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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Remember December 23rd? Do you? Round about 3:30 p.m., when sixteen days languorously sprawled ahead of you, days where you saw yourself spending endless hours under the Christmas tree, reading countless books off your Shelf of Shame, catching up on every movie that you’ve put off for the last four months? When you thought to yourself, “there is no way I’m going to be hunched over my computer at two in the morning on January 10th writing blogs about books that I just finished minutes ago”? Do you?

December 23rd. That was a good day.

This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

Nutshell: Teenaged Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth, and Henry must undertake a supernatural/spiritual journey to discover the Elixir of Life in an attempt to save the life of Konrad, Victor’s twin brother. The kind of book that contains sentences such as “ I remembered how he had talked about the myth of the lynx, the Keeper of the Secrets of the Forest, harvesting gemstones from its own urine,” and you don’t burst out laughing because you’re too busy flipping to the next page.

I kind of love Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, in all of its incarnations: the James Whale movies, the Groovie Goolies, Blade Runner--man, I still special order Frankenberry cereal from the States (I’m not kidding). Kenneth Oppel also loves Frankenstein; his book is peppered with lines of dialogue that foreshadow events to come in Shelley’s novel, moments that are almost inside jokes with the reader who comes armed with the knowledge of Shelley’s classic. All of the key motifs of Frankenstein are very much present in Oppels novel: science versus faith, doppelgangers, questioning who/what is the “monstrous,” etc. This is a man who has done his homework, and one of the chief pleasures of the novel is Oppel’s ingenuity in writing a YA adventure prequel to a literary classic for which he obviously has a great deal of passion.

This Dark Endeavour is a lot of fun. In one word, rollicking. There are plenty of hidden passages and secret libraries, mysterious traps, and moments of squeamish sacrifice. If you’re about the same age as I am, you might remember the breathless thrill of reading The Hardy Boys novels, truly believing that Joe and Frank were in real, honest to God peril, when you thought that they might not actually be able to escape Dr. MacGregor’s hidden lair on some Greek island, even though you were reading Book 53, and Books 54 - 86 were still awaiting you on your bookshelf. This Dark Endeavour conjured in me those nostalgic feelings with its double-crosses and narrow escapes.

OK. It does go on a bit at times; at least 50 or so pages could have disappeared without me missing a thing. Konrad gets sicker and then better and then even sicker and then still sicker. And there are a few trappings of the modern YA novel that I could have done without. Do we really need another sorta love triangle (“Soon to be a movie by the makers of Twilight!,” the cover shrieks, like this is a good thing)? And I’m a bit weary of the last few pages of YA novels that set everything up for the inevitable sequel, sort of relegating the almost 300 pages before it to antecedent action to the REAL STORY coming soon to a bookstore near you in about a year.

But good, clean fun. Nothing that knocked my socks off, but a zippy read with dastardly villains and moonlit chases.

Seven Axe Body Sprays out of Ten.


Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Nutshell: Evan is an angst-ridden young man who grieves over the loss of his angst-ridden best friend, Ariel, while recollecting her relationship with Jack, a semi-angsty member of the track team. And then mysterious angst-filled photographs start appearing to Evan, and the fate of the angst-ridden Ariel is called into question, and angsty shenanigans ensue…

So, here’s the deal. Every You, Every Me is a bit of a stunt-novel. Not only are there photographs throughout, photographs that you end up scrutinizing almost as obsessively as the protagonist Evan, but Levithan employs this strange technique where a good third of the novel is crossed out, edited, almost redacted. So you read a sentence, followed by a sentence that is crossed out, and then you read the next sentence (not crossed out), and you have to go back to the preceding sentences to figure out the context. Sometimes entire passages are crossed out.

Irritating, right? Well, at first yes. Initially I found it to be a bit jarring, a little bit excessive, more than a little twee. But there’s really clever stuff going on here, and, as I read on, I sort of got the hang of the crossed out bits, which exist as a metonym for all of the “twinning” and “mirroring” that are thematically so key to the novel. Many of the “revisions” are excised thoughts, those we all purge from memory so that we can continue on. Some are fantasies, replaced by he reality of what is actually said. Other times, Levithan just engages in clever word play and diction. Evan realizes what he is doing is “investing.” Cross out “investing.” “Investigating.” Levithan transforms his usage of the “redaction effect” throughout, in a manner that always reveals character or whispers to theme.

