BookTalk: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

by Sharon Kane

weareallcompletely_coverWe first meet our narrator, Rosemary, as a college student in 1996, and much of the action in this novel by Karen Joy Fowler (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013) takes place over the following few weeks. Her brother, whom she hasn’t seen for years, appears, though he is using a false name since he is wanted by the FBI and is involved in activism (some would say domestic terrorism) related to animal rights. She also acquires a new, strange, friend, complicating her life significantly. Some distant memories are activated, and she tells them to us even as she is trying to figure out whether those memories are reliable and what they might mean.

We come to find out that Rosemary had been raised alongside a chimpanzee; Fern was her age, and treated as a member of the family for 5 years. Her father was a psychologist, and the family was participating in a grand experiment. But something obviously went wrong. Fern was taken away. Why? Where did she go? Why was Rosemary’s older brother so angry with her? Why were her parents so silent on the subject? And what action should she take at this point? What exactly is one’s identity when one’s sister is a chimp?

I wish I could tell you more about the mystery and Rosemary’s actions, but that would involve spoilers. I’ll just say I learned a lot about animal behavior and about psychology experiments that took place in the seventies. I felt like I was experiencing the moral and social dilemmas along with Rosemary as she dealt with her flawed parents and troubled brother. And, best of all, I got to know and love Fern.

I would classify this novel as “New Adult Literature,” a genre with appeal for readers roughly from ages 17-25. The book is a crossover between adult and YA fiction; it is well crafted and thought-provoking. In short, I found it a great story told by a smart and funny narrator.

 

Appropriate for high school and beyond

BookTalk: Maggot Moon

by Joan Knickerbocker

maggotmoon_coverBritish author Sally Gardner was awarded her homeland’s prestigious Costa Children’s Prize and The Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature for Maggot Moon. In the United States, Maggot Moon, published by Candlewick Press, was recognized as a 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book.

Standish Treadwell, the narrator, is a 15-year-old boy who has a learning disability. To him, words on the blackboard are “just circus horses dancing up and down.” Standish lives with his grandfather in Zone Seven, a place where chances of surviving could be ticked off, minute-by-minute, if anyone still had a watch. The short chapters, occasionally less than a page in length, punctuate the swiftness with which lives are forever changed. The narrative order is a bit chaotic, mimicking the abrupt jumps in Standish’s thoughts.

In this totalitarian regime, set in the 1950s, people are expected to click their heels together, arms out, shouting “Glory to the Motherland.” Mothers of Purity are rewarded for having large families and thereby populating the Motherland with pure and loyal citizens. Spies are everywhere. Standish’s parents have disappeared and his friend, Hector, has been gone three weeks. In Zone Seven there is no difference between disappearance and death. The horrific violence and insidious brutality of this totalitarian regime is explicitly described. Common forms of torture include cutting out tongues and chopping off fingers. A young boy laughs in class and is brutality beaten to death by a teacher. Julian Crouch’s flipbook-style illustrations of rats, flies, and maggots portray the ever present pestilence of the Motherland, vermin feeding off vermin.

Standish survives, in part because he is able to retreat to a world of imagination. Standish remembers from before the war, seeing the sun shine in Technicolor and people singing in the streets, even when it is raining. He and his friend Hector create a fantasy world on a planet he calls Juniper. The people who live there are kind, wise, and peaceful. On Juniper, it would be easy to tell who the aliens are. They would be the ubiquitous informers, the Greenflies, and the leather-coated men. If Standish could just get a message to Juniper they could be saved.

The Motherland is about to launch a rocket to the moon to demonstrate superiority and world domination. The fact that the science that would enable the manned rocket to successfully land on the moon does not yet exist, does not deter the Motherland. An elaborate hoax, a theatrical event of stupendous proportions, is put into play. The actors, scientists, construction workers, everyone involved in the fabricated event will be terminated upon completion of the broadcast. Standish knows of the lie that is about to be perpetrated on all of human kind–after all, the Moon Man is hiding in his basement.

