…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
Seriously, I am a bit puzzled by this essay by Wallace Shawn, AKA The Sicilian from THE PRINCESS BRIDE. I mean, I feel kind of sorry for him! No one likes his plays!!
Actually, it mostly makes me really want to see one of these plays for myself so I can see whether they also make me feel the way he says his audiences, to his surprise, react to his work — angry, “stricken and miserable,” “hurt, or baffled.” …Do they have a plot? Do they have a terrible plot? Do the actors turn to the audience and hurl insults, or weapons? I am so curious.
(I did like this line: “One plays with sentences the way a child plays with matches — because they’re unpredictable.”)
For a book that I couldn’t put down for two days, I sure had a lot of complaints about Alex Sanchez’s RAINBOW BOYS.
I think Sanchez has a profoundly tin ear for dialogue, especially considering all the praise heaped on this book. Mixed in with recognizable teen slang — “poop” as an adjective or a cutesy interjection, for example — are a constant stream of lines that no teen — or person, really — would ever utter.
This is compounded by an odd lack of specificity in a number of key scenes. Like, on page two we hear about our first of three protagonists, Jason, having made the big step of calling a gay teen hotline… and “asking questions for hours.” Well, what did he ask?! I just met this character! I’m trying to get into his head, and Sanchez is making things entirely too vague for that to happen.
Related to that, I had the darndest time figuring out when the book was set. I wrote recently about books that are set at a very particular moment in the recent past; I gather that RAINBOW BOYS is set in the early-to-mid ‘90s, but only by piecing together some little details like the boys making each other cassette tapes (yet having some CDs), one boy having his own computer but this being an impressive fact (yet the boys instant message), and a passing mention of “protesters picketing Congress for AIDS funding.” (If only!) But most of the book was in the more timelessly generic world of most YA novels, so I still don’t know why Sanchez set his nearly two decades ago; the story would’ve worked as well with the kids trading mp3s. If there was some sort of 1990s Zeitgeist here, it went over my head.
I even had issues with parts of the plot — namely, an alcoholic father who was so cartoonishly villainous that I just didn’t buy it.
But it’s the plot that kept me turning the pages and ensured that I will be reading the first sequel when I get the chance. On top of a romance with exactly the kind of little escalations, misunderstandings, hurt feelings and elation that I devour like candy were tons of nice little touches… like unrequited love for a best friend, unprotected sex (a plotline handled extremely well), and the not-so-easy feat of three lead characters who were quite distinct, each of whom I believed in and cared about.
Jennifer Hubbard (who, coincidentally, is the person who recommended RAINBOW BOYS to me, in a blog comment) has written about how hard it is to pull off a novel jumping between time periods or narrators, because each piece has to be as interesting as the others; Sanchez manages that admirably.
This is, in short, the book for which our “Flawed does not preclude interesting” category was designed. Let’s hope that the writing improves with the sequels, and that the beautiful romance and pathos keep on coming.
Everybody loves THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. It is many of my friends’ absolute all-time favorite kids book. I know I read it as a kid. I know I didn’t like it. I know I didn’t read it again. And that’s all I remember, and somehow even though everyone was always saying how much they loved it, I never picked it up again until now. Anyway, that’s the back story.
My feeling on recent reading is this: good book, but I totally can see why it hit wrong with me as a kid. Because the number one adjective I want to use for THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is clever. Its incredibly clever. Its witty. The wordplay and puns are great, and I’m sure I would have picked up on them and enjoyed them back then as well.* But clever and witty alone does not a great book make. And that I think is my problem with this one. I did enjoy it. But I wasn’t really engrossed at all – there’s very little character-building, the characters are all kind of purposefully caricatures, and even when feelings or reactions by people were described, they were just kind of stated very matter of fact. I never actually found myself identifying with anyone. And while the constant humor kept the story from feeling like there was too much moralizing, it was nevertheless very clear that at each place, and with each character, a not-so-subtle point was being made about modern life, the way people behave, etc; to the point where those points felt in and of themselves to be the purpose of the story. Again, not something that really draws you (or at least me) in.
My other issue was that even plot-wise, the story kind of reads like a litany of “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” Not much variety in pacing, and no time spent once the “point” of each episode had taken place – just “ok, that happened, next.” I’m being a little more negative than I really felt while I was reading the book – I really did enjoy it. But I can also totally see how as a kid I would have gotten bored. Puns are funny. A few pages or even a few chapters of clever wordplay and obvious-but-still-fun set-ups are fun. But a whole book of that and nothing else just isn’t enough.
