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, 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 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.