Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D'Agostino

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D’Agostino reminded me how much I read books based on what I’ve heard about them, or if I’ve heard about them – it isn’t often that I just pick something up without reading the back, recognizing the author, or knowing something about the title. Not so with Family Almanac. It was just a random pick-up, and I’m so glad I found it.

The novel follows Calvin Moretti, as he ditches Boston University and returns home to Sleepy Hollow, New York, where he moves back in with his parents, his brother Chip, and his seventeen-year-old sister Elissa. Calvin reverts to his high school self, spending long hours in his bedroom, high and masturbating (“To take my mind off this horrifying scenario, I count the number of girls near my chair whom I would have sex with. I stop at eighteen, realizing my standards have fallen to fantastic new lows”), where he lies “on the floor listening to Appalachian folk music from the 1920s until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore, at which point I crawl into bed and drift off.”

His father, a pilot, has been diagnosed with cancer and is so obsessed with his mortality that he wanders around in his dressing gown with a gun sticking out of his pocket. His end-of-the-world provisions (the rice, guns, oil, and canned beans stacked in the garage) coupled with crippling medical bills are slowly bankrupting the family. Calvin might have had to move home, but there might not be a family home to live in for long. He saves as much money as he can (most of it is directed to student loans), looking at apartments and knowing that he can’t, at twenty-four-years-old, afford to move out on his own. Although he has a job working as a preschool teacher for developmentally challenged children, it does not pay enough for him to get by.

Calvin’s stuck, not just because of his financial situation, but his inability to make something happen. As he sits in his car “waiting at the lights on the way home, I look at myself in the rearview mirror. ‘Just do something.’” Moving back home places him in an ambivalent position, where he is no longer taken care of by his parents, but still relies on them for his basic needs. He doesn’t so much revert back to his teenage self but feels as if he has been given permission not to leave it: “I look at my reflection in the doors and am embarrassed that I still dress like a teenager: dirty jeans, T-shirt.” He is invited to the wedding of an old friend from school that he hasn’t talked to in years, and the event is one of the highlights of the novel (he brings his dad as his date, and his dad brings his gun). Calvin can’t shake free from the idea that he is doing something wrong with his life, and that everybody else has somehow magically figured it out: “I’m jealous even of my classmates who seem to have set up miserable lives for themselves. At least they have lives. I’m convinced of this. Any life is better than aimlessness.”

D’Agostino narrates in a detached, but reflective way, and sentences end almost lyrically, transforming characters’ words from the mundane to the poetic:

“Dad passed his stress test,” Elissa says.
“I know, I say. “He’s downstairs crying about it right now.”
The weeks tumble by. I do not get in their way.


“I’ll drive back,” I say. “Jesus.”
“Watch it,” my grandmother says. “He hears you.”


“Do you want to know the sex?” he asks. We look at Elissa.
“Let’s be surprised,” she says.

Memory entangles with the present situation: Chip, helping to support the family by paying the mortgage; Calvin, feeling a responsibility to help out, but never quite putting a plan into action; and Elissa, her own teen pregnancy complicating the tenuous family situation. Calvin can’t find a present, mostly because returning home forces him to live in a nebulous shadow of the past. Memory is everywhere, and he spends a considerable time writing in his own journal, if not changing the situation, at least trying to understand it:

When I was thirteen, I played a year of Little League baseball. Mostly as an unspoken favor to my father. They stuck me in right field, the only position where I might possibly avoid all contact with the ball. I batted seventh in the order. Once, during a game toward the end of the season, a fastball hit me square in the nose, knocking the plastic helmet off my head and splaying me out in the dirt. When I came to, I could taste blood in my mouth. My father was squatting over me, along with Coach Ruggiero and half the team. He put his hand under my head, told me not to move. I didn’t want to get up. I would’ve stayed there forever. I have never felt as safe as I did lying there with a broken nose.”

