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Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

As a recently appointed middle school librarian, I’ve been reading quite a bit of middle school fiction, which is different than YA fiction and, it turns out, just as appealing to adults. I laughed so hard reading Dead End in Norvelt that my husband nearly had to begin CPR on me. I went that long without being able to breathe. Seriously.

Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Straus, and Geroux, September 2011) was awarded the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and rightfully so: Jack Gantos is a fantastic writer. He can write a scene, drench it in history, spin it into action, and set in on a plate with a side of laughter. He can create believable, quirky characters that you root for with all your heart despite their oddities. Most of all, though, Gantos knows how to tell a good story, one that’s hard to put down, that keeps you up and night, and that makes you laugh.

Dead End in Norvelt is set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. The book’s 12-year-old narrator (also coincidentally named Jack Gantos) has been grounded for the summer. There are only two reasons Jack can leave the house:

  1. to help his father dig a bomb shelter in the back yard (by hand) and
  2. to help his elderly, arthritic neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper (which turns out to be an alarmingly busy task, as the older people in the bucolic town of Norvelt are dropping like flies.)

Despite those limiting factors (or because of them), Jack manages to have an action-packed summer, one punctuated by dramatic events, each event triggering an uncontrollable nosebleed in our not-as-tough-as-he-wishes-he-was narrator.

This book is not for the faint hearted – I recommended it to reluctant reader, in hopes that the fast moving plot line and frequent hilarity would entice him to read it. He returned it two days later. “Mrs. Rutten, I could not read this book. I have a gag reflex problem, and every time the main character had a nose bleed, I had to vomit.” He shook his head sadly and dropped it into the return bin.

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t for everybody. But most people, kids and adults alike, will love it.

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

There is a lot of great ‘modern’ literature out there, but some of it can be exhausting and difficult reading.  It was almost a relief, therefore, to read something as solid and familiar as David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Published in 2008, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is, none-the-less, a good old-fashioned tale.  It is deeply lyrical, densely fleshed, and heavy with emotion and detail.  It is a both a coming of age story and a family saga of love and pain, trust and betrayal.  Edgar is born mute, the only child of parents who raise and train a special breed of dogs on their farm in northern Wisconsin. When Edgar’s father dies and his uncle appears poised to take his place on the farm and in his mother’s affections, fourteen year old Edgar flees into the Chequamegon National Forest with only his dogs as companions on a quest to come to terms with his grief and face the truth of his father’s death.

At 562 pages The Story of Edgar Sawtelle requires a big investment from the reader, and Wroblewski delivers some beautiful writing, but the novel falls frustratingly short of paying off on that investment.  The pace of the story is bogged down with unnecessary characters, irrelevant plot lines, and smatters of magical realism that come too late in the story to be believable. While a great conclusion could have tied it all together, Wroblewski’s ending was so tragic and emotionally unsatisfying that I finished the book in a wave of disappointment.   Wroblewski may have got a hold of a little more than he could handle here, and, while his writing skills are definitely up for the challenge, a more critical editorial eye might have helped this story stay truer to its roots.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2012 in Fiction

 

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Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is one part Rubik’s Cube, one part Zen Koan.  It’s a novel, but it is also a collection of madly different stories that are loosely tied together through time and space.  (I use the term ‘loosely’ loosely).  More than once, while reading Cloud Atlas, I wondered how I could get a glass of whatever David Mitchell was drinking, in hopes that I might stumble upon the secret to possessing such an unfettered imagination.  I, too, wanted to soar with the eagles of possibility and sink to the darkest recesses of the sea of despair without a backward glance at who was following.

I read the first two stories in this fragmented opus, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” and “Letters from Zedelghem”, with a dictionary at my side, racking up new vocabulary words with every other sentence.  I could not fathom where some of those sentences came from, or where they were going, for that matter.  I didn’t let it bother me.  I bit my nails throughout the third story, “Half-Lives: The First Louisa Rey Mystery”.  The fourth story, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, made me laugh out loud.  The fifth, “An Orison of Sonmi-451”, I read with open-mouthed wonder.  It was all I could do to just keep up.  I read the sixth story with my eyes crossed, allowing me to hear the words in my head as much as read them with my eyes. That story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, breaks the main rule about writing in dialect.  The one that states: Thou Shall Not Write in Dialect.   Unless you are David Mitchell, apparently.

And all of that only gets you to the halfway mark.  You’ll have to read it yourself to find out where it goes from there.  Hopefully you are getting the idea that this book is all over the map linguistically, crosses genres without a thought, and challenges the reader in most every way imaginable.

But wait!  In addition to all this fancy trans-genre, trans-lingual writing going on, there’s a theme.  An earth shaking, eye opening, heart breaking theme.  In fact, there are several, and all of them are deep, meaningful, and fully integral to the story(s).  Of course Mitchell is getting at the connectedness of everything:  he is oh-so-clever about tying these stories together, threading the characters through time, and making their singular struggles eternal.  But this book is also about the evolution of our species, the result and byproducts of the white man’s conquest of the world, and the karmic wheel of fate.  That, and about ten other deeply profound things that just make you jealous of David Mitchell’s creative mind.

