Monday, February 27, 2012

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson begins with the line, “Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.”

Preceding that are two quotes, the first:

It is grotesque how they go on
loving us, we go on loving them

The effrontery; barely imaginable,
of having caused us. And of how.

Their lives: surely
we can do better than that.

And the second:

It wasn’t real; it was a stage set, a stagy stage set.”

Smith’s novel, about the relationship of the individuals of a family – parents Camille and Caleb Fang and their children, Annie (Child A), and Buster (Child B) – is complicated by the fact that Mrs. and Mr. Fang are performance artists, and they routinely use their children in their art. After a colleague and mentor of the Fangs tell them that “children kill art,” a pregnant Camille and her husband determine instead that having children may instead create the opportunity to make new art.

The novel is told half in real time and half in a retrospect of Camille and Caleb’s documented works of performance art, self-containing stories in themselves that have a very clear beginning, middle, and end. One of these contains the documentation of a performance in which Annie and Buster pretend to busk in order to raise money for an operation for their fictional family dog. They sing songs that are intentionally awful, and a crowd, there half for sympathy and half for the spectacle, form around them. Caleb and Camille plant themselves as strangers to their performing children and yell things like, “YOU SUCK!” and “I HOPE YOUR DOG DIES!” in order to create something for the crowd to react to. When the family does their rendezvous in a park after the scene, Caleb sports a black eye from a punch that has also destroyed the camera concealing in his eyeglasses. But the performance is deemed an overwhelming success and creates a moment at the end of it where the Fangs seem more like a family than ever.

These documentations are interspersed with the real-time adult lives of Annie and Buster, who are dealing with the implications of a childhood submersed in art, and an adult life dealing with the experiences created by their parents. Annie, a successful artist, and Buster, a journalist for a men’s magazine, both find themselves reluctantly homeward bound after personal breakdowns in their professional lives. However, after moving back in with their parents, Camille and Caleb disappear, their abandoned van found mysteriously by the side of the road, surrounded by blood. Although Annie and Buster insist to the police that this is just another one of their parents’ performances, a series of similar abductions reported in the area again blur the lines between art, reality, truth, and fiction, and Annie and Buster find themselves on a journey to draw their parents out of hiding, or else to come to terms with their deaths.

Smith’s novel provides an excellent fictionalized discussion on art and its many forms, and how it can so effectively mimic and create life, and he sends Annie and Buster to investigate the ways these influences are felt. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti

I was trying to find a book to review for Valentine’s Day, but I thought I would go with an author instead. Deb Caletti is sort of like the West Coast Sarah Dessen. Both write so strongly and beautifully about teens, and also seem to have the ability to write honestly about teen relationships. But Caletti’s style and voice of her characters (I think all of her books are told in first person) have always made me search out her books – a new one usually comes out every year in the spring (I just checked and The Story of Us comes out in April!).

Although her second novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was a National Book Award finalist, all of her books have received recognition and starred reviews, particularly her first, The Queen of Everything.

I wanted to write about The Nature of Jade (2007) in this review, but I have loved so much every book I’ve read by Deb Caletti.

The Nature of Jade is about Jade DeLuna, a Seattle teenager who keeps the live zoo webcam on in her room to watch the elephants. Jade has been diagnosed with Panic Disorder, and the realization of her condition is told in the first chapter, through a series of events. Jade explains what having a panic attack feels like:

“I’m gasping and I don’t even have enough air to cry out, same as the time in second grade when I landed hard on my back after falling off the jungle gym. I am aware, too aware, of my heartbeat, and then Oliver comes in. I’m panicking, shit, because I can’t breathe, and Oliver must see this in my eyes and he goes and runs and gets Aunt Beth. I hear him call her name, but it’s really far off, and I’m in this other world where there’s only this fear and this pain in my chest and no air and this feeling of Need Out!”

Visiting the zoo and watching the elephants on the webcam are ways that Jade stays calm and keeps the panic attacks at bay. But one day, while she’s sitting in her room watching the elephant enclosure from her computer, she notices a boy in a red jacket carrying a baby in a backpack. She starts to wonder who he is, comparing her curiosity to “The Airport Game,” where Jade says people sitting in an airport will ask themselves quiet questions about where the other people in the airport are going.

Jade gets to know the boy in the red jacket – Sebastian – as well as his son and his grandmother who all live together on a houseboat in the Seattle harbor. She is drawn into their complicated world, and finds herself understanding the feeling of being home when she’s with them.

Within the overarching story are so many small pockets of dialogue, every day events, and characters that make this novel so compelling. Oliver, Jade’s younger brother, always stands out for me in this story. Jade helps him fake sick before football practices (“Smush your bangs up with some hot water,” she tells him. “But get a move on. He’s coming. Call out for Mom. You’re so sick, remember? Bleh.”), which he hates (but he loves Narnia and C.S. Lewis).
The novel ends at the beginning of Jade’s own independence, and leaves off with this last paragraph:

“Below, my past life looks like Dad’s train set. Tiny houses, small winding roads, water you could fit into a cup and drink.