D’Agostino tackles that current economic clime, where return home is a narrative of post adolescence. The writing is in the vein of Dave Eggers and Jeffrey Eugenides, and shows Cal's inability to change the stagnant situation of his life.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Sheree Fitch’s Sleeping Dragons All Around is a children’s picture book about a little girl tiptoeing through her house at night past eight sleeping dragons. She’s headed to the kitchen to get a big slice of “Mocha Maple Chocolate Cake.” It’s not really related to Kathi Appelt’s Keeper, but it’s a book introduction to Appelt’s novel, in a sort of roundabout way.

For years, I didn’t have any connection to the title, Sleeping Dragons All Around. I thought it was great, and remember having the picture book in the house, just sort of there, with a title that sort of rolls around and sticks for a while, even if you’re not opening it up to read the story. And then I took a Romantic lit course and read “The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats and found these lines buried near the end:

She hurried at his words, beset with fears, 

For there were sleeping dragons all around, 

At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears---
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.--- 
In all the house was heard no human sound.

Maybe it’s just because I probably went ten years without that connection, which doesn’t feel like a missing link until you find the way to put it back together again, but that made a little window that looked out from a contemporary children’s book into the early 1800s.

Kathi Appelt’s Keeper does something similar. It starts with a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each,
I do not think that they will sing for me.

I love that these are books for children and adolescents that make an introduction or connection to some really great, canonical poems, making them accessible without allowing them to take over the content of contemporary work. I really like the idea of adolescent and young adult books as being windows into canonical novels, and using windows to view canonical texts while keeping a more contemporary, and sometimes relevant, focus for younger readers.

The Prufrock poem is especially relevant to Keeper, a book about ten-year-old Keeper who’s waiting for the blue moon, an occasion that draws mermaids to the sandbar on the Texas coast. Her own mermaid-mother swam away when Keeper was three, and this is a chance for her to make things right again. Keeper draws a fairy tale world around its protagonist, one that begins to crack apart as she gets trapped in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico with a seagull named Captain and BD (Best Dog). The chapters are short and to the point of being almost lyrical, and the characters are as diverse and memorable as the story.

There’s Dogie, who lives next door and owns Dogie’s Beach Umbrella and Surfboard Shop, “which had at one time been a yellow school bus but was now simply known as ‘the Bus.’” Keeper is his “waxwing,” helping Dogie wax and surfboards that come into the shop – “He didn’t pay her much – a cold Dr Pepper, plus one dollar for waxing a short board or two for waxing a long board – but she was proud of her work.” And then there is Signe, who Keeper lives with, who makes gumbo for the blue moon in a big pot on the stove. The morning that the book begins on shows Signe “standing there with her wooden spoon in one hand. Signe’s bright white hair stood up in spikes. Keeper loved Signe’s hair. According to Signe, her hair turned white when she was only fourteen, right before she left Iowa. It had been snow white ever since.”

When Keeper’s sympathy for the crabs that are destined for the gumbo disrupts the entire blue moon day, she sets off on an adventure, ill-fated and dangerous. But she can’t help saving them from the boiling stew, wondering, “Was this what it was like to have mermaid blood running through your veins?”

The focus on childhood and adolescence in Keeper is almost heartbreaking, the breaking down of fairy tales and legends and stories that become protective and safe like a blanket to a young girl who has been left by her mother. Appelt’s writing shines here, just as it did in The Underneath, as she tells a story that is nothing like anything else that has been told before. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor

I read Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass only about a few years ago when it first came out, and usually I don’t reread too many books so close after reading them for the first time. This is one of those exceptions.

Hayden Taylor’s story begins “Somewhere out there, on a Reserve that is closer than you think but still a bit too far to walk to, lived a young Ojibway boy. Though this is not his story, he is part of it. As all good tales do, this one begins far in the past, but not so far back that you would have forgotten about it.” And it ends with the lines, “And that’s how it happened to a cousin of mine. I told you it was a long story. They’re the best ‘cause you can wrap one around you like a nice warm blanket.”