Standish comments, “Such a cruel nation is the monstrous motherland. I’m amazed no one has risen up to throttle the bitch.” He remembers the ancient tale of a young boy confronting a giant with a stone. He considers it such a foolish idea that it might be foolproof. Armed only with the truth, Standish confronts the Goliath Motherland.

BookTalk: My Name Is Not Easy

by Sharon Kane

mynameisnoteasy_coverSeveral children’s and young adult novels take place in the 1960s in various parts of the United States. I sometimes have my students select one or more to read so that we can come together and discuss our stories, thus getting an idea of the big picture, while realizing that individuals’ stories can still vary widely. Recently I read My Name Is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), and learned a piece of history with which I had been unfamiliar. I followed Luke and his brothers, Bunna and Isaac, as they left their home in an Arctic village in 1960 by plane to attend Sacred Heart Boarding School in Alaska. My first shock as a reader occurred at the point in the book when they arrived and discovered that six-year-old Isaac was considered too young for the school. He was given up for adoption without any consultation with his parents!

Luke and Bunna had to make many adjustments; some teachers were kind and supportive, while others were not. Some fellow students became friends, but groups were formed based on ethnicity and tensions mounted. Then came the day when government doctors came in and hooked the Eskimo children up to machines and gave them Iodine-131 to drink, explaining, “’The military wants to know what it is about your body that allows you to adapt so well to the extreme cold. You kids are going to show us how to condition our soldiers to fight better in the extreme cold of the Arctic’” (p. 114).

The story ends in 1965. Readers have journeyed with Luke as he experienced challenges involving language, loss, and coming-of-age.

In the Author’s Note, Edwardson fills us in on historical events upon which she based her story, including the medical research conducted on children, some of whom later succumbed to cancer. The author assures us that the story she created of the three brothers is based on a real family:

“I know these stories well because I married the oldest brother….I wrote My Name Is Easy for the children and grandchildren of these people—my own included—to let them know what their relatives endured, so they can look not only at what they lost but, of equal importance, at what they learned and how they used it.” (pp. 247–248)

 

Appropriate for middle school and high school

BookTalk: Navigating Early

by Joan Knickerbocker

navigatingearlyVanderpool, C. (2013). Navigating Early. New York: Delacorte Press, Random House.

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, is a deftly written adventure teeming with intriguing characters and exciting, often life-threatening action. It is also a tender portrayal of two boys coping with personal loss and feelings of abandonment. Intertwined with their story is the tale of Pi, an ancient navigator, who followed the stars to places yet to be discovered. Pi’s story foreshadows and guides the boys on their journey.

After the death of his mother, thirteen-year-old Jack Baker is placed in the boarding school closest to the Navy base in Maine where his father has been transferred, now that World War II is coming to an end. Jack meets Early Auden in his personal quarters, the custodian’s former workshop. Jack quickly realizes that Early is strange, but he can’t decide if he is “straightjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and put-bugs-in-your nose strange.” Early has specific rules that govern his life. Mozart is played only on Sundays. If it’s raining, and only when it is raining, he listens to Billie Holiday. Early sees numbers as shapes, colors, and textures. For him, the number one in pi (3.14…) is a mythological character, named Polaris. Polaris will be called Pi, his mother tells him, until he earns his full name.

Early informs Jack that during the next school break he is going on a quest to find the Great Appalachian Bear; to prove that there are timber rattlesnakes in Maine; and most important, to find Pi, who has lost his way. Jack decides to go along. As they travel through the forest, along rivers and trails, they encounter a one-eyed pirate, a self-exiled Norwegian, an aged woman alone in a cottage in the woods, a skeleton, a venomous snake, a large mother bear, and a soldier.

