme is accepting responsibility. Bobby’s initial decision to raise Feather may have been more emotional than rational. He says, “I don’t know anything about raising a kid. I’m sixteen and none of those people on the wall look like the kind of family me and Feather’s gonna be. But I’m doing it.” When the social worker protests, he responds, “But I love her, and even though I’m not set up for her, she’s mine. And I’m hers.” He finally knows that his actions, his love, and his relationship to this child dictate the sacrificial responsibility it takes to raise a child instead of the selfish irresponsibility it take to give one away.

[Note: I do not believe putting a child up for adoption is always the selfish thing to do, but in Bobby's particular case it is. Bobby has a stable extended family and material resources to benefit the child. He and Nia do not choose to give the baby away for the baby's benefit, they do it for their own convenience, which is selfish.]

My favorite passage is the chapter where Bobby discovers Nia’s been taken to the hospital and then sees Feather for the first time. Angela Johnson perfectly captures the raw emotion of a boy running, screaming all the way to the hospital, and feeling like a child as he gives in to grief. She slows down her prose as she brings Feather to her father for the first time, giving the reader time to move from sadness to joy. Then as Bobby holds his three day old daughter who cried through the night, she sticks us with the theme in a way that feels absolutely right and natural. “I’m supposed to suck it up and do all the right things if I can, even if I screw it up and have to do it over.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

Postcards From No Man's Land, Printz Award, 2003

Postcards From No Man’s Land is an introspective coming-of-age story. Pieces of Jacob’s life and Geetrui’s weave together to create a satisfying narrative. The style is very mature, with a broad vocabulary and deep themes. To a unpracticed reader, the book may be boring, offensive, or hard to understand. One goodreads.com reviewer said, “It’s just this sort of book that causes YA readers to shun books with an award medal on the cover.” I disagree. It’s the sort of book that is literary, methodic and meaningful. Yes, it’s very different from the fast-paced active stories that teens are used to reading for entertainment, but it’s not inferior.

The voice is authentically teenage most of the time–self-centered, angsty, energetic, and eager. However, much of the vocabulary seems contrived. At one point I put the book down, thinking, this prose is ridiculous. The passage that struck me this way is as follows:
“How often with the aid of a couple of mirrors he had scowled from every possible angel at that offensive hooter, that hideous snout, that swollen trunk, that tumescent nasal evacuator. He would sometimes squeeze and manipulate the end of his embarrassing blower between finger and thumb, like a sculpture molding clay, hoping to reshape it into at least a presentable, if not a handsome conk.”
Jacob’s internal dialogue is far too literary for his age and personality, which may contribute greatly to the negative reactions to this book by other reviewers.

The format of switching between two stories is straightforward, although I spent far too much time trying to figure out how the two stories were connected. The dual-narrative format could also be an obstacle to less experienced readers. The format especially tripped me up at the insertion of other accounts of the 1944 battle from page 152 to 185; these accounts seemed out of place and unnecessary.

The two main characters are fascinating. While other characters are not fully round, they accurately represent what the two main characters could practically know about them. The reader meets the side characters as Jacob and Geertrui do. Emphasis is on their emotions and impressions rather than the actual description of the characters. For example, Geertrui does not initially tell us what the older Jacob looked like, only that “He had eyes that made me melt” (16).

Two settings serve to further the themes, contrasting an old Dutch village and new Dutch city. The descriptions are vivid, so it’s easy to imagine Geertrui’s house, the hotel turned military hospital, Daan’s apartment, the museum, the river, the little shops and restaurants in Amsterdam, and the graveyard.           

Themes in Postcards From No Man’s Land include identity, self-discovery, sexuality, self-honesty, grief, bravery, and integrity. I appreciate Chambers’s open discussion of issues like sexuality, euthanasia, and moral dilemma,  but Postcards addresses so many issues that it starts to feel like a heavily didactic story. This may be on purpose. In the story, Daan equates education with corruption (not meaning dishonesty or vice, but meaning distortion and alteration of form), and makes a valid point that new education inherently challenges old ideas and norms. I can't say how much Daan’s opinions about love resonate with me.
                        “There are no rules about love. Who you love. How many people you can love. Like love is some kind of commodity  . . . . Love is not finite. It is not that we each have a limited supply of it that we can only give to one person at a time. Or that we have one kind of love that can only be given to one person in the whole of our lives. It’s a ridiculous thing to think so.” 

I did struggle through this book, but the last few chapters completely changed the way I view it and personally connect to it. Although I could have done with a hundred less pages, I absolutely believe Postcards From No Man's Land deserved an award for its skillful narrative, authentic characters, challenging ideas, complex emotional journey, and advanced themes.

Kit's Wilderness, Printz Award, 2001

I expected a lot after reading the back of this book – I expected an intense plot, detailed stories about the past, and a search for ghosts. I didn’t get any of those things. Kit’s Wilderness has a rambling plot, which, even as magical realism, seems unrealistic. My opinion may stem from the drastic difference between the English culture portrayed in this book an my own – the repeated use of “eh? eh!,” the lax authority of all adults in the text, the classroom focus on the arts, the use of such a terrifying story as a school play, and Kit’s family’s responses to his grandfathers illness all seemed illogical to me.

