Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations is Sara Zarr’s latest novel, due out March 2013. Lucy Beck-Moreau used to be a child pianist prodigy; she did the circuit of competitions and concerts, and was expected to continue performing throughout her adolescence. She comes from a wealthy and talented family, and her grandfather, a lover of music and performance, has the resources to ensure Lucy’s successful career. However, after having a breakdown on stage during a performance, Lucy quit playing piano and hasn’t been near one since. Her family, for the most part, tiptoes around her, except for her grandfather whose disappointment is palpable. 

Making her exit from a career in music even worse is the fact that her younger brother Gus is on the same path that she veered from. After Gus’s piano teacher dies unceremoniously in the Beck-Moreau living room, Lucy’s grandfather interviews and hires a young man named Will to replace her. When she watches the way Will teaches Gus, she believes that she might be able to find a way back to playing the piano, even if it is only to play for herself.

However, it’s a long road to returning, as Lucy must deal with the daily disappointment of her grandfather, the heavy sense of the way she has let him down hanging over the house that they all live in together. After quitting, Lucy had to return to school; she attends a high school with her two best friends, although she consistently has trouble getting to school on time. She is used to the flexible schedule her musical arts allowed her, and still can’t get a handle on normal, everyday life.

Zarr has allowed for so many textual nuances in The Lucy Variations. She references contemporary and classic music almost constantly, as a way of describing Lucy’s taste and character. She also points towards the way that art can shape a person as much as family, school, and society can. Zarr includes “Lucy’s Love List” at the back of the book, a collection of the music discussed throughout and the reason why each song has been included. It’s a fun extratextual move from reading to listening, and I found that I did youtube many of the songs as they were mentioned throughout the novel, and again when I found the list. For a book about music, Zarr does emphasize the ability to find a way to listen to Lucy’s story as well as to read it. Lucy’s interactions with her friends and family are so carefully described, and the way that her performance, followed by her leaving it behind, has affected her life is visible even in the way that she interacts with the people around her. Thanksgiving is a particular highlight of The Lucy Variations, not just for the spread of food described, but also for the way that Lucy experiences a normal holiday away from the pressures of both her mom and her grandfather.

I read The Lucy Variations around the same time that I was reading Love and Other Perishable Items, and I was struck by the similarities between each, namely, the way their young female protagonists crush on much older men. In Zarr’s novel, Lucy is enamored of both Gus’s piano teacher and her own high school English teacher. Zarr emphasizes what it is, exactly, that these two men hold for Lucy, and how her life performing for an audience has shaped her concept of normalcy.

As well, The Lucy Variations felt very similar to a Deb Caletti book. It had a good, strong story that used beautiful and surprising writing to support a likeable protagonist. Zarr’s books are so remarkably different from one another that it’s difficult to compare The Lucy Variations to any title that has come before. It is hard to believe that How to Save a Life preceded this title, and Zarr’s ability to so completely step outside of one novel, set of characters, story, form, and style in order engage with something different surprises me every time I read one of her books. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Absent by Katie Williams

"People were talking a lot about death that fall, the fall of my senior year, because Brooke Lee had died right there in the girls’ bathroom across from the gym. I didn’t pay attention to most of it. My classmates were no more than what Usha and I had named them – biblicals, well-rounders, testos, and the rest – and they were always babbling on about one thing or another. But after I died, they started talking about my death and then I had no choice but to listen."

Seventeen-year-old Paige Wheeler fell off the roof of the school during physics class. At least, she’s pretty sure that her fall was an accident. She died, but instead of moving on, she finds herself stuck at Paul Revere High School, locked into a radius that allows her to venture just to the edges of the school grounds. Brooke and Evan are two other seventeen-year-olds who died at the school – Brooke from a cocaine overdose in the girls’ bathroom, and Evan from something else, although he is hesitant to talk about it. He has been at the school for years, but neither Brooke nor Paige know for how long.

The three ghosts haunt the school, attending classes during the day and retreating to the library at night. Evan attends all of Mr. Fisk’s art classes, but Paige is more deliberate in her daily actions. She follows her best friend Usha and eavesdrops into conversations that have her death as the topic. When “the gaggingly beautiful Kelsey Pope” spreads a rumor that Paige jumped from the roof, committing suicide, Paige decides she has to do something. She doesn’t want the rumor getting back to her friends and family; she is positive that her fall was an accident.