Jack explains in the epilogue that once he started to pay attention he noticed all kinds of crossings, intersections, and collisions. At well-chosen points in the story, flashbacks reveal Jack’s childhood in Kansas and the events that led to his strained relationship with his father. He often interprets what he is experiencing through his mother’s eyes and he quotes what she would have said in the situation. Early fills in missing pieces through his stories: the story of Pi, the stories behind the people they encounter, the story of his brother. A satisfying resolution is given for each character, including Jack and Early. As way of explaining the perhaps too-perfect happy endings, Jack remembers that his mother told him, “There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload.”

Navigating Early will likely become a popular selection for middle grade classrooms. The characters are engaging, the plot fast paced, and the style worthy of close reading. Many older readers may also enjoy how the many characters and events, present and past, fit together. As Jack said, they just need to connect the dots.

BookTalk: The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession

by Sharon Kane

bookmanstale_coverEach chapter of this mystery by Charlie Lovett (Viking, 2013) is labeled with a place and a date. It begins in Wales in 1995, and we are introduced to the book collector and introvert Peter, who is mourning the death of his young wife. Other chapters take us back to the eighties in North Carolina, as we discover how Peter and Amanda fell in love, and we follow their romance during their college years and beyond. Still other sections have us journeying back to earlier centuries; we eavesdrop on Shakespeare as he borrows a manuscript that gives him the plot for “A Midwinter’s Tale,” and returns it with his marginalia. We follow the history of this manuscript at the same time as Peter is using his skills to find out whether a text he has found is an original, with Shakespeare’s handwriting, or a clever forgery. The subtitle of the novel is certainly apt; many people in this saga are obsessed with both people and things. In short, it’s a page turner.

Readers will become familiar with the questions scholars have raised over the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Due to Peter’s and others’ love of old books, readers may deepen their own appreciation of the value of books, libraries, and the careers available that relate to book collecting, dealing, preserving, and sharing. All this, and multiple love stories, too!

 

Appropriate for high school and beyond

BookTalk: Far Far Away

by Joan Knickerbocker

farfaraway_coverFar Far Away (2013), by Tom McNeal, is set in the seemingly uneventful and safe village of Never Better, somewhere in rural western America. The narrator of this contemporary tale is the ghost of Jacob Grimm, brother of Wilhelm, and collector of traditional tales. Jacob cannot leave the earthly world until he has completed his Zwischenraum and finds the thing that remains undone. Jeremy Johnson Johnson is the only person who can hear Jacob. Jeremy was abandoned by his mother, who left Never Better to find her happy-ever-after ending far, far away. He is neglected by his father, who found refuge from the world by shutting himself in his bedroom, leaving Jeremy to assume the adult responsibilities of the household. Jacob’s advice provides Jeremy with the guidance and companionship he greatly misses, yet occasionally ignores, since the loss of his grandfather.

Although Jeremy doesn’t know it, Jacob is searching for the Finder of Occasions, someone who moves freely about the village, watches and waits, and seeks to do harm. Jeremy’s ability to hear voices, know things most adolescents don’t, and speak in German (whispered to him by Jacob), marks him as the strange kid, an easy target for bullies and town officials.

Every fairy tale must have a love interest and in Far Far Away it is Ginger, a bright, spunky and thrill-seeking girl. Every tale must also have a villain, and the antagonist, Sten the Baker, would rival the most accomplished serial killer in stealth, cunning, and evil. Although children have been vanishing from Never Better for years, the townspeople have not connected the disappearance of these children and the strange green smoke that signals the baker has made his most delicious Prinsesstarta cakes.Every fairy tale must also have a happy endingHoweverthe requisite resolution in Far Far Away does not come until after a harrowing kidnapping, imprisonment, torture, and unexpected rescue.

