Saturday, June 07, 2008

Book Four: This is What I Did by Ann Dee Ellis

I probably should have made my days Friday and Saturday. This is the first chance I've had to work on the challenge today

reading: 10:55pm to 11:55pm (1 hour), 157 pages
writing: 4:00 pm to 4:55pm (55 minutes)

This is What I Did: by Ann Dee Ellis. Little, Brown, 2007 (978-0-316-01363-5) $16.99

I'm glad I can show the cover of this book here, because I think it could be considered part of the title--that colon is quite deliberate. A lot of this book is about not saying anything, and how in a way, that is still saying something.

This... is a sort of mystery--it's a little reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in spots--and I have to confess that I read ahead to discover the secret, because the suspenseful slow reveal was just killing me. Once I knew what had actually happened, I was able to settle down and enjoy reading. Narrated by thirteen year old Logan, it is a terse, disturbing story, told in dribs and drabs of statements and reported dialogue, a far bit of which is blank:

Patsy: You must be Logan.
Patsy: Well, I've got a son your exact age. His name is Bruce.
Patsy: You are just going to love him. He's a doll.
Patsy: Are you okay?

Logan does talk, some of the time, but much of his life is spent not knowing what to do or say; particularly now, when he is burdened both by being a target of severe bullying and by tremendous guilt about a time in his life when he failed to act.

Logan writes in short vignettes, which are separated by small graphics on each page. There's a kicker at the end of almost each one, such as this:

He was sort of riding slower than usual.
I should have guessed then.
I should have known something was going to happen.
Why did it have to happen, Zyler?

That example is one I thought a bit overdone for effect, but mostly the style is very effective. It feels like we're in someone else's mind, a mind which moves a little differently than ours perhaps.. It works to draw us into an outsider's perspective and create empathy for someone we might otherwise despise a little.

This... is a shocking story at times, and also very sad, but very worth reading. The ending has a triumphant aspect, but is far from pat. Although Logan has no diagnosis (that we are told about, anyway), I think it would be especially interesting to readers looking for stories about special needs kids, and/or about bullying, though it could be enjoyed by most readers just as a suspenseful and emotional read. * (13 & up)

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Book Three: Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

reading: 4:40-6:45 (2 hours, 5 minutes), 259 pages
writing: 7:10-7:40, 8:05-8:30 (55 minutes)

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb, 2004 (0-385-32307-7) $15.95

This was a rough book to read and may be rougher to evaluate. I seem to be the only person who's read it and ended up feeling sad and confused.

Fifteen year old Luther's life seem great from the outside looking in: he has credit cards, wheels, "a for-real, honest-to-God, straight from the Secretary of State phony driver's license" and a pumped-up college fund. Perhaps the only thing average about him is the oldest condom on earth he keeps in his wallet. But everything comes with a price and Luther's is working eighty hour weeks for a "coldhearted, moneygrubbing, beastly sadist" aka The Sarge, aka his mother. He's not exaggerating--one of his mother's favorite sayings is "It is far better to be feared than loved." Or as one of the residents of the Sarge's Happy Neighbor Group Home puts it, "you're her handyman and housekeeper and chauffeur and nurse and whipping boy all rolled into one tall, skinny, unhappy, unpaid lump."

Luther narrates the episodic, grimly comic story of how his attempt to win the science fair three years running inadvertently puts him where he is most afraid to be--on the Sarge's bad side--and the consequences of that.

Naive and gullible, Luther reminded me of an earlier Curtis character, the protagonist of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963. I had trouble with this characterization though. It's not implausible for a smart kid to simultaneously be very naive, but Luther is downright stupid at times, and at others he shows flashes of insight that don't mesh; one second he is thrilled because the people in the house he's cleaning out owned almost nothing, making his job easier, the next he is thinking about the little girl who was evicted: "What's hard is knowing that KeeKee may be six or seven now but that in three or four years she'll be thirty."

There are other oddities in the characterization too: Luther's acceptance of, even participation in, casual cruelties, and the way he seemingly accepts his mother's explanations for her crimes--she's a slumlord and a loan shark amongst other things--even while utterly despising her. It's possible that Curtis deliberately intended Luther as a somewhat schizophrenic portrayal because the life he is leaving would make anyone crazy, but it wasn't clear to me that was what he was trying to do. I was left somewhat uneasy about rooting for Luther, particularly at the end; possibly I didn't completely get it, but it seems to me Luther chooses to just protect himself and follow his own ends over potentially truly "bucking the sarge" and I found that very disappointing.

I mostly did enjoy the book until the end though. It's funny in its oddball way--much of the humor comes from Luther's friend's Sparky's attempts to hurt himself and win a lawsuit as a way of getting the hell out of Flint, Michigan--and Luther has a winning way with a phrase. And it is certainly a very different kind of story; you don't get too many children's books about the exploitation of the urban poor by their own community. (12 & up)

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I love you, MotherReader

My little guy was jealous of my being in a book challenge, so we encouraged him to join in and pick a book from the chapter books I've been saving for him. So Mr. Nonfiction is currently reading The Best Halloween Ever.

