Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Going Bovine" by Libba Bray

Summary:  Cameron, a teenage boy without much in the way of interests or motivation, learns he has mad cow disease, and quickly ends up in the hospital, fading fast.  Then Dulcie, a punk angel, enters his life, and convinces him and a dwarf friend to go on a crazy trip around the country, searching for the mysterious Dr. X in order to cure Cameron and save the world.

Musings:  I'd heard a lot of good things about Going Bovine, but I really didn't know what to expect going in.  I was sold on the first page, however, when I met the narrator Cameron, and his sarcastic humor.  When talking about the obnoxious football-star-turned-religious-motivational-speaker (after an injury), Cameron notes: "Anyway, [the speeches] get him laid, I hear.  Doing the horizontal mambo with sympathetic cheerleaders is, apparently, a-okay in God's book, and it doesn't upset your spine like football.  Of course, now he's dating my sister, Jenna, so I'll just be flipping on the denial meter for that one" (7).  Cameron was a fabulous protagonist.  Like most teenagers, he was neither a total victim or a total instigator.  Some things in his life sucked, but he also set himself up for failure.  He let apathy be his default mode rather than risk being disappointed.  His growth throughout the novel shaped the story, and he felt like a real person.

The novel was hilarious, and weird, and random, and funny, and touching all the way through.  In a book with a hypochondriac dwarf, a garden gnome inhabited by a Norse god, and evil in the form of the United Snowglobe Wholesalers, you can't go wrong.  On top of that, the novel addresses issues like sex and sexuality, drug use, and death without insulting teenagers' intelligence and without any "message."

I read it while on the plane and at my in-laws' place for Thanksgiving and had a great time.  It's the perfect book for people who like darker humor and the absurd.

Update: 10:02pm (a few references to minor spoilers)

When I wrote my review I had just returned home from Thanksgiving break and didn't really think about the book critically.  I still loved reading it and would recommend it, but I was looking over some reviews and was struck by one person's comments about the character Dulcie.

Dulcie is an important character in the book who initially spurs Cameron on his journey.  However, as this reviewer pointed out, despite appearing frequently throughout the novel, Dulcie is not a person in her own right.  Her purpose is to support Cameron and allow him to achieve his fantasies: she's a wizened guide, an object of sexual desire, and a damsel in distress when necessary for Cameron's odyssey, but she has no personality in her own right.  We learn nothing about her and nothing about what she wants.  Cameron's male friends, Gonzo and Balder, are striking and interesting individuals.  But the sole primary female character is identified by her wings and smell, not her character.  Angela at Bookish Blather wrote an interesting post a week or so ago about "blank page heroines." These "blank page heroines" support the male figure without having any thoughts or desires in their own right.  Dulcie would fit right in.

Angela and the authors of some of her source material speak of books in which women want to insert themselves into this "blank page heroine" role (i.e., Twilight).  However, Going Bovine is a little different.  I don't know if girls would want to be Dulcie; she's almost too blank, despite her sexual desirability, to want to emulate.  However, I don't like this idea that women "sidekicks" can't be real people.  Throughout the book, Bray has the reader question what about Cameron's journey is "real."  If it is, in fact, all inside Cameron's head, then he's recreated a male fantasy: awesome and loyal male sidekicks and girl who is cute, nag-free, and sexually available.  That may be true to adolescent males' fantasies, but in a book that portrays Cameron as learning how to "truly live," it's problematic.  It skews my feelings about him a bit, and it's bothering me about an otherwise wonderful book.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Notes from a Small Island" by Bill Bryson

Summary: Bryson aims to travel through England, making notes about the towns and cities he stops at along the way.

Musings:  First, a confession: I didn't finish this book.  I made it to page 270, which means I read 85% of it, so I decided that was sufficient enough to blog about (I remember hearing somewhere that, on Broadway, if 85% of the seats are sold, it's considered a sold-out show.  That may be entirely false, but I'm employing the idea here.).  I kept thinking it was stupid to not finish; after all, I'd come so far.  But, despite it being a perfectly fine book, I just wasn't enjoying myself.  Also, I'm unaccountably thinking and writing like Bryson, which probably isn't a good thing.

