I don’t care to speculate on whether this book deserves its Pulitzer or not because I’m far too out of the loop on adult literary fiction right now. What I’ll say is that it has the goods and I’ve enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read in a while.*
Some reasons I like this book:
I’m a music geek, and this book has plenty to offer there. From the imagining of the nascent late-70s Bay Area punk scene to one character’s catalog of the 12 best Rock & Roll Pauses, there’s a lot of fictional music goodness.
I love how each chapter can stand on its own as a short story (many of them were first published in magazines as short stories) but read together they gain so much resonance and context. Each one left me wanting more. There were tantalizing glimpses and hints of other stories that we didn’t get, and that sense of all these people’s lives progressing and weaving in and out of each others’ lives provided a great richness and realness to the whole fictional world.
For me it was fun to put the pieces together from the different stories, and to occasionally have to flip back to another spot in the book to double check a name or detail to figure out the connection. It was just the right amount of pleasant confusion for me. I would love to go back and read it again to find more nuances and connections. I guess I’m a literature geek too; after studying things like Joyce’s Ulysses, reading a book like this feels like an easy, playful romp of a read.
There was a rich and diverse array highly fallible but interesting characters, with whom in many cases I identified. The way they all reacted to the passing of time/aging/unforseen changes was fascinating to observe, and I think that this exploration of the various ways that people deal with life change is one of the more powerful themes of the book.
Yes there is a lot of talking about/mentioning of sex, which isn’t really what I look for out of a book, but on the other hand there was hardly anything in the way of sex “scenes,” which I actually found refreshing. It seems like many writers, (perhaps in some cases at the behest of editors?) feel they have to provide lurid or lasciviously detailed descriptions of sexual acts, and not just in adult but young adult fiction as well now. This book avoids that. The one actual sex scene that I remember from the book was definitely not pornographic in this sense, in that it did not seem alluring or lascivious in any way, it more served to show the selfishness and other follies of the characters, the pettiness and grotesqueness of the situation.
The ending is very hopeful, but not all of my questions get answered. Kind of just like real life.
The covers of both the hardcover and paperback editions look really good with my site’s style theme.
I could come up with more reasons I like it. It wouldn’t be hard. But I’ll stop my list here so we can get on with our lives.
[Note: this was written as a response to an acquaintance/co-worker’s comment on Goodreads asking why I had given 4 stars to this “horrid” book, to which she only gave 1 star.]
*I think I got burned out on reading a few months ago because I spent too much time reading “serious” middle-grade books that I wasn’t always that interested in, in an attempt to predict the Newbery winner. I forgot to read things just because I want to read them. This is the first book in a long time I had no other motive to read than that I simply wanted to read it.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Written by Jennifer Egan
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Released June 8, 2010 http://jenniferegan.com/
On Tuesday I happened upon this tweet declaring a new “mission” from one Amy Krouse Rosenthal, via her blog Mission Amy KR. Her mission was simple: she commisioned “agents” at twenty locations throughout the country to hide copies of her picture book Little Pea under random mattresses in random furniture stores; a play on the whole Princess and the Pea fairy tale. She posted the following youtube video, which gave clues as to the locations of the hidden little peas:
I actually sat and watched through all five minutes of this video, which was strange behavior for me. Perhaps I could sense that destiny had called me on this day. Or perhaps I just like it when people do goofy things like this in stores and public places. I was just a little curious to see if there was going to be one planted somewhere in Utah. Whatever the reason that held my attention for the duration, my hope beyond hope was confirmed as I watched some lady on the video place a copy of this book under a mattress of a “rustic mountain home” bed display in the R.C. Willey furniture store only a couple of miles from my house. I knew not only where this store was located, but, having visited it once a couple of years ago, I even had a general idea of where this type of furniture was located within the store, unless they had changed everything around. Further, I was on vacation from work for the day, and would be willingly aided and accompanied by a picture book-loving wife and little Lord Fitz himself, who would be our go-to man to find the book. And as a final motivation, I myself am currently on a professional and personal quest to explore the world of children’s picture books and discover new titles; what better way to enact my quest than by rummaging through the bed displays of a furniture store as a prank to get a free book? And so it was decided that we would assay that very afternoon to retrieve the Little Pea.