As she follows her friends and other students around the school, Paige discovers that she has the ability to possess them – for a few minutes or for an entire day of school. All they have to do is think her name – Paige – and she can leap inside of their bodies, talking and acting as she will. She follows Usha through the halls, watching how her best friend deals with her death, remembering their shopping trips to secondhand stores when Paige was alive: “At least I fold up easily in my soft-skin clothes – old jeans and velvety jacket from one of Usha’s vintage scrounges. She’s convinced me to like about used clothes what most people hate: the other bodies that have unstiffened their elbows and knees, stretched out their pockets, salted them with sweat, only to toss the clothes out at the precise moment when they are really ready to be worn.”

Absent is a book about the reaction to death, and in this case, not just the reaction of students to the death of a friend, but how a teenager reacts to the fact of his/her own death. Paige is around to watch her friends in the aftermath of her fall, and she fears the day that they will start to forget about her, slowly but surely. She died as a senior, and she faces the fact that the people who know her well will all be graduating from high school at the end of the year. Williams weaves Paige’s confusion over her death with the reality of the world moving on without her. Her desperation leads her to inch her way back into the lives of her friends in any way she can.

I read Absent almost all at once, but the story lost me near the end. The careful way that Paige comes to terms with her death, and the difference between her accidental fall or possible suicide, is unwound by a supernatural turn near the end of the book. Although this is a supernatural story – Paige, Evan, and Brooke are ghosts haunting their high school, and have the ability to possess the students there – the supernatural aspects were used to heighten the sense of mortality, death, and resolution. Initially it was a much more human book because of way Williams employed the supernatural. But something about the end of the book and this turn did not follow with the careful narrative Williams told for almost 150 pages, which is instead stopped short by a shorthand version of the “deus ex machina.”

Regardless, Absent places Williams’s writing on display, and invites the reader to get wound up in a lyrical, descriptive story narrated by a likeable and ghostly protagonist. She writes about high school in a realistic and perceptive way, getting right the small details about the way it becomes a small world for teenagers for the years that they are stuck there. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I picked up Wonder by R.J. Palacio for the cover and synopsis a few days ago, and read it in one sitting. It is a fast, affecting, and thoughtful read, and follows August Pullman through his first year of middle school at Beecher Prep.

August hasn’t attended school before. He knows about school – his older sister Via is starting high school at the same time August starts middle school – but he has been homeschooled by his mom for his entire life. Homeschooling is, in part, a protective impulse. August was born with a facial deformity that prevents him from living a completely “normal” life; the moments in which the ten-year-old registers the look of terror, revulsion, and horror on the faces of the people who spot him are heart breaking. He has gone through more surgeries than Palacio relates, but now he is facing a stretch of a few years when no new surgeries are necessary, and he can start adjusting to some sense of routine.

Palacio’s ability to write from August’s perspective is one of the most important aspects of this book. She never clearly describes the full extent of August’s facial deformity; instead, she relates it piece by piece, setting up a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t have a corresponding picture that notifies the reader what the final image should look like. From the dust jacket description, I thought that Wonder was going to be entirely August’s story, but after a few dozen pages the point of view switches suddenly to August’s sister Via, who is going through her own transition from middle school to high school. Even she does not shed light on the exactness of August’s facial deformity. Instead, she describes the surgeries, the people who are afraid of her brother, and her own experience living with August. Rather than jumping back to August’s perspective, Palacio moves to new characters for almost the entirety of the book. These are August’s and Via’s friends, although August tells the majority of the story.

Jack Will, a boy that August meets at school, even notes that he knew who August was even before he started school at Beecher Prep:

“It’s not just that he’s the new kid, Mom,” I answered. “He’s 
“That’s a terrible thing to say, Jack.”
“He is, Mom.”
“You don’t even know who it is!”
“Yeah, I do,” I said, because I knew the second she started talking about him that it was that kid named August.

While August’s life has not been easy (and his narration makes this clear), the characters that surround him have had to deal with difficulties that may not be as bad as what August is dealing with, but they have still affected who they are and what they are capable of. Via is the most striking example of this. Her love for and care of her brother is detailed by August in the first few pages of the book, however, Via supplements this by telling the reader how difficult it has been to grow up in a house with August. She says, “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun…But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos. The galaxy is changing. Planets are falling out of alignment.” Her own relationship with her grandmother is central to Via’s story, a relationship not as available to August because his grandmother passed away while he was still young. Via, however, spent a lot of time with her.