Actually, now that I’m writing this and thinking it through further, I feel like a lot of the pieces of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH would make for great picture books – short, clever, funny stories, with imaginative premises, and a lot of great illustrations already included. But a whole series of those just strung together one after another doesn’t quite do it for me. And that’s why I can’t summon the love of this book that so many folks have (although I’m glad that I now see why they do love it. Especially as so many of my friends are language-loving types), and why I probably read it once, was kind of amused and kind of bored, and was left without a strong enough impression to lead me to pick it up again.
*I was raised in a very pun-filled household. In my family, birthdays and other card-giving occasions are basically a standing competition to see who can find the card with the best pun or bad joke. There have been some real prize finds over the years.
… is totally the way I will remember Sydney Salter’s book, which in actuality is named MY BIG NOSE AND OTHER NATURAL DISASTERS. (Blog readers may recall this as the book I called out for its curly hair blunders, in what is now our most-read and most-linked post here at Underage Reading; Salter gets cool points for having a good sense of humor about the whole thing.)
I actually really didn’t like MY BIG NOSE much at first. It’s going for this breezy, contemporary tone, but I found a lot of the writing sufficiently generic at the line level that it just felt forced. The characterization, especially early on, also comes in really broad strokes in a way I found off-putting. Like, check this out:
“It’s going to be the best summer ever.” [... Hannah] fanned herself with her certificates for Outstanding Community Service, Super School Spirit, and Best Poetry. “We can relax and really discover our passions.”
“Like getting into college? Getting real work experience?” [offers the character Megan]
Who talks like that? The answer is no one.
Partly, I think the book suffered from uncertainty about how far into parody it wanted to descend. There were some priceless details; here’s one — the protagonist’s social-climbing mom is talking about a book club the higher-status moms hold — next to which I wrote, “This is almost a satire, and if it were it would be awesome”:
Mom leaned back, clutching a pillow to her chest. “I’ve been trying to swing an invitation to that book club for over a year. I read all the books just in case I get invited and people talk about previous selections.”
…But it wasn’t a satire; it gave us awesome shit like that but then also wanted us to take these characters seriously. I struggled with that.
However. MY BIG NOSE grew on me quite a bit as it went along. In part this is because it handled well some things — sexual violence, homosexuality* — that usually make an appearance in teen books only when they are The Point. Here, as in many teenagers’ actual lives, they are important parts of the pastiche of what our main character and her friends experience — and Salter takes them as seriously as they deserve — without being the dominant features of our hero’s life. This felt to me both convincing and refreshing.
The best part of this book, though, for me, was a so fully awesome scene that inspired the title of this post. It is a very extended, deeply hilarious depiction of what happens when our hero goes to yoga class while forced onto her mother’s cabbage soup diet. The gaseous results are reported to us in detail. In a book for girls! So rare!
It’s kind of like how masturbation is a staple of realistic-genre books for teen boys, but if I ask you about female characters masturbating, what will you say? That’s right, DEENIE. Which was published in 1973. Cheers to Salter for, thirty five years later, taking another little step forward in popular culture portraying girls as possessing bodily functions.
* By the way, one way that blogging has changed my book reading is that I am more accountable to my predictions about where a book is going (even when they’re pathetically off base). It was on page 101 of this book that I noted, “I think I had called [character] = gay before this, but now I am WRITING IT DOWN.” Sixty six pages later we get the scoop for real. I mention this because, now that I am in the habit of writing down my predictions, I’m wondering how many books I feel like “Oh, I saw that coming!” about, but only because I predicted like twenty different mutually exclusive plot developments, one of which actually occurred. Now we will be able to track this. Stay tuned.
Having finished my term paper (…the first one, that is), I recovered by spending all weekend reading. Beginning with an ARC [advanced reader copy: not-quite-final promotional copy] of WATERSMEET by Ellen Jensen Abbott.
I was quite absorbed by this fantasy, whose protagonist is an outcast in a harsh human world at war with other creatures and its own internal ‘demons.’ I definitely felt this book was a good use of my Saturday, although my enjoyment of it wasn’t quite evenly paced: I loved the first half, then it kind of dragged for a while, then near the very end I got interested again. Whatever, I had a good time reading it.
