Saturday, March 24, 2007


After reading this week, I find myself seeing a lot of characters who are steeped in a sense of "otherness". They have a view of themselves as being unlike anyone else. As outsiders. As misfits. As having home lives and families and dreams and insecurities that are unique in the universe.

In some cases, they discover that it's true -- they are quite different and must find a way to blaze a new trail or withdraw from the world that they are so disconnected from.

In other cases, they connect with at least one other person willing to share their own "otherness" in a way that begins a new friendship, a new world of possibilities.

In other cases, it is revealed that everyone has the same fear of being different and odd and the sun sets on everyone holding hands and singing a happy song of oneness.

In reading this past week, there seemed to be a lot of otherness happening. Sometimes the telling of the story translates to "oh, I've read this tale many times before" and sometimes it translates to "I've read this before, or have I?"

Know what I mean?

Ron Koertge seduced me with the book Confess-O-Rama. That was a familiar tale with two very "other" characters finding each other in a complex and satisfying way. It remains a favorite of mine and I recommend it to you. Boy Girl Boy is another story. Maybe three's a crowd? Maybe three "others" is also a crowd?Maybe none of the three felt "other" enough? Maybe the ending was too cliche? I don't know, but this one did not reach me. I read it through, but never was involved in the lives of any of the three characters. Their eventual detachment from one another seemed too easy and inevitable - and not in a way that's felt in the reader's heart, but in his "plots of the ages" mind. I'm therefore, doing what I've done before in this blog -- reviewing one book by an author and begging you to read another instead. Find a copy of Confess-O-Rama. You won't be sorry.

Sorry, this might be part two in this week's quasi-recommendations. I felt about this book as I did when I read Wendelin Van Draanen's Runaway - I thought I was getting a new book by an author whose work I had enjoyed in the past -- but I was really getting a spin-off. Joey instead of Friends. In The Big Nothing, Adrian Fogelin revisits the setting of Crossing Jordan - which was a novel about families and racial prejudice and friendship that I again, highly recommend. This expansion of the tales of the neighborhood focuses on Justin Riggs - a self-proclaimed nothing with a shattered home life (cheating traveling salesman dad, depressed mom, big brother in Iraq) and no social prospects. He is saved by the friendship and support of Jemmie and her grandmother - the black family first introduced in Crossing Jordan. I was glad this "other" found a way out, but just didn't get involved in the story.

And then comes The Invention of Hugo Cabret. At first glance, a behemoth of a book to get through - until one realizes how much space is absorbed by Selznick's illustrations. Reading it is actually a pretty quick business, but many of the illustrations require some perusal and flat-out admiration which slows one down a bit. Again, the novel features a main character who feels so "other" that he scurries about inside walls to avoid a world in which he can see no place for himself. The mystery, the suspense, the cinematic quality of the narrative (isn't it rumored to have been optioned by Scorcese already?) are all grand. I completely adore the bookending of the story by the introduction and conclusion. (I'll not elaborate in case you've not read it.) But above all, I am besotted by the fact that Selznick tells me what got him interested in writing the story to begin with. I loved the idea of the automata and Selznick's quest to learn more about them. I loved his discovery of the connection to Georges Melies as a result of this quest. I was delighted to be able to search and find the Melies film he references online and watch it myself. For me, the knowledge of the reality from whence an author's fantasy comes is the sweetest treat of all. I can thrill to the tale as it unfolds and then learn more about the realities afterward, if I am sufficiently drawn to it. This book did just that for me - excellent stuff.

It doesn't get too much more "other" than to be the only son of a survivalist living in the wilderness underground to avoid "the government". But Moon is just such a boy and when his father dies rather than reveal himself to the world that might save him, Moon is about as "other" from the world he must now make his way in as is humanly possible. In some ways, he is like a boy in a tale that suddenly appears in the village after being raised by wolves. ... he has no social graces, a distrustful mental landscape and way too much experience with "whipping up" on someone to survive. Betrayed by a stranger and targeted by a psychotic lawman, Moon escapes from the boy's home with two new pals and manages to keep everyone alive in the wild. I rooted for Moon, and felt all right about where he lights at the end of the novel - though it was a bit tidy and slick. It was very difficult for me to accept Moon as a 10 -year-old, though. Yeah, he had to be tougher than his years, but I would have bought it more readily if he'd been 4 or 5 years older.... nonetheless, Alabama Moon is a rough and tumble tale that does hold a reader's attention.