Palacio also references so many books, movies, and songs from popular culture that are relevant to younger middle school readers. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the “Cheese Touch,” the Magnetic Fields, Star Wars, classical and contemporary literature, and others are consistently at play in Wonder. Palacio’s combination of numerous perspectives and forms (one section is told through Facebook, email, and texts) attempts to create a whole picture of August and his experience. There is even a section narrated by a character named Justin is completely undercase (although there does not seem to be a reason for this change in style).

Wonder is at one affecting and understated, with a vast array of characters that each have something important, yet quiet, to leave with readers. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon might be my favorite book of 2012, alongside Libba Bray’s The Diviners and Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up. I also came across a copy by surprise at this year’s NCTE conference in Las Vegas, where Candlewick Press had a few ARCs on hand. I have seen the book is out in Chapters in Canada, where it’s striking and chilling cover art on display. Gardner previously wrote I, Coriander, a novel that earned both popular and critical success when it was published in 2005. In addition to her writing, Garnder is perhaps best known for her work with raising awareness about dyslexia, which she herself has. Her protagonist in Maggot Moon, Standish Treadwell, is also dyslexic, and his mind works differently from those “train-track thinkers” that fill up the rest of the book. Gardner details the way he processes information, emphasizing the fact that he can deftly pick out words that are spoken, focusing on sound because he has more difficultly with reading the way words are spelled. When Standish looks at the blackboard at his school, for example, he says, “I mean, I sat at the very back of the class – the blackboard could have been in another country. The words were just circus horses dancing up and down. At least, they never stayed still long enough for me to work out what they were saying.”

Standish lives in an alternate reality set in the 1950s, where he lives in the undesirable Zone 7 with his Gramps, which is under strict control of the Motherland. Gardner utilizes a back and forth narrative that doesn’t stick to linear time; instead, she jumps back and forth to cover different periods of Standish’s life in Zone 7. These include the time he lived with his parents, when he moved in with his Gramps, when Hector and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lush moved in, and when Standish and his Gramps were on their own again. All of this leads up to a startling conclusion to the story that is detailed step-by-step, as Standish attempts to put in motion a story about a hero who defeats a giant that he remembers from childhood.

Gardner creates a bleak and grey world that is equal parts The Book Thief, A Clockwork Orange, and 1984. A reading of Maggot Moon alongside any of these novels would emphasize the dystopian, historical, alternative, and grim realities of each. In Zone 7, school is an institution that breeds a certain kind of conformity and fear, and Standish will substitute the word “sheep” for his classmates as they go along with authority figures throughout the novel. The terrifying Mr. Gunnell stands out in this novel, a character who is so appalling that he leaps through the pages at times to arrest the reader in place as he/she encounters an event. Standish describes an incident with his teacher at the beginning of the novel, a description and occasion that set a precedent for his later appearances:

Frick-fracking hell! I should have seen that coming. Mr. Gunnell’s cane made my eyes smart, hit me so hard on the back of my hand that it left a calling card. Two thin, red weals. Mr. Gunnell wasn’t tall but his muscles were made out of old army tanks with well-oiled army-tank arms. He wore a toupee that had a life of its own, battling to stay stuck on the top of his sweaty, shiny head.

Standish’s relationships with the people around him are the most affecting in this novel. His Gramps, for example, took him in when his parents were disappeared, or were killed, something Standish likens to falling down a hole. Standish says of him, “…Gramps was the only person that still pulled at the gravity in me.” When Hector’s family moves into Zone 7, Standish and his Gramps go over with a bowl of raspberries stolen from a field behind the wall, and while they are there, Standish’s Gramps takes a gun and starts shooting the rats in the house as a part of a nuanced “welcome to the neighborhood”: “Numbers mattered to Gramps. Seven dead rats was something the king of rats would respect. Shoot one rat and all his relatives will come looking for you; shoot seven and they understand you mean business.”

This 1950s alternate universe breeds propaganda, and a mission to the moon is on everybody’s minds, and TVs, as the Motherland attempts to secure its power globally. Large moments in this novel are rendered small and everyday in order to emphasize the absurdity of the totality of power in the Motherland. When Standish walks home from school, his Gramps says,

“They said there had been some trouble at school.”
“Yes. Mr. Gunnell killed Little Eric Owen, and I’ve been expelled.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. That squeeze said everything. It said, thank God you are all right.