Before I proceed with the recounting of our adventures, there is something you should know about the nature of my relationship with R.C. Willey stores: they frighten and irritate me to no end. Each R.C. Willey location, in addition to being filled with furniture of varying stylishness, is also crawling with salespersons on commission. They will follow you around, and if you tell one to bug off it does no good, because no sooner will he or she leave you alone than another salesperson will find you un-chaperoned and start tailing you. If you are in any way paranoid or unsocial it is not a good place for you. So, I was glad to have my two cohorts with me on the trek.
We arrived at the store parking lot, strapped the lad into his stroller, and entered. There were people all about, which seemed encouraging for our Tuesday afternoon quest, until I realized that virtually all of them were employees. There must have been a 3-to-1 salesperson-to-customer ratio, which meant that we had no chance of being inconspicuous, and also that the salespeople would be extra hungry for business. We proceeded into the store with caution, browsed some furniture, and then made our way to the goal area. I had remembered the mountain cabin type furniture, such as was shown in the video, being in a strange basement showroom of the store. I was unsure whether this would give us more privacy to search for the book, or would leave us to be cornered by a salesperson as the only shoppers in the area.
I made one great error in preparing for our quest for the little pea: I failed to a get a screenshot of the placement of the book. I had remembered it was a rustic looking bed with a TV next to it, and I thought that would be good enough to find it. As it turns out, I was both right and wrong. As we reached the area, I quickly found a bed that matched my memory, with a TV next to it playing at that very moment a ridiculous scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in which a bunch of guys are shot and fall down a hillside in slow motion. Really put me in the mood to buy some rustic furniture right then. I pulled up the mattress from the foot of the bed on both sides, but found nothing. We then wandered around the area for a while, but could not find another bed that matched what we had seen in the video. I wondered if they had already re-arranged their showroom since the book had been hidden. I hoped they hadn’t put it on display on a nightstand in the children’s section or something, thus making our retrieval of the book appear as stealing.
During this time, a salesperson approached us, offering to help us find something, and to my horror my wife straightly told her we were looking for a book that was hidden under a mattress in the store, according to a video that we had seen at a website. Our subtlety gone, now the vast and mysterious mechanizations of the R.C. Willey superstore would be set into motion to thwart us. The salesperson told us that the floor designers would surely have found anything like what we were looking for, and we should check with Customer Service to see if they had our lost book. She then quickly went away, I assumed to inform security that strange persons were in the basement trying to mess up and steal display items. I’m the paranoid one in the family, if you haven’t noticed.
We then came up with the wise idea to try to pull the video up on our phone, but the reception down in the basement was too poor. We went upstairs, I found an obscure couch to sit on where I could attempt to search for and load the video on my phone, and my wife checked with Customer Service and continued to talk to salespeople, who all seemed to be somewhat confused and nervous by what she was asking them. Ten minutes later, after being solicited for sales assistance by three different individuals, I finally had the video cued up and paused on the shot of the bed under which the book had been placed. We showed it to the salesperson, the first one who had helped us. To her credit, she immediately recognized the bed and knew exactly where it was. She led us back downstairs and directly to the very first bed I had checked, with Butch and Sundance playing next to it. My wife pulled up the mattress, and there was the book, in a plastic bag, at the very head of the bed. I had not checked thoroughly enough. Roosevelt Fitzwallace himself pulled the book out (see photo above). We found the note inside the book and showed it to the salesperson, and she, although still somewhat confused, let us take it.
So, the pea was not found by a princess or a prince, but it was found by a little lord, certainly on his way to greatness.