Almond effectively uses a storyteller character’s voice as the narrator. The style of switching between story narration and Kit’s writing propelled the story through a slow part of the plot. The short story about Lak and his baby sister fascinated me, but the writing seemed far more mature Kit would be capable of. I would be very surprised to read a passage like this written by a 13-year-old – “He moved quickly with hope in his heart. The baby slept, contented. Behind him, the great dark birds spiraled from the sky, flapped heavily down into the hollow.”

Kit’s wilderness is full of unrealistic and undeveloped characters. I don’t know enough about any of them to care about their life or understand their decisions. Kit’s grandfather and Allie were the most interesting characters to me, but neither were active in the resolution of the story. The ghost children, as characters, served no purpose in the plot. They created a sense of magic and horror, adding to the tone of the story, but did not actively help or hinder Kit and Askew.

The theme of the books seems to be something grand about the struggle between life and death and the uncertainty of death. I think the story tries too hard to be heavy and important. The symbolism is hard-hitting and unmistakable. Askew is darkness and death but he’s capable of light and life. Allie is light and life but she’s capable of darkness and death. Kit is caught in between, trying to decide which he’d rather be with.

As a side note, the interactions between Kit and Askew really rub me the wrong way. Their passive-aggressive friendship mirrors many negative romantic relationships in more recent YA lit. John is a bully and focuses much of his anger on Kit, but Kit still befriends him and follows him into a frightening situation merely because Kit feels responsible to save him. The last scene in the mines makes this point for me. Askew lights a fire in the mine, and Kit cautions, “This is lethal. If there’s gas around . . .” Askew clearly cares for no one’s safety, responding “Kaboom! Great flash of fire and we’re all gone.” Kit stays in this dangerous situation only to repeatedly remind Askew that his “mother is searching for [him].”

The strongest aspects of Kit’s Wilderness are tone, history, and setting. The tone is beautifully bleak, like The Graveyard Book. The history of the small town is beautiful, and I wanted to know more about it. The sub-theme of the magical effects of history on current reality creates a far more fascinating concept than Kit’s struggle between life and death. The setting, with landscape descriptions, weather, and small town charm, really comes alive.

Monster, Printz Award, 2000

While the story Monster takes a unique tack with the teenage-victim-of-racism angle, it’s a bit boring and predictable. Reminiscent of John Grisham novels and every court-room drama aired on television, the novel makes use of sensationalism, extreme villainization, revelations of prison atrocities, and a protagonist of questionable morality.

Steve’s voice seems authentically masculine and teenage, and effectively uses a mixed media to convey story.  However, his voice is at times whiny and angsty. For instance, in one scene Steve watches a baseball game on tv and says, “They were playing baseball as if baseball was important and as if all the world wasn’t in jail, watching them from a completely different world.”

Because the voice is first person, it seems absurd to leave Steve’s guilt or innocence vague. A boy like Steve, so set on proving how horrible his situation is, would most likely answer that question in his own journal. The author gets around it by having Steve say, “I thought about writing about what happened at the drugstore, but I’d rather not have it in my mind.” Instead of coming across as a genuine emotion of the character, this reads as a contrived way to keep the reader in the dark.

The style keeps the narrative at a relatively quick pace, but format design could be confusing or annoying for some readers. The style is also completely “telling,” since Steve controls the entire narrative to the extent that all characters become untrustworthy.

The setting is real and raw, full of minute detail and colored by Steve’s emotional lens. For example, Steve describes his janitor duty with this sentence, “On the floor there were big arcs of grey dirty water and swirls of stinking brown bubbles.”

Steve as a character is hard to like. He doesn’t develop or reveal an interesting personality. All we know about Steve by the end of the novel is that he loves film and his family and that he was put in jail and on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed. The antagonists were flat, stereotypical characters, simply there to be villainized. Those supposedly supporting Steve weren’t much better.

Themes include racism, prison life, gang violence, fear, loneliness, name-calling, and labeling. The ambiguity of Steve’s guilt provides discussion opportunities. However, constant reference to race seems to be promoting or at least accepting the racism of the system instead of challenging it.

Steve wrestles with the question, “Am I a monster?” Through Steve’s emotions, Meyers points out that this “bad kid” labeling is harmful. Myers could have made this point better by clearly stating Steve’s guilt or innocence. But instead of correcting the wrong perpetuated by the adult characters, the story wallows in it. The final response to the question is a confirmation to Steve that he is a monster. The prosecutor turns away, Steve’s father leaves, his interactions with his mother are never the same, and he is left only with this label and nothing else. Because Steve’s guilt is unclear, there is no final moral point for the reader, no growth or redemption for any character. The tragedy is simply displayed and not condemned. I can see no award-winning quality in that.