Notes from a Small Island was part of my new foray into nonfiction.  Looking back, I'm not exactly sure why I decided to integrate more nonfiction into my world other than because I thought I "should."  But now I have a bunch of nonfiction books to read, so I'm stuck.

Bryson has a light and humorous tone, which is the main appeal of his novel.  His complaints and observations about British customs and his random asides were by far the best part of this book.  Take this section, which cracked me up:

[complaining about the dashboard in a rental car] In the middle of this dashboard were two circular dials of equal size.  One clearly indicated speed, but the other totally mystified me.  It had two pointers on it, one of which advanced very slowly and the other of which didn't appear to move at all.  I looked at it for ages before it finally dawned on me--this is true--that it was a clock. (141)

However, beyond some amusing anecdotes, not enough happens to make the book interesting.  As someone who has visited England, but is generally unfamiliar with its locations, I had no "knowing smile" to crack when he discussed a town.  Bryson does basically the same thing in each place in England: shows up, finds a place to stay, has tea, hikes around town, has dinner, has drinks at a pub, goes to sleep, gets up, takes a bus to somewhere else.  The exact same routine takes place in each town, and I got tired of hearing his description of the beautiful walks and his complaints about the architectural decline of the towns.

Perhaps this just wasn't the most appropriate Bryson novel for me.  Some parts really were enjoyable, but I found myself skimming more and more and not really listening to what he had to say.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dystopias and YA Authors

I've had, if I may use a cliched non-word, a booktastic weekend.  I received the plethora of books at NCTE, attended some interesting workshops at the convention, and just returned from a great YA author book signing.

The last convention workshop I went to yesterday was on dystopian and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction.  My book interests generally veer in that direction, although I've been complaining recently about overdosing on the doomsday.  Nonetheless, I was excited to hear other teachers talk about the books they've taught.  I'd read probably three-quarters of the books they recommended, and my current curriculum doesn't really allow me to teach dystopias, but I did come away with some books I hadn't heard of that I'd like to try.  These include:
- The Wave (Strasser)
- The City of Ember (DuPrau)
- The Running Man (Bachman, really Stephen King)
- The Long Walk (Bachman/King)
- Feed (M.T. Anderson)

This afternoon I went to a small independent bookstore called Children's Book World, which featured a book signing with a bunch of popular YA authors.  A portion of the proceeds went to support the Philadelphia Library System (definitely a worthy cause).  I'd heard of nearly all the authors present, but was especially excited to meet Steve Kluger, the author of The Last Days of SummerLast Days has been a summer reading book for our 9th graders for several years, and the kids absolutely love it.  I've heard wonderful things about his new novel, My Most Excellent Year, which I purchased.  He was super nice.  I also had Wintergirls signed by Laurie Halse Anderson and Leviathan signed by Scott Westerfeld.  Although Uglies is the only Westerfeld novel I've read so far, Leviathan looks really interesting.  Had a nice conversation with him about the use of illustrations in that book.

I had a wonderful time, and the authors and staff of Children's Book World were all enthusiastic and welcoming.  I have far, far too many books to read now, but I can't wait to start!

Friday, November 20, 2009

NCTE Rocks My World

Today I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Convention for the first time.  I was pretty excited to have a chance to attend some workshops on a wide array of topics, although I'll admit the enormous size and scope of the conference was pretty intimidating.

The morning at the conference was going well, and as I was reading the program, I noticed ads for several publishing booths indicated there were free books available.  I decided to head over to the big exhibit hall when it opened, hoping to grab a book or two.

What I found astounded me: rows after rows of publishers giving away FREE BOOKS!  I was in heaven.  I'm a big stickler for borrowing from the library and friends, so I never purchase novels.  As I result, my own book shelves are pretty skimpy (especially for an English teacher), so I'm always thrilled when I can add something to my collection.