As we made our way to exit of the store, we ran back into other employees that my wife had talked with. She informed them that we had found the book, and tried to relieve them. Apparently they had commenced searching the R.C. Willey website and called the corporate offices to try to find out about this secret book giveaway promotion that they hadn’t known about. Tomorrow they had a “Walk-Through” scheduled, and they were extremely concerned about mobs of people coming in and tearing apart their displays looking for hidden stuff. We tried to comfort them, saying that we were probably the only people who would come in looking for the book.
So, thank you, Mission Amy KR!!! Lord Fitz has deigned to lend me his copy of Little Pea, and so it shall be added to the collection of books I need to read and review for my massive picture book project:
*It should perhaps again be mentioned that, for the purposes of this web site, the boy’s name is Roosevelt FitzWallace, a.k.a. Fitz, Fitzy, or Little Lord Fitz. The original goal was also to avoid the accurate rendering of his facial image at all costs, but once again I have failed in that obfuscation. I could not bear to put a black box over his eyes; he is just too cute.
This is part of the picture book project. I need to read all of these books. Or I get to read all of these books. Or something like that. I want to become better acquainted with picture books both new and old, and help our school library assistants to pick good ones for their libraries. As you can see, I am starting mostly with the brand new, but soon enough I’ll be hitting the classics and the back catalogs as well. (I’ve long had an unfulfilled goal to read the complete works of Dr. Suess; I wish they had an omnibus edition like a complete Shakespeare.) Wish me luck, and give me suggestions.
A post-apocalyptic, swashbuckling adventure, Ship Breaker begins the story of the young teenager Nailer, who works the “light crew” with a ship scavenging outfit on a beach on the gulf coast. Old oil tanker wrecks wash up on the beach, and Nailer climbs through their tight ductworks, stripping copper wiring for scavenge. In a future world where city-destroying category six hurricanes are a regular occurrence and the coast is lined with drowned cities and treacherous swamps, Nailer lives with his violent, strung-out father in a shack on the beach. When Nailer finds the ultimate scavenge that could bring him great wealth, he must make the tough decision to take the scavenged goods and continue life as usual on the beach, or face the unknown by rescuing a survivor for the risky and questionable possibility of great reward. Adding another complication, the survivor just so happens to be a beautiful and swanky girl.
Bacigalupi has constructed a gritty, violent adventure tale set against the backdrop of a future American gulf coast laid waste by climate change and environmental catastrophe. This book is smart but compulsively, easily readable, and is the first of a series: look for its sequel, The Drowned Cities, to appear later this year. Highly recommended for fans of The Hunger Games, this is another brutal teenage adventure rife with strong ethical dilemmas.
Written by Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown & Company
Release Date: May 1, 2010
Three siblings: Otto, Lucia, and Max; the story is told by one of them, but the teller has been sworn not to reveal him or herself by the other siblings. They live with their dad in a small town in England where they were long ago labeled the weird kids of the town, but only because their mother mysteriously vanished and/or died before they were old enough to really remember her, and the super-tall and oldest brother Otto never speaks and always wears a scarf. The nasty theory is that he strangled his own mother with the scarf in a rage of madness, and their father covered it up to protect his son.
With The Kneebone Boy, American author Ellen Potter lets loose her anglophilia and successfully hijacks the magic of the long and storied history of British children’s literature, from Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis to Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling, that she clearly loves so much; except there is no magic in The Kneebone Boy. Our unidentified narrator makes this ever so clear from the outset, lest we end up disappointed.
Oddities? Does the rumored existence of a boy born with bat ears and fur all over his body and locked in the top chamber of a crumbling old castle sound normal to you?
Mysteries? If a missing mom and a furry boy locked in a castle aren’t enough mysteries for you, then you are a tougher reader than me.
Adventures? Would getting in a fight with a tattooed thug while stranded in the streets of London parentless count? How about exploring the treacherous secret passageways of the aforementioned crumbling castle, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea?
With all that, who needs magic?
Told by one of the cleverest narrative voices I’ve read in a long time and abounding with the weirdness, mystery, and plot twists of the children’s books I grew up loving, this is the first book I’ve read in a while that made me genuinely excited about children’s literature written primarily for children. For that, and even though and maybe actually partly because of the fact that this book probably won’t win any awards, it was my favorite book of 2010.