This is a novel that has the courage to wrestle with some big, heady ideas: the intersection between memory and reality, fractals, even a Deleuzian mediation on the ways time and space traverse in a photograph. No joke. And, man, can Levithan ever write. There is periodically real beauty in his minimalist prose, often peppered with philosophical bifurcations, asking his readers to really question the semantic difference between “something” and “anything,” or “void” and “empty,” sometimes in that short-hand dialogue that only two really close friends share. That stuff is hard to capture on a page, but Levithan does so, and so successfully, that I really had no problem “hearing” every character’s voice.

But, OMG, the angst! Again, for the first thirty pages or so, I thought the bleak angstiness of it all would impede any sort of appreciation for the narrative or his writing. But, I would argue, that this is as close to the genuine-angsty (and aren't they all)-brooding-fifteenyearold-boy voice as I've read in a long, long time. It captures, perhaps perfectly, that horrible, dizzying time when the girl that you are pretty much sure you are in fifteenyearold love with loves someone else. But she still, you know, really likes you. But not likes you, likes you. And you, mute in all of your strangled boy rage, go home and listen to The Smiths for six hours straight.

Oh. Yes. Where was I?

This is some pretty good stuff. But here’s the catch. I suspect that this novel will be appreciated more by its male readers. For those of us that felt, and still feel, that Some Kind of Wonderful is better, and better because it's more real and relevant, than Pretty in Pink. Heresy, I know.

It is pretty clear to me that Every You, Every Me is moving on:

Eight (maybe even nine) bars of Teen Spirit deodorant out of Ten.

Brad

9 comments:

  1. Wow you are smart...and my pick moves on. Just to share I had to look up bifurcation, redacted, twee, metonym and Deleuzian. I am much smarter in 2012 and two of my guesses for definitions were even correct!

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  2. This sounds like a fascinating book and I am intrigued by the whole crossing out concept. Interesting reviews Brad.

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  3. I have to say that I am kind of disappointed that This Dark Endeavor didn't move on. I really loved that book! Although I haven't read the other one, I now expect it to be the best YA book ever. No pressure.

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  4. Hmmmm...what was it that you loved so much about it, Andrew (speaking of doppelgangers...)?

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  5. I got caught up in the adventure of it. I thought it was a really dark, really fun book to read. I poured through it. And as literature, I thought that as students progress into more literary books, this one is a good jumping off point. Simple things, like using a more classical style of language, could help prepare them for what they will be reading in the future. Let's be honest, Frankenstein hasn't moved off any prof's English 101 syllabus in a million years. Highly enjoyable read, and it sort of has something for everyone. Victor is such a great character, it was interesting to see him develop and transform as a teen before the Victor Frankenstein that we all know as an adult.

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  6. When I first opened this book, I was expecting the redacted part to be completely crossed out which is why I didn't want to put it on my ereader because I thought I would need to be able to flip back easily and reread parts. Guess I should have read what Brad wrote more closely because he did specify "crossed out" and "almost redacted."

    Because I knew the redaction of sorts was coming before I started reading, I was okay with it. I'd read a sentence that wasn't crossed out. Then the next that was followed by another. Then wondered was the first crossed out sentence and changed to the second? Or were both written together with the second building on the first then both crossed out together? Because of this, it's like there are two or three stories happening at once.

    Also wasn't sure how the photos were going to appear on the ereader but half way through reading, when Dia ripped the book out of my hands to give to someone else, I just decided to give it a whirl and had no problem switching from the hard copy to ereader version.

    Could keep going but will wait for others to share their thoughts!

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  7. In the Acknowledgements, Leviathan mentions that the title of the book was from a Placebo song. It is the featured video on their official YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/officialplacebo?blend=1&ob=4

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  8. Hey Arlene:
    I think the crossed out stuff and its interaction with the rest of the text is some of the most interesting stuff in the book, especially as it continuously shifts in the way that it is used. It is a bit like the way that, when we read a graphic novel, we must alternate between two "texts," visual and print: what do we read first? can we read both simultaneously? does the order in which we "read" the two alter our experience of the text? Here we have to question the relationship between what has been crossed out and what hasn't, and the intent of relationship isn't always clear on first read. But, darn that Levithan, I think it is as thematically unified as a technique from page one. He's darn smart.

    21st century literacies indeed.

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  9. Andrew: totally agree with everything you said. Super enjoyable, with a modicum of eye-rolling moments. I would liken it to a great summer movie: you know, where things blow up and there is clever dialogue and the audience has a great ol' time.

    Stephen King once wrote that there are "hamburger" books and "steak" books. Both are delicious meals, and he likes both equally.

    This Dark Endeavour is a great hamburger.

    P.S.: Frankenstein hasn't disappeared off this English teacher's High School syllabus in a million years either.

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