I’m absolutely certain that I have not appreciated half of what David Mitchell was striving for in this book.  In order to really understand the shape of the plot, I would need to re-read it, substituting a pencil and graph paper for the dictionary, and create complicated charts with many colored intersecting lines.  And when I’m done, do you know what I would have?  A map, of sorts.  An atlas of wispy, cloudlike ideas that connect not only these fictional characters, but the rest of us as well.   This fictional atlas would likely show that we are all part of this giant plot called life, and, though we may fall on one side or the other of grace, and we may reach a hand across the abyss to help each other up or not, we are just one instrument in the grand orchestra.  One of Mitchell’s more pessimistic characters cries out at the end novel:  “…only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”  But Mitchell himself gets the last word, reminding us: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Read this book and be amazed.  I was.

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Fiction, Uncategorized

 

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Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

Karen Russell double feature!  See last week’s post for a review of her book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a mythical romp through the Florida Everglades, complete with magic, danger, and ghosts.  This novel, based on the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, follows the tale of the Bigtree children as they struggle with the recent death of their mother (Hilola Bigtree, world famous alligator wrestler) and to keep Swamplandia!, their family’s alligator theme park, viable.  As 13 year old Ava sets out into the swamps after her sister Osceola attempts to elope with a ghost, Kiwi Bigtree, the book-smart and life-stupid older brother, escapes to the mainland to try to find a way out for his family.  Instead, he finds himself navigating the all too real (but, refreshingly hilarious) world of minimum wage jobs, crooked employers, and adolescent agony.

Russell creates, in the Bigtree children, characters that are sympathetic, but somehow just a few clicks away from realistic.  All three of them have an undeveloped sense of intuition; they are all unable to clearly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, the real from the fictional.  Their uninitiated state allows the reader to enter and navigate the magical fictional world of Swamplandia! in a similar state:  a state of open wonder, curiosity, and suspended disbelief.  Although Russell gives us all the clues we need to discern the good guys from the bad guys in this story, we, like Ava, are reluctant to see things clearly, unable to pierce the veil of mystery and lush hope that Russell draws around her.

Russell stays close to the action throughout the book, but it is not necessarily a plot based novel:  Swamlandia! is language based, and that language is grounded in local ecology.  In fact, the Florida Everglades is an apt metaphor for the language in the book:  lush, fecund, and dense.  There is barely a sentence that does not bear the imprint of Russell’s distinct prose.  The truly bizarre and unusual landscape of the Everglades comes alive in Swamplandia! through sentences like this:  “The cloud of moths drew their darker blues across the pale egg of the sky.”  The equally unusual inner landscapes of her characters are painted with the same charged brush.

Swamplandia! was one of the three works of fiction considered for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, although the judges were unable to come to agreement on a winner, and none was awarded at all.  Swamplandia! is an interesting, and worthy, choice for that award.  While, on one level, this story appears to be a fanciful farce about a doomed alligator theme park, it is far more than that.  Myth and allegory frame the story, and symbolism abounds.  The writing is mature and fresh, the lessons learned both specific and universal, and the truth is as dark and disturbing as any truth can be.  As Emily Dickenson wrote:  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…. Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.”  Swamplandia! is not short on the truth, but it does tell it with a mighty, swampy, reptilian slant.

 

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Fiction

 

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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is a collection of ten short stories published in 2006.  I read it over a six week period, about as long as I have ever spent on a book and still gone on to finish it.  I’m pretty sure it took me so long because these stories are so rich.  Reading one of Karen Russell’s stories is a bit like swallowing a spoonful of orange juice concentrate: they are juicy, but intense. While wildly different from each other (as different as different can get, in fact), it is immediately evident that they all come from the same mind, the same imagination.  What ties them together, ironically, is the very thing that makes them all so different from each other.  While all of the classic elements of good story telling are present in each story (plot, character, conflict, etc), each one has something else, as well – a skewed premise that sets it in a world that tilts at a slightly different rotational axis than our own.  One that is very nearly possible, but not probable.

Karen Russell’s stories are set in our familiar landscape (like the swamps of the Everglades) and even in our own common histories (like the settling of West by the pioneers), except, generally, for one thing.  That one thing is different in every story.  She may add a father figure that is a Minotaur (“Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration”) or take a class of students on a field trip to a dilapidated amusement park of giant conch shells (“The City of Shells”) or set her story in a retirement community that is entirely made up of seniors confined to individual houseboats bobbing in the harbor (“Out to Sea”). My favorite is the title story:  “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.   The story imagines what happens when a group of girls that have been raised by their werewolf parents in the wild are given over to a group of nuns that specialize in rehabilitating just these types of girls into human society.  The story is about the big themes of repression, socialization, and religion but it deals with it on the level of detail, character, and scene.  Russell manages to harness the power of myth and sit it down at the same table as the mundane and force them to have a meal together.