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Book Two: Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

reading: 12:15-1:25, 1:55-3:00 (2 hours 15 minutes), 328 pages
writing: 3:10-4:05 pm (55 minutes)

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr. HarperTeen, 2007 (978-0-06-121465-3) $16.99

In the world of Faery, Keenan the Summer King has been looking for his Summer Queen for centuries, and the balance of power between Summer King and Winter Queen has become dangerously out of kilter. The last mortal girl to attempt the trial to become Queen, Donia, failed; now she is the Winter Girl, doomed to live frozen and serve as an awful warning until another girl braves the trial for love of Keenan. Keenan's latest choice is high school student Aislinn, and simply by choosing her, he begins the process of turning her from mortal to faery. But there are two important things Keenan doesn't know about Aislinn. She is already in love with someone else, her friend Seth. And she already sees faeries.

Trained by her grandmother since childhood to appear completely unaware of the fey that only they can see, Aislinn knows very well that she has somehow attracted some dangerous attention. And with Seth's help, she begins what seems like an increasingly futile struggle to fight the allure and power of the faeries, and escape what may be her destiny.

The ordinary and the fantastic come together gracefully in this mesmerizing story, with writing that's evocative without being overly lush. Marr skillfully creates the "wicked lovely" alluring differentness of the fey, without making them (most of them) so ammoral that we can't care about them. And the resolution of the story is just stunning, on several levels: without getting into spoilers, it speaks volumes about the power of girls/women to make their own choices even within a framework that seems not to allow choice at all.

There were a few points that bothered me. How on earth can Aislinn, with her background, not know better than to eat or drink faery food? And Seth is perhaps a little too perfect: excitingly pierced and tattooed yet conveniently independently wealthy, an air of danger and bad reputation, but endlessly patient, loving and undertsanding with the right girl--truly the stuff of romantic fantasies. But then, this is a romantic fantasy. And a very, very good one. * (14 & up)

Other blog reviews:
Bookshelves of Doom

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Book One: Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

reading: 9:30 am to 11 am (1.5 hours), 182 pages
writing: 11 am to 11:53 am, 53 minutes

Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, 2006 (978-0-385-73282-6)$8.99 pb

Gretchen Yee has problems. She's the ordinary girl in a school full of calculated nonconformists; her art teacher hates her love of stylized, comic book art; her boyfriend dumped her; she's much too shy to talk to Titus, the boy she now likes; her parents are getting divorced and she thinks her dad is fooling around; and she can't even get started reading The Metamorphosis. Then something--an encounter with a gnome? a radioactive celery soda? a strangely grateful fly?--sends Gretchen off on her own metamorphosis, granting her idle wish to be a fly on the wall of the boy's locker room so she can finally figure out what the hell is going on with those alien creatures, boys.

Unable to leave, unable even to close her eyes when she wants to, Gretchen makes some unexpected discoveries about her own, suddenly rampant hormones, how it feels to see people as sex objects, and the surprising ways other kids see her, as well as becoming witness to sexism, bullies, homophobia, secrets--lots and lots of secrets--and the surprising vulnerability of boys.

There are so many interesting themes crammed into this book, but everything meshes so well, it mostly doesn't feel crowded or labored. Gretchen has a distinctive personality and voice, which especially comes through in small, funny details: in a list of action figures she owns, she notes, "Jar Jar Binks (someone gave him to me)." Her feelings about her art come through strongly in descriptions of her work and those of the other students in her class, culminating in a beautiful scene in which she gets to draw Titus: "I forget about the background part of the assignment and concentrate on the dark areas under his eyes, on his long thin nose, his soft lips with the bottom one jutting out as he concentrates, the shadows across his neck and the details of the silver key ring he wear around it. His lovely bony collarbone jutting out of his worn T-shirt." The voice only falters for me because it seems so weird that the only words any kid uses for body parts--and they use them a lot--are "gherkin" and "biscuits," especially when they're not shy about words like "faggot" and "fuck." I got pretty biscuited-out, pretty fast.

Still, this is such a wise and thoughtful and funny book. It makes so much sense to me as an adult--isn't this all the stuff parents are always trying to explain to their kids about other kids?--that I wish I could have the chance to read it from a teenager's perspective, just to see if it sinks in. Um... but if any gnomes or flies or makers of celery soda are reading this, I didn't mean that literally. (14 & up)

Other blog reviews:

Lady Schrapnell, also for the 48 Hour Book Challenge. And some extra comments here.

Frenetic Reader

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Ready... Set....


Starting time: Saturday, 9:30 am PST

First book: Fly On the Wall by E. Lockhart