Primary lesson I learned: there is no madness like scores of English teachers diving for literature.  It was crazy, and awesome, all at the same time.  I first assumed the books were likely to be random novels no one has heard of, but I was surprised by the quality.  In the end, I left with fifteen books including:

- The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness (yes!)
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
- The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Ray

I got a stuffed owl from Cliff Notes too! Many of the other books are YA, especially with dystopian themes (guess I'm never going to escape it!).  Some look interesting, some less so, but I'll lend them out to my students and ask them to give me a review.

I'm heading back to the convention center tomorrow for the second full day of the convention.  I think my freebie shopping is over, but I'm looking forward to a number of workshops.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls

Summary: A memoir of Walls' life growing up poor in the American southwest and West Virginia.  Raised by parents who believed in extreme self-sufficiency, Walls' family lived a transient life, often living without adequate housing and food.  The book focuses largely on her parents, who managed to raise intelligent and (largely) successful children while failing to live a traditionally successful life themselves.

Musings:  I've heard of this book for quite awhile, but it wasn't one I had actively sought out.  But, I was looking to take a YA break and also bring in more nonfiction to my reading list, so this seemed like a good choice.

I typically have a difficult time with "rough childhood" and/or abuse memoirs because I find that their sensational stories are often used to cover up poor writing.  While I may sympathize with what the writers experienced, I can't read a story that is more "abuse porn" than literature.  Fortunately, Walls writes her story in simplistic and engaging prose that acknowledges her life's struggles and successes without becoming maudlin.

The story was still challenging for me most of the time, primarily because I felt such loathing for Walls' parents.  Although they are to be credited with raising intelligent children, I primarily saw them as narcissistic losers more interested in themselves than their family.  This is not a story about poverty despite parents' best attempts otherwise.  It is a story about a family in dire poverty because the parents are unwilling to consider others' needs before their own and sacrifice petty wishes for the broader good.  Individualism taken to a dangerous extreme.  The parents are not abusive by normal standards--they provide love and encouragement to their children and do not hit their kids--but their lack of physical care for their children is all the more egregious because of it.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.  All but the youngest child are immensely more successful once they move to New York and are able to live without their parents stealing their money and irrationally destroying their opportunities for success.  In fact, I felt my hatred for the parents lessening once the children were thriving and the parents were more nuisances than serious hindrances.

There are certainly many messages in here, but I reacted too strongly to the characters to consider them very deeply.  I'm glad I read the book, but I don't know that I enjoyed it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Sea of Monsters" by Rick Riordan

Summary: In the second book of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, Percy finds himself drawn into trouble again as he's attacked on his last day of school.  Escaping with the help of his friend Annabeth (from book one) and a new friend, the giant and powerful Tyson, Percy returns to Camp Half-Blood.  There he learns that the camp is in trouble, and he and his friends must again embark on a quest to save the camp and their friend Grover.

Musings: I probably wouldn't have jumped straight into the second Percy Jackson book, but I didn't have anything good from the library, so I started anyway.  Riordan is nothing if not consistent, and the second book in the series follows the same structure and plot as the original.  It unfortunately also shares the same flaws, which I was perhaps more aware of as I'd just finished the first book and was expecting them.

This book takes a lot from the Odyssey.  I like the breadth from which Riordan takes his mythological history, but at the same time, in this book I felt the references were more repetition than invention.  It's one thing to cleverly weave mythology into a modern young adult adventure, but it's another to repeat essentially the same stories with a young adult hero instead of the original mythological characters.  The characters' experiences with Circe and the Cyclops, especially, felt dull for this reason.