The plot is exciting and many of the characters are not who they seem, creating a story of unexpected and often frightening twists and turns. However, it is the style of Far Far Away that distinguishes it from other fast paced mysteries for young adults. The first person narration by Jacob Grimm creates a connection to the history of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and subsequently to the genre of folk literature. Jacob’s own tale, told through flashbacks, elevates his character beyond that of storyteller to a fully developed and dynamic character that the reader cares about. Numerous folktales foreshadow events and through the ongoing intertextuality, the motives and psychology of a killer are revealed. Tom McNeal has written a book deserving of its recognition as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

McNeal, T. (2013). Far far away. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

BookTalk: I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee

by Sharon Kane

iamscout_coverDid Harper Lee really write the Pulitzer-prize winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird? Did she play a major (though not credited) role in the writing of Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood? Did Lee and Capote work the childhood versions of each other into their works? Why didn’t Harper Lee write more novels? Why is she so mysterious? Why won’t she agree to be interviewed?

Charles J. Shields’s I Am Scout (2008, Henry Holt and Company) provided me with both the questions and some plausible answers. I felt like I got to know the young Nelle (her given name) as she was growing up and aspiring to be a writer. I was amazed at the story of her being given the gift of the equivalent of a year’s wages by friends who believed in her talent. I was intrigued by her decades-long friendship (complicated in later years) with Truman Capote, her childhood next-door neighbor!

Perhaps the most satisfaction came from reading Nelle’s own words about the novel. In one of her few public speeches, she told the cadets at West Point:

“We like to have all our comforts and familiars about us, and tend to push away that which is different, and worrisome. That is what happened to Boo Radley, and to Tom Robinson. They were not set apart by evil men, or evil women, or evil thoughts. They were set apart by an evil past, which good people in the present were ill equipped to change. The irony is, if we divide ourselves for our own comfort, no one will have comfort.” (p. 181)

Saying she loathed introductions to books, she wrote in the Foreword to the 35th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, “’Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity….Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive without preamble’” (p. 204).

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird repeatedly over the years. The next time I read it, because of the biography I Am Scout, I will read it feeling like I have met the author. Both the book and the person are great.

BookTalk: Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am

by Joan Knickerbocker

mazer coverThe cover design, by Laurent Linn, of the 2013 Schneider Family Book Award winning novel by Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis shows a close-up of a man’s chest, clad in a green jacket, tee shirt exposed and metallic dog tags displaying the title of the book, Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am. The idea that the book is about a soldier is immediately apparent, and the book’s opening scene appears to jump into the action. At the sight of a knife coming out of the shadows Ben springs back and knocks his weapon into the dark. However, Ben isn’t on the battle field; he is on a stage practicing his lead role in West Side Story.

In this “Before” section of the story, Ben is finishing his senior year of high school. He is bright, talented, has a great girlfriend, a loyal best friend, and a loving family. His future is full of possibilities. Unknown to anyone, Ben has enlisted in the reserves. He has convinced everyone that he will not be going to war, and then the email comes. Ben is headed for Iraq.

The fighting scene at the beginning of the “During” section takes place on a convoy into the desert. The last thing Ben sees before the explosion is a child’s toy on the road. The description of the effects of the detonation of a mortar shell packed with screws, nails and bolts is realistically horrific. Ben’s body is intact, but as a result of the assault, Ben is diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

In the “After,” Ben faces the biggest battle of his life. His recovery is painfully depicted through his scribbles, his guttural utterances, and the frustration he experiences when he finally is able to partially comprehend, but can’t respond. Several chapters focus on his loved ones and how their lives are impacted by his injury, especially his inability to remember them or his past. Parallels are drawn between his struggles and those of his brother, Chris, who has autism. The cost, both literally and figuratively, of Ben’s recovery is immense.Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am ends with a sense of hope. Ben remembers who he is.

Mazer, well known for his novels about war, and Lerangis, author of more than 140 books, have combined narration, emails, letters, indecipherable writing, poetry, instant messages, and hand written text to create a short (under 150 pages), yet powerful story about a young man who wanted to reach the end of his life and be able to say “I did something important. I saved lives.”

Mazer, H., & Lerangis, P. (2012). Somebody, please tell me who I am. NY: Simon & Schuster.