The Kneebone Boy
Written by Ellen Potter
Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Abilene has spent most of her life riding the rails with her father, but in the summer of 1936 he sends her to his once-upon-a-time home town of Manifest, Kansas, telling her that he has to work a railroad job in Iowa alone and that he will return to pick her up at the end of the summer. Her father has always told her happy stories of the town of Manifest and Abilene is warmly welcomed by several of the townsfolk, but she immediately feels that they are holding something back from her. When she finds an old tin filled with mysterious keepsakes and letters under a floorboard, she sets out to discover the secrets of Manifest, and hopefully those of her own father as well.
This is a well-rounded historical novel abounding with great characters, stories and details, ultimately providing an epic view into numerous historical events from what is basically a story of a young girl in a depression-era Midwest town. The small town mysteries, adventures, and con jobs slightly echo The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, while the experiences and stories of individual characters take us far from Main Street to places as diverse as the Ellis Island immigration inspections, tent revivals, orphan trains, a KKK rally, the bottom of a coal mine, influenza quarantines, bootlegging operations, hobo camps, and the French front lines of the first World War. Moon over Manifest is an engaging read that underscores the power of story and will give young readers a taste of many real flavors of American life during the first third of the 20th Century. It was a nice choice for the 2011 Newbery.
Moon over Manifest
Written by Clare Vanderpool
Delacorte Books for Young Readers / Random House
Release Date: October 12, 2010
I am now about to proceed to read the actual Newbery winner, Moon over Manifest, and as I went in to my Goodreads account to search for the book and faithfully record my commencement of its reading, I was greated with the above friendly suggestion from a search robot. I really hope this book isn’t a barf manifesto; it looks too cute. However, it certainly would be a lot more fun for the kids if a book called something like Barf Manifesto won the Newbery. I guess we can only hope for next year.
In the summer of 1968, when sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are put on a plane across the country from Brooklyn to Oakland, they are cautiously optimistic. They are going to California, after all, but they are going there to meet and stay with their mother, who left them before they could really remember her. Instead of the welcome hug they hope to receive from a long lost mother, they get a cranky, secretive woman who barely tolerates their being in her house, treating them neither like her children nor even like decent house guests. Instead of a vacation filled with trips to Disneyland, playing on the beach, and seeing movie stars, their California trip is four weeks stuck in a poor black Oakland neighborhood, spending their days at a youth summer camp run by revolutionary Black Panthers because their mother will not have them around all day, distracting her from her cryptic work as a poet. Will the sisters be able to get through these four weeks nearly on their own, and will they figure out the multitude of mysteries surrounding their mother, who won’t even let them set foot in her kitchen?
Delphine, at eleven years old, is one of the more mature, practical and memorable characters I’ve ever encountered in children’s literature, a strong and steady oldest daughter taking on the role of mother for her two little sisters. She deftly negotiates her sisters through numerous tense and tumultuous situations, showing great wisdom. Through Delphine’s eyes, the author shows us what it was like to be a black child in the midst of the radical late 60s. From the way she smartly calms her sisters on the plane to avoid them “making a grand negro spectacle of themselves,” to her studied assessment of the revolutionary rhetoric the girls are taught at the People’s Center as it compares to what she has learned from her father and grandmother, she shows a great understanding and gives the reader an insightful view of these times.
This would be a great book for any child who has ever been or felt abandoned by a parent. It gives no easy answers, neither unfettered condemnation nor forgiving justification for the mother’s actions, but rather shows things how they really are, without a false happy ending. It is also a great piece of historical fiction, giving readers an appreciation for the challenges and complexities of the times. Although its appeal may actually be more adult and I suspect most young readers won’t be busting down the library doors to read this one, One Crazy Summer is the best-written children’s novel I have come across this year, and therefore the strongest contender for the Newbery. (We’ll find out tomorrow.)
One Crazy Summer
Written by Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad / HarperCollins
Release Date: January 26, 2010