And yet. A couple things about it kind of bugged me. Like, the whole point of the book is that the different creatures have to overcome their antipathy toward one another, people from all species have done terrible things in their mutual wars but they’ll be stronger and happier if they unite, etc. But then there’s these other creatures to which this doesn’t apply.
Okay, so some of those other creatures are notably less sentient; I’ll buy that as a relevant difference. But some of them totally aren’t. And I find it kind of odd to be reading this whole story about species who assume each other have no humanity having to learn to question that assumption, and yet the book never questions it about these other guys. It’s not like I wouldn’t accept even some pretty tenuous principle here; it’s just that I didn’t see any principle at all.I had this problem with the latter seasons of BUFFY and ANGEL, actually. My favorite “how season 7 could have not sucked” suggestion from someone on one of the Television Without Pity boards was that the show should have embraced the corner it had backed itself into by letting some soulless demons have apparent personhood, and let the “slayer death wish” come because slayers grow ambivalent about their role as they realize some of what they’re killing could be redeemed. …And now I am mindful that Emily’s principle that “MY SO-CALLED LIFE is inherently on-topic” does not apply to BUFFY. Anyway.
My biggest problem with WATERSMEET is that I respected the main character less and less as it went on. And the main reason for this is that she made various mistakes, terrible decisions, selfish actions, etc, all of which were potentially forgivable… except not one of them had any real consequences for her. That, to me, was unforgivable.
I actually kind of fall in love with characters who make huge mistakes, as long as they also pay huge prices for them. Here, our protagonist pretty much endangers an entire community — one could even say the world — through her desire to avoid an unpleasant discussion, and when this comes to light? No one is angry; worse, the monster who wants them all dead hasn’t gained any appreciable advantage from the added time when his enemies were unawares. This violates a Fundamental Principle of Cause and Effect in Fiction, I’m pretty sure.
It’s not that our hero doesn’t suffer; actually, she suffers a huge amount in this book. But all of it is because of things beyond her control — which is compelling, up to a point, but not when I kept feeling like she should be suffering more for what she was actually doing. Unfortunately, the ending in particular did not fill me with hope for the sequel that is obviously planned. Just remember, Abbott: Personal Responsibility — bad principle for U.S. politics; great principle for fictional protagonists.
I started thinking about this because I recently read Libba Bray’s THE SWEET FAR THING, and THE EARTH, MY BUTT, AND OTHER BIG ROUND THINGS by Carolyn Mackler. And my reaction to both was that they were not very good…but they were extremely absorbing. The kind of reading where I totally get lost in a book and forget what’s going on around me, and where I don’t want to put it down. But they weren’t very good. It seems contradictory, but that’s my reaction, and as I think about it there are a fair number of Teen books that I feel that way about, whereas absorbing and good almost always go hand in hand for me with both younger kids’ books and adult books. So why? What is the distinction between what makes a book good and what makes it absorbing? And why do Teen books seem to lend themselves to being absorbing-but-not-good?
If we’re going to talk about John Green’s PAPER TOWNS, we’d better get the obligatory MY SO-CALLED LIFE comparison out of the way first. (I mean, besides the MSCL comparison I already made.)
Brian Krakow was a nerdy guy, in love with/obsessed with the female neighbor he’d had a childhood friendship with, whose therapist parents really didn’t help:
Bernice: [offscreen; we never see Brian's parents] Brian, honey? Are you ignoring me, sweetheart? If you are, it’s okay. Just tell me.
Brian voiceover: My mother is a behavioral psychologist.
Bob: Bernice, if you left him alone, maybe he’d break out of this prolonged latency.
Brian VO: And my father is a Freudian psychiatrist.
Bernice: Our child is not in latency!
Bob: Keep living in denial, Bernice.
Brian VO: Which basically means that they fundamentally disagree on, like, everything.
Bob: Bri? Everything all right?
Bernice: Feel free not to respond!
Brian VO: At Angela’s house, they probably, like, laugh, and eat unbalanced meals, and talk about things that don’t have deep symbolic meaning. They’re probably like this normal family.
[And, because this is television, that leads us into an ironic segue]
Quentin “Q” Jacobsen, the PAPER TOWNS protagonist, on the other hand, is… exactly what I just said.