In Side Effects, Izzy finds herself set apart by the discovery that she has cancer. The book traces her journey from the shock of the diagnosis, through the complete horrors of her treatments, to her re-entry into a world that will never feel the same. This story is unique in allowing Izzy to both deal with the disease in a smart-mouthed manner (not as a saint, or a defeated dishrag) and to survive. The alternative is well-presented in the reactions of classmates and strangers - schoomates send cards that refer to her in the past tense, a soccer mom wants to bring by a group of young girls to witness her bravery - but Izzy is destined to win the fight. At one point near the end of the novel she realizes that it never occurred to her that she would die -- and that is a poignant moment to share. This is a small book, but it pulls no punches. The descriptions of the chemo treatments are wrenching to read and the toll they take on Izzy are made quite clear. But her spunk and her sass - as well as her worries - are all there, too. A definite keeper.

Being Bindy is a novel that could well have fallen into the "oh, I've read this tale many times before" category, but didn't. There are plenty of familiar elements: broken home filled with secrets, self-absorbed older brother, best friend turned tormentor, and endless moments of personal humilation at the hands of classmates. Yet, somehow, I kept reading. The familiar broken-home tale fleshes out with the dad being the nurturer and the mom being the leavetaker and Bindy's relationship with both parents is explored well. The older brother becomes an unexpected ally with secret angst and dreams. The best friend turned tormentor tale reaches stunning heights, which are pushed still further when the friend's mom begins sleeping with Bindy's dad. Set in Australia, this slice of middle-school life travels well - slang and all. I think the cover art may draw an audience a bit young for the story - but in the right hands, this will be a good read indeed.

It took me a bit to get into Born to Rock. I wasn't sure about who Leo was, or what his story was. I was glad I stuck with it, because, as it turned out, Leo didn't really know any of those answers either, and finding them out was quite an experience. Seemingly secure in his role with the Young Republicans and with a scholarship to Harvard, Leo still maintains his friendship with Melinda, a definite "other" sort of girl who dresses and worships at the altar of the punk rock music scene. In a somewhat unbelievable string of events, Leo loses everything he was banking on and finds himself adrift in a suddenly bankrupt future. In a second chain of events, he is stunned to learn that the man he has always thought of as his dad, is not - instead his dad is one of the original progenitors of Punk Music, known (famously and infamously) as King Maggot. Leo's decision to get to know his real father in order to hit him up for the money to keep his Harvard dream alive leads him to a job as a roadie with his dad's band - a wild journey that takes Leo very far from his Young Republican roots. What could have been a trite tale is made better by the personal choices Leo makes as a result of his summer. I enjoyed this book. It made me want to re-read Son of the Mob and The Gospel According to Larry. (Two other good reads I recommend to you... the latter was my teen book group's all-time favorite.)

Twisted. Here is another major "other" guy. Nerdy, invisible, butt of countless humilations, Tyler also lives in a powder keg at home thanks to his violently controlling father. When Tyler attempts to be noticed by perpetrating a major school prank, the plot backfires - making him more of a pariah than ever. So where does the twisted come in? In Tyler's inner dialogue where he reveals the darker thoughts his stressed existence creates - like the fact that his original prank planning involved explosives rather than spray paint.... I actually considered not finishing the book. Part way in, I just had the horrible sense that it was going to come to a bad, disturbing end for Tyler and I wasn't at all sure I wanted to watch it all play out. (And then there's the pre-narrative page that states "Note: This is not a book for children.") Exploring the extreme edges of where "otherness" can lead, Anderson even visits the notion of suicide in a sweat-inducing, heart-wrenching scene mid-way through the book. Family violence erupts,too, in a terrifying confrontation between Tyler and his dad near the end. I'm glad I decided not to close the book, as I would have missed a rich and memorable read. But it is a tough read, and one that is not easily shaken off afterward....

"Otherness"? Freaks, Alive on the Inside explores the notion from the vantage point of Abel, a normal teenager growing up and traveling with human oddities in the carnival world of 1899. Surrounded by those with physical deformities, it is Abel who feels lost and alone. He decides to escape, only to find himself saddled with a stowaway. When his uninvited companion is snatched up by an unscrupulous carnival owner, it falls to Abel to save all of the "show folk" from evil exploitation. I do have one big problem with this book - the subplot of Abel's "connected through time and space" love affair with a mummified Egyptian girl. It felt like a completely different storyline to me that did not insert particularly well. It could have been a sequel, perhaps, but did not belong here. The rest of the tale was very affecting. Thinking about the treatment and life options for those with physical differences is important stuff and this is an interesting avenue into that. For Klaus to set her tale in the world of folks so very different, but to have the focus on a normal character as the one who feels most set apart is a fascinating choice. And as with Hugo Cabret, I appreciated Klause's endnotes about what inspired her to write the book and the real persons upon whom many of her characters were based. I will think on much of this for some time to come.

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.
Mother Teresa (1910 - 1998)

1 comment:

Kelly said...

What a great list and "cumulative" review!!