"We soar higher, climb. The miniature town below disappears as we lift above the clouds. Life and our love for others is a balancing act, I understand then; a dance between our instinct to be safe and hold fast, and our drive to flee, to run – from danger, toward new places to feed ourselves.”

If you haven’t read a book by Deb Caletti yet, I would really recommend picking one up. The characters, dialogue, and the easy, conversational narration by the Caletti’s protagonists make her novels so worth reading. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Looking for Alaska by John Green

In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Miles Halter decides to leave his family, friends, and school in Florida to attend Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama, in search of what the poet Francois Rabelais called “The Great Perhaps.” As soon as he arrives, he is thrown into a completely new world, boarding with The Colonel, eating bufriedos (deep-fried burritos), and hanging out with cool, funny, and crazy Alaska Young. Miles’ obsession with the last words of famous (and ordinary) people is turned in a new direction when Alaska introduces him to the last words of Simon Bolivar: “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” This question follows Alaska and Miles through the rest of the novel, a philosophical meandering that winds through the chapters to conjoin the beginning with the end. Miles’ own last words in the novel underscore how Bolivar’s question (through Alaska) has shaped his own understanding of the world: “Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home.”

But in between is Miles’ (nicknamed “Pudge” at boarding school) first taste of freedom away from home and his parents, where he discovers friends can become family. Miles participates in a series of pranks between him and his friends and the Weekday Warriors, the rich kids who only board at the school during the week (which begins with Miles being duct taped like a mummy and dropped in the lake on his first night at Culver Creek).

Miles is also fascinated by Alaska, and notes pretty early on, “And now is as good a time as any to say that she was beautiful. In the dark beside me, she smelled of sweat and sunshine and vanilla, and on that thin-mooned night I could see little more than her silhouette except for when she smoked, when the burning cherry of the cigarette washed her face in pale red light.” Alaska helps with Calculus homework at McDonald’s at lunchtime, reads Kurt Vonnegut books with Miles, has a Life Library full of books that she has recused from garage sales to read throughout her life, and remains just slightly unattainable.

Looking for Alaska also creates a structure that I don’t think I’ve seen in a book before. In most books, a big event important to the book seems to take place before the story begins (to show how characters deal with the event) or near the end (as a leading up to point). But Green’s book places this at the very center of the book, so that the chapters on one side count down from “One hundred and thirty-six days before,” and then, like an accordion, to end on the chapter “One hundred and thirty-six days after.” Still, Green keeps the second half from feeling like an extended denouement, but instead creates a self-enclosed story that is still unable to exist without the first half of the novel. It’s a beautiful book about friendship and independence and love, and shows off Green’s ability to write a story that readers connect with. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

Anya’s Ghost, a debut graphic novel by Vera Brosgol, begins as a simple story about teenage Anya, whose morning routine with her mom and brother reads as real, routine, and funny. Her request for “low-fat pop-tarts or something” instead of the Russian food her mom serves up (and Anya remarks “Those things are so greasy!”) begins the novel, carefully detailing the day that Anya meets a ghost.

After fighting with her friend Siobhan at school (who suggests that Anya’s boyfriend is Dima, who is also Russian, although Anya calls him “fobby” – Fresh Off the Boat. Siobhan notes, “I figure you guys got pretty well-acquainted back in the breadlines”), a distracted Anya walks to the park, where she immediately falls down a well. A bad situation gets even worse once Anya lights a match and illuminates the skeleton of a dead body resting at the bottom of the well with her.

The bones are those of a young girl, about Anya’s age, and her ghost is attached to them. She has to stay in close proximity to her own bones (since she also fell down the well, just years and years before Anya) and when a small piece of her finger bone ends up in Anya’s bag when she’s rescued, the ghost, Emily, follows her home.

At first, Anya thinks it’s pretty great. Emily feeds her answers in class and helps her cheat by hovering over the tests of her classmates and bringing back the correct answers. She helps Anya dress up for a party and gives her advice about how to get with the guy she likes. But Anya slowly figures out that Emily is not so benign a ghost at she at first appears. Although Emily explains to Anya that she was murdered, and ended up at the bottom of the well, Anya comes to find out that the reality is a whole lot worse. What begins as a simple teenage story evolves into something a something more, and connecting Emily with Anya makes for a strange friendship that both girls seem to rely on.

This story seems made precisely for the graphic novel format. Anya’s expressions are priceless, and Brosgol’s illustrations make the young adult and teen aspects of this novel so effective. For example, there is a scene near the beginning of the novel where Anya thinks the cute guy she likes is waving at her, and the devolution of her expression from hopefulness to embarrassment with the understanding that he is actually waving at his girlfriend is perfectly executed. And then there’s the section of the novel dedicated to Anya having to take the “Bleep Test” in gym class, running a series of sprints back and forth across the gym that is just as great.

Anya’s Ghost is a haunting (and genuinely scary!) ghost story that is completely set in a teenage world. It’s funny, humorous, and frightening, and is definitely worth picking up.