In between, Motorcycles and Sweetgrass tells the story of the Benojee clan who live on the Otter Lake Reserve (where protagonist Tiffany Hunter lives in Hayden Taylor’s YA novel The Night Wanderer). Lillian Benojee is dying, and her children, including the new chief of the Otter Lake Reserve, Maggie Second, are crowded in her house, saying their good-byes. Which is why every single one of them is a little taken aback (to say the least) when a man clad in black leather and a black helmet drives up on a 1952 Indian Motorcycle, walks into the house “like he’s been here a thousand times before,” and knocks on Lillian’s bedroom door. Virgil, Maggie’s son and Lillian’s grandson, sneaks around the side of the house to look through Lillian’s bedroom window. He sees the man, young, white, blonde hair, and blue eyes, lean in and kiss “his grandmother, and quite passionately too. It was the kind of kiss you see only in movies and on television, the eyes-closed, toe-curling kind.”

The man sticks around for Lillian’s funeral, but when he doesn’t leave again, Virgil’s worried that there’s something more going on. Especially when the strange man introduces himself as John Tanner to Virgil, and then as John Richardson to Virgil’s mother, and then there’s the fact that Virgil was sure John’s eyes were blue and now they’re green, or maybe hazel. When John basically tells Virgil to stay out of his way so that he can go after Virgil’s mom Maggie – “You see, I knew your grandmother way, way, way before you were born…That was the last time I felt good. I want that feeling again. I’m hoping it runs in the family, if you know what I mean” – Virgil starts to get really worried. His mom’s been dealing with the stresses of being chief, especially because the Otter Lake First Nation has just bought three hundred acres of new land. Maggie’s listening to all of the suggestions for what to do with that land – waterparks, movie studios – and, as Maggie notes, working on the political side of the purchase as well. As she drives up to her mother’s house, Maggie reflects, “the idea of Native people getting more land was an absurd concept to most non-Natives. Five hundred years of colonization had told them you took land away from Native people, you didn’t let them buy it back. As a result, the local municipality was fighting tooth and nail to black the purchase.” To Virgil, the stress of the mysterious John coming into her life seems like one more thing that Maggie doesn’t need.

He ends up enlisting in the help of his Uncle Wayne, his mom’s brother, who lives alone out on a teardrop-shaped island that is known as “Wayne’s Island.” Virgil knows his uncle is weird, but he didn’t really anticipate the fact that Wayne has been in training as a martial artist. All over the island there are “broken branches hanging off trees in every direction. They were all snapped in the same manner, either to the right, or to the left, in a small spot near the base. No long pressure fractures as if an axe had done it.” Virgil has some trouble convincing his uncle that Maggie needs help, especially because all he has to go on is John’s changing last name and eye color, and the fact that all of the raccoons seem to hate him. He doesn’t help himself by telling his uncle about the threatening petroglyphs he finds “on my favourite rock,” because his uncle just answers, “You have a favourite…rock? That’s so sad.”

But as time passes, it becomes more and more evident that John isn’t exactly who he says he is. In fact, Wayne suspects he might be Nanabush, “The Trickster? The central character of Anishnawbe mythology, the paramount metaphor in their cosmology? The demigod? The amazing, handsome, intelligent and fabulous Nanabush? That Nanabush?” The petroglyphs Virgil found on a rock of two figures that looked like John and his mother riding off into the sunset take on another meaning. His uncle explains,

“It was those petroglyphs you mentioned that got me thinking. I thought it was impossible but still…you see Virgil, many cultures, ours included, believe the west is the land of the dead.”
Things clicked for Virgil. “The setting sun!”
“Exactly. He arrived, and your grandma, my mother, went west. Nanabush knows how to get there, and back. And now, maybe, he has developed an infatuation with your mom.”
“Oh my god! I just thought he wanted to move to Vancouver with her.”

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass is packed full of humor, good writing, nuanced characters, and outstanding story. The book even contains a conversation between Nanabush (John) and Jesus, albeit in the dream, where John says, “Hey, I read that book about you, your biography…that big black book everybody talks about…Needed an editor. No offence, but it went on forever.” Motorcycles and Sweetgrass has a strong appeal as a crossover book – Virgil is a grade-seven student in the novel (and Hayden Taylor jokily notes, “The bell curve was invented for boys like him), and is such a strong and likeable protagonist, comparable to those found in YA literature. It’s a great read, and there’s really so much going on in a Drew Hayden Taylor books, layers and layers of narrative and story to soak up.