The psychologist parents who really don’t get it is such a cliche (I assume it far predates MSCL; anyone got examples?), but Green does it quite well with the parents’ small role. I particularly enjoyed this bit:
My dad put his arm around me. “Those are some very troubling dynamics, eh, bud?”
“They’re kind of assholes,” I said. My parents always liked it when I cursed in front of them. I could see the pleasure of it in their faces. It signified that I trusted them, that I was myself in front of them.
This is a great parody, in that it’s a very small detail that I absolutely can believe, and can build a mental picture of these folks around. But a nice thing Green does here is go beyond just parodying Q’s parents; he uses their characterization to develop our sense of Q, and the stakes for him of the choices he’ll be making in the book. When Q takes the major step of deciding to do something that he thinks will be helping his friend, which involves staying out all night, he lies to his parents and says he’s going to the prom:
He told me not to drink, and I told him I wouldn’t, and he said he was proud of me for going to prom, and I wondered if he would be proud of me for doing what I was actually doing.
This is a very economical, and in my opinion, very well done way of conveying Q’s development of his own moral compass, without any fuss.
That kind of quick characterization is one of the things John Green excels at. Another is metaphors.
Some of these are at the line level:
It’s shit like this that’s made me have to fight myself to keep the Wednesday Words from becoming one big John Green marathon.
But PAPER TOWNS as a whole is also organized, in a way you don’t understand right away, around finding the right metaphor for death. The setup involves a nine-year-old character confidently describing her explanation of a man’s death: “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.”
It’s the kind of inexplicable thing that you can imagine a nine-year-old finding perfectly sensible, but it languidly takes on a whole new series of meanings over the course of the story. This climaxes in a two page explicit monologue about the metaphor by one of the characters, and amazingly, instead of finding this unbelievably pretentious and annoying, I think it’s actually kind of beautiful.
…So here’s the thing, though, with John Green. I wrote the above in early March, and I’ve been sitting on this post ever since, and the reason is that I just can’t pin down what I really think about the man’s books.
On one level, I feel like Green really gets a certain kind of kid, and it’s the kind I actually hung out with (and was) in high school. His books have a very contemporary feeling, compared to many I read in the ’80s (and reread now). Like, any book involving boys this age is going to have boys talking about sex; yet few older books would have a line like this one (the ludicrous character Ben is speaking):
“Bro, I saw your mom kiss you on the cheek this morning, and forgive me, but I swear to God I was like, man, I wish I was Q. And also, I wish my cheeks had penises.“
You’re just not too likely to find that, outside of, say, Melvin Burgess’s DOING IT (which is also, incidentally, the one of his books that I’ve actually enjoyed; but then, I have a strong aversion to the lurid drug abuse books that became so much in vogue with Burgess and, Christ, Ellen Hopkins, who’s still hitting this pipe like it’s crack and she’s one of the lost souls in her own damn unreadable novels).
I think this is why John Green’s books speak so strongly to a lot of people — there’s no denying that the man’s got some seriously enthusiastic fans — the books and the videos and the blog posts are expressing a subculture that a lot of smart, verbal, well-educated and somewhat alienated middle-class kids experience and rarely see represented in the popular culture targeted at them — because most books are either too sanitized or not smart enough or both. Green’s got the nerdiness and the crudeness all rolled into one. God, I would have thought these were the coolest thing in the world when I was 15.
It’s also Green’s biggest problem: if you don’t happen to be one of the kids who’ve been waiting for a book with just this tone, all the cleverness comes across more as cliquishness. That’s why, even though I do like the books, I feel complaints like this one, from an anonymous commenter at bookshelves of doom:
It’s not that I’m averse to his characters, it’s just that while I read his books I find myself thinking, this is funny, right? I should really be laughing here. I wonder why I’m not? Why AREN’T I? Is something wrong with me?
I think sometimes the characters themselves seem to try so hard to be original, funny, and above all, carry-the-theme-at-all-costs-even-if-their-actions-don’t-make-sense, that I feel preached at, and it seems I’m reading the same novel over and over.
I went to nerd camp when I was 13-15 (after years of bouncing between normal camps I hated), and one reason I loved it is that there was a palpable feeling of relief, among the friends I made, at being there instead of at home. Kids who were closeted at home came out at camp; we made up strange rituals and minutely documented their history like self-conscious anthropologists of ourselves; we dressed like lunatics and talked fast and loud and made up ridiculous songs about crayons and international relations and bizarre sexual practices we pretended to understand.