There are too many layers, levels, and threads running through this novel to talk about here, and most of the enjoyment comes from unraveling them from beginning to end. Standish’s imagination, creativity, and way of viewing the world make this narrative work, and his ability to still believe in change in this stagnant society. Because, as Standish says,

What would happen if we sat here dead still, did nothing? Would time leave us alone, pass us by?
Bring down the curtain.
Bring up the credits.
The end.

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket

The newest addition to the Lemony Snicket narrated universe is “Who Could That Be at this Hour?” Snicket is thirteen-years-old, quite a bit younger than the more adult Snicket that shows up in A Series of Unfortunate Events to tell readers about the from-bad-to-worse situation of the Baudelaire family. Snicket has just started his apprenticeship with S. Theodora Markson (and the “S.” remains a mystery throughout the book, even though Theodora makes use of quite a few words that start with that letter), who is ranked at the end of the list of apprentices young students like Snicket can be paired with. This is, Snicket says, when he chose her.

Theodora leaves Snicket a mysterious note in the bathroom of a hotel restaurant, asking him to meet her outside by her Roadster in five minutes. From here, she whisks him off to Stain’d-by-the-Sea, a small town with an ink industry that is on the decline. The “Sea” of Stain’d-by-the-Sea has been drained away, and a forest of seaweed lies in its vicinity. As Snicket explains, “[Theodora] did not have to tell me not to go into the Clusterous Forest. It was frightening enough just to look at it. It was less like a forest and more like an endless mass of shrubbery, with the shiny leaves of the seaweed twisting this way and that, as if the plants were still under churning water. Even with the windows shut, I could smell the forest, a brackish scent of fish and soil, and I could hear the rustling of thousands of strands of seaweed that had somehow survived the draining of the sea.”

Theodora and Snicket are in Stain’d-by-the-Sea to solve a mystery. A small statute has disappeared from a large mansion in the town, one that looks like an angry and aggressive sea horse. The creature depicted by the statue is called “The Bombinating Beast,” which “was a mythological creature half horse and half shark – although some legends claim half alligator and half bear – that lurked in the waters just outside Stain’d-by-the-Sea. It had a great appetite for human flesh and made a terrifying bombinating sound – I had to get up from the table and find a dictionary to learn that ‘bombinating’ was a word which here meant buzzing – when looking for prey.” When Snicket finds the statue in the building that houses the local newspaper, he learns that the mystery might not be as straightforward as it initially appeared to be. With the help of Moxie, a young girl who continues to write for the newspaper and exercise her journalistic tendencies, Snicket starts understanding that he has been asking the wrong questions all along and endeavors to figure out what the right ones are. With the help of Querty the librarian, Snicket begins reading about the town and the people who live there. He sends notes back to the library in the city he came from, disguised as a fictional title of a book and a fictional author, and the promise he has made to someone back home underlies the story. This individual comes up often when Snicket is tired and homesick, when he will think, “I wanted to see her. Communicating through made-up book titles was not enough. I could almost hear her saying to me, ‘Well, L, where was the last place you saw this statue?’”

Theodora and Snicket share a small room at the Lost Arms, a hotel in town, and Snicket consistently expresses more than a little discomfort at the small living space. But then, once the mystery gets underway, Snicket doesn’t have much time to stay at the room in the Lost Arms, anyway. He meets a girl named Ellington Feint who’s father has gone missing, and she believes the nefarious and mysterious Hangfire has taken him. There is an impromptu recipe for pesto sauce buried in “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” as well as dozens of descriptions that are so emblematic of Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler’s writing. Two that stand out come from the beginning and the middle of the novel. As Snicket describes his parents, he writes, “It is curious to look at one’s family and try to imagine how they look to strangers. I saw a large-shouldered man in a brown, linty suit that looked like it made him uncomfortable, and a woman drumming her fingernails on the table, over and over, the sound like a tiny horse’s galloping.” When trying to fall asleep at the Lost Arms, Snicket says, “The sheets had spiky wrinkles, and the pillow felt like a bag of marbles, and I had a very lonely feeling, thinking of how few people knew where I was or could come to me if I were in trouble. But I was too tired to be sad about it.”

The characters in this book stand out so clearly that it is impossible to leave them behind at the end of the novel. They are illustrated by Canadian comics artist Seth throughout the novel, which makes them even more tangible. This is only the first book in Snicket’s new All the Wrong Questions series, and so there is still much more of Snicket’s description, characters, and incredible storytelling to come.