Wednesday, May 27, 2009

An Abundance of...?

An Abundance of Katherines, by Printz Medal-winner John Green is the story of teenage prodigy Colin, who, along with his best friend Hassan, takes a summer road trip in the hopes if helping himself get over his latest girlfriend Katherine. Girls named Katherine are the only girls Colin dates, however, and all 19 of his Katherine-relationships ended badly. In addition to Colin's failures at love, he also is frustrated by his inability to achieve greatness. As he points out several times during the novel, prodigies are especially adept at learning things, but not necessarily at making grand discoveries. As he mulls over his lost loves, however, he begins to see a mathematical formula emerge which may just explain the relative success or failure of relationships. While he works out the math involved in his relationship equation, he and Hassan live for the summer in Gutshot, TN with a teenage girl and her mother in a Peptol Bismol-pink mansion. At the request of the mother, Colin and Hassan spend their days interviewing locals for a local history project. That's as far as I got.

Now, because An Abundance of Katherines is on the 2010 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award list, I am reluctant to say much more about this title, which has gotten excellent reviews in both respected book review journals as well as in Amazon's customer reviews section. In the interest of honesty, however, here goes: something that bothered me about the novel, which I attribute mostly to personal taste (or distaste, as the case may be) is the main character's constant navel-gazing and whining. "Buck up! Get over it!" was constantly running through my head, which I admit is a bit harsh when it comes to teen romance. I also was extremely annoyed by one of the character's refererring to herself as being "retarded", which she did on several occasions. Finally, I found the footnotes which provided additional information on little known facts which were peppered through the book to be a little show-offy and obnoxious.
So there you have it. I only got halfway through An Abundance of Katherines, but it's very possible that others might enjoy what I could barely slog through. After all, I wasn't a Twilight fan, so what do I know?! For me, An Abundance of Katherines rated a 2 out of 5 Bananas.

Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Newest Newbery: Not Just for Kids!

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book recently won the American Library Association's annual Newbery Medal, an award given to the year's most accomplished writing for children (children are defined as age 12 and younger). I absolutely loved Coraline, also written by Gaiman, for its slightly twisted take on the common childhood wish to have new parents, so I was excited to read this newest, bizarrely-titled children's book.
The novel begins with a man holding a bloody knife that had just been used to murder a family, searching for the family's youngest child. The child, a little boy, had crawled out of his crib and was toddling out the open door at the time of the murders, so he had been fortunate to have escaped his family's tragic fate. Right. Not exactly a traditional children's book opener. The child toddles out the door and ends up walking into a nearby graveyard, where he is found by the resident ghosts. The murderer follows the boy to the graveyard, but is misdirected by the ghosts, who have decided to keep the boy in their protection. After much discussion by the graveyard ghosts, the boy is adopted by a childless spirit couple and named Nobody Owens, or "Bod" for short. Bod spends his childhood in the company of the colorful characters from a variety of historical periods whose bodies had been buried in the cemetery; the host of haunts include a girl who had been burned as a witch, an oafish bully, his own elderly parents, and a variety of other local citizens. He is also under the special watch of his guardian Silas, a man who is not quite dead, but is also not fully human.
As Bod grows older, more of the special nuances of death are revealed, including the horrifying world of ghouls and a bizarre, ancient order of particularly evil entities.
I LOVED this book. I'm not entirely sure to whom I would recommend it, however, which sounds strange after I just said how much I loved it. I think I would recommend it for high schoolers for sure, but they would have to be able to appreciate it for its unique vocabulary and characters, the creativity of the story, and the brilliant weaving of familiar concepts into the fabric of something so totally original. It's certainly not your typical "high school" book. Nor, however, is it your typical children's book. If I were to recommend it to a child, it would have to be for a child who is not disturbed by the idea of ghosts and by the sometimes gruesome descriptions of violent death. I think that I as a child would have liked this book, since I've always loved ghost stories, but it might be too troubling for a gentler soul. Not that my soul isn't gentle, but you know what I mean.
SO. Loved the book, but recommend it with some reservations and advance notifications, and am giving it 4 out of 4 Bananas!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I've been wanting to read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah for a long time, and I finally found a reason to move it to the top of my reading list now that it's been nominated for the 2010 Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award. Written as a memoir, Beah tells the story of how his childhood was destroyed by the civil war in Sierra Leone, which began in 1991 and lasted for eleven years. Beah was in a distant village participating in a hip hop dance showcase (!) when he and his friends heard that rebels had invaded their home village. The boys were forced to flee into the forest because the rebels were reportedly headed in their direction. They spent months hiding in forests and as temporary guests in villages along their way, although many villages thought that Beah and his friends were child soldiers fighting for the rebels and refused to allow them shelter. After a year or so of flight, and after seeing the village in which his family was supposedly hiding burned to the ground, Beah was conscripted by the army into military servitude. This wasn't entirely objectionable in Beah's mind, as it at least provided him with food, protection, and the chance to exact revenge for his parents' murders. While in the army, however, Beah became addicted to cocaine and numb to the killings he both witnessed and perpetrated. Beah was eventually rescued by UNICEF and rehabilitated while living in a refugee-style camp for orphans of the civil war. His story continued and ultimately had a somewhat-happy resolution when he makes his way to New York City as a United Nations representative (although his story can't have a truly "feel good ending" due to the tragic nature of his young life).

I really liked this book because it surprised me; I had anticipated a grueling, unpleasant reading experience, but instead found Beah's account to be engaging, honest, and humorous at times without compromising the serious issue of the civil war and his descriptions of child soldiers. I was also mesmerized by Beah and his friends' passion for early '90s American rap and hip hop music: at several time throughout the memoir, Beah includes references to Naughty By Nature, Heavy D and the Boyz, and Tupac Shakur. This inclusion of a world with which I am familiar (not that I claim to be an early '90s hip hop expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like the music) brought Beah's foreign experience with war and soldiering into sharp relief for me; it was a jarring juxtaposition of the familiar with the "unknowable-ness" of Beah's life in Sierra Leone.

Having said all that, however, after Googling "Ishmael Beah", I discovered that there has been controversy surrounding A Long Way Gone and Beah's version of the events and chronology he describes. The Slate article I read is linked here. I'm disappointed, but not entirely surprised that Beah may have taken some poetic license with his memoir, the practice of which has been cause for much argument and discussion regarding several recent memoirs (notably A Million Little Pieces by James Frey). So, read A Long Way Gone. Keep in mind that some of the events may not have happened exactly as described, but take from it Beah's voice, and his passion for his country, and the confident knowledge that children ARE having their childhoods snatched away from them, ARE being brutalized, and DO need our help. 4 out of 4 Bananas!
Abraham Lincoln Illinois High School Book Award 2010 Nominee