And some of my friends talked starry-eyed about how here was a place without cliques and judgment, and it was no different than in any other setting where someone declares confidently that there’s no real in-crowd: it just tells you they’re of it.
John Green has succeeded in building around him a fervent base of kids who, I gather, think they don’t quite fit in in their schools’ mainstream culture, but get to feel like The Cool Ones for reading and loving his books. He is my nerd camp. Although I have no doubt that he genuinely enjoys and respects his readers, it’s also a brilliant marketing strategy.
And it’s off-putting to those who just don’t quite get it — not because they have different taste, but because they can tell that what’s really being felt by his fans is that they’re not as cool because they have different taste. I’m supposed to find this funny is not ever a particularly fun impression to get, and it might be even more annoying when it seems to come with the self-satisfaction of being above that sort of thing. That’s one way to look at the John Green Phenomenon. But another way is: aww, man, can’t the nerds just have their day?
COMING UP: I somehow actually managed to write all this without returning to my obsession with girls and boys and John Green, but that will be rectified in an upcoming series of posts. Hence the new category “Boys, girls, and nerds.” Oh yes, I have so much to say.
Now that my town is acting like winter is done (though considering that I live in Wisconsin, I mostly think it’s trying to fake me out), here are some thoughts about Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS, about a severely anorexic high school girl whose best friend has just died.
[All quotes are from an Advance Reader's Copy, which means they may be different in the final version you get from a bookstore or library.]
Things I noticed:
So I kept rooting for Lia to keep on getting away with all her schemes; the schemes, in fact, may have been the main thing I identified with in her. But then, of course, I as a reader would step out of this identification, and be aware of how getting caught might be the only thing that would save her life. This dual awareness, in and out of her head, is always a strange experience for me, much like when I find myself rooting for a novel’s villain because they just seem more interesting than the hero.
My English teacher flips out because the government is demanding we take yet another test to assess our reading skills, because we’re seniors and pretty soon we might have to read or something.
What I think is interesting in this and similar quotes (and I totally thought I had a better example, except now I can’t find it) is that Anderson’s expression of high school angst often involves adopting a seemingly adult POV, commenting on the situation of the kids. This, on its face, is violating a convention of fiction for young readers, except that I also totally remember thinking like that (and feeling very adult doing it) as a teenager.
Things I liked:
I’m angry that I starved my brain and that I sat shivering in my bed at night instead of dancing or reading poetry or eating ice cream or kissing a boy or maybe a girl with gentle lips and strong hands.
It would have meant so much to me to read something like this when I was in high school, announcing the possibility of life with women or with men with just as little fanfare as Anderson gives here, but I never, ever did.
No, I am never setting foot in this house again it scares me and makes me feel sad and I wish you could be a mom whose eyes worked but I don’t think you can.“Sure.”
At some of these times, I viscerally identified with Lia. Like in TWISTED, Anderson does depressed well.
Things I didn’t like:
I like the idea of Lia having a self-loathing refrain — it fits the kind of obsessiveness I think we needed to see from her — but the text didn’t really work to convey it for me. It was moments like this where I agreed with Nicki that it felt like we were being continually told about Lia’s messed-up mind rather than really feeling it. It’s also possible that this just isn’t my style of book; I tend to like my narratives literal.
Overall, I think WINTERGIRLS is quite an achievement. Anderson is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and there’s stuff in here I think she did incredibly well; it made me think a lot. (Insert your own joke about how that really is an achievement here.) But I can’t quite imagine picking this one up to read again, like I can virtually all her other young adult books. Almost a week after I finished reading it, I don’t feel like it’s stuck in my soul the way some of her other books are, months or years after being read. Ultimately, I think I just don’t love Lia enough. I wish her the best, but that’s all.
Inaugurating our latest regular series: BOOK vs. BOOK. It’s a death match between somehow-related examples of young people’s fiction… because Lord knows, no one would ever read more than one book.
The books: Sherman Alexie, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN; Mildred D. Taylor, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY
SPOILER ALERTS for some key scenes in both books.
These are not books, at first glance, that one might think to compare. And yet if you happen to read them side-by-side (as I did a year and a half ago, when doing the research for this article), the similarities are surprising.
ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY is a classic, published in 1976 and winning the following year’s Newbery, set amid a Black community in Great Depression Mississippi. Nine-year-old Cassie’s family struggles to keep their land — their only hope of being able to determine their own future against every twist of unjust fate.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, on the other hand, is a contemporary novel, told in text and comics, about the repercussions of Junior (a.k.a. Arnold Spirit Jr.)’s decision to leave his crappy school on “the rez” in favor of the well-funded white school nearby.
Both books open on the first day of school, with our respective protagonists’ excitement turning to disillusionment and anger when they realize, via the pathetic state of their textbooks, just how little their education is actually valued by anyone with any power. Both Cassie and Junior rebel by rejecting their books, and in neither case does it go exactly as planned.
We get the picture: the world is stacked against them, but these kids are fighters. But they may pay a price for that that they can’t quite imagine — yet.
More strikingly, these books also share some fundamental similarities in the scene I found most powerful in each. With a lot of buildup so we understand just what is being risked with this choice, Taylor and Alexie have their protagonists each choose to stand up to more powerful white kids, whose outward friendliness is heavily spiked with racism and condescension.
And then Taylor and Alexie give us the same painful twist: after all that courage in standing up for their own dignity and self-respect, Cassie and Junior are met with bafflement. It’s not that the white kids are angry; it’s not that they fight back and punish our heroes; rather, they just don’t get it at all. Junior and Cassie’s defiant stands deflate into irrelevance in the face of their would-be antagonists’ genuine inability to understand why they are so angry.
Both scenes are so well done, it’s hurting me just writing about it. I think these books’d be worth reading for this alone, but as it happens, they’ve each got a lot more to offer.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY has an irreverence I love, with hilarious observations and exactly the kind of obsession with, and half-angst-half-pride about, masturbation that we expect from a teenage boy.
I like that Alexie doesn’t shy away from showing the really destructive elements of reservation culture — its alcoholism; crushing and unromanticized poverty; a misplaced toughness borne of oppression and the absence of any imaginable future — without ever disrespecting his characters and their humanity. Also, as I recently mentioned, I was quite struck by some small references to how homophobia distorts Junior’s friendship with his also-straight best friend. There’s a lot here that moved me, and made me think.
Unfortunately, there’s a point in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, when I started to find it really tough going. Alexie kind of piles on the tragedy, with (I said SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!) the deaths of two emotionally central characters in a row. The book is described as “semi-autobiographical,” and I suspect that this is one of those autobiographical parts, because it’s the kind of thing that actually happens in life but doesn’t really work in fiction.
Which, actually, is interesting; I’ve long remembered a Joss Whedon interview where he described his philosophy of writing as “put the characters in the worst situation you can imagine, and then make it worse.” Which I think is just brilliant (and exactly why BUFFY’s season two plot arc is so phenomenal, but I’ll save those discussions), so here you would think Alexie is just following that advice and I would love it, but I don’t.
This suggests to me that the real plotting secret is something more specific, like maybe that the escalation of badness has to be of a qualitatively different kind; at a certain point, DIARY begins to feel, unfortunately, like an undifferentiated mass of depression. And this might also be personal taste, because I’ve found some other books with really depressed narrators, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s also-wonderful TWISTED, to be hard to wade through as well.
But anyway, that’s my one caveat about Alexie’s really amazing book, his first for young adults, and I truly hope not his last.
ROLL OF THUNDER, meanwhile, manages something I’ve seen in only the best political books (Katherine Paterson’s LYDDIE is one of the few I’d put up on this same pedestal): a real exploration, in plausible and human terms, of the tradeoffs involved in some strategy for facing oppression — with absolutely no abstraction, just the logical development of choices made by characters I care about.
What Taylor does (and maybe this is closer to what Whedon meant?) is put her characters in what seem like truly impossible circumstances, and then really examine the consequences of their reactions. She does this, somehow, without descending into either nihilism or easy answers.
How this plays out is that everyone in and around Cassie Logan’s family has their own plan, more or less explicitly, for trying to make it; it goes the worst for the one who goes the farthest to ingratiate himself to the white power structure, but no one gets by without scars. The Logan family, and especially Cassie, have to learn to make compromises they hate in order to survive. But they also have to learn that sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, your dignity, your family and your life, or none of that was worth protecting.
It’s the way Taylor believably navigates that particular set of contradictions that makes the book incredible; I can’t think of any other that really manages this as well.
Advantage: THUNDER. But since it actually is possible to read more than one book, do yourself a favor and read them both, and savor it. In fact, I may just read them again.