A young adult audience (at least pre-9th grade) might be familiar with basic Olympian mythology, but likely would not have read the Odyssey yet, so they probably wouldn't have experienced the same feelings I did.  I'm typically not a "know your classics!" stickler, but if Riordan's offering nothing new to the stories, I find it a little disheartening to know kids are reading a parody without knowing the original.  In fact, in class last week, we were reading book nine of the Odyssey together (the Cyclops episode) and when we got to the "Nobody" name trick, one student exclaimed, "Oh, that's from Percy Jackson!".  No, that's from Homer.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"The Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan

Summary: Percy Jackson has been expelled from the many private schools he has attended.  Between his problems with dyslexia and ADHD and his propensity for attracting trouble, he's finding he doesn't fit in with any school.  However, as Percy's life becomes increasingly in danger, he begins to learn about his origins and connections to the Olympians of Greek mythology.  It turns out the Greek Olympians are real and alive, and Percy is the son of one of them.  Percy joins other demigods at Camp Half-Blood and is soon on a quest with a daughter of Athena, Annabeth, and a satyr, Grover, to discover who has stolen Zeus' thunderbolt.

Musings: I'd heard about the Percy Jackson series from my students for a couple years; it always got brought up when we began our Greek Mythology unit prior to studying the Odyssey.  However, it wasn't until this year that I had a large contingent of students who had read and followed the series.  The Lightning Thief came out in 2005, so it would have been timed perfectly to arrive with my current students' emergence into middle school.  After their hearty recommendations, I began the series myself.

The Lightning Thief is written for a middle-school audience (the hero is a sixth grader), so some of the fantasy elements were a bit (and understandably so) juvenile.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed this classic adventure story with a mythological twist.  The continual references to mythology are fun, even if they're glaringly obvious to someone familiar with the material (anyone who knows the Odyssey would know better than to enter a hotel called "Hotel Lotus").  The kids' mistakes were also a little too dumb, even for middle schoolers (even a 12-year-old knows that if someone offers food and a warm place to stay for free there's danger ahead), but such mistakes kept the story going along at a brisk pace.

I enjoyed the primary characters and their relationships with the gods.  Riordan does a nice job exploring what the relationship between a half-blood son and an all-powerful god would be like.  It's a world in which the gods maintain power despite no mortals believing in them, and I liked the way Riordan worked that into the story.

Like in many young adult novels, the characters are not particularly unique or new, and there is an American-centric basis that was a little annoying (Mount Olympus is now located above the Empire State building because the United States is the epicenter of the world).  However, I'll definitely pick up the next book (I don't think my students would let me do otherwise), even though I know that means accepting the reading of the entire five-book series!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

Summary: Richard Mayhew is living an ordinary life in London when, out one night on an important dinner date with his fiance, he runs into a girl injured on the street and in need of help.  When he brings her back to her apartment, he finds himself drawn into her world.  Hidden beneath the streets of London, a strange subculture exists separate from London Above  Richard and Door (the girl) begin a journey to find the truth about Door's family's deaths.

Musings:  I picked this up at my school library from recognizing Gaiman's name.  Unintentionally, I also ended up with Good Omens at about the same time, so I was a little wary of beginning Neverwhere since I'd just read another of his books (I try to space out genres, subjects, and authors, if possible, but I've been failing miserably at that recently).  Fortunately Neverwhere was right up my genre alley and was sufficiently different from Good Omens to avoid deja vu.

Although Everwhere possesses some of the random sardonic humor that marks Good Omens, humor is not at the core of the work.  Instead, Everwhere is a fully-fledged fantasy adventure novel full of strange worlds, bizarre customs, and extraordinary characters (notice all the synonyms for weird?).  Although there's not anything particularly new or ground-breaking about the story line (it follows the heroic cycle perfectly-- not that that's unusual), I enjoyed going along for the ride with the warm characters.  You pull for Richard the entire time as life continues to smack him in the face, and he continues to pick himself back up again.  The delightful marquis de Carabas takes some unexpected turns and even the henchmen Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar were fun to be around.

The book has a satisfying and appropriate end, and I missed Richard and Door--a little bit--once they were gone.

P.S.  Just learned that Neverwhere was first a BBC television series before being adapted into a book.  Wow; I don't think I've ever seen literature come from that directions.  Almost makes me feel somehow differently about it all.  It was still a great read, but I think I'm glad I didn't know going in.