Tuesday, November 07, 2006

review: Side Effects

Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss. Roaring Brook, 2006 (1-59643-167-9) $16.95

I felt an immediate affinity with this book when I read the author's note at the beginning: "And, as if it doesn't suck enough to have cancer, practically every time you pick up a book or see movies where characters get sick, you know they'll be dead by the last scene." When my best friend was diagnosed with Leukemia, all she or I knew about it was that you always die at the end. But she didn't die--and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to mention that the heroine of this book doesn't die either.

Side Effects is a first-person story narrated by Izzy, a junior high school girl with a generally sardonic view of life:

"I'd left my notebook and everything in the car, or I might have done a drawing of that weird wire thing with the colored beads, which exists only in doctors' waiting rooms. I wonder what was supposed to be fun about it. All I'd ever wanted to do was get the beads off the damn thing so I could play with them. Maybe that toy--if you can even call it a toy--was meant to teach frustration and hopelessness. Hey kids! Feeling sick? Scared of the doctor? Well, here are some beads you can't have! Ha-ha!"

Izzy's dark side gets to come out in full force when her swollen glands turn out to be a symptom of Lymphoma, a form of cancer. A fairly normal life of sucky school, doodling and crushes on cute guys becomes one of hospitals, pain, vomiting, obnoxiously upbeat social workers, and freaked-out friends. Scary, invasive, gross medical procedures aren't much fun to read about, but Izzy's quirky narrative keeps the story going: "Insert girl. Radiate. Deafen. Remove." The descriptions of reactions of people around her--one "friend" telling her she must have "done something really bad in a former life," others making an incredibly tasteless video for "laugh therapy"--can be even harder to read about. "This is not the cancer channel," Izzy spits out, when a former preschool teacher wants to bring some girls by for a visit. "There will be no show!"

This is definitely not a "feel-good" story--nor would it want to be--but it's not an exercise in misery, either. There's relief from tragedy in Izzy's smart-mouth conversations with her best friend, and in her family's coping mechanisms:

"Through the front window, I heard dad proudly tell our next-door neighbor that I'd had a two-hundred-dollar vomit. [from throwing up Marinol, medical marijuana.]

"'Hey! She could probably sell that one the street!' Martin said. 'You could make a fortune selling puke to the potheads.'"

And there is Izzy's discovery that despite being cancer kid to many, some people still "get" her, including a cute boy she never noticed before.

Side Effects finishes rather abruptly. Towards the end, Izzy is too ill to even care that she believes the treatment isn't working: "But I didn't quit the chemo. I didn't have the strength. I got in the car when I was told to. I stuck out my arm when I was asked to. I threw up when I had to, and I slept when I could. My birthday came, and I blew out the candles. But when Kay told me to make a wish, it took a while to think of one." Then in the next six pages she graduates from junior high, is pronounced cancer free, and gives us a brief summary of her current life. After suffering so much with her, it feels too fast. But the cover of the book, an awesome shot of a bald girl sticking both fists in the air, invites us in to share a triumph, and we do share one. And how terrific to have a book now--a funny, intense, absorbing book--that lets us know that kids with cancer don't always die in the last chapter. (13 & up)

review: Mary Poppins in the Kitchen

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen by P.L. Travers. Illustrated by
Mary Shepard. 1975; Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-207080-4) $14.00

This book is in two parts, a section of stories about Mary Poppins and her charges cooking and a collection of recipes, and it says something that the recipes are slightly more interesting than the stories. Each vignette follows the same pattern: the children are reunited with one of the odder characters from the Mary Poppins books, who's come to help with the cooking, and mild hijinks briefly ensue; the effect is a bit like that of a television clip show, and only readers who are already very fond of the series will be much entertained. But the cookbook section is fun, if you like that sort of thing (I do), with hearty recipes like Shepherd's Pie and dashes of cookery wisdom from Mary Poppins, such as "You must wait for the souffle--it won't wait for you." It's not completely beginner friendly, but kids (or adults) who already know the basics of separating eggs and sifting flour will find it pretty easy to follow. (8 & up)