If you give a talented child a box of crayons and one highlighter marker and ask him to draw you a picture of a house, you’d probably be able to recognize the house, but it would likely be visually jarring and disjointed just by virtue of the dissimilar intensities of color.  That’s how it is with each of these stories.  There is generally one element that is not from the color palette of reality as we know it.  Karen Russell achieves unexpected results (and fantastic literature) by allowing the yellow highlighter of her imagination such sway in her writing.  Her stories are wild, jubilant, energetic, preposterous, honest, brightly hot, and dead on.  If you read them, take the time to savor each one.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell (Knopf, 2006)

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Fiction, Uncategorized

 

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Little Bee

Little Bee

 

I’m not sure how I missed this book when it first came out in 2008, but I regret that I didn’t read it until now.  Part of me wishes I hadn’t read it yet, so that I could enjoy reading it for the first time again.  Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is one of those rare books that has both brains and beauty in one package.  I was alternately amazed, entertained, and, in the end, emotionally wrung out (in the most satisfying way).  More than once I had to lay the book down and walk away from it before I broke into small pieces.  At other times, this book sent me digging frantically through my purse for a pencil so I could underline a passage that was so luminous I wanted to tattoo it on my wrist.  It’s worth noting that these two reactions were sometimes triggered within the same paragraph.

Little Bee is the story of two very different women from two very different cultures.   Sixteen year old Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee, arrives in to London, where her story entwines with that of Sarah, editor of a glossy women’s magazine and mother of Charlie (a.k.a. Batman).   Cleave gets these characters just right, creating smart, insightful, and strong women that help us  come to a compassionate understanding of these two cultures: the first world and the developing world.  How Cleave knits these worlds together into this seamless story is extraordinary.   He chooses to narrate the story from the perspective of both women, alternating the voice from one chapter to the next.  Four year old Charlie, in addition to being a fully fleshed and fascinating character all on his own, gives us another frame from which to enter the story.

It is difficult to say almost anything about the plot of Little Bee without giving away too much, as it is the unfolding of events, and the way that Cleave structures the unfolding, that lends this story its fascinating shape.  It’s like reverse origami.  Cleave makes a paper swan, and, over the course of a few hundred pages, unfolds it until we can glimpse its heart.  In the unfolding of this story, Cleave takes the time to show us how the light hits each fold and crease.  These were the moments that brought me to tears, rather than any sad or devastating event; the moments when Cleave would render a detail so perfectly that it brought me right into the scene.  Cleave doesn’t deny that bad things happen, but by illuminating the beauty in each moment, he shows us that beauty can make the bad things bearable.

Put Little Bee on your book club list, and give it away as gifts to friends and family.  It’s complex, deep, socially relevant, and so well written that you will wish you could read it for the first time twice.  The magic really is in the unfolding.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Fiction

 

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The Age of Mircacles

The Age of Mircacles

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

I picked up The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker,because of its unusual premise:  the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down.  Something in the short description I read about the book made me think that, despite the ‘global destruction’ scenario, this was not another dystopian Hunger Games novel, and not pure science fiction, either.  It was, it seemed, a character driven story about an 11 year old girl.  I was intrigued.  How does an author use such an unlikely story line as the slowing of the rotation of the earth effectively in literary fiction without it becoming genre fiction?   In what literary world would that whopper of a plot element not be the main point of the book?

In the world Karen Thompson Walker creates for Julia, the young protagonist in The Age of Miracles.

This is a beautiful book, but it’s not about beautiful things. This is a book about a natural disaster more significant as any seen on the national news, and yet it has a cover featuring twinkling stars on a benign blue background.  And while it is a book about one possible ending (perhaps) to the world as we know it, what it’s really about is the ending of a different kind of world:  a world of innocence.  I can’t say for sure that Walker is using the slowing of the Earth’s rotation as a metaphor for growing up, but she earns my respect for juxtaposing something so damn big against the small, quiet tide of one painfully shy girl’s adolescence.  The narrator gives equal weight to the longer length of a day and to having her prepubescent breasts exposed to a group of onlookers at the school bus stop.  The new reality of entire days passing in darkness, and nights full of sunlight, is no more devastating than her discovery of her father’s apparent infidelity and the stress that creates in her life.  It is a common literary practice to have the physical environment mirror the internal struggles of the characters (there’s always a dark and stormy night in a horror novel, right?)  but the scale of Thompson’s environmental disaster gives such a surprising weight to the personal events in Julia’s life that the reader is forced to consider each small failing, each tiny heartbreak, each broken promise, on the same scale as that of a planetary disaster resulting in the potential extinction of our species.

Does she succeed?  Is it worth it, this huge cosmic metaphor?  I suppose it depends on who you are.  If you are looking for a sexy, high drama, plot based thriller, than, no.  This book would totally disappoint you.  But if you enjoy books that deliver far more than they promise, books that are like small splinters of wood, ones that are deceptively benign until they get wedged under your cuticles and become painfully uncomfortable, than, yes, the grand metaphor (and the book as a whole) might work for you.  It worked in spades for me.  Death is death, and change is change.  Whatever the scale and no matter who you are, life is full of sorrow.  People adapt and life goes on.  Walker looks at adolescence, and change, through a powerful new lens in The Age of Miracles.  Don’t underestimate the power of a good metaphor and excellent writing to deliver a message that will get under your skin and stay